Girolamo Zanchi (1516-90): A Life in Exile
Part I: From Alzano to Lucca
Girolamo (or Jerome) Zanchi moved around a lot. Unlike Martin Luther (who was closely associated with Wittenberg), Martin Bucer (who was tied to Strasbourg), or John Calvin (to Geneva), Zanchi had no city to call his own, no city that claimed him as a son. Perhaps because of his refugee life, he is not often remembered or read nowadays. But in the sixteenth century, he was one of the remarkable individuals whom God used to restore His gospel and reform His Church and he is among the greatest Reformed theologians of any age. It’s a pleasure to have the honor of re-introducing him in the context of a missionary endeavor that would surely have touched Zanchi’s heart.
Girolamo was born on 2 February 1516 to what we would now call a middle-class family. His father, Francesco, had only recently relocated from Venice to Alzano outside of Bergamo and about 45 kilometers from the heart of Milan. Sadly, Francesco, who had worked as a secretary to a Venetian official before the move, died of the plague in 1528. Three years later, Girolamo’s mother, Barbara Morlotti, died too, leaving her son an orphan. When he grew older, Girolamo rarely reflected upon his youth (at least in his in writings) and, to my knowledge, never discussed how he felt about the loss of his parents. Yet, their death set him on a path that brought him to the center of the religious controversies that were, even then, swirling around Europe.
In February 1531, soon after the loss of his mother, young Zanchi entered the monastic community of Santo Spirito di Bergamo. There he became a novice of the Augustinian Order of Canons Regular, a medieval religious order that lived communally according to a rule of life inspired by St Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Unlike contemplative orders such as the Benedictines, which lived apart from the world, canons labored in churches and focused their energy on public ministries like preaching and teaching as well as the administration of the sacraments.
Girolamo was not the first member of his family to join the Canons Regular; several paternal cousins and a maternal uncle had preceded him. Zanchi was three years too young to become a novice monk, but his unique circumstances and his family connection to the order allowed the rules to be bent. Once a part of the community, Zanchi would have structured his life according to the medieval Rule of St Augustine, sharing all things in common with his fellow monks, serving in the church, studying theology, and obeying the so-called “counsels of perfection”: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Perhaps this well-ordered world was just what a newly orphaned fifteen-year old needed. We might well wonder if he wanted to join the Augustinians? Did he feel a call to learn about God even at that age? Or was he pressured into the role, only recognizing a desire to serve the Church as he grew older? Though intriguing to the modern mind, sixteenth century authors rarely addressed such questions and we are left with little more than informed guesses.
We also know little about Zanchi’s time in Bergamo. This probably means that he followed a traditional path and stayed out of trouble, as much as anyone his age could have. Presumably, he took part in the life of the monastic community and began the long process of preparing himself to receive the sacrament of holy orders. He also seems to have studied a great deal. No doubt he read the writings of his order’s namesake, St Augustine. But Zanchi’s later writings show that he also consumed the works of Aristotle, the Dominican Thomas Aquinas (1225-1276), and many of the other great medieval scholastic theologians. His intellectual gifts were considerable and they could not have escaped the notice of his superiors in the Order. He may have studied for a period at the University of Padua in the 1530s. Whether he did or not, by the time he turned twenty-five, he had been ordained a priest, appointed to the office of “public preacher,” and received his doctorate in theology.
It was probably late in 1535, four years after Zanchi had arrived at Santo Spirito, that he made one of the most important friendships of his life. Massililiano Celso Martinenghi was a year younger than Zanchi and had spent a great deal less time in the monastic life. But Celso’s family were the counts of Brescia and therefore of a much higher social status than the orphan son of a clerk. In spite of the mismatch in experience and rank, a bond grew between the two young men. It’s difficult to overestimate the importance that a good friend can play in one’s life and this was certainly the case for Celso and Zanchi. Together they read theology and began studying Greek. Even more importantly, early in 1541, when fifteen members of the order were chosen to take up residence in the house of San Frediano in Lucca, both Zanchi and Celso were among the number. Little did they know, this move would dramatically alter the course of both of their lives.
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