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History of Protestantism, vol. 1 - Contents
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    Chapter 6: Luther’s Journey to Rome

    A Quarrel—Luther Deputed to Arrange it—Sets out for Rome—His Dreams—Italian Monasteries—Their Luxuriousness—A Hint—His Illness at Bologna—A Voice—“The Just shall Live by Faith”—Florence—Beauty of Site and Buildings—The Renaissance—Savonarola—Campagna di Roma—Luther’s First Sight of Rome

    Picture: Luther Preaching in the Old Wooden Church at Wittemberg

    Picture: View of Bologna

    It was necessary that Luther should pause a little while in the midst of his labours. He had been working for some time under high pressure, and neither mind nor body would long have endured the strain. It is in seasons of rest and reflection that the soul realizes its growth and makes a new start. Besides, Luther needed one lesson more in order to his full training as the future Reformer, and that lesson he could receive only in a foreign land. In his cell at Erfurt he had been shown the sinfulness of his own heart, and his helplessness as a lost sinner. This must be the foundation of his training. At Rome he must be shown the vileness of that Church which he still regarded as the Church of Christ and the abode of holiness.HOPV1 246.1

    As often happens, a very trivial matter led to what resulted in the highest consequences both to Luther himself and to Christendom. A quarrel broke out between seven monasteries of the Augustines and their Vicar-General. It was agreed to submit the matter to the Pope, and the sagacity and eloquence of Luther recommended him as the fittest person to undertake the task. This was in the year 1510, or, according to others, 1512. 1Mathesius and Seckendorf place it in 1510, Melancthon in 1512. Some mention two journeys. Luther himself speaks of only one. His object in going to Rome has also been variously stated. The author has followed the oldest authorities, who are likely to be also the best informed. Luther’s errand is a matter of small moment; the great fact is that he did visit Rome. We now behold the young monk setting out for the metropolis of Christendom. We may well believe that his pulse beat quicker as every step brought him nearer the Eternal City, illustrious as the abode of the Caesars; still more illustrious as the abode of the Popes. To Luther, Rome was a type of the Holy of Holies. There stood the throne of God’s Vicar. There resided the Oracle of Infallibility. There dwelt the consecrated priests and ministers of the Lord. Thither went up, year by year, armies of devout pilgrims, and tribes of holy anchorites and monks, to pay their vows in her temples, and prostrate themselves at the footstool of the apostles. Luther’s heart swelled with no common emotion when he thought that his feet would stand within the gates of this thrice-holy city.HOPV1 246.2

    Alas, what a terrible disenchantment awaited the monk at the end of his journey; or rather, what a happy emancipation from an enfeebling and noxious illusion! For so long as this spell was upon him, Luther must remain the captive of that power which had imprisoned truth and enchained the nations. An arm with a fetter upon it was not the arm to strike such blows as would emancipate Christendom. He must see Rome, not as his dreams had painted her, but as her own corruptions had made her. And he must go thither to see her with his own eyes, for he would not have believed her deformity although another had told him; and the more profound the idolatrous reverence with which he approaches her, the more resolute his purpose, when he shall have re-crossed her threshold, to leave of that tyrannical and impious power not one stone upon another.HOPV1 247.1

    Luther crossed the Alps and descended on the fertile plains of Lombardy. Those magnificent highways which now conduct the traveller with so much ease and pleasure through the snows and rocks that form the northern wall of Italy did not then exist, and Luther would scale this rampart by narrow, rugged, and dangerous tracks. The sublimity that met his eye and regaled him on his journey had, doubtless, an elevating and expanding effect upon his mind, and mingled something of Italian ideality with his Teutonic robustness. To him, as to others, what a charm in the rapid transition from the homeliness of the German plains, and the ruggedness of the Alps, to the brilliant sky, the voluptuous air, and the earth teeming with flowers and fruits, which met his gaze when he had accomplished his descent!HOPV1 248.1

    Weary with his journey, he entered a monastery situated on the banks of the Po, to refresh himself a few days. The splendor of the establishment struck him with wonder. Its yearly revenue, amounting to the enormous sum of thirty-six thousand ducats, 2D’Aubigne, Hist. Reform., vol. 1, p. 190. Luth. Opp. (W) 22. 1468. was all expended in feeding, clothing, and lodging the monks. The apartments were sumptuous in the extreme. They were lined with marble, adorned with paintings, and filled with rich furniture. Equally luxurious and delicate was the clothing of the monks.HOPV1 248.2

