Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Marco Sgarbi

Vermigli, Peter Martyr

Born: 1499, Florence
Died: 1562, Zürich
  • Stefano GuliziaEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_766-1


Peter Martyr Vermigli is still largely unrecognized among the spiritual fathers of the Protestant Reformation. His career is neatly divided by his flight to Zürich in 1542. Prior to that, one can see the fruits of his superb philosophical and theological education in Italy, which manifested themselves primarily through scriptural commentary and Aristotelian exegesis. Afterwards, he participated – and always at the forefront of the debate – in increasingly harsher controversies ranging from liturgy to the Eucharistic doctrine. In his last years, beginning in 1556, Vermigli finally settled as a Hebraist, teaching in a prestigious and non-Lutheran academic stronghold.


Paradise Lost Epidemic Fever Theological Education Scriptural Text Protestant Theology 
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Peter Martyr Vermigli, born Piera Mariano, is probably best known for what has been called his “stromatic theology” (McLelland 2009), that is to say, the application of fifteenth-century, miscellaneous principles to biblical commentaries. The extent and organization of this method is especially visible in Vermigli’s Loci Communes, a compilation first published posthumously in 1576, which became a standard Reformed theological textbook. In the intellectual persona of this Protestant humanist, however, came to fruition several strands of thought within and beyond the Reform and the controversial history of the Reform’s censorship in print – namely, an effort to harmonize Aristotelian Ethics with the Bible, with beloved patristic commentaries, and with what Vermigli himself (amidst obvious sympathy) referred to as the wisdom of “Rabbinic sources.”

The eldest of three children, Vermigli was born in Florence (on September 8, 1499) to Maria Fumantina, who taught him Latin before he enrolled in school, and to Stefano di Antonio Vermigli, a wealthy shoemaker and former follower of Girolamo Savonarola, who strongly supported religious leadership in urban areas. Encouraging these ideals, the young Piera was sent to train at the Badia Fiesolana, from which, after obtaining his novitiate in 1518, the Lateran Congregation would send him to the monastery of St. John of Verdara in Padua to study Aristotle. While in Padua, Vermigli taught himself Greek and made the acquaintance of Reform-minded theologians such as Pietro Bembo, Reginald Pole, and Marcantonio Flaminio. Following his ordination in 1525, Vermigli embarked on a fruitful decade of traveling and lectures, in which he also mediated with Roman authority in his capacity as a Spoletan abbot and taught himself Hebrew. In 1537, he moved to Naples where he entered into circles of spirituali led by Juan de Valdés: even though, at this juncture, Vermigli’s passage to Protestantism in undeniable, the influence between him and Valdés is now believed to have been mutual (James 1998). Still, suspicion towards Vermigli’s preaching began to gather as early as in 1539 and was dispelled only thanks to the intervention of his powerful Paduan friends. Two years later, Vermigli was appointed prior of the Basilica of San Frediano in Lucca, which he energically sought to wake up from its moral laxity; in addition, by exercising his episcopal authority, he also reformed the university curriculum by following the humanistic model recently implemented at the Corpus Christi College in Oxford, where teaching was in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew as well as aimed at clarity and simplicity.

The year 1542 marked the downfall of Vermigli’s cautious approach. A combination of factors – the reorganization of the Inquisition and the political fear that Lucca, commonly viewed as a Protestant haven, would lose its independence from the Holy Roman Empire – made Vermigli escape to Zürich. Once established as a professor in Strasbourg, he spent the first part of the 1540s lecturing on minor prophets, befriending Martin Bucer, and beginning his marriage to his first wife, Catherine Dammartin. After the accession of Edward VI to the throne of England, with the continental advances of Charles V making Germany a hostile environment to the Reform, Vermigli sailed with Bernardino Ochino on an invitation to teach at Oxford. Since 1548, his lectures – like those on 1 Corinthians (Balserak 2009), where he denounced the Catholic doctrines of Purgatory, celibacy, and Lenten fasting – caught fire both with the clergy and the academics, on one side, and common people on the other. A formal disputation organized by the University Chancellor, himself a firm Protestant, was held at Leuven in 1549, in which Vermigli argued against transubstantiation. This placed him at the forefront of debate over the nature of the Eucharist. Opposition, though, was fierce. Only 2 years after his return to Oxford, rioters in the streets threatened Vermigli with death, and his windows, overlooking Fish Street at the Great Quadrangle, were smashed several times (McNair 1994). While his deep involvement with English church politics is signaled by the changes he recommended to the Book of Common Prayers, the accession of Mary I of England brought to an abrupt end Vermigli’s days in Oxford. In fact, after 6 months of house arrest, he narrowly escaped execution, but his wife, well known in the city for her piety and ministry, died childless slightly before he departed for Strasbourg in 1553.

