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Key figure of the Italian parishes in the territory of Venice

Baldassare Altieri excelled amongst the followers of the Reformation in Italy because he had direct contact with Martin Luther and his colleagues in Wittenberg. The first written evidence can be found in a letter from 1536 to the Renaissance writer Pietro Aretino, who became famous last but not least because of his risqué erotic poetry. From Altieri's letter it becomes known that he came from L'Aquila in the Abruzzo mountains and that he had become secretary of the Count of Modena, due to Aretino's recommendation. He can therefore be considered to have been a member of the elite of Humanism. There exists no further information about his origin – which might be the Roman family of the same name – or his path of education.

Key figure for the Italian parishes in Venice

In the 1540s, Altieri appears as a key figure of the Protestant parishes that had constituted themselves in the territory of Venice and were special in Italian Reformation history. Apart from the Waldensians and a couple of anabaptist groups, the spreading of the doctrine of the Reformation in Italy was mostly limited to networks of intellectuals, who nourished their convictions by means of personal contacts and by reading and translating documents. Generally they did not attempt to become publicly visible and to establish themselves as a religious community separate from the Catholic church.

In the territory of Venice, the authorities originally did not take decisive action against Protestant tendencies. Since the 1520s, the city had developed into the Italian centre of reformatory book production.

Wittenberg presses for the observance of the principles of the Reformation in Venice

The influences of the Reformation in this region can be discovered in a correspondence with Philipp Melanchthon that began after the visit of the Italian priest Michele Braccetto to Wittenberg. In January 1539, Melanchthon wrote to his fellow believers in Italy and recommended to them the purity of the Protestant doctrine, for which he named three core issues: the doctrine of atonement (which, purely because of the “benefaction of Christ”, enables reconciliation with God), the differentiation between the law and the Gospel, and the cleansing of the liturgy and the removal of elements that deserved to go. He also cautioned against the teachings of Miguel Servet, who rejected the dogma of the trinity. Thus, the Reformers from Wittenberg tried to influence the followers in Venice, making them observe certain principles of the Reformation.

Nevertheless it seems that the visitor from Venice had previously tried to guide Melanchthon back into the Roman church. In the following period of time a consolidated Protestant parish life existed in Venice. Baldassare Altieri was one of its participants. Since 1540 he was documented as secretary of the English emissary in Venice. He therefore profited, indirectly, from the religious tolerance of a monarch who was not acknowledged by the Pope – in this case, Henry VIII -, which, according to the notion of the time, also covered his emissary.

Letters to Luther: “As it were, our father and brother in Christ"

In 1542, Altieri became known as the speaker of this parish association, by writing two highly official and mostly identical letters from the “brethren of the churches of Venice, Vicenza and Tarvisio” to Luther and Melanchthon. Altieri addresses Luther as, “as it were, our father and brother in Christ”. In his complex classicist Latin, Altieri presents two concerns to the Reformers in Wittenberg.

In Venice, as in the whole of Italy, the general religious framework had been subject to changes since, in 1541/42, the Roman inquisition had been reformed in order to become more efficient. In view of the increasing number of arrests, the Venetians asked the Schmalkaldic League to intercede before the senate of the city. This request was granted, but the intervention had no effect.

Altieri also presented his concern about the re-emerging controversy over the Lord's Supper. He asked Luther to aim towards unity amongst the Protestants with regards to the matter of the doctrine of the Lord's Supper. The Italian explicitly referred to the preacher Martin Bucer from Strasbourg, who was regularly in touch with the “brethren in Italy”. In view of the increasing outside pressure imposed on the Protestant Venetians, the perspective of conflicts within Protestantism must have been rather threatening for them. Possibly, Altieri and other “brethren” had already shared Bucer's convictions for a long time. 

Altieri as the “last man standing” after the dissolution of the parishes

Luther, whose relationship with Bucer was characterised by distrust, only replied to the Venetians in June of 1543 and underlined the position towards the Lord's Supper that was maintained in Wittenberg. But the contact between Venice and Wittenberg was not interrupted. Also in 1543, Melanchthon knew of four Protestant preachers in Venice. A further request for support, sent by Altieri in August 1543, was answered by Luther as late as in November 1544. Yet again, the caution against the “Sacramentalists” stood in the centre of the letter.

Soon afterwards, a letter from Matthias Guttich, scholar of Greek and Hebrew, to Melanchthon already depicted an image of disintegration: numerous parishioners had revoked or fled, several people were arrested, and Altieri, due to his status as a diplomat, seemed to be the “last man standing”. No further news about a Protestant parish life in Venice reached Wittenberg. The project of the establishment of parishes, as described in 1539, had therefore failed.

An end as a Protestant refugee

However, Altieri himself continued to live in Venice for some more years, confidently representing his Protestant attitudes. In February 1544 he managed to get an official commission as emissary of the Schmalkaldic League in Venice and was accredited by the senate, against the objection of the Curia. But the defeat and dissolution of the League in 1547 and his dismissal from the English emissary brought Altieri in a precarious situation, especially since the Protestant Swiss Cantons were not willing to assign him as their emissary.

This was also due to him having remarried after the divorce from his wife. After returning from a visit to Graubünden in Summer 1549, he had to flee from Venice. He brought himself and his family to safety in Bergamo. His attempts to be employed by Cosimo I. de Medici in Florence or Duchess Renate of Ferrara failed because his condition was that he should be allowed to publicly profess the Protestant doctrine. Altieri therefore spent the last year of his life as a refugee and died in August 1550, probably in Bergamo.