Paolo Sarpi - a View of Rome after Trent

Paolo Sarpi is not a familiar name in American discussions of the Protestant Reformation but was well known in 16th-century Europe. As was often the case, particularly in firmly Roman Catholic countries like Italy, placing a precise label on Sarpi’s theological beliefs is difficult and counter-productive. His life, however, offers an excellent vantage point for an overview of the Church of Rome after the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

Sarpi and the Venetian Interdict

            Born in Venice on August 14, 1552 Sarpi became an Augustinian monk at 13. His intellectual abilities were immediately evident. At age 15, he was already debating the powers of the pope and church councils. At 20, he was appointed court theologian by Duke Guglielmo Gonzaga of Mantua. After earning a doctorate at the University of Padua and a temporary position as Procurator General of his Augustinian order, he moved back to Venice, where he would have continued a quiet life of a scholar if a momentous controversy hadn’t shaken the city.

            In 1605, the Venetian authorities arrested two clergymen who had been accused of common crimes: Scipione Saraceno for abuse of his niece and Marcantonio Brandolin for homicide and damage of property. They were not sensational cases. Crimes committed by clergy were common and well documented. Most of the time, they were managed by the church, quietly and undercover.

            Most Italian rulers accepted this arrangement, which was not reciprocated (the church felt free to perform arrests in any Italian state, upon suspicion of heresy, with or without the rulers’ agreement). The Republic of Venice had been a lone dissenting voice. Consequently, it had become a place of refuge for Protestant sympathizers and a prolific center of publication of controversial books.

            To Pope Paul V, the arrest of Saraceno and Brandolin was the last straw in a long history of what the church considered Venetian interferences in its government. He threatened to excommunicate the whole city of Venice and its territories if the two clergymen were not delivered to church authorities.

            Paolo Sarpi, who was at that time the official theologian for the Republic of Venice, encouraged its ruler, Doge Leonardo Donà, to stand his ground. Equally determined, Paul V kept his word, forbidding the clergy to perform any religious service in the doge’s territories. His injunction fell on deaf ears, because the clergy sided with the state, except for the Jesuits, who had become the fiercest defenders of Rome. The conflict turned into an international matter, with England on the side of Venice and Spain and Austria on the side of the pope.

            Finally, a year later, the French authorities brought the two factions to a compromise: the two clergymen were delivered to France, who in turn delivered them to the church. It was a victory for Rome, while Venice formally stood by its convictions.

            Tensions continued. Sarpi, who had gained international acclaim as a defender of state rights, was excommunicated and became victim of two attempted murders. The first was discovered in time, but the second almost succeeded, and Sarpi was left for dead after fifteen stiletto thrusts. He finally recovered, while his would-be assassins found refuge in papal territories.

Sarpi’s Works

            In the meantime, Sarpi had been in close correspondence with Protestants all over Europe, leading many to hope that Venice could make a permanent break from Rome. The English ambassador, Sir Henry Wotton, was especially insistent in encouraging a move in that direction. Neither Sarpi nor the Venetian doge, however, were ready for such a drastic action.

            Sarpi continued to work in defense of the Venetian Republic and the rights of the state. He published, among other things, a history of the interdict and a reply by fellow clergyman Giovanni Marsilio to the accusations of one the pope’s best-versed theologians and fiercest opponents of Protestants: Cardinal Robert Bellarmine.

            Sarpi’s most famous work was his History of the Council of Trent, eight volumes written in the course of eight years and based on a great number of documents and interviews. In spite of Sarpi’s obvious opinion of the Council as ultimate imposition of the absolute power of the pope over the church, this work is a valuable historical record, revealing the background and motives behind some of the council’s decisions.

            History of the Council was Sarpi’s last major work. He kept, however, writing until his death in 1623.

Rome After Trent

            Sarpi’s life and works bring to light a reality which has been typically ignored. Most historical accounts lead us to believe that the Roman Catholic Church, initially overtaken by Protestant assaults, came to successfully reorganize and reform itself in the Council of Trent. The truth is somewhat different.

            A moral reformation of the church, pursued by both conscientious Roman Catholics and Protestants, was achieved only on paper, as the church’s defense of both the Venetian criminal clergy and Sarpi’s would-be assassins demonstrates. In a 2013 volume[1], authors Giovanni Romeo and Michele Mancini prove, on the basis of a wide selection of documents, what many Italians can readily attest from personal experience: after Trent, the Roman Catholic Church has continued to ignore, cover-up, and minimize serious crimes committed by tens of thousands of priests.

            Doctrinally speaking, conversant theologians such as Bellarmine were not representative of the majority of 17th-century Roman Catholic clergy. In a recent interview,[2] historian Gigliola Fragnito highlighted the poignant example of cardinal and jurist Giovanni Battista de Luca (1614-1683), who advised pope Innocent XI on the main qualities of a bishop. A knowledge of theological ethics and dogmas was, in his opinion, “absolutely useless.” What mattered was a knowledge of canon law, “in order to defend ecclesiastical jurisdiction.” The only bishops who had to be proficient in theology were those who lived in a region bordering a Protestant country.

            Sarpi believed that the Council of Trent sharpened, instead of pacifying, Europe’s theological battles. By declaring “anathema” anyone who held doctrines such as justification by faith alone, the council’s decrees drew a deeper divide between Roman Catholics and Protestants – a divide that will continue to exist as long as the same decrees are the foundation of the Church of Rome.

[1] Romeo, Giovanni and Mancini, Michele, Clero Criminale, Laterza, Italy, 2013

[2] “Dibattito ‘Un respiro lungo’, Cinque storici a confronto sulla Riforma, edited by Gianmario Italiano, (the quotations in this blog post are my translation).


Simonetta Carr