Italian Radicals in the 16th century Lithuania

One of the religious life phenomena in the 16th century GDL was the activities of Italian radicals (anti trinitarians, anabaptists) and the dissemination of thought in the country. Italian dissidence emerged in Europe in the first half of the 16th century) as a result of Reformation and development of Protestantism ideas. The emigration of persons advocating the necessity of reforms (particularly to the Protestant Switzerland) was intensified by the Inquisition, restored in Italy in 1542, and the results of Tridentine Church Assembly, which were unfavourable to Protestants. Italian dissidence covered various segments of society, from urban dwellers and craftsmen to nobility and high hierarchs of the Church. However, it was only in the fifties of the 16th century that Italian religious emigrants and reformers started to conflict in Switzerland with the Helvetian Orthodoxy, which restricted a further freedom of religious thought. Italians were the first to denounce Jean Calvin’s means of fighting heterodoxic manifestations of religious thought (e.g., burning of the Spanish scientist Michael Servetus alive in Geneva in 1553). Well aware of the threat posed to their doctrine and Christianity, leaders of the Swiss Church did not tolerate any challenges. As a result, the Italians, declared heretics, were looking for opportunities to spread their ideas in the East of Europe, where two largest hubs of Italian activities were established (those in Transylvania and Poland-Lithuania).

The most prominent figures of Italian radicalism, spreading their influence in Lithuania and Poland, were Lelio and Fausto Sozzini and Giorgio Biandrata. The pattern of their specific religious behaviour, due to which these Italians were regarded as outstanding representatives of religious simulation, a 16th century phenomenon in Europe, was predetermined by various circumstances. They became ardent adherents of a dimension of unitarism called socinianism, which played a significant role in the history of religious critical thought of the Europe of modern times.

Coming originally from the Sozzini family of lawyers (Siena, Italy), which flourished as a dynasty of lawyers in the 15th century, in the first half of the 16th century the Sozzini got involved into covert evangelical movement. The start of persecution of evangelical supporters and inquisition made them flee the country.  The first Lithuanian to meet the representatives of the Sozzini family was a pioneer of Lithuanian reformation thought Abraomas Kulvietis (about 1510–1545), who in the November of 1540 had defended a doctoral thesis in utroque iure at the University of Siena. Alessandro Sozzini (1509–1541), who was Lelio’s brother and Fausto’s father, became Kulvietis’ promoter (in Latin promotor means pushing forward).

The Secret Heretic

Lelio Sozzini (1525–1562) emigrated to Switzerland in 1547, where he maintained contact with leaders of Reformation Heinrich Bullinger and Jean Calvin. In 1550, he left for Wittenberg to pursue his studies. Here Sozzini met the client of Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Red, a would-be lexicographer Jan Mączyński. Having received a reference from Martin Luther’s “comrade-in-arms,” a religious reformer and thinker Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560), he visited Krakow in 1551. Even though, starting with 1554, the Swiss doubted Lelio’s loyalty, he was still an official envoy of Swiss reformers and visited Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black in Lithuania and Poland in this position from the autumn of 1558 to the spring of 1559. Shortly after Sozzini’s death in Zurich, Bulinger named him a secret heretic (“an arian”). The tradition of anti-trinitanism attributes him to the thinkers of this movement and relates Sozzini to the beginnings of anti-trinitanism ideology of modern times. Part of Sozzini’s works disappeared, the most famous among the surviving is Brevis explicatio in primum Iohanni caput (about 1561), published for the first time in Transylvania together with De vera et falsa unius Dei Patris, Filii et Spiritus Sancti cognitione, written by antitrinitarian adherents Giorgio Biandrata and Ferenc Dávido. In 1567–1568, the Polish translation by Gregory Paul of Brzeziny was published.

