The Lovely Italian Princess & the Erudite Spanish Reformer: Giulia Gonzaga & Juan de Valdés in the 16th century Reformation

By Alejandro Moreno Morrison

[Nota Bene: To read the footnotes, please scroll down to the bottom of the page.]

Upon personal invitation of the emperor Charles V, the 22 years-old Giulia Gonzaga Colonna, Duchess of Trajetto, Dowager Countess of Fondi, and Dowager Duchess of Gaeta, moved to Naples in December 1535.[1]  Giulia, “illustrious by birth, was still more so by her mental and personal endowments.”[2]  “Admirable woman of… aristocratic and thorough beauty,” as shown in her portrait kept in the British Museum,[3] Giulia was wooed by Ippolito Di’Medici, and variously celebrated by poets, painters, scholars, and noblemen.  The fame of her beauty reached such international proportions that, in the summer of 1534, Barbarossa, admiral of the Turkish-Ottoman fleet, almost succeeded in kidnapping her for the harem of sultan Soliman II.[4]  But God had a wonderful plan for her life, having predestined her for salvation before the foundation of the world.

But how could she come to saving faith in Christ and in Him alone when her religion taught her to merit salvation by works and not to acknowledge it as coming by grace alone to be received through faith alone?  How could she believe a gospel she had never heard?  And who could possibly be the preacher suited to her peculiar circumstances?  Although the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone was being preached already all over Europe, on Giulia’s side of the Alps and of the social gap such message was perceived with the political taints of a German revolt against the unity of the empire[5] and Christendom, and further tainted by the 1527 sack of Rome in which some German Lutherans were involved.

Years before, Spanish nobleman Ferrando (or Hernando) de Valdés, Perpetual Regent of Cuenca, Spain,[6] had three children among whom two stand out in history: Alfonso (b. ca. 1501) and Juan (b. ca. 1509).[7]

Alfonso de Valdés studied Latin and Law under royal tutor Pedro Mártir de Anglería,[8] whose assistance “helped secure Alfonso a future place in [emperor] Charles’s service”[9] at the imperial court.  Alfonso was present at the coronation of Charles V[10] and not much later became his Latin Secretary,[11] and some years later his Chief Secretary.[12]  Alfonso was present at Luther’s trial at the Diet of Worms.[13]  But the German monk did not produce any favourable first impression on the Spanish courtier, who called Luther “audacious, shameless,” his books “poisonous,”[14] and his followers “prone to evil.”[15]  Yet, he agreed on the need for a reformation and was dissatisfied with the way in which Rome was handling the Luther affair.[16]  “Alfonso’s name is found subscribed to imperial letters of the years 1526 and 1527, addressed to Pope Clement VII and to the College of Cardinals, in which a General Council is most energetically demanded.”[17]  That was exactly what Luther had originally requested. Through his writings and imperial politics, Alfonso pursued a reformation programme along the lines proposed by Erasmus, of whom he was protector[18] and friend, and who held both Valdés brothers, Alfonso and Juan, in very high esteem.[19]

Juan spent his youth years in the Spanish royal court,[20] and later went on to study at Universidad Complutense[21] (most likely Humanities and Canon Law).[22]  He was well versed in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and mastered the Spanish (Castilian) language.[23]  In January 1529, Juan published Dialogue on Christian Doctrine, which ignited against himself the hostility of the Spanish Inquisition.  Providentially, his case was appointed to scholars of his alma mater who were sympathetic to him, while enjoying also the favourable intervention of other people in prominence (including the General Inquisitor), all of which finally secured his absolution.

Around the same time, Alfonso de Valdés also provoked the wrath of the Spanish Inquisition with his writings, but such was his political power and influence that in 1530 he got an ample charter of absolution for his whole family from Clement VII, the pope he had attacked in his writings.[24]

By 1531 Juan had found refuge from the Spanish Inquisition in Clement’s papal court with the honorary title of Chamberlain[25] and the honorary dignity of Imperial Secretary with some semi-official role as Imperial agent.[26]  At Clement’s court Juan enjoyed the confidence of Pietro Carnesecchi, the pope’s Secretary and later Protonotary of the Apostolic See –a man so influential that it was believed “that he… wielded the pontifical power.”[27]

Meanwhile, Alfonso was travelling with the Emperor through Germany and having meetings with Melanchthon at Augsburg.

