Like many Christians before and since, Martin Luther went to Rome as a pilgrim loyal to the Pope. Attentive visitors to the Eternal City will still find traces of the man who would later call Rome Hell.
To Rome by foot as a monk – tourists retracing Luther’s footsteps can make many interesting discoveries
When Martin Luther (1483–1546) first went to Rome as a monk approaching the age of thirty, he experienced the papal city in a state of upheaval. The metropolis that had shrunk to the size of an insignificant town during the Middle Ages was in the process of reinventing itself in the forms of the Renaissance.
On Martin Luther Square
Today’s tourists following Luther’s footsteps to Rome also visit the square named after him on the central Colle Oppio hill opposite the Coliseum. But the city has too many monuments to market the Luther sites themselves. Even if Rome’s mayor Ignazio Marino acted emotionally during the renaming of the Piazza Martin Lutero in late summer 2015 about honouring the man the street sign refers to as a “German theologian of the Reformation”. Germans present in the park popular with families with children were surprised by Marino’s almost perfect German accent when he cited the line Luther wrote shortly before his death: “We are beggars, this is true”.
German visitors enjoy a coffee in the tranquility of Luther Square and the park – and get into a row with the woman running the kiosk. “You don’t put chocolate on cappuccino,” she berates them.
For the priest of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Christ in Rome, Jens-Martin Kruse, the square is the “expression of lively and diverse ecumenism”. He believes it makes it clear that Rome is an “open-minded city, and part of its richness is the fact that Protestant Romans live and work there”.
“If there is a Hell, then Rome is built over it”
The square was first opened 500 years after Luther’s journey to Rome. Whether the reformer walked to Rome in 1510 or 1511 and whether he actually did that to deliver a note of protest from his Augustinian order is a point of controversy today. At the time, no one paid the journey “any special attention: there was no reception by the Pope, no meeting with high-ranking cardinals, no precise documentation of its course and the outcome”, explains the Church historian Martin Wallraff. And “at the time no one could foresee the disputes that would emerge from the University of Wittenberg a year after his journey to Rome and how far their impact would be felt – certainly not even Luther himself”.
Unlike Goethe’s contemporary Johann Gottfried Seume, who undertook his “Walk to Syracuse” mainly by coach, Luther really did make his way over the Alps by foot. Following a long, arduous journey he did not find himself standing before the monumental Baroque facade of St. Peter’s Cathedral, which was built much later, but was faced with a massive building site. Here Luther saw with his own eyes what was happening to the money from the trade in indulgences which he would later attack so vehemently.
The glorious Rome whose popes funded art as much as their own pleasures would be cursed by the reformer as the “whore of Babylon”. In conflict with the head of the Church, he would drastically conclude “If there is a Hell, then Rome is built over it”.
Almost 200 years later the order of the Jesuits, the spearhead in the battle against the Reformation, inadvertently created a monument to Martin Luther. On the lavish funerary altar of the order’s founder, Ignatius of Loyola, in the Il Gesù church, an allegory of “true doctrine” in the form of a woman throws “heresy” into the abyss, represented by books by Luther and Johannes Calvin.
Luther’s smashed-in face
From the Augustinian church at the northern gate of the old town on the Piazza del Popolo, today’s visitors wander through the city’s most important retail strip on their way to the order’s headquarters at the Sant Augustino church. Shortly before it ends, in the small side street Via Lata, stands the Facchino fountain. Legend has it that the figure portrays Luther as a water carrier. Hence its face has been rendered almost unrecognisable, smashed in by thrown stones.
Like other pilgrims, Luther also visited the catacombs of the Via Appia, saw the Lateran Basilica and prayed while climbing the Scala Santa, the Holy Stairs. Its steps from Pilate’s palace, climbed by Jesus on his way to meet his judge, are supposed to have found their way to Rome thanks to a miracle. “But when I arrived at the top, I thought, who knows if it is true”, wrote Luther in a sermon.
Keywords: Martin Luther, Luther in Rome,
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