    Silks and velvet mostly formed their attire; and every day they sat down at a table loaded with exquisite and skillfully cooked dishes. The monk who, in his native Germany, had inhabited a bare cell, and whose day’s provision was at times only a herring and a small piece of bread, was astonished, but said nothing.HOPV1 248.3

    Friday came, and on Friday the Church has forbidden the faithful to taste flesh. The table of the monks groaned under the same abundance as before. As on other days, so on this there were dishes of meat. Luther could no longer refrain. “On this day,” said Luther, “such things may not be eaten. The Pope has forbidden them.” The monks opened their eyes in astonishment on the rude German. Verily, thought they, his boldness is great. It did not spoil their appetite, but they began to be apprehensive that the German might report their manner of life at head-quarters, and they consulted together how this danger might be obviated. The porter, a humane man, dropped a hint to Luther of the risk he would incur should he make a longer stay. Profiting by the friendly counsel to depart hence while health served him, he took leave, with as little delay as possible, of the monastery and all in it.HOPV1 248.4

    Again setting forth, and traveling on foot, he came to Bologna, “the throne of the Roman law.” In this city Luther fell ill, and his sickness was so sore that it threatened to be unto death. To sickness was added the melancholy natural to one who is to find his grave in a foreign land. The Judgment Seat was in view, and alarm filled his soul at the prospect of appearing before God. In short, the old anguish and terror, though in moderated force, returned. As he waited for death he thought he heard a voice crying to him and saying, “The just shall live by faith.” 3D’Aubigne, Hist. Reform., vol. 1, pp. 190, 191. It seemed as if the voice spoke to him from heaven, so vivid was the impression it made. This was the second time this passage of Scripture had been borne into his mind, as if one had spoken it to him. In his chair at Wittemberg, while lecturing from the Epistle to the Romans, he had come to these same words, “The just shall live by faith.” They laid hold upon him so that he was forced to pause and ponder over them. What do they mean? What can they mean but that the just have a new life, and that this new life springs from faith? But faith on whom, and on what? On whom but on Christ, and on what but the righteousness of Christ wrought out in the poor sinner’s behalf? If that be so, pardon and eternal life are not of works but of faith: they are the free gift of God to the sinner for Christ’s sake.HOPV1 248.5

    So had Luther reasoned when these words first arrested him, and so did he again reason in his sick-chamber at Bologna. They were a needful admonition, approaching as he now was a city where endless rites and ceremonies had been invented to enable men to live by works. His sickness and anguish threw him back upon the first elements of life, and the one only source of holiness. He was taught that this holiness is restricted to no soil, to no system, to no rite; it springs up in the heart where faith dwells. Its source was not at Rome, but in the Bible; its bestower was not the Pope, but the Holy Spirit.HOPV1 248.6

    “The just shall live by faith.” As he stood at the gates of death a light seemed, at these words, to spring up around him. He arose from his bed healed in body as in soul. He resumed his journey. He traversed the Apennines, experiencing doubtless, after his sickness, the restorative power of their healthful breezes, and the fragrance of their dells gay with the blossoms of early summer. The chain crossed, he descended into that delicious valley where Florence, watered by the Arno, and embosomed by olive and cypress groves, reposes under a sky where light lends beauty to every object on which it falls. Here Luther made his next resting-place. 4Worsley, Life of Luther, vol 1, p. 60. Michelet, Life of Luther, p. 15; Lond., 1846.HOPV1 249.1

    The “Etrurian Athens,” as Florence has been named, was then in its first glory. Its many sumptuous edifices were of recent erection, and their pristine freshness and beauty were still upon them. Already Brunelleschi had hung his dome - the largest in the world - in mid-air; already Giotto had raised his Campanile, making it, by its great height, its elegant form, and the richness of its variously-colored marbles, the characteristic feature of the city. Already the Baptistry had been built, with its bronze doors which Michael Angelo declared to be “worthy of being the gates of Paradise.” Besides these, other monuments and works of art adorned the city where the future Reformer was now making a brief sojourn. To these creations of genius Luther could not be indifferent, familiar as he had hitherto been with only the comparatively homely architecture of a Northern land. In Germany and England wood was then not unfrequently employed in the construction of dwellings, whereas the Italians built with marble.HOPV1 249.2