Vermigli was restored to his previous post as lecturer but not without controversy. He turned his attention to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and his house became a place of gathering for Marian Exiles (Anderson 1996). At the same time, he was asked to sign the Wittenberg Concord as a condition for his reappointment, for Vermigli’s doctrine of double predestination continued to sit uncomfortably with the Lutheran establishment. In an atmosphere of increasing alienation, despite renewed friendship with Girolamo Zanchi, a former Protestant convert under Vermigli in Lucca, the professor moved to Zürich in 1556 to teach Hebrew and would never move again until his death. Three years later, he also married his second wife, Catarina Merenda of Brescia. At first, the Hebraist Theodore Bibliander shared teaching duties with Vermigli, but in 1557, he openly attacked his double predestinarian views, at one point allegedly challenging him to a duel with a double-edged axe. Evenually Vermigli’s own position emerged as the official, allowable stance of the Zürich church (Steinmetz 2001), but another front had already opened when Zanchi in Strasbourg was attacked by the Lutherans for heretical teachings on the Eucharist. During the abortive conference at Poissy in 1561, which he attended with Theodore Beza, Vermigli enjoyed talking to Catherine de’ Medici of France in his native language and defended the view that Jesus’ words at the Last Supper were figurative rather than literal. His health already declining, Vermigli succumbed to an epidemic fever in 1562, attended by the physician Conrad Gesner.

Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition

Vermigli’s theology is notable for having developed a strong doctrine of double predestination independently of John Calvin. (His belief is overall similar but not at all identical to Calvin’s.) Moreover, his presence and activity in England fueled important political developments in the Elizabethan religious settlement, providing theological justification for Royal Supremacy, that is, privileging the king of a territory, instead of any ecclesiastic authority, to rule the church. With that said, however, at least from an Italian point of view, Vermigli’s trajectory should be mapped as the overarching profile of those lives, Erasmian or not, who suffered opposition from the Roman Inquisition and decided to flee Italy for a Transalpine location, therefore enabling a re-orientation of their intellectual heritage at once theological and geopolitical. In this respect, Vermigli could be appropriately compared to the experience of another exile, Pietro Perna (1519–1582), a leading printer in late Renaissance Basel. Perna was originally born in Villa Basilica, near Lucca, and was an admirer of Vermigli (Perini 2002); among the books he printed in Basel feature several Aristotelian commentaries, other titles that sparked a considerable theological debate, such as the De amplitudine regni Dei, of 1554, and a 1560 edition of Machiavelli’s Prince, which substitutes the dedication to Lorenzo de’ Medici with another one to the Polish knight Abraham Sbaski (Lepri 2013).

Vermigli’s insurrection against the tenets of his early education represented, so to speak, the theological idiom of a larger intellectual discourse of sixteenth-century Italian dissent. If this is true, and remembering that Vermigli, like Erasmus, was much read in Venice and Lombardy (Seidel Menchi 1987), the situation with the circulation of forbidden, “heretical” books bears further scrutiny in order to better assess what the Florentine professor inherited and how he situated himself. Vermigli’s Paduan years marked a substantial axis in his career; as such, they also implicate two groups of participants – the German Protestant students enrolled at the University of Padua and the German Protestant merchants, living and working at the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice. In each case, curiosity had to be sustained by conversation. And religious sympathy for the Reform had to be wrapped or materialized through the study of actual books. Thus smuggling and shipping illicit titles is an activity that binds at least two major routes: one proceeding from Switzerland to Chiavenna to Venice and another surging from the activity of Greek copyists in Venetian-controlled locales such as Crete or Cyprus. Not only was Vermigli influenced by Greek Patristic thought – and possibly he read about Chrysostom in Oecolampadius’ edition, after Erasmus himself proved to have been particularly drawn to this golden-tongued father (Kirby et al. 2009). One might as well take Vermigli as the figure who structured and repositioned at the heart of the continental reformation an acerbic line of rhetorical and Patristic commentary that first appeared in the Veneto, in correspondence with the East, and was subsequently persecuted through the inquisitorial files (Fragnito 2001).

