Women of the Italian Renaissance: Giulia Gonzaga (1513-1566)
Giulia Gonzaga (1513-1566) was the daughter of Ludovico Gonzaga, lord of Sabbioneta and Bozzolo, and his wife Francesca Fieschi. At the age of fourteen, Giulia was married to Vespasiano Colonna, count of Fondi and duke of Traetto. Their marriage was destined to be a short one, for Vespasiano died only three years after their wedding. At the age of twenty-two, Giulia joined a convent in Naples and was acquainted with the Spanish religious exile Juan de Valdés. Members of the Italian nobility, including Giulia and her cousin by marriage, Vittoria Colonna, were admirers of Valdés. Diarmaid MacCulloch has noted that this elite support meant that ‘there was a ready entry to the courts and noble palaces of northern Italy [while] Valdesian ideas in turn filtered into the lively world of humanist discussion in Italian cities’.
Above: Gazzuolo, where Giulia was born in 1513.
Camilla Russell has argued that Giulia was one of Valdés’ most prominent dedicated and enduring disciplines. Her social position, her vast social links and her personal influence means that she was one of the most important heterodox figures in sixteenth-century Italy. Valdés’ ideas were appealing to members of what has been called the spirituali movement, which was active in mid sixteenth-century Italy. This movement is both enigmatic and difficult to define. It sought spiritual and organisational Church reform, and some of its members sympathised with reformed doctrines. Several of the ideas embraced by the spirituali, including organisational Church reform and the pursuit of a personal relationship with God, were gaining currency across Europe. They were familiar with, and were in some respects influenced by, the works of northern reformers, including Luther and Calvin. Elements of Calvin’s Institutes, for example, can be traced in the anonymously published Beneficio di Cristo (1543), which was the most significant literary product of the spirituali, and has been described by Dermot Fenlon as ‘the most revolutionary product of Italy’s unaccomplished Reformation’. The spirituali sought the abolition of superstitious forms of religious practice, while abhorring the widespread corruption and ignorance of the clergy. However, unlike the northern reformers, most of the spirituali wished to remain in communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
Above: Vespasiano Colonna, husband of Giulia (left). Pietro Carnesecchi, Giulia's friend (right).
Giulia is also known for her friendship with the humanist Pietro Carnesecchi (1508-67). Carnesecchi’s beliefs were undoubtedly heterodox, for he believed in justification by faith alone and viewed the Scriptures and leading doctors of the Church as the only authorities on matters of doctrine and spirituality, while rejecting the sacrament of confession and the doctrine of purgatory. Carnesecchi was investigated by the Roman Inquisition between 1546 and 1567, and was eventually imprisoned, convicted and executed. The records of his trial illuminate his religious activities, as well as those of Giulia, who experienced ‘disquiet’ and ‘contradiction’, perhaps in relation to the teachings of the Church and those of Valdés, who encouraged her to embrace ‘the idea of Christian perfection’.
These records are useful, given that Giulia wrote no religious reflections or treatises of her own (or, at least, none that survive). She did not explicitly express religious sentiments in her letters, which contain oblique, cautious references to her beliefs. Certainly Giulia acknowledged that her beliefs were not orthodox. In June 1558, she wrote to Carnesecchi saying that she needed to ‘watch out, otherwise she could fall into the net’ of the Inquisition. Eventually, the letters between Carnesecchi and Giulia were used as evidence against Carnesecchi during his trial for heresy. Carnesecchi was certain that his and Giulia’s actions were correct. He wrote to her in 1557 claiming that ‘there is no doubt that God permits everything, with just (although to us obscure) reason, and that from everything he will draw his glory, to the edification and profit of his elect’. The term ‘elect’, of course, has reformed, specifically Calvinist, connotations. Giulia died in 1566 at the age of fifty-three, the year before Carnesecchi's execution. The timing of her death ultimately prevented her from sharing her friend's fate, or at the very least, a trial for heresy.