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Luther’s place in the cesspit of sin by Markus Springer

Rome set to get Martin Luther Square

After six years, Rome’s municipal council have finally reached a decision: half a millennium after the start of the Reformation there will be a Martin Luther Square in the heart of the world capital of Catholicism.

Rome, during the 15th century (Image: wikimedia)

The park of Colle Oppio is a Roman green spot in the immediate vicinity of the Coliseum, with nice views down to the enormous amphitheatre and the Imperial Fora. The Domus Aurea, the last remains of Nero’s megalomaniac palace, stands here, and it’s not far to the church of San Pietro in Vincoli with Michelangelo’s famous Moses.

The area will soon gain a “Piazza Martin Lutero” as a monument to the German theologian who didn’t say the most flattering things about the Eternal City (“Cesspit of sin”!) This was an opinion he was only to form later in life. The relationship between the Reformation and Rome can be seen as a history of the disappointment Luther felt personally. Martin Luther’s view on the papal city was to change from that of “Sancta Roma”, the holy city of Rome, to “Sedes Diaboli”, the seat of the devil.

“Greetings to you, holy Rome!” were the words with which the future pope basher and Rome hater Martin Luther threw himself to the Italian earth when in January 1511 he saw the Eternal City in the distance. Two months of austere pilgrimage through the Alps lay behind him.

Piazza „Martin Lutero" (Image: Screenshot Google Streetview).

The pious Augustianian monk was certainly not short of enthusiasm for the city. He had set out for the capital because there was trouble in his order. In Rome Luther completed the traditional pilgrim’s programme that promised indulgence of one’s sins: “In Rome, since I too was such a great saint, I went through every church and crypt, believed every stinking lie there. I probably held one or ten masses in Rome and at the time I was almost sorry that my father and mother were still alive, for I would so have liked to have saved them from purgatory with my masses and other fine deeds and prayers.”

Luther’s critical comments on his own experience of Rome are mostly documented in his table talk, recorded twenty years after he embarked on his pilgrimage. What is for sure is that Martin Luther experienced Rome in the upheaval of an enormous construction drive. He later described the city as torn between medieval alleys and new majestic Renaissance axes, “almost a cadaver of its early monuments ..., the new houses stand where there were once roofs, the rubble is so high that you can almost see from the Tiber and the Bridge of Angels that the it stands two landsknechts’ pikes high.” Luther saw with his own eyes the Antique Old St. Peter’s church, which was being dismantled, and behind it the construction of the dome of its replacement. The enormous cost of financing this gigantic project had already led to the excesses of the trade in indulgences that would play a significant role in the course of the Reformation.

“Passa, Passa, get away, wrap it up!”

The cold damp Roman winter annoyed Luther, as did the Italians, who did not appeal to him. “I wasn’t in Rome long, but I held a lot of masses there and saw a lot of masses being held; I am filled with horror when I think about it. There I heard the courtiers at the table, laughing and bragging about how many hold mass and speak about bread and wine: you are bread, bread you remain – and then holding up bread and wine. Now, I was a young and most pious monk who was hurt by such words. And apart from that I was disgusted by how they could hold mass so hastily, as if they were performing an illusion. For before I came to the Gospel [to reading it at mass], the patrico next to me had already finished a mass and shouted to me: Passa, Passa, get away, wrap it up.” 

„Piazza Martin Lutero" (Image: Screenshot Googlemaps)

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 by kind permission of the author.