And what did he get out of his journey? In retrospect he considered it to have been a flop not just in terms of the affairs of the order due to which he had been sent there, but spiritually too: “Whoever went to Rome and brought money received forgiveness for his sins. I, as a fool, also took onions to Rome and brought back garlic.”
There is however no, or very little, historical record of Luther’s journey to Rome. The route is mainly the subject of speculation, and no one knows whether Luther stayed in the Augustinian monastery Santa Maria del Poplo or in Sant’Agostino. Recent studies even question the date of winter 1510/11 and claim Luther did not go to Rome until a year later.
In curious company
Whatever we may think of Luther’s journey to Rome 500 years ago – six years ago the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Italy (CELI) and the Seventh Day Adventists saw the anniversary as an opportunity to make an application to the municipal authorities in Rome to have a street or a square named after the reformer and visitor to Rome.
They were successful – even if the square in the Colle Oppio Park ensures that Martin Luther will not be a Roman postal address in future, Italy’s Lutherans consider the naming of the square a milestone in ecclesiastical history. “Martin Luther’s visit to Rome is part of the history of the Reformation and hence part of European history,” says the dean of the CELI, Heiner Bludau. “From the perspective of the Churches, naming a square in Rome after the great reformer is an epochal step of great symbolic significance. It is also a step that reflects what has been achieved in the process of European unity. I am very grateful for both of these things.”
At the intersection of the Viale Serapide and the Viale Fortunato Mizzi Martin Luther will soon be joined, incidentally, by further foreigners connected with Rome in rather curious ways: Serapis is an Graeco-Egyptian hybrid god, a cheerful mixture of Osiris, the Apis bull, Jupiter and Pluto, whose cult spread throughout the Roman Empire in the Ptolemaic period. And Fortunato Mizzi (1844–1905) was a pro-Italian Maltese who advocated the use of Italian as the official language of Malta and founded an “Anti-Reform Party”, which helped pave the way to Maltese independence from Britain.
Without expressing reformist disillusionment with Rome one can say that for the time being, Martin Luther, who himself formed a kind of “reform party” and paved the way for Christian independence from Rome, isn’t out of place in this Roman society.
This text first appeared on 7 June 2015 in Sonntagsblatt – Evangelische Wochenzeitung für Bayern, issue 23/2015, and appears on www.luther2017.de by kind permission of the author.