Vincenzo Paravicino and the Valtellina Massacre

Vincenzo Paravicino was one of the many Italians who lived in today’s Swiss Canton of Grisons. He was born in 1595 in Traona, in a scenic valley on the Italian side of the Alps, known as Valtellina. After completing his basic studies at Zurich’s Collegium Carolinum, he moved to the University of Basil, then to the Geneva Academy. In 1619, he was ordained pastor at Zuoz, Switzerland.

            His fairly ordinary life was interrupted the following year, when a mixture of papal troops, local rebels, and Spanish soldiers sent by the Spanish governor of Milan slaughtered hundreds of Protestants in the same area where he was born. The death toll included some of his relatives.

The Massacre

            The district of Valtellina, together with neighboring Chiavenna and Bormio, had been a dependency of the Swiss Three Leagues since 1512. In 1526, Reformed worship was officially allowed in these lands, alongside with the Roman Catholic mass. With time, coexistence of the two religions became increasingly difficult. The Thirty Years War brought these conflicts to a head.

            In the spring of 1620, a group of exiled Roman Catholic noblemen began to plot a revolt, backed by Jesuits, Capuchins, and the Spanish governor (who had an interest in opening a path from Milan to the Roman Catholic Augsburg lands along the eastern Alps).

            Their plan was enacted on Sunday, July 19, 1620, after the troops had surrounded the area, blocking every way of escape. After taking over the town of Tirano by killing or putting to flight the Protestant leaders, the conspirators called the Roman Catholic population to arms. The weapons were taken from the local military arsenal. From there, the newly formed local army went after the Protestants who were still in the area, quickly moving to other neighboring towns.

            In nearby Teglio, the soldiers waited outside the Protestant church in order to kill those who were inside. When the people refused to exit, they proceeded to shoot them through the windows and to set fire to the building. The slaughter continued for about two weeks, until all the Protestants in the valley were either killed or put to flight. A few Catholics who seemed favorable to the Protestants were murdered too. The total number of victims ranged from 400 to 600 people, including men, women, and children.

The Refugees

            Hundreds of fugitives sought refuge in Switzerland, especially in Zurich, where about 250 people found temporary residence. Some traveled further, to Germany and Holland.

            Paravicino’s family had been divided for some time. It was predominantly Protestant, but two of its members had moved to the Roman Catholic camp, leading the opposition. Fifty-five of his relatives arrived in Zurich, while sixteen died during the attacks or while they tried to flee.

            It was not an ideal time for Zurich, that had recently been flooded with refugees first from from Locarno, Switzerland, and later from lands that had been conquered by the Austrians. The City Council agreed to host the Italian refugees for five years, then those who were healthy and strong had to leave.

            In the meantime, the council had to provide the Italian immigrants with pastors who could speak their language. They chose Vincenzo Paravicino, who preached in Italian for six years in a section of Zurich’s Predigerkirche which had been set for this purpose.

            During this time, Paravicino wrote a True Narrative of the Massacre in Valtellina, a popular account which was immediately reproduced in French, English, and German. He also wrote some Reformed books in Italian and translated a few more for the benefit of his congregation and other exiles.

The Aftermath

            In 1634, the French crown sent the Huguenot Duke Henri II de Rohan to take Valtellina back from the Spaniards. Rohan asked for Paravicino’s assistance as chaplain and consultant.

            This new vision galvanized Paracino, who published more Italian translations of Reformed works, including an Italian Psalter and a short treatise by French pastor Jean Mestrezat, entitled Communion with Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, which was meant as a rebuttal of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine’s defense of transubstantiation.

            Rohan’s military strike had mixed results. The actual attack, launched on October 31, 1635 in the Valley of Fraele (a gateway between Italy and Germany) was successful. His 15,000 men easily crushed the 7,000 soldiers of the imperial army that was stationed in the area, causing about 2,000 casualties. The outcome, however, was far from positive for the locals (almost exclusively farmers), as Rohan had all their houses burned in order to prevent further imperial occupations.   

            In 1639, France signed a peace treaty with Spain, giving Valtellina some independence while allowing Spanish troops to transit through the valley. As for religion, the valley remained Roman Catholic.

            Paravicino moved to Coira where he worked first as teacher, then as rector of the Collegium philosophicum. There, he planted another church for Italian exiles and their descendants, and continued to assist them until his death in 1678.

            Many of his descendants moved to Basil, where they occupied important positions. His brother Venturino became pastor of the Italian community in Zurich and took trips to London and Holland in order to raise funds for the needy Italian exiles. His son was also a pastor.


Simonetta Carr