Rebel of religion

Fausto Sozzini (1539–1604) was Lelio’s nephew. His grandfather Mariano Sozzini the younger’s will left Fausto, as only son of the oldest son, one fourth of the family estates, which made him independent and he did not have to pursue a lawyer’s career. Starting with 1561, he lived in Lion and Geneva and was involved in polemics on trinitanism. In 1563 he came back to Italy and for twelve years, despite his disguised views, served as a courtier to Isabella de Medici’s, the daughter to Cosimo I de’ Medici, first Grand Duke of Tuscany.  Upon Isabella’s death F. Sozzini rejected the offer made by her brother, Duke of Tuscany Francesco, and in 1575 left Italy. He stayed for some time in Basel studying the Bible. The acquaintance with Giorgio Biandrata, who was actively involved in this field in Transylvania and Poland-Lithuania, served as a breakthrough for Fausto Sozzini. He started increasingly influencing the polemics over unitarism in Transylvania.  From 1579 until his death Fausto Sozzini was residing in Poland. Eventually he turned into a leader of Polish anti trinitarian church Ecclesia Minor (Polish brethren) and developed the doctrine of unitariarism. In 1586 F. Sozzini married the daughter to the noble Krzysztof Morsztyn. In wedlock, his daughter Agnieszka was born. In due time, she got married to Stanislaw Wiszowaty and gave birth to her son Andrzej. It was Andrzej Wiszowaty (1608–1678) who published in Amsterdam all the works produced by Fausto Sozzini (1668) and launched the publication of anti-trinitarian legacy (the first volumes of Bibliotheca fratrum polonorum).

For a long time, due to a danger of losing his inheritance in Italy and due to a large-scale persecution of anti-trinitarians in Europe, Fausto Sozzini refused to publish his writings.

In 1598 he was expelled from Krakow. The last days of Fausto Sozzini’s life were spent in Lusławice, where he was buried in a separate grave, under a tomb made of stone.

Fausto Sozzini stands out as one of the most prominent rationalists of Christianity, who elevated the human mind and fought for the supremacy of dogmatic perception of supernatural world. In terms of social and doctrinal issues, Fausto Sozzini joined the polemics with Symon Budny (1530–1593), the leader of GDL anti-trinitarians, known for upholding more moderate social views on Christians’ military service and other issues but seeking to establish a more radical doctrine of unitariarism. The first biography of Fausto Sozzini (Vita Fausti Socini, 1631) was compiled by Samuel Przypkowski, a historian of anti-trinitarianism and a poet.

Was Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black an anti-trinitarian?

The thought advocated by Italian radicals and the activities undertaken by them, close ties between  an Italian physician G. Biandrata and leader of Lithuanian Reformation Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black exerted significant influence on a rapid development of Lithuanian anti trinitarianism and the schism of the Lithuanian Evangelical church in 1563. Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black was far from happy with the split of the Church founded by him, and yet the patronage of Giorgio Biandrata and other Italians as well as the schism of the Church brought him the fame of an anti trinitarianism supporter. This should be described as an opinion developed by historiography. Calvinist Orthodoxy distanced itself from the challenges of trinitarian polemics, and historiographers of anti trinitarianism gladly attributed Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black to their ranks.

An anti-trinitarian image of Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black was further strengthened by the appearance Dialogi XXX (Thirty dialogues), published in Switzerland in 1563 by Bernardino Ochino, one of the most outstanding Italian religious thinkers of the 16th century, the former leader of St. Friars Minor Capuchin Order, who emigrated to the Protestant Switzerland in 1542.

The part of the work related to Trinity issues was dedicated to Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black. After the publication of this piece of work, an almost 80-year old Bernardino Ochino was expelled from Switzerland. For some time, he found shelter at the palace of Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black, and a year later died in Moravia. At the sunset of his life, Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black failed to defend a free right of action advocated by Italian radicals. After Lithuanian and Polish Catholic and Protestant forces united in the fight against Italian anti-trinitarianism, Sigismund Augustus was forced to announce the edict of Parczev, which forbade foreign “heretics” (Italian) to live and spread their influence in Lithuania and Poland.

Literature: D. Pociūtė, The Rebellious Cathedrals. Early Reformation and the Connections between Lithuanian and Italian Evangelists (Maištininkų katedros. Ankstyvoji reformacija ir lietuvių–italų evangelikų ryšiai) Vilnius: Versus aureus, 2008.

Dainora Pociūtė