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.1

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.2 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.”3 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.4

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.5 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.6 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.7 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.8

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.”9 Perhaps she sensed that there was “an unbridgeable chasm between the Gospel message and humanism.”10 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.11 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.12

Giulia Gonzaga’s life was shaped by extraordinary circumstances, including a dead duke, a disputed inheritance, pirates, and the threat of torture.

In 1541, Valdes died. Giulia was left without a local spiritual mentor. Instead of weakening, Giulia continued her quiet reform. She protected and enabled “heretics”: her money distributed their writings, gained releases from prisons, and funded escapes to Protestant countries. She wrote hundreds of letters full of plans and encouragement, sometimes in code in case they were intercepted.13 She secretly networked to try and push the Council of Trent in a more tolerant direction.14 The clear but covert goals were conversions and reform of existing church structure.15

Giulia’s support often extended to people whose beliefs went beyond her own.16 Despite her own moderation, Giulia “harbored and respected those who were radically critical of the church and its doctrines.”17 She became a sort of financial and social linchpin for Italy’s Reformation. One countryman expressed his appreciation for her support this way: “I give thanks to God and to Donna Giulia who, I often say, is like a fixed star, whose light directs us in our course through the midst of the darkness of this blind world; and by her example guards us from many dangers, for we might easily have fallen over a deep precipice.”18 She was so pivotal to Italy’s Reformation that when her correspondence was confiscated on her death, it was “a virtual map of the vast Valdesian movement.”19

Pope Paul III brought the Inquisition into the north of Italy in 1547. Persecution intensified: Protestants could find themselves tortured, in prison, a slave galley, or facing the stake.20 The Counter-Reformation gained strength—and evidence. Files for suspected “heretics” grew. Protestants in Italy debated their calling: flee to safety, freedom of worship, and fruitfulness in other places, or stay and work until walled in. Giulia had friends in both camps, but she stayed in the latter. She heard that the Inquisition had started proceedings against her, but she refused to leave Naples.21 She was too useful where she was to give up. Despite living under the Roman Inquisition for more than two decades, Giulia herself managed to evade it.

But her health was failing. In April 1556, Giulia died, brought to “an end that conformed to her most holy life.”22 The Inquisition took all of her papers as evidence. On reading the contents, Pope Pius V said, “Had I known this, she would have been burned alive.”23

Giulia’s ability to maintain a low profile had allowed her to stay free and active to the end of her life. Her singleness facilitated her devotion to protecting reformers. Staying in Italy at such a dangerous time was a calculated risk that Giulia took with an eye to bearing fruit where she was in ways that she could. Pirates, widowhood, and oppression were not to be compared with the joy of serving the cause of reformation.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on women of the Reformation. Previous post.

  1. Salvatore Caponetto, The Protestant Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Italy, trans. Anne C. Tedeschi and John Tedeschi (Kirksville, Mo.: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1999), 69. ↩︎
  2. Christopher Hare, Men and Women of the Italian Reformation (London: Stanley Paul & Co., 1914), 229. ↩︎
  3. Massimo Firpo, Juan de Valdes and the Italian Reformation, trans. Richard Bates (Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2015), 36. ↩︎
  4. Camilla Russell, Giulia Gonzaga and the Religious Controversy of Sixteenth-Century Italy (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2006), 19. ↩︎
  5. Caponetto, 13–14. ↩︎
  6. See, for example, Caponetto, 14–17. ↩︎
  7. Roland Bainton, Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg, 1971), 177. Though Valdes never came to the same theological understanding that his German and Swiss counterparts did, he taught justification by faith alone. ↩︎
  8. Caponetto, 65–66. ↩︎
  9. Valdes, “Alfabeto Christiano,” in Hare, 226. ↩︎
  10. Caponetto, 22. ↩︎
  11. Hare, 234. ↩︎
  12. Hare, 48, 228. ↩︎
  13. Russell, 130. See also Caponetto, 347; 348. ↩︎
  14. Rinaldina Russell, “Giulia Gonzaga” in Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance, eds. Diana Maury Robin, Anne R. Larsen, and Carole Levin (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2007), 169. ↩︎
  15. Caponetto, 69, 82. ↩︎
  16. Hare, 255. ↩︎
  17. Bainton, 223. ↩︎
  18. Hare, 285. ↩︎
  19. Caponetto, 311. ↩︎
  20. Caponetto, 350. ↩︎
  21. Caponetto, 217. ↩︎
  22. Russell, 199. ↩︎
  23. Bainton, 183. ↩︎

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