Giulia Gonzaga’s early life sounds like a fairy tale. At age 20, she was already one of the most envied women in Italy. She owned large properties and her castle was a favorite meeting place for artists, poets, and musicians. She was considered the most beautiful woman in the country. Yet, she was deeply anxious and confused.
In a fairy tale, this introduction would be followed by a quest for the answer – usually a magic talisman brought by a charming prince.
Giulia’s story was different. Her anxiety came from a painful incapacity of obeying God’s law and no talisman could help. Her sinful tendencies, especially her fear of what people would say or her love for material things, got the best of her. Being perfectly aware of the biblical consequences of sin, she felt hopeless.
A Dangerous Beauty
Giulia was born in 1513 in Gazzuolo, a small city in north Italy. It was the Italian Renaissance, a time of splendor and beauty as well as political struggle, as noble families fought to maintain their power and territories. It was a struggle for survival, and marital alliances provided the greatest security.
As most noble girls of her day, 14-year old Giulia submitted to her parents’ choice of a husband: Vespasiano, Duke of Traetto and Count of Fondi, an esteemed “condottiero” (mercenary captain) from the powerful Colonna family. He was 47. In the summer of 1526, she dutifully left her home and family and moved 370 miles south with a husband old enough to be her father and a stepdaughter, Isabella, who was her same age.
Those were troubling times for Italy (the infamous sack of Rome happened less than a year after Giulia’s wedding) and Vespasiano was often called to battle. If there were any conflicts between the two coetaneous girls, they worsened when he died in 1528, leaving all his properties to Giulia, as long as she remained unmarried. Isabella considered this decision unfair and spent her life fighting it.
Giulia’s life as Lady of her castle in Fondi (between Rome and Naples) continued rather peacefully until, in the summer of 1534, a band of Ottoman pirates attacked her properties, apparently with the specific intent of kidnapping her as a present for Sultan Süleyman I. Warned by a servant, she managed to escape.
Realizing she was not safe in her own castle, she moved to Naples, in a small lodging she rented within a nuns’ convent. There, she could still conduct her business and receive guests, while visiting her castle from time to time.
Eventually, Emperor Charles V, who had been called to resolve the legal dispute between Giulia and Isabella, ended up favoring the latter, allowing her to keep the properties on condition that she gave Giulia a high yearly salary (a duty Isabella performed irregularly and begrudgingly).
Law and Gospel
In Naples, Giulia became better acquainted with Juan de Valdés, a Spanish Reformer who had left Spain to escape the inquisition. Well-versed in legal matters, Valdés had helped her in her litigation. The two had also obviously discussed personal and religious matters, because in 1536 she felt comfortable enough to reveal to him her innermost feelings.
The occasion was a sermon by Bernardino Ochino, a powerful preacher who had embraced some Lutheran teachings and included them carefully in his addresses. She had heard the friar before but this time his mention of God’s law terrified her, and she asked Valdés for help.
In a long discussion that began in front of the church and ended at Giulia’s residence, Valdés explained the difference between law and gospel – a difference plainly stated in the Pauline epistles, reiterated by Augustine (mostly in his explanation of “letter” and “spirit”), and exhaustively exposed by Martin Luther, who defined the ability to distinguish it “the noblest skill in the Christian church.”.
In a nutshell, the law is whatever God commands us to do, and the gospel is the announcement of what Christ has done for sinners who are in themselves unable to keep the law.
Valdés explained the necessity of the law: “Without a law there wouldn’t be a conscience. Without a conscience, sin wouldn’t be known. Without a knowledge of sin, we would not humble ourselves. Without humbling ourselves, we wouldn’t know grace. Without grace, we wouldn’t be justified, and without justification our souls wouldn’t be saved. This is what I believe Saint Paul meant by saying that the law is a pedagogue or tutor who leads us to Christ so that we may be justified by faith”.
The gospel, on the other hand, is designed to “heal the wounds inflicted by the law, preach grace, peace, and remission of sins, calm and pacify consciences, impart the spirit that allows us to keep what the law shows about God’s will and to fight, conquer, and crush the enemies of our souls”.
If the law terrifies us and seems burdensome, Valdés explained, it’s because we don’t understand the gospel. “There can’t be any fear in the soul that actively and effectively points his eyes on the crucified Christ, considering with full Christ’s satisfaction and payment in his stead.”
Obedience to God is then a natural fruit of justification: “We begin to fall in love with God and to obey him and serve him, not for fear of hell or love of glory, but merely because we have known that he is worthy to be loved and that he loves us without end. God sets us free, but we don’t leave his service in view of this liberty. On the contrary, we are even more subject and obedient to him, not as slaves but as free, not as mercenaries but as sons. This is the essence of Christian freedom”.
This dialogue between Valdés and Giulia, later published as Christian Alphabet, includes both Giulia’s spirited questions and Valdés patient but honest answers.
Giulia’s Contributions to the Reformation
After Valdés’s death in 1541, 28-year old Giulia became the main preserver of his teachings, supervising the translation and distribution of his works and other similar books (such as the best seller The Benefit of Christ), and keeping a strong network of communication between Italian reformers and sympathizers of the Reformation.
When the Roman inquisition was reinstated in 1542 with the specific purpose of eradicating “Lutheran heresies,” she assisted some Italians to find safety north of the Alps. Others, including Giulia and her closest friend Pietro Carnesecchi, a Florentine follower of Valdés, decided to wait, still hoping for a reformation of the church. These hopes fell low at the Council of Trent, where believers in justification by faith alone were declared accursed, but raised again in 1555, when Cardinal Reginald Pole, who had until then supported a reformation, came close to being elected pope. Ultimately, Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa – the brain and strong arm behind the Roman inquisition – won instead, largely because of his work of propaganda which depicted Pole as an advocate of Lutheran beliefs.
Hope resurrected in 1559, when Carafa died and the people of Rome gave free expression to their rage against the tyrannical pope by rioting in the streets, freeing those who had been imprisoned on heresy charges, and burning the Inquisition buildings.
Soon, however, they realized the Inquisition was there to stay. Carnesecchi was called to a trial, but was released for lack of evidence (the fire had destroyed all the papers they had collected on his case). Giulia’s also name appeared in the inquisition’s files for her support of the doctrine of sola fide, but her powerful cousins were able to intercede and avoid a trial.
In the meantime, her health was getting worse, and she made plans for her death. Carnesecchi could hardly bear the thought of losing his best friend. “To live without you in this malign century is to navigate high seas without oars or sails.”
His high seas became particularly turbulent shortly after Giulia’s death in 1566. Ironically, she became the cause of his turbulence by neglecting to destroy the 228 highly incriminating letters she had received from him. He was soon arrested, interrogated under torture, and executed. When the new pope, Pius V, received Giulia’s correspondence, he said, “If I had seen it while she was still breathing I would have burned her alive.”
Other names were revealed by both Giulia’s letters and Carnesecchi’s confession. The ensuing persecution, combined with Carnesecchi’s highly publicized execution, silenced most dissenting voices in Italy. But it was not the end. The same persecution created a large number of exiles – nourished by the same gospel Giulia had helped to disseminate – who went on to join Protestant churches abroad.
Italy had to wait centuries to see an introduction of Reformed, confessional churches. They now exist, however small, and the same gospel is circulating again.