    Other things were linked with the Etrurian capital, which Luther was scholar enough to appreciate. Florence was the cradle of the Renaissance. The house of Medici had risen to eminence in the previous century. Cosmo, the founder of the family, had amassed immense riches in commerce. Passionately fond of letters and arts, he freely expended his wealth in the munificent patronage of scholars and artists. Lovers of letters from every land were welcomed by him and by his son Lorenzo in his superb villa on the sides of Fiesole, and were entertained with princely hospitality. Scholars from the East, learned men from England and the north of Europe, here met the philosophers and poets of Italy; and as they walked on the terraces, or gathered in groups in the alcoves of the gardens - the city, the Arno, and the olive and cypress-clad vale beneath them - they would prolong their discourse on the new learning and the renovated age which literature was bringing with it, till the shadows fell, and dusk concealed the domes of Florence at their feet, and brought out the stars in the calm azure overhead. Thus the city of the Medici became the center of that intellectual and literary revival which was then radiating over Europe, and which heralded a day of more blessed light than any that philosophy and letters have ever shed. Alas, that to Italy, where this light first broke, the morning should so soon have been turned into the shadow of death!HOPV1 249.3

    But Florence had very recently been the scene of events which could not be unknown to Luther, and which must have touched a deeper chord in his bosom than any its noble edifices and literary glory could possibly awaken. Just fourteen years (1498) before Luther visited this city, Savonarola had been burned on the Piazza della Gran’ Ducca, for denouncing the corruptions of the Church, upholding the supreme authority of Scripture, and teaching that men are to be saved, not by good works, but by the expiatory sufferings of Christ. 5Lechler bears his testimony to the teaching of Savonarola. He says: “Not only is faith the gift and work of God, but also that faith alone justifies without the works of the law. This Savonarola has clearly, roundly, and fully expressed. He has done so in his exposition of the 31st and 51st Psalms, written in prison. And he quotes from Rudelbach the following words in proof: ‘’Haec fides sola justificat hominem, id est, apud Deum absque operibus legis justum facit’’” (Meditationes in Psalmos). - Lechler, vol. 2, p. 542. These were the very truths Luther had learned in his cell; their light had broken upon him from the page of the Bible; the Spirit, with the iron pen of anguish, had written them on his heart; he had preached them to listening crowds in his wooden chapel at Wittemberg; and on this spot, already marked by a statue of Neptune, had a brother-monk been burned alive for doing the very same thing in Italy which he had done in Saxony. The martyrdom of Savonarola he could not but regard as at once of good and of evil augury. It cheered him, doubtless, to think that in this far-distant land another, by the study of the same book, had come to the same conclusion at which he himself had arrived respecting the way of life, and had been enabled to witness for the truth unto blood. This showed him that the Spirit of God was acting in this land also, that the light was breaking out at various points, and that the day he waited for was not far distant. 6“Savonarola,” says Rudelbach, “was a prophet of the Reformation.” Lechler adds: “and the martyr of his prophecy; a martyr for reform before the Reformation.” (Vol. 2, p. 546.)HOPV1 249.4

    But the stake of Savonarola might be differently interpreted; it might be construed into a prognostic of many other stakes to be planted hereafter. The death of the Florentine confessor showed that the ancient hatred of the darkness to the light was as bitter as ever, and that the darkness would not abdicate,without a terrible struggle. It was no peaceful scene on which Truth was about to step, and it was not amid the plaudits of the multitude that her progress was to be accomplished. On the contrary, tempest and battle would hang upon her path; every step of advance would be won over frightful opposition; she must suffer and bleed before she could reign. These were among the lessons which Luther learned on the spot to which doubtless he often came to muse and pray. 7The author was shown, in 1864, the Bible of Savonarola, which is preserved in the library of San Lorenzo at Florence. The broad margin of its leaves is written all over in a small elegant hand, that of Savonarola. After his martyrdom his disciples were accustomed to come secretly and kiss the spot where he had been burned. This coming to the knowledge of the reigning duke, Pietro de Medici, he resolved to put an end to a practice that gave him annoyance. He accordingly erected on the spot a statue of Neptune, with a fountain falling into a circular basin of water, and sea-nymphs clustering on the brim. The duke’s device has but the more effectually fixed in the knowledge of mankind the martyrdom and the spot where it took place.HOPV1 250.1

    How many disciples had Savonarola left behind him in the city in which he had poured out his blood? This, doubtless, was another point of anxious inquiry to Luther; but the answer was not encouraging. The zeal of the Florentines had cooled. It was hard to enter into life as Savonarola had entered into it - the gate was too narrow and the road too thorny. They praised him, but they could not imitate him. Florence was not to be the cradle of an evangelical Renaissance. Its climate was voluptuous and its Church was accommodating: so its citizens, who, when the voice of their great preacher stirred them, seemed to be not far from the kingdom of heaven, drew back when brought face to face with the stake, and crouched down beneath the twofold burden of sensuality and superstition.HOPV1 250.2

    So far Luther had failed to discover that sanctity which before beginning his journey he had pictured to himself, as springing spontaneously as it were out of this holy soil. The farther he penetrated into this land of Italy, the more was he shocked at the irreverence and impiety which characterized all ranks, especially the “religious.” The relaxation of morals was universal. Pride, avarice, luxury, abominable vices, and frightful crimes defiled the land; and, to crown all, “sacred things” were the subjects of contempt and mockery. It seemed as if the genial climate which nourished the fruits of the earth into a luxuriance unknown to his Northern home, nourished with a like luxuriance the appetites of the body and passions of the soul. He sighed for the comparative temperance, frugality, simplicity, and piety of his fatherland.HOPV1 250.3

    But he was now near Rome, and Rome, said he to himself, will make amends for all. In that holy city Christianity will be seen in the spotless beauty of her apostolic youth. In that city there are no monks bravely apparelled in silks and velvets; there are no conventual cells with a luxurious array of couches and damasks, and curious furniture inlaid with silver and mother-of-pearl, while their walls are aglow with marbles, paintings, and gilding. There are no priests who tarry by the wine-cup, or sit on fast-days at boards smoking with dishes of meat and venison. The sound of the viol, the lute, and the harp is never heard in the monasteries of Rome: there ascend only the accents of devotion: matins greet the day, and even-song speeds its departure. Into that holy city there entereth nothing that defileth. Eager to mingle in the devout society of the place to which he was hastening, and there forget the sights which had pained him on the way thither, he quitted Florence, and set out on the last stage of his journey.HOPV1 250.4

    We see him on his way. He is descending the southern slopes of the mountains on which Viterbo is seated. At every short distance he strains his eyes, if haply he may descry on the bosom of the plain that spreads itself out at his feet, some signs of her who once was “Queen of the Nations.” On his right, laving the shore of Latium, is the blue Mediterranean; on his left is the triple-topped Soracte and the “purple Apennine” - white towns hanging on its crest, and olive-woods and forests of pine clothing its sides - running on in a magnificent wall of craggy peaks, till it fades from the eye in the southern horizon. Luther is now traversing the storied Campagna di Roma.HOPV1 250.5

    The man who crosses this plain at the present day finds it herbless, silent, and desolate. The multitude of men which it once nourished have perished from its bosom. The numerous and populous towns, that in its better days crowned every conical height that dots its surface, are now buried in its soil: its olive-woods and orange-groves have been swept away, and thistles, wiry grass, and reeds have come in their room. Its roads, once crowded with armies, ambassadors, and proconsuls, are now deserted and all but untrodden. Broken columns protruding through the soil, stacks of brick-work with the marble peeled off, substructions of temples and tombs, now become the lair of the fox or the lurking-place of the brigand, and similar memorials are almost all that remain to testify to the flourishing cultivation, and the many magnificent structures, that once adorned this great plain.HOPV1 250.6

    But in the days of Luther the Campagna di Roma had not become the blighted, treeless, devastated expanse it is now. Doubtless many memorials of decay met his eye as he passed along. War had left some frightful scars upon the plain: the indolence and ignorance of its inhabitants had operated with even worse effect: but still in the sixteenth century it had not become so deserted of man, and so forsaken of its cities, as it is at this day. 8In proof we appeal to the engravings of Piranesi now nearly 200 years old. These represent the country around Rome as tolerably peopled and cultivated. The land still continued to enjoy what has now all but ceased upon it, seedtime and harvest. Besides, it was the beginning of summer when Luther visited it, and seen under the light of an Italian sun, and with the young verdure clothing its surface, the scene would be by no means an unpleasant one. But one object mainly engrossed his thoughts: he was drawing nigh to the metropolis of Christendom. The heights of Monte Mario, adjoining the Vatican - for the cupola of St. Peter’s was not yet built - would be the first to catch his eye; the long ragged line formed by the buildings and towers of the city would next come into view. Luther had had his first sight of her whom no one ever yet saw for the first time without emotion, though it might not be so fervent, nor of the same character exactly, as that which thrilled Luther at this moment. Falling on his knees, he exclaimed, “Holy Rome, I salute thee!” 9Tischreden, 441.HOPV1 251.1

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