Franciscan reformer and theologian Giovanni Mollio was burned in Rome as a heretic on September 4 or 5* in 1553.
We have a tricky job to get a fix on Protestants in Italy during the 16th century, but it’s still peculiar that Mollio enjoys a lengthy entry on the German Wikipedia page and none whatsoever on its Italian sister.
A professor most recently at Bologna, Mollio appears to have taken interest in reforming ideas from his earliest appointments in the 1520s at Brescia and Milan — which makes the fact that he survived so long in the environs of Catholicism’s Caput Mundi a remarkable circumstance in itself. He spurned friends’ entreaties to flee into exile in the 1530s and instead obeyed a summons to Rome to justify the dangerous doctrines he espoused, like justification by good works and not venerating holy images.
“I am ready and willing to suffer not only torment and torture, but also for my Lord Jesus Christ’s sake to be burnt alive,” he declared on that occasion. Fortunately for Mollio, Pope Paul III was at this point only beginning to feel out the Vatican’s response to Luther and Calvin, and the Counter-Reformation had not yet begun in earnest; Mollio was gave an erudite defense to much curial chin-stroking, was admonished on some points, and booted from the Bolognese faculty. He retired to Naples where he joined the circles of heretical elites orbiting Juan de Valdes, whose number would in time contribute several martyrs.
Valdes was more a humanist interested in reforming the Church than a schismatic looking to break for it but the space for such distinctions was rapidly narrowing. Valdes died (no martyrdom) in 1541, and tolerance for his friends’ subversive salons did not long outlive him.
By 1543 Mollio really did go on the run. But he never made it out of Italy, which would probably have been the necessary condition for dying in bed at an advanced age.
Florence clapped him in its castle dungeon for four years until influential friends finally got him released to the custody of a Ravenna abbot; once that sanctuary lapsed he was detained by the papal legate for a time, although again released and watchfully permitted to continue teaching and preaching.
This outsized toleration came to an abrupt end with the death of Pope Paul III in 1549. Paul’s successor Julius III meant to be the hammer of the heretics, and soon had Mollio brought in chains to Rome. He could not be moved to recant during many months’ imprisonment.
On September 5, 1553, Mollio, a Perugian named Giovanni Teodori (also known as Tisserano), and a number of others accused of heresy faced public trial by the Inquisition in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Only Mollio and Teodori refused to recant.
Permitted to defend himself, Mollio scalded the cardinals seated to judge him — and in Italian, so that everyone present would understand it.
As for you, cardinals and bishops, if I were satisfied that you justly obtained that power which you assume to yourselves, and that you had risen to your eminence by virtuous deeds, and not by blind ambition and the arts of profligacy, I would not say a word to you.
But since I see and know on the best grounds, that you have set moderation, and honesty, and honour, and virtue at defiance, I am constrained to treat you without ceremony, and to declare that your power is not from God but the devil.
If it were apostolical, as you would make the poor world believe, then your doctrine and life would resemble those of the apostles. When I perceive the filth and falsehood and profaneness with which it is overspread, what can I think or say of your church, but that it is a receptacle of thieves and a den of robbers?
What is your doctrine but a dream, — a lie forged by hypocrites?
Your very countenances prolaim that your belly is your god. Your great object is to seize and amass wealth by every species of injustice and cruelty. You thirst without ceasing for the blood of the saints.
Can you be the successors of the holy apostles, and vicars of Jesus Christ — you who despise Christ and his word, who act a if you did not believe that there is a God in heaven, who persecute to the death his faithful ministers, make his commandments of no effect, and tyrannize over the consciences of his saints?
Wherefore I appeal from your sentence, and summon you, O cruel tyrants and murderers, to answer before the judgment seat of Christ at the last day, where your pompous titles and gorgeous trappings will not dazzle, nor your guards and torturing apparatus terrify us. And in testimony of this, take back that which you have given me!
And so saying, Mollio flung across the flagstones the penitential candle that he had been made to bear with the rest of the accused.
The furious judges ordered Mollio and Teodori too put to immediate death, and they were promptly dragged from the church to the Campo de’ Fiori and consumed at the stake.
* There are dueling citations for September 4 and September 5 to be found. With hindsight, I lean uncertainly toward September 4 based on the dating of the last will drawn up with him by the Brotherhood of Saint-Jean-Décollé, the spiritual confraternity charged with consoling him in the short space between sentence and execution. I’m comforted in this attribution by this date being given in a credible Italian dictionary and even a recent exhibition dedicated to this specific execution — where you’d think the curators would be on-point on the matter.
The September 5 date, which I now suspect might be mistaken, appears to derive from a short pamphlet containing an eyewitness account titled Historia de Montalcino Romae interfecto propter fidei confessionem, nonis Sept. anno 1553 (“nonis Septembris” meaning “5th of September”). This report started circulating “substantially outside of Italy” in 1554 and built up our guy’s fame outside his homelands. Although this too is a strong primary source, it’s a bit further removed than the brothers attending the man at the hour of his death, and could plausibly have been a date misremembered after the fact.
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