Lelio Sozzini

Lelio Sozzini

Lelio Francesco Maria Sozzini or simply Lelio (Latin Socinus; january 29 1525–May 4 1562) was an Italian humanist and Reformer.

Sozzini was born at Siena. His family descended from Sozzo, a banker at Percena, whose second son, Mino Sozzi, settled as a notary at Siena in 1304.

Mino Sozzi's grandson, Sozzino (d. 1403), was the founder of a line of patrician jurists and canonists, Mariano Sozzini senior (1397–1467) being the first and the most famous, and traditionally regarded as the first freethinker in the family. Lelio (who spelled his surname Sozzini, Latinizing it Socinus) was the sixth son of Mariano Sozzini junior (1482–1556) by his wife Camilla Salvetti, and was educated as a jurist under his father's eye at Bologna. He told Melanchthon that his desire to reach the "fontes juris" led him to Biblical research, and hence to rejection of "the idolatry of Rome."

He gained some knowledge of Hebrew and Arabic (he gave a manuscript of the Qur'an to Bibliander) as well as Greek, but was never a laborious student. His father supplied him with means and, on coming of age, he repaired to Venice, the headquarters of the evangelical movement in Italy. A tradition - first published by Christoph Sand in 1684 in his book Bibliotheca antitrinitariorum and Andrzej Wiszowaty in 1668 in his book Narratio Compendiosa - and amplified by subsequent writers makes him a leading spirit in alleged theological conferences called Collegia Vicentina at Vicenza about 1546-1547. The whole account, abounding in anachronisms, including the story of Sozzini's flight, must be rejected as fabulous.

At this period the standpoint of Sozzini was that of evangelical reform; he exhibits a singular union of enthusiastic piety with subtle theological speculation. At Chiavenna in 1547 he came under the influence of Renato Camillo of Sicily, a gentle mystic whose teaching at many points resembled that of the early Quakers. Pursuing his religious travels, his family name and his personal charm ensured him a welcome in Switzerland, France, England and the Netherlands.

Returning to Switzerland at the close of 1548, with commendatory letters to the Swiss churches from Nicolas Meyer, envoy from Wittenberg to Italy, we find him (1549–1550) at Geneva, Basel (with Sebastian Münster) and Zürich (lodging with Konrad Pelikan). He was next at Wittenberg (July 1550–June 1551), first as Melanchthon's guest, then with, Johann Forster, for improvement of his Hebrew. From Wittenberg he returned to Zürich (end of 1551), after visiting Prague, Vienna and Kraków. Political events drew him back to Italy in June 1552; two visits to Siena (where freedom of speech was for the moment possible, owing to the shaking off of the Spanish yoke) brought him into fruitful contact with his young nephew Fausto. He was at Padua (not Geneva, as is often said) at the date of Servetus's execution (October 27, 1553). Thence he made his way to Basel (January 1554), Geneva (April) and Zürich (May), where he took up his abode.

Calvin, like Melanchthon, received Sozzini with open arms. Melanchthon (though a phrase in one of his letters has been strangely misconstrued) never regarded him with theological suspicion. To Calvin's keen glance Sozzini's over-speculative tendency and the genuineness of his religious nature were equally apparent. A passage often quoted (apart from the context) in one of Calvin's letters (January 1, 1552) has been viewed as a rapture of amicable intercourse; but, while more than once uneasy apprehensions arose in Calvin's mind, there was no breach of correspondence or of kindliness. Of all the Reformers, Bullinger was Sozzini's closest intimate, his warmest and wisest friend. Sozzini's theological difficulties turned on the resurrection of the body, predestination, the ground of salvation (on these points he corresponded with Calvin), the doctrinal basis of the original gospel (his queries to Bullinger), the nature of repentance (to Rudolph Gualther), the sacraments (to Johann Wolff). It was the fate of Servetus that directed his mind to the problem of the Trinity.

At Geneva (April 1554) he made, incautious remarks on the common doctrine, emphasized in a subsequent letter to Martinengo, the Italian pastor. Bullinger, at the instance of correspondents (including Calvin), questioned Sozzini as to his faith, and received from him an explicitly orthodox confession (reduced to writing on the 15th of July 1555), with a frank reservation of the right of further inquiry.

A month before this Sozzini had been sent with Martino Muralto to Basel, to secure Ochino as pastor of the Italian church at Zürich; and it is clear that in their subsequent intercourse the minds of Sozzini and Ochino (a thinker of the same type as Camillo, with finer dialectic skill) acted powerfully on each other in the radical discussion of theological problems. In 1556 by the death of his father (who left him nothing by will), Sozzini was involved in pecuniary anxieties. With influential introductions (one from Calvin) he visited in 1558 the courts of Vienna and Kraków to obtain support for an appeal to the reigning duke at Florence for the realization of his own and the family estates. Curiously enough Melanchthon's letter introducing Sozzini to Maximilian II invokes as an historic parallel the hospitable reception rendered by the emperor Constans to Athanasius. when he fled from Egypt to Trèves.

Well received out of Italy, Sozzini could do nothing at home, and apparently did not proceed beyond Venice. The Inquisition had its eye on the family; his brother Cornelio was imprisoned at Rome; his brothers Celso and Camillo and his nephew Fausto were "reputati Luterani," and Camillo had fled from Siena. In August 1559 Sozzini returned to Zürich, where his brief career was closed by his death on May 14 1562, at his lodging in the house of Hans Wyss, silk-weaver.

No authentic portrait of him exists; alleged likenesses on medