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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 80. From Basel to Ferrara. The Duchess Renée.


Shortly after, if not before, the publication of his great work, in March, 1536, Calvin, in company with Louis du Tillet, crossed the Alps to Italy, the classical soil of the literary and artistic Renaissance. He hoped to aid the cause of the religious Renaissance. He went to Italy as an evangelist, not as a monk, like Luther, who learned at Rome a practical lesson of the working of the papacy.

He spent a few months in Ferrara at the brilliant court of the Duchess Renée or Renata (1511–1575), the second daughter of Louis XII., of France, and made a deep and permanent impression on her. She had probably heard of him through Queen Marguerite and invited him to a visit. She was a small and deformed, but noble, pious, and highly accomplished lady, like her friends, Queen Marguerite and Vittoria Colonna. She gathered around her the brightest wits of the Renaissance, from Italy and France, but she sympathized still more with the spirit of the Reformation, and was fairly captivated by Calvin. She chose him as the guide of her conscience, and consulted him hereafter as a spiritual father as long as he lived.462462    Beza (xxi. 123): "Illam [Ferrariensem Ducissam]in vero pietatis studio confirmavit, ut eum postea vivum semper dilexerit, ac nunc quoque superstes gratae in defunctum memoriae specimen edat luculentum." Colladon (53) speaks likewise of the high esteem in which the Duchess, then still living, held Calvin before and after his death. Bolsec in his libel (Ch. v. 30), mentions the visit to Ferrara, but suggests a mercenary, motive. "Calvin," he says, "s’en alla vers Allemaigne et Itallie: cherchant son adventure, et passa par la ville de Ferrare, ou il receut quelque aumone de Madame la Duchesse." He discharged this duty with the frankness and fidelity of a Christian pastor. Nothing can be more manly and honorable than his letters to her. Guizot affirms, from competent knowledge, that "the great Catholic bishops, who in the seventeenth century directed the consciences of the mightiest men in France, did not fulfil the difficult task with more Christian firmness, intelligent justice and knowledge of the world than Calvin displayed in his intercourse with the Duchess of Ferrara."463463    St. Louis and Calvin, p. 207. He adds: "And the duchess was not the only, person towards whom he fulfilled this duty of a Christian pastor. His correspondence shows that he exercised a similar influence, in a spirit equally lofty and judicious, over the consciences of many Protestants."

Renan wonders that such a stern moralist should have exercised a lasting influence over such a lady, and attributes it to the force of conviction. But the bond of union was deeper. She recognized in Calvin the man who could satisfy her spiritual nature and give her strength and comfort to fight the battle of life, to face the danger of the Inquisition, to suffer imprisonment, and after the death of her husband and her return to France (1559) openly to confess and to maintain the evangelical faith under most trying circumstances when her own son-in-law, the Duke of Guise, carried on a war of extermination against the Reformation. She continued to correspond with Calvin very freely, and his last letter in French, twenty-three days before his death, was directed to her. She was in Paris during the dreadful massacre of St. Bartholomew, and succeeded in saving the lives of some prominent Huguenots.464464    See the correspondence in the Letters by Bonnet, and in the Strassburg-Braunschweig edition. On Renée and her relation to Calvin see Henry, I. 159, 450-454; III. Beilage 142-153; in his smaller work, 62-69; 478-483; Stähelin, I. 94-108; Sophia W. Weitzel, Renée of France, Duchess of Ferrara, New York, 1883; and Theod. Schott, in Herzog2, XII. 693-701.

Threatened by the Inquisition which then began its work of crushing out both the Renaissance and the Reformation, as two kindred serpents, Calvin bent his way, probably through Aosta (the birthplace of Anselm of Canterbury) and over the Great St. Bernard, to Switzerland.

An uncertain tradition connects with this journey a persecution and flight of Calvin in the valley of Aosta, which was commemorated five years later (1541) by a memorial cross with the inscription "Calvini Fuga."465465    In the city of Aosta, near the Croix-de-Ville, stands a column eight feet high, surmounted by a cross of stone, with the following inscription:
   Hanc

   Calvini Fuga

   erexit

   Anno MDXLI

   Religionis Constantia

   Reparavit

   Anno MDCCXLI.

   The inscription was renewed again in 1841, with the following addition (according to Merle d’Aubigné, who saw it himself, vol. V. 531):

   Civium Munificentia

   Renovavit Et Adornavit.

   Anno MDCCCXLI.

   "Religionis constantia" must refer to the Roman faith which drove Calvin and his heresy away. Dr. Merle d’Aubigné accepts Calvin’s flight on the ground of this monumental testimony as a historical fact, but the silence of Calvin, Beza, and Colladon throws doubt on it. See J. Bonnet, Calvin au Val d’Aosta, 1861; A. Rilliet, Lettre àMr. Merle d’Aubignésur deux points obscure de la vie de Calvin, 1864; Stähelin, I. 110; Kampschulte, I. 280 (note); La France Prof., III. 520; Thomas M’Crie, The Early Years of Calvin pp. 95 and 104.

   Fontana: Documenti del archivio vaticano e dell’ Estenso circa soggiorno di Calvino a Ferrara, 1885. Comba in "Rivista christiana," 1885; Sandovini in Rivista stor. italiana," 1887.

At Basel he parted from Du Tillet and paid a last visit to his native town to make a final settlement of family affairs.466466    This visit to Noyon is mentioned by Beza in the Latin Vita, who adds that he then brought his only surviving brother Antoine, with him to Geneva (XXI. 125). Colladon (58) agrees, and informs us that Calvin left Du Tillet at Basel, who from there went to Neuchâtel. In his French Life of C., Beza omits the journey to France: "A son retour d’Italie ... il passa àla bonne heure par ceste ville de Genève."

Then he left France, with his younger brother Antoine and his sister Marie, forever, hoping to settle down in Basel or Strassburg and to lead there the quiet life of a scholar and author. Owing to the disturbances of war between Charles V. and Francis I., which closed the direct route through Lorraine, he had to take a circuitous journey through Geneva.




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