The intercourse between the two [Alfonso and Melanchthon] was a very friendly one, and with the sovereign, Valdés successfully set off the conciliatory and reasonable tone of the Protestants, and smoothed the way for a public reading of [the Augsburg Confession] in the presence of the Emperor…  It was with pleasure that he saw the Emperor… constrained to yield great liberty to the evangelical movement.[28]

Alfonso died in October of 1532, and it was so reported to Henry VIII by his then ambassador in Vienna, Thomas Cranmer, who wrote to the English king about Alfonso de Valdés in very complimentary terms.[29]

By 1535, after the death of pope Clement VII, Juan de Valdés became imperial agent and moved to Naples, which would become his home place for the rest of his short life, and his missionary field.  Variously described by his contemporaries as “Gentleman of cape and sword,” “noble and wealthy knight,” “prudent and learned man,” of “courtly bearing”[30] and “patient spirit,” [31] “of handsome looks, very sweet manners and of smooth and attractive speech,”[32] Valdés enjoyed the friendship of “the most distinguished members of the aristocracy of Italy of their period.”[33]  He used to gather them at his country house on the Riviera di Chiaia[34] –“one of the most beautiful places on earth”.[35]

Here Valdés received on the Sunday a select number of his most intimate friends; and they passed the day together in this manner: after breakfasting and enjoying themselves amidst the glories of the surrounding scenery, they returned to the house, when he read some selected portion of Scripture, and commented upon it, or some ‘Divine consideration’ which had occupied his thoughts during the week—some subject on which he conceived that his mind had obtained a clearer illumination of heavenly truth.[36]

Juan’s circle included scholars, literati, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, noblemen, and “the most noble and discrete women of Naples,”[37] such as the poetess Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547), friend of Baldassare Castiglione (author of Il Cortegiano) and Michelangelo’s Platonic love, and the young noble Giulia Gonzaga Colonna.[38]  It would be Giulia toward whom Juan’s mind would be “most forcibly brought into exercise.  Her noble faculties, her pursuit of the highest virtue, and the loveliness of her mind and person alike engaged his regard.”[39]

Juan de Valdés was probably first recommended to Giulia as legal advisor on a litigation brought about by the death of her husband.[40]  However, as confidence ripened between the two during the Lent season of 1536, it became apparent that Giulia’s core needs were not legal but spiritual, and that her legal advisor’s chief gifts were in biblical exposition, theology, and pastoral care.  One day, Giulia and Juan attended one of the Lenten sermons by Bernardino Ochino in company with emperor Charles V, his court, and the whole of Neapolitan society.  The whole audience, including the Emperor and Giulia, was deeply moved, and for Valdés the experience was apparently “akin to… a religious conversion.” [41]

Although “Valdés was undoubtedly the superior intelligence, and was further advanced in ‘Paulinism’”[42] and the doctrine of justification by faith, Ochino’s sermon was somehow used by the Holy Spirit to transform that knowledge into passionate action, moving Juan to display the fullness of his theological abilities and devoting to it increasingly more of his interest and time.

As a result, Juan first wrote Alfabeto christiano to address Giulia’s spiritual thirst.  Furthermore, the gatherings with his influential and aristocratic friends became opportunities for biblical exposition, theological discussion and, most of all, for the preaching of the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.  Valdés promoted the reading of works by John Calvin, Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, and Ulrich Zwingli, among such people as Carnesecchi, Ochino, Benedetto, and Pietro Martire Vermigli.  It was through Juan de Valdés that Vermigli was first nurtured in the gospel to become later one of the chief theologians of the Reformation.[43]  Thus, Valdés had a direct influence upon the two most influential pulpits in Naples, the ones held by Vermigli and Ochino.  Valdés’s writings reached as far as the influential cardinal Gasparo Contarini who, in striving for a reformation of the western Church from within and from the top, would later recommend Vermigli to be appointed for reformation commissions on two occasions.[44]

