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§ 25. Luther in Rome.141141    Luther’s dicta about Rome and his Roman journey are collected in Walch’s ed., vol. XXII., 2372-2379; Köhler: Luther’s Reisen (1872), p. 2-20; Jürgens, II., 266-358; Koestlin, I., 100-107; Lenz, 45-47; Kolde, I., 73-79; and in Brieger’s "Zeitschrift für Kirchengesch," II., 460 sqq. Comp. also, on the R. Cath. side, the brief account of Janssen, II., 72. Audin devotes his third chapter to the Roman journey (I., 52-65).


"Roma qua nihil possis visere majus."—(Horace.)


"Vivere qui sancte vultis, discedite Roma.

Omnia hic ecce licent, non licet esse probum."

"Wer christlich leben will und Rein,

Der zieh am Rom und bleib daheim.

Hie mag man thun was man nur will,

Allein fromm sein gilt hier nicht viel."

(Old poetry quoted by Luther, in Walch, XXII., 2372.)


"Prächtiger, als wir in unserum Norden,

Wohnt der Bettler an der Engelspforten,
Denn er sieht das ewig einz’ge Rom:

Ihn umgibt der Schönheit Glanzgewimmel,

Und ein zweiter Himmel in den Himmel
Steigt Sancte Peter’s wundersamer Dom.

Aber Rom in allem seinem Glanze
Ist ein Grab nur der Vergangenheit,

Leben duftet nur die frische Pflanze,
Die die grüne Stunde streut."—(Schiller.)


An interesting episode in the history of Luther’s training for the Reformation was his visit to Rome. It made a deep impression on his mind, and became effective, not immediately, but several years afterward through the recollection of what he had seen and heard, as a good Catholic, in the metropolis of Christendom.

In the autumn of the year 1510,142142    The chronology is not quite certain. The date 1511 is adopted by Köstlin and Kolde. Others date the Rome journey back to 1510 (Mathesius, Seckendorf, Jürgens, and Luther himself, in his tract Against Popery invented by the Devil, Erl. ed. XXVI., 125, though once he names the year 1511). after his removal to Wittenberg, but before his graduation as doctor of divinity, Luther was sent to Rome in the interest of his order and at the suggestion of Staupitz, who wished to bring about a disciplinary reform and closer union of the Augustinian convents in Germany, but met with factious opposition.

In company with another monk and a lay brother, as the custom was, he traveled on foot, from convent to convent, spent four weeks in Rome in the Augustinian convent of Maria del popolo, and returned to Wittenberg in the following spring. The whole journey must have occupied several months. It was the longest journey he ever made, and at the same time, his pilgrimage to the shrines of the holy apostles where he wished to make a general confession of all his sins and to secure the most efficient absolution.

We do not know whether he accomplished the object of his mission.143143    Kolde (I., 81) conjectures that the decision of Rome in the controversy among the Augustinians went against Staupitz, who soon after 1512 left Wittenberg. He left no information about his route, whether be passed through Switzerland or through the Tyrol, nor about the sublime scenery of the Alps and the lovely scenery of Italy.144144    He passed through Suabia and Bavaria, as we may judge from his description of the people (Walch, XXII., 2359): "Wenn ich viel reisen sollte, wollte ich nirgends lieber, denn durch Schwaben und Baierland ziehen; denn sie sind freundlich und gutwillig, herbergen gerne, gehen Freunden und Wandersleuten entgegen, und thun den Leuten gütlich, und gute Ausrichtung um ihr Geld." He seems to have seen Switzerland also of which he says (ib., p. 2360): "Schweiz ist ein dürr und bergig Land, darum sind sie endlich und hurtig, müssen ihre Nahrung underswo suchen." The beauties of nature made little or no impression upon the Reformers, and were not properly appreciated before the close of the eighteenth century.145145    We seek in vain for descriptions of natural scenery among the ancient classics, but several Hebrew Psalms celebrate the glory of the Creator in his works. The Parables of our Lord imply that nature is full of spiritual lessons. The first descriptions of the beauties of nature in Christian literature are found in the Epistles of St. Basil, Gregory of Nazianzum and Gregory of Nyssa. See this Ch. Hist., vol. III., 896 sqq. The incomparable beauties of Switzerland were first duly appreciated and made known to the world by Albrecht von Haller of Bern (in his poem, "Die Alpen"), Goethe Schweizereise), and Schiller (in Wilhelm Tell, where he gives the most charming picture of the Lake of the Four Cantons, though he never was there). Zwingli and Calvin lived on the banks of Swiss lakes and in view of the Swiss Alps, but never allude to them; they were absorbed in theology and religion.

In his later writings and Table-Talk, Luther left some interesting reminiscences of his journey. He spoke of the fine climate and fertility of Italy, the temperance of the Italians contrasted with the intemperate Germans, also of their shrewdness, craftiness, and of the pride with which they looked down upon the "stupid Germans" and "German beasts," as semi-barbarians; he praised the hospitals and charitable institutions in Florence; but he was greatly disappointed with the state of religion in Rome, which he found just the reverse of what he had expected.

Rome was at that time filled with enthusiasm for the renaissance of classical literature and art, but indifferent to religion. Julius II., who sat in Peter’s chair from 1503 to 1513, bent his energies on the aggrandizement of the secular dominion of the papacy by means of an unscrupulous diplomacy and bloody wars, founded the Vatican Museum, and liberally encouraged the great architects and painters of his age in their immortal works of art. The building of the new church of St. Peter with its colossal cupola had begun under the direction of Bramante; the pencil of Michael Angelo was adorning the Sixtine chapel in the adjoining Vatican Palace with the pictures of the Prophets, Sibyls, and the last judgment; and the youthful genius of Raphael conceived his inimitable Madonna, with the Christ-child in her arms, and was transforming the chambers of the Vatican into galleries of undying beauty. These were the wonders of the new Italian art; but they had as little interest for the German monk as the temples and statues of classical Athens had for the Apostle Paul.

When Luther came in sight of the eternal city he fell upon the earth, raised his hands and exclaimed, "Hail to thee, holy, Rome!146146    "Salve! Sancta Roma." Thrice holy for the blood of martyrs shed here." He passed the colossal ruins of heathen Rome and the gorgeous palaces of Christian Rome. But he ran, "like a crazy saint," through all the churches and crypts and catacombs with an unquestioning faith in the legendary traditions about the relics and miracles of martyrs.147147    "Auch ich war ein so toller Heiliger," he said, "lief durch alle Kirchen und Kluften, glaubte alles was daselbst erlogen und erstunken ist." He wished that his parents were dead that he might help them out of purgatory by reading mass in the most holy place, according to the saying: "Blessed is the mother whose son celebrates mass on Saturday in St. John of the Lateran." He ascended on bended knees the twenty-eight steps of the famous Scala Santa (said to have been transported from the Judgment Hall of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem), that he might secure the indulgence attached to this ascetic performance since the days of Pope Leo IV. in 850, but at every step the word of the Scripture sounded as a significant protest in his ear: "The just shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:17).148148    This interesting incident rests on the authority of his son Paul, who heard it from the lips of his father in 1544. Modern Popes, Pius VII. and Pius IX., have granted additional indulgences to those who climb up the Scala Santa.

Thus at the very height of his mediaeval devotion he doubted its efficacy in giving peace to the troubled conscience. This doubt was strengthened by what he saw around him. He was favorably struck, indeed, with the business administration and police regulations of the papal court, but shocked by the unbelief, levity and immorality of the clergy. Money and luxurious living seemed to have replaced apostolic poverty and self-denial. He saw nothing but worldly splendor at the court of Pope Julius II., who had just returned from the sanguinary siege of a town conducted by him in person. He afterward thundered against him as a man of blood. He heard of the fearful crimes of Pope Alexander VI. and his family, which were hardly known and believed in Germany, but freely spoken of as undoubted facts in the fresh remembrance of all Romans. While he was reading one mass, a Roman priest would finish seven. He was urged to hurry up (passa, passa!), and to "send her Son home to our Lady." He heard priests, when consecrating the elements, repeat in Latin the words: "Bread thou art, and bread thou shalt remain; wine thou art, and wine thou shalt remain." The term "a good Christian" (buon Christiano) meant "a fool." He was told that "if there was a hell, Rome was built on it," and that this state of things must soon end in a collapse.

He received the impression that "Rome, once the holiest city, was now the worst." He compared it to Jerusalem as described by the prophets.149149    "Es gehet uns wie den Propheten, die klagen auch über Jerusalem, und sagen: Die feine gläubige Stadt is zur Hure geworden. Denn aus dem Besten kommt allezeit das Aergste, wie die Exempel zeigen zu allen Zeiten." Walch, XXII., 2378. All these sad experiences did not shake his faith in the Roman church and hierarchy, so unworthily represented, as the Jewish hierarchy was at the time of Christ; but they returned to his mind afterward with double force and gave ease and comfort to his conscience when he attacked and abused popery as "an institution of the devil."150150    This was the topic of one of his last and most abusive works: "Wider das Papstthum zu Rom vom Teufel gestiftet." March, 1545.

Hence be often declared that he would not have missed "seeing Rome for a hundred thousand florins; for I might have felt some apprehension that I had done injustice to the Pope; but as we see, so we speak."

Six years after his visit the building of St. Peter’s Dome by means of the proceeds from papal indulgences furnished the occasion for the outbreak of that war which ended with an irrevocable separation from Rome.

In the Pitti Gallery of Florence there is a famous picture of Giorgione which represents an unknown monk with strongly Teutonic features and brilliant eyes, seated between two Italians, playing on a small organ and looking dreamily to one side. This central figure has recently been identified by some connoisseurs as a portrait of Luther taken at Florence a few months before the death of Giorgione in 1511. The identity is open to doubt, but the resemblance is striking.151151    Comp."Revista Christiana," Firenze, 1883, p. 422. The picture on the opposite page (in the text) is from a photograph made in Florence.



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