Three Kinds of Martyrdom in the Trentino

Of Martin Luther, the Council of Trent, 19th century Irredentisti heroes, and a saintly death by slipper in the Trentino Alto-Adige region of Italy

The year was 1545. It was late in November, and the German preacher, frozen to the bone, had barely made it over the last mountain pass on his journey south. He stopped at a crossroads, and before him he saw a pretty Tyrolean city called Trent nestled in the valley at his feet.

He stood there for a few moments, contemplating what the coming ecclesiastical conference might hold. He wondered if church officials from Rome might finally be willing to hear him out, perhaps even to revoke the label of heresy hovering over the radical ideas he had nailed to that church door. For seemingly the thousandth time on this journey, he started going over the words he planned to use in order to orate the members of the Papal envoy around to his point of view.

As Martin stood there, lost in his deep thoughts, a figure appeared toiling up the hill from the town. It was a farmer's wife, returning from a moderately successful day at the market. She still had some fruit in her basket, so the reformer asked politely if he might buy some, adding a casual comment about how Trent must be in a tizzy with preparations for the Great Council as she handed him an apple and he slipped her a silver coin.

"You got that right, sir." Said the woman in that odd, thick, medieval dialect of German the locals spoke, her eyes sparkling at the sight of the silver.

"All the church dignitaries already arrived I suppose." Martin asked offhandedly, biting into the apple.

"Oh, I don't know about all that." She replied, slipping the coin into a fold in her layers of clothes. "I'll tell you one thing though: that Martin Luther fellow isn't there yet, and he better not show up, neither. I poked my head into the church of Santa Maria this morning and saw that they were getting ready for him. They were building a big bonfire in the center of the aisle, and had a pot of oil boiling off to one side." She cackled with glee. "Oh, yes, if that German blasphemer is stupid enough to come down here, he'll get what's coming to him!"

Though Luther may have been deft with a quill and handy with a hammer—and dead certain he was the one to reform the Catholic Church—he didn't trust his personal rapport with God enough to assume he'd miraculously been made fireproof as well. He thanked the woman, who trundled off down the side trail to hide the silver under the big rock in her back yard.

Martin took one more look at the pretty little city spread in its valley below him, tossed the apple core into the bushes, and turned around. He clambered back up toward the mountain pass, hoping he'd make it back to the Austrian side of the Tyrol before the first big snow shut down the Alps for the winter.

The Council of Trent

Trent is where Catholics held their Great Council of 1545-63, which repudiated that German proto-Protestant Martin Luther and his wacky ideas about reforming the Church. Luther himself was invited to this esteemed liturgical conference, and they even had a seat of honor waiting for him—after a fashion.

The first council actually started in December, and I've no earthly idea of Martin Luther really was arriving at the last moment—or even if he bothered coming at all to what was bound to be an ecclesiastical (if not actual) auto da fé for him and his reform-minded colleagues.

The little scene I just laid is merely my own rendition of a folk tale told in the valley above Trent about a fruit seller and the strange German fellow she met on the road that winter. I have neither the historical background nor the desire to dig through ponderous tomes regarding this watershed event in church history to discover whether Luther even made it as far as the high Trentino valley before wisely turning on his heel and avoiding the trumped-up council entirely.

For the whole council was a sham. Oh, sure, it was touted as the grandest debate of its time, a chance for Paul III and his loyal papal cardinals to listen—really listen for once—to the worrisome reformists gathering in their proto-Protestant clouds north of the Alps. In fact, a full 700 bishops had been invited…but a mere 31 turned up for the first session, along with 50 other theologians of lesser stripes.

By the tail-dragging end of the great ecumenical council—18 years later, in 1563—the rolls of attendees still only totaled 270 bishops in all. And even that deck was, shall we say, stacked slightly in the pope's favor (the pope by that point being Sixtus V, Paul III having given up on the Council, and his time on earth, in 1555).

Of those 270 participants, 187 were Italian—and, presumably, archly loyal to His Holiness. Another 32 were Spanish (keep in mind, this was less than a century since the Christian re-conquest of Spain, so the Spaniards, too, were as fervent as Catholics can get), and 28 of them were French, also not known for rocking the religious boat (at least not until the age of Voltaire, Diderot, and Napoleon). In the end, a whopping two bishops were contributed by any of the countries that were, at the time, in any way seriously engaged in questioning Holy Truths and the bureaucratic architecture of the church, and they were both from Germany. Neither of them, of course, was Martin Luther.

I'm not going to get into the whole Council thing here—let alone any sort of religious debate—except to say this: like so many political to-dos, it was trumpeted as the instrument of great change, but ended up merely solidifying the status quo (and, I might add, gave the Protestants up in the British Isles all the excuse they needed to go on persecuting my own Irish Catholic ancestors). I'd rather focus on the city Trent has become since its 15 minutes (er, 18 years) of fame in the 16th century.

A land of two countries

Trent lies in one of those hotly contested corners of Italy that hasn't always been, technically speaking, Italy—let alone Italian. Given the way all locals will speak to you in the Tyrolean dialect of German first, and only in Italian (mit ein Strong German Accent) if you force them to, you may wonder if it's part of Italy at all. That's because it's not, really, Italy. Not Germany, either. Neither is it Austria.

This is the Tirol.

There's a region of Europe's central Alps—stretching from the Bavarian border with Germany, through Austria, over the Brenner Pass, and down through this section of Italy's Adige River to the sheer, craggy Dolomiti Mountains—which has a common culture, dialect, and style known as Tyrolean. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with liminal cultures, the cohesive region of the Tyroleans now has national boundaries running right through the middle of it.

The Tirol is split into two main halves: the North Tyrol in Austria (Innsbruck would sort of be its capital), and the Südtirol (South Tyrol) across the Italian border, with centers such as spa center Meran (Merano "in Italian"), the Alto Adige capital Bozen (aka Bolzano), and the northernmost of the major towns, medieval Brixen, so solidly Teutonic that Mussolini really had to engage in some queer linguistic gymnastics in order to nationalize and Italianize its name into "Bressanone."

They tried to make Trent sound Italian, too, by tossing an "o" on the end of the city's name on maps, but Trento around here is always called "Trent," and while on the minutiae scale of cartographers it is part of the Trentino region and not the Südtirol proper, in the bigger cultural picture, Trent is Tyrolean every inch of the way.

Trent's hilltop Castello del Buonconsiglio (www.buonconsiglio.it), the "Castle of Good Council" where many of the Council of Trent meetings took place, was a big part of the flip-flopping of this province between Austrian and Italian control over the centuries. (Local control ended when the Austrian Hapsburgs took the lands away from the Counts of Tyrol.) But even though they're most comfortable as semi-Teutonic Tyroleans, the locals are also very well aware of the fact that, unlike their brethren in Innsbruck, the Südtirolischer live on the sunny side of the Alps. Though nationalistic sentiments have understandably always been (and always will be) split, there has always long been a strong pro-Italy sensibility in these parts.

Sacrificing to Italy

When speaking of the Italian nationalist movement in this corner of Italy (not only the Trentino Alto-Adige but also Trieste's neighboring Friuli region to the east), everyone mentions Gabrielle d'Annunzio, the poet turned patriot whose private little war to grab more of the disintegrating Austro-Hungarian empire for Italy so embarrassed Mussolini that the dictator ended up giving d'Annunzio a gorgeous lakeside villa and helped fill it with art and antiques just to shut him up.

If another name pops up, its usually national martyr Cesare Battisti (1875-1916), hero of the Irredentist movement to return the Trentino and Südtirol to Italy. Intellectual, publisher, father, one-time member of Vienna Parliament, socialist, and military commander, Battisti was also, I might add, something of a colleague, as early on he tried to make a go of it writing a few Trentino guidebooks (which still sell in Italy). Caught up in the region's changing fortunes and political allegiances, Battisti ended up imprisoned in Trent's Castello di Buonconsiglio and later hung for treason in the castle's long-since-drained moat.

No one, however, mentions Bice Rizzi. I only discovered her by carefully reading all the tiny 3x5 cards typed up to accompany the displays (mostly photocopies of yellowed documents and photographs) jammed into the glass cases of the Castello's museum. Bice Rizzi (1894-1982) was sentenced to death for high treason by the Austrian military in 1915 for her part in the Irredentiste movement. The sentence was later commuted to 10 years of hard labor in Wiener Neudorf.

In the meantime, the Friuli did, indeed, become part of Italy. When she as released, Rizzi returned to Trent and became director, from 1923 to 1970, of the Museo Storico in Trento's Castello di Buonconsiglio, which to this day celebrates the unification movement for which she and her more famous compatriots fought so hard.

Death by slipper

The Duomo museum, on the other hand, is full of images of local ecclesiastical hero San Vigilio—by himself, or keeping St. John the Baptist company, or posing alongside the Madonna and Child, or watching St. George defeat his dragon, or otherwise just generally making the rounds of the saintly fetes and Major Biblical Moments pictured in countless Renaissance and baroque altarpieces. Vigilio was an evangelical bishop (Trento's third) and was invested, supposedly at the age of 20, by Milan's Sant'Ambrogio himself in 381. Vigilio died in 400. So much, we know, is more or less true.

Later Lombard texts brag that Vigilio was martyred by "slippering," an odd sort of stoning that apparently was supposed to involve many everyday objects (including farm implements, sticks, and, yes, stones) being hurled at him, though the primary missiles of choice were the nail-studded sandals of common workers. (Apparently, Vigilio's destruction of their beloved Saturn idol didn't sit too well with the peasants of the then-pagan Val Rendena, whom was trying to convert.)

And though the (most likely invented) history texts pin the martyring on sandals, since the late 15C his icon in art has nevertheless been the zoccolo, a soft silk slipper. That is the martyrdom item what he always picture holding—like Catharine with her spiked wheel, Stephen balancing teensy boulders on his noggin, Lorenzo hefting his human hibachi, or Peter Martyr sporting a big ol' knife stuck in his head. Vigilio, the weenie saint, is invariably shown carrying a pillow on which are perched a pair of silk slippers. Poor Vigilio.

Still, it's nice to see some consistency in a place. Trent didn't truck with its traditions and identity being changed back in pagan times, and it doesn't now. It didn't appreciate strangers coming along and explaining patiently just why the locals' ways of worship were wrong in the 4th century, and they still felt the same way by the 16th century. And the staff at the museum in the castle will proudly explain—in the thick accents of a medieval German dialect—how they can be proud to be both Tirolishe and at the same time a part of the Italian state, just like their Lombard, Veneto, and Friuli neighbors who live here, in the mountains and valleys on the sunny side of the Alps.

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This article was written by Reid Bramblett and was last updated in June 2010. All information was accurate at the time.

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