Protestantism’s first women often had lives that we can relate to, marked by marriage, family, and hospitality. Others seem more fit for a film script. Giulia Gonzaga’s life was shaped by extraordinary circumstances, including a dead duke, a disputed inheritance, pirates, and the threat of torture. Born into Italy’s highest circles, Giulia Gonzaga was a humanist and thinker. She never left the church of Rome, quietly seeking reform, not open rebellion. Her role as patron and protector of “heretics” made her enemies in high places. Technically within the Roman fold, Giulia stood “in solidarity with those trapped in the great wave of persecution” that swept over Italy in the Counter-Reformation.
In 1512 or 1513, Giulia entered this world via noble, wealthy parents in the north of Italy. She grew up in the middle of at least five siblings. But in the sixteenth century, childhood did not last long for young Italian women of rank—Giulia married in 1526.
It was a socially suitable match. Her new husband, Vespasiano Colonna, was a count, a duke, a soldier, and twenty-seven years older than his bride. Giulia was his second wife, and a daughter from his previous wife made young Giulia stepmother to someone her own age. Giulia’s marriage was even shorter than her childhood: Colonna died in 1528.
Colonna willed his property to Giulia—with the proviso that it all revert to the daughter if Giulia married again. Despite the daughter’s encouragement in that direction, Giulia chose singleness, beginning widowhood in the middle of her teens as the Duchess of Fondi.
Grief, apparently, did nothing to mar her beauty. Giulia was known beyond Italy for her good looks. Famous poets described her beauty and wit. Other men, including a Medici, tried to court her. One went even further. The grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire saw a political opportunity in Giulia. If he could add her to the sultan’s harem, she might weaken the chief consort’s political power. He knew that Giulia would never join his harem voluntarily, so he enlisted the help of a well-known pirate, Barbarossa. In the summer of 1534, Barbarossa landed in Italy with his men and attempted a nighttime kidnapping. Someone tipped off the duchess, and she escaped—through a window, then on horseback, according to legend. The revenge that Barbarossa took on the town was very real, and the carnage left its psychological mark on Giulia.
Around this time, a visitor wrote that the duchess had “forgotten her beauty . . . more practiced in the reading of holy books.” She had been fighting a losing legal battle against her daughter-in-law for her husband’s inheritance. Courts finally ruled in the daughter’s favor, and the loss of lavish riches drove Giulia into a new life. Her glittering court dispersed, and she moved north into a convent.
A decade before this, Protestant writings had reached Italy. First, Martin Luther’s writings were translated and published in the north through Augustinian networks; works by Philip Melanchthon and others followed. So did persecution: civil and ecclesiastical authorities were determined to keep Italy free of the “Lutheran heresy.” Harassments and warnings, loss of position, and defrockings became standard treatment for those refusing to toe the Roman Catholic line. The Roman Catholic Church had more power in Italy than it did in Germany, England, or even France, and so its suppression of biblical teaching was more effective.
In 1536, Giulia heard the reforming monk Bernardino Ochino preach. Giulia left the church in distress: the reality of heaven and hell had been clear in the sermon, and she had no assurance of salvation. A Spanish monk, Juan Valdes, was with her, and she confessed her turmoil to him. Valdes had fled the Inquisition in his own country, coming to Italy for refuge. More Lutheran than Calvinist and with a good dose of “Erasmian irenicism,” Valdes did hold to election by grace, justification by faith, and regeneration and sanctification by the Holy Spirit. Moving to Mantua, he quietly taught and wrote under the patronage of the nobility there—notably Giulia.
Valdes responded to Giulia’s spiritual distress with a little book, Alfabeto Christiano. In it, Valdes depicts a theological conversation between Giulia and himself, instructing his patroness: “The Law has wounded you, the Gospel will heal you . . . in the end you must make your choice between God and the world.” Perhaps she sensed that there was “an unbridgeable chasm between the Gospel message and humanism.” Like Luther previous to the Diet of Worms, Valdes and Giulia initially thought that the church could be changed from within: Rome needed modification, not abandonment. Perhaps Girolamo Savonarola’s influence was in play here, as many Italians saw a need for a change of practice, not principle.
Under Valdes’ teaching, Giulia read the Bible, especially Psalms and Hebrews. Gradually, her soul stabilized, and she turned her energy to patronage. Her loss of income had been significant, but she was not poor. Visiting the sick, giving money to the poor, distributing Valdes’ works, and time in the Word filled her days.