Canones et decreta Sacrosancti Oecumenici et Generalis Concilii Tridentini, sub Paulo III, Iulio III, & Pio IIII, Pontificibus Max…, Paris 1666.By Arvi Wattel
Hopes for a church council to settle the issues raised by Protestants had circled as early as the 1520s. However, both political disputes and the papacy’s resistance to bow to its opponents’ demands meant that a council was not convoked until 1545. For the following eighteen years, Catholic church officials met for 25 sessions in the Northern Italian cities of Trento and Bologna. While political leaders, such as Emperor Charles V had intended for the council to be ecumenical, successive popes insisted on reaffirming their authority, clarifying central tenets of the Catholic faith and strongly condemning Luther and his fellow Reformers. The council’s decrees were first published in Rome in 1564, with further editions soon appearing across Europe, both in the original Latin and various vernaculars.
This Latin edition of the decrees was produced in Paris in 1666, but constitutes a reprint of an edition first published in Antwerp in 1640. The Antwerp edition was instigated by the chaplain of the Infanta Isabella at the Court of Brussels, Philippe Chifflet. In addition to writing a new preface and additional notes on the text, Chifflet oversaw the commission of engraved illustrations, including full-page portraits of the three popes who had presided over the council: Paul III, Julius III and Pius IV.
Chifflet showed particular ambition with respect to the book’s frontispiece. None other than the most famous contemporary artist, Peter Paul Rubens, was asked to provide a design. Rubens chose a portrayal of the council in session based on an anonymous Venetian print of 1563. Originally produced to record a diplomatic incident arising during the session of 15 July of that year over the seating of the Spanish and French ambassadors, the print’s depiction of the session in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Trento (indicated here in the print by the double arches on either side of the amphitheatre) would serve as the model for numerous other depictions of the council. The inclusion of the dove of the Holy Spirit in Rubens’s design is probably a reference to the opening declaration of each single session that it was “lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost”. By extension, the guidance of the Holy Spirit therefore confirmed the divine authority of the decrees issued by the Council contained in the book.
The frontispiece of the 1666 Paris edition was produced by a less talented printmaker, who undertook some amendments to Rubens’s design. Three allegorical figures, which were placed below the title of the 1640 edition were now inserted into the foreground of the depiction showing the council in session. The winged female figure to the right with a snake crawling out of her hair is probably an allegory of Discord, as the multi-headed monster next to her was likewise associated with vice and discord. To the left, a chained woman with a mask on the back of her head represents Deceit, whereas the old man behind her could be an allegory of Heresy.
Paolo Sarpi, The Historie of the Councel of Trent, translated by Nathaniel Brent (London: Robert Barker and John Bill, 1620)By Arvi Wattel
In his early seventeenth-century account of the Council of Trent, taking place between 1545 and 1563, the Venetian historian Paolo Sarpi quipped that the Holy Spirit must have travelled back and forth between Rome and Trent in a despatch box. Sarpi was critical of the portrayal of the council as an attempt to reconcile Catholics and Protestants. Rather than a true council of the church, Sarpi suggested, the meeting had been an exercise in strengthening papal authority and thereby the pope’s self-interest. The meeting had therefore been held not under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, but that of the pope. Sarpi’s critical view was remarkably close to Luther’s, who had expressed his concerns that the council would simply seek to reinforce the pope’s power when the meeting was first called.
The anti-papal views of Paolo Sarpi, who had been a Servite friar in Venice since the age of thirteen, were not so much the result of Reformist sympathies, but rather fed by a political conflict between the Venetian Republic and Pope Paul V at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Catholics described Sarpi as “a Protestant in friar’s clothing” and unsurprisingly, his sharp criticism of the pope’s authority and the history of the Council were particularly popular with Protestants. The Historia del Concilio Tridentino was first published in London in 1619, possibly without the knowledge of the author, under the pseudonym Pietro Soava Polano, an anagram of Paolo Sarpi Veneto. Almost immediately after its publication, the Catholic Church placed the book on the Index of Prohibited Books and a late seventeenth-century (Catholic) reader wrote on the title-page of a 1676 edition “Placed near the works of M. Luther it being a good companion in falsehood.”
A year after the publication of the original Italian manuscript, an English translation by Nathaniel Brent was published in London. Brent believed Sarpi and some of his friends “were protestants in their hearts, though they durst not own it.” The titlepage shows the arms of James I, King of England, whom the book was dedicated to and who would have been particularly pleased with its anti-Roman tone. In his translation, Brent added that Sarpi’s history described “the practises of the Court of Rome” which served as a reminder to the reformers to avoid “their errors, and to maintaine their greatnesse.” After the first two London editions, the book widely circulated in Protestant countries and was translated into Latin, German, Dutch and French.
The English Protestant scholar and poet of Paradise Lost (1667) John Milton called Paolo Sarpi “the great unmasker of the Trentine Council”. An English reader of the 1629 edition of the Historia del Concilio Tridentino clearly had Milton in mind when he scribbled in the margins of a discussion of indulgences (p. 7): ‘Paradise Lost Book 3 Limbo of Vanity’.
The Reid Library also holds Paolo Sarpi’s Opere (8 volumes, published in Verona between 1761-68), with an engraved portrait of the author.