Against this background, two conclusions emerge. First, Vermigli’s interests and changing notions of faith and theology mirror the objectives of humanist and lay circles such as those of Sperone Speroni, Antonio Brucioli, and Francesco Patrizi, who also collectively supported the trading of old manuscripts from the Levant (Chayes 2012). Second, and as a corollary, Vermigli’s closest parallel in sixteenth-century intellectual history is, perhaps, Filippo Mocenigo, archbishop of Cyprus from 1560 until 1568, who was accused of heresy and possession of prohibited books in a harsher climate of repression (Bonora 2006).

Original Aspects and Legacy

In his epistolary exchanges, Cardinal Baronio reminded his adversaries of a long genealogy of converts who had broken their vows in order to follow true religion: in particular, Luther, a former Augustinian monk, Peter Martyr Vermigli, an ex-Dominican, and Martin Bucer. In itself, apologies aside, this is not extraordinary, although the Italian Reformation proved to be a frail and remarkably vanishing product of history. Yet, with the names of Vermigli and Bucer, one sees two scholars who had been offered leading professorial chairs in their time – respectively, in Oxford and Cambridge – and were able to structure in a lasting organizational capacity two non-Lutheran strongholds in Strasbourg and Zürich. In their wake came hundreds of lesser asylum-seekers. And while an interesting, historical argument was put forward long ago (Carter 1924), that Vermigli’s Eucharistic adjustments may perfectly plausibly be seen as an effort to update the liturgy to reflect developments in Reformed Protestant thinking, the letters traveling from Zürich to leading English exiles betray an atmosphere of mounting anxiety to see whether the new regime would be as aggressively Reformed as under Edward VI (MacCulloch 2005). In this context, Torrance Kirby’s recent essay (Ha and Collinson 2010) fills an important gap, providing evidence to support his claim that the Reformed Vermigli played a pivotal role in the formation of the Protestant religious settlement under Edward VI and consolidation under Elizabeth.

In light of these considerations, Peter Martyr Vermigli should be recognized as someone who, before his flight to Zürich in 1542, was superbly educated as a philosopher, theologian, scriptural commentator, and, subsequently, as someone who was able to tie together the embryonic Italian Reformation and the Protestant theologies of Northern Europe. It was, in particular, his command of scriptural texts – along with the early fathers and Aristotle – that enabled him to set the tone of his contributions (Opitz 2011). Surprisingly, given his polyglot interests, he never wrote a popular treatise in vernacular. Vermigli’s erudition, however, was never a mere ornament but a tangible sign of the boundaries and borders, confessional as much as political, that were dividing Europe and that no amount of learned discourse could overcome. Perhaps, as has been suggested, Vermigli’s originality should be assessed through his biographic wanderings, not only his thought (Campi et al. 2002).

Although in several textbooks on the reformation Vermigli is seldom cited, his legacy deserves a greater appreciation based upon the impact that his figure was able to conjure up during his own life – despite the fact that he did not form a new church and was forced to be itinerant after crossing the Alps. A good starting point is the decision of the Zürich seminary to appoint him as a Hebraist, on very favorable terms beyond the lecture room. Why was he so attractive to the council? Reaching two independent scholarly conclusions, Bauman and Bravi suggested that the city father knew about Vermigli’s political views, and, fearful of the turbulence stemming from the countryside in previous decades, they thought his defense of a republican government would help create a clergy loyal to their authority. Moreover, drawing on Aristotelian exegesis and Florentine political discourse, Bravi further underlined Vermigli’s description of Israel under the rule of the Judges as an ideal republic (Campi et al. 2002), which anticipates by many decades the European thesis on the “Hebrew commonwealth” (Nelson 2010). Before being highly regarded among New England Puritans, Vermigli’s writings – and especially, his Loci Communes – were reprinted about 110 times between 1550 and 1650 and were probably consulted by John Milton when writing Paradise Lost (Donnelly 1976).


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.NewarkUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Luca Bianchi
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversità degli Studi di MilanoMilanItaly