Notwithstanding the above, the first and special object of the theological works of this “Dottore e Pastore of noble and illustrious persons”[45] was the spiritual growth of his dearest friend Giulia –“the one who drank deepest of his instructions.”[46]  It was for Giulia that Juan translated the Scriptures into Spanish and for whom he wrote his Bible commentaries also in Spanish.  It was to Giulia that Juan dedicated his translation and Commentaries to the Epistles of Saint Paul, his translation and Commentary to the Psalms, and his translation and Commentary to the Gospel According to Matthew.[47]  “Possibly no man ever lived that did more by word and by writings to teach another spiritual truth, than did Valdés for Julia.”[48]

Juan de Valdés died in 1541, right before the beginning of the Italian Inquisition’s persecution in Naples and six years before the Council of Trent’s Decretum iustificatione against the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  In spite of his Protestant views, Valdés did not separate formally from the Roman Church, as he was never forced to make that choice.  More than attacking Rome, he “confined himself to the inculcation of what he believed to be Divine truth.”[49]

From the peculiar vantage point of his time (before the Council of Trent) and of his influential position, the hope for a Reformation from within and from the top was not ungrounded.  Juan de Valdés’s life, influence, and reformist ministry among the aristocracy and high clergy in Italy stand indeed as an incontestable witness to the fact that every possibility for a reformation without separation was exhausted, and that the Vatican, having turned its back deliberately and explicitly against the biblical and apostolic faith, cannot possibly be the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

Juan de Valdés’s ministry succeeded in overcoming socio-economic and socio-political hindrances that would have prevented many in the aristocracy south of the Alps to embrace the biblical doctrine of the gospel of grace.  Thousands of people who otherwise would have never heard the gospel of justification by faith alone came to saving faith in Christ, including the princess whom God had predestined for salvation and preserved from the hands of the Sultan, and who is now enjoying the presence of Christ, her Saviour, and life everlasting in God’s glory.

[Editorial note: The first version of this text was originally written for and published in The Progress of St. Paul’s (the monthly newsletter of St. Paul’s Church (Presbyterian Church in America), Orlando, Florida, ca. Oct. 2000  This is a revised version (Oct. 28, 2017).]

[1] Giulia Gonzaga, born in 1513, got married in 1526 to Vespaciano Colonna (born in 1485), Count of Fondi and Duke of Gaeta, who died on March 13, 1528.  See Philip McNair, An Anatomy of Apostasy (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1967), p. 31; and

[2] John T. Betts “Preface” to his edition of Juan de Valdés, Commentary upon the Gospel of St. Matthew (London: Trubner & Co., 1882), p. viii.

[3] Marcelino Menéndez-Pelayo, Historia de los heterodoxos españoles: Erasmistas y protestantes. Sectas místicas.  Judaizantes y moriscos.  Artes mágicas (México: Porrúa, 1995, reprint of the 1882 ed.), p. 104.

[4] Cf. McNair, op. cit., p. 30.

[5] See Menéndez-Pelayo, op. cit., pp. 55 & 84.

[6] See ibid., p. 54.

[7] The year of birth of both these siblings is unclear.  The ambiguity is connected to the fact that two sources seem to suggest that Alfonso and Juan were twins.  The main source of the ambiguity and possible confusion is a letter from Erasmus to Juan (March 21, 1529), in which Erasmus refers to both as twins (gemellos), although it could have been an allusion to the likeness between the two siblings (see ibid., p. 84, and José C. Nieto, Juan de Valdés y los orígenes de la Reforma en España e Italia, 1st Spanish ed. (México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1979, corrected and augmented from the 1st English ed., 1970), p. 176).  One of the reasons to doubt they were twins is the fact that Alfonso was already Secretary to emperor Charles V when Juan was still a student in Escalona, Spain.  Therefore, it is most likely that, as Nieto thinks (see ibid.), Juan was younger than Alfonso.  Consequently, the most likely explanation for the two dates given for the birth of Alfonso a Juan is that Alfonso was born ca. 1501, and Juan ca. 1509.

[8] Pedro Mártir de Anglería was an “Italian humanist brought to the Spanish royal court by Ferdinand and Isabel to provide such instruction” (Daniel A. Crews, Twilight of the Renaissance: The Life of Juan de Valdés (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), p. 15).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Menéndez-Pelayo, op. cit., p. 55.

[11] See Nieto, op. cit., p. 281.

[12] As reported by Thomas Cranmer in 1532, while Cranmer was Henry VIII’s ambassador to the imperial court (see Menéndez-Pelayo, op. cit., p. 56).

[13] See ibid.

[14] See ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] See ibid.

[17] Edward Boehmer, Lives of the Twin Brothers Juán and Alfonso de Valdés (London: Trubner & Co., 1882), p. 16.

[18] See Menéndez-Pelayo, op. cit., pp. 58-9.

[19] John Stoughton, Footprints of Italian Reformers (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1881), p. 107.  Menéndez-Pelayo interprets a paragraph by Francisco de Enzinas (an acquaintance of both Valdés brothers) as implying that it was Alfonso who inculcated into Juan the “reformist ideas” (op. cit., p. 85).

[20] The Valdés family was very wealthy and politically powerful (see Crews, op. cit., p. 12).

[21] “Complutense” means “from Alcalá de Henares.”  It was in this university where the Poliglotha Complutense edition of the Bible had been prepared.

[22] Menéndez-Pelayo, op. cit., p. 84.  This author reports that many are the authors who refer to Juan de Valdés as “jurisconsulto” (jurist).

[23] See ibid., pp. 84-85.  In fact, his best-known work (still in print and widely read and studied) is his Diálogo de la lengua (ca. 1533-36), considered one of the three foundational documents of the modern Spanish language.  Juan wrote this book in Naples for non-Spanish-speakers in the imperial court eager to learn to speak proper Spanish, since that was emperor Charles V’s favourite language.

[24] Boehmer, op. cit., p. 16.

[25] Betts, in his “Introduction” to Boehmer’s Lives… explains that the post was “…that of ‘Cameriere d’onore, di spada e cappa’, meaning a chamberlain of honour, a secular, a layman, a post of honour involving no regular duties . . . they do not present themselves at the palace except when they choose to do so, and that it is usual for the Popes to send the Cardinal’s hat by them to newly-appointed Cardinals” (op. cit., p. iv).

[26] See ibid., pp. 20-21.

[27] Betts in the “Introduction” to Boehmer, Lives…, op. cit., p. vi (citing Riguccio Galluzzi, Storia del Granducato di Toscana Firenze, 1822).

[28] Boehmer, op. cit., p. 16-17.  Menéndez-Pelayo reports, nevertheless, that Alfonso found some of the propositions of the confession to be “bitter and intolerable” (op. cit., p. 70).

[29] See ibid., p. 17, and Menéndez-Pelayo, op. cit.

[30] See Stoughton, op. cit., p. 110; and Menéndez-Pelayo, op. cit., p. 94.

[31] Stoughton, op. cit.

[32] Menéndez-Pelayo, op. cit., p. 100.

[33] Betts, “Preface”, op. cit., p. viii.

[34] “On the Chiaja, not far from the rock-cut road from Naples to Pozzuoli, where tropical vegetation mingles with that of higher latitudes, and where Virgil’s tomb arrests the traveller’s attention… Juan de Valdés had a country house, not crowded into a long line of palaces and villas, but standing by itself, ‘set in verdure’, with an open view of the glorious bay, and refreshed at eventide by a cooling breeze” (Stoughton, op. cit., p. 109).

[35] Betts, “Preface,” op. cit., p. viii.

[36] “Life and Writings of Juan de Valdés”, by B. J. Wiffen, prefixed to the CX Considerations, tr. John T. Betts, p. 138.  Cited in Stoughton, op. cit., p. 109.

[37] Menéndez-Pelayo, op. cit., p. 103.

[38] The following lines by Jacob Burckhardt provide a good picture of Valdes’s social circle in Italy:

It would be juster to wonder at the secure foundations of a society which, notwithstanding these tales, still observed the rules of order and decency, and which knew how to vary such pastimes with serious and solid discussion. The need of noble forms of social intercourse was felt to be stronger than all others. To convince ourselves of it, we are not obliged to take as our standard the idealized society which Castiglione depicts as discussing the loftiest sentiments and aims of human life at the court of Guidobaldo of Urbino, and Pietro Bembo at the castle of Asolo.  The society described by Bandello, with all the frivolities which may be laid to its charge, enables us to form the best notion of the easy and polished dignity, of the urbane kindliness, of the intellectual freedom, of the wit and the graceful dilettantism, which distinguished these circles. A significant proof of the value of such circles lies in the fact that the women who were the centers of them could become famous and illustrious without in any way compromising their reputation.  Among the patronesses of Bandello, for example, Isabella Gonzaga (born an Este) was talked of unfavorably not through any fault of her own, but on account of the too-free-lived young ladies who filled her court. Giulia Gonzaga Colonna, Ippolita Sforza married to a Bentivoglio, Bianca Rangona, Cecilia Gallerana, Camilla Scarampa, and others, were either altogether irreproachable, or their social fame threw into the shade whatever they may have done amiss. The most famous woman of Italy, Vittoria Colonna (b. 1490, d. 1547), the friend of Castiglioni and Michelangelo, enjoyed the reputation of a saint. It is hard to give such a picture of the unconstrained intercourse of these circles in the city, at the baths, or in the country, as will furnish literal proof of the superiority of Italy in this respect over the rest of Europe.

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Seattle: The World Wide School), Part V, Ch. IV, “Social Etiquette”).  On-line edition:

[39] Stoughton, op. cit., p. 119.

[40] See McNair, op. cit., p. 31.

[41] Ibid., p. 35.

[42] Ibid., p. 36.

[43] Vermigli became professor of Divinities at the University of Oxford during the reign of the Reformed “Boy King,” Edward VI of England.

[44] See ibid.

[45] Nieto, op. cit., p. 244 (citing Edmondo Cione, “Epistola del primo Editore” to Juan de Valdés, Le cento e dieci divine considerazioni (Milano: Fratelli Bocca, Editori, 1944), p. 527).

[46] Stoughton, op. cit., p. 119.

[47] “Juan de Valdés has the merit of having translated for the first time into our language [Spanish] any part of the New Testament” (Menéndez-Pelayo, op. cit., p. 105).  Menéndez-Pelayo, an ultra-conservative Spanish Roman-Catholic, recognizes Valdés’s translation as “faithful and accurate” (ibid., p. 106).

[48] Betts, “Introduction,” op. cit., p. vii.

[49] Stoughton, op. cit.


Alejandro Moreno Morrison is a Mexican lawyer and Reformed theologian.  He studied at Escuela Libre de Derecho (Mexico City), Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, Florida) and the University of Oxford.  At Reformed Theological Seminary he was teaching assistant of the Rev. Dr. Ronald H. Nash.  He was also Spanish resources consultant for the Rev. Dr. Richard L. Pratt at Third Millennium Ministries.  Alejandro has ministered as intern, teacher, or visiting preacher or teacher at churches and missions of several denominations including Iglesia Presbiteriana Reformada de México, Iglesia Nacional Presbiteriana de México, Iglesia Nacional Presbiteriana Conservadora de México, Iglesia Presbiteriana Ortodoxa Reformada, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church, North America Synod.  With the latter he was in charge of a mission congregation during 2014.  He has also been guest lecturer on Systematic Theology, Ethics, Evangelism, and Apologetics at Seminario Teológico Reformado of Iglesia Presbiteriana Reformada de México, on Contemporary Political Systems at the Faculty of Law of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and on Corporate law at the Massachusetts Institute of Technologies (Global Startup Lab for Mexico).  Since 2010 he is adjunct lecturer on Jurisprudence at Escuela Libre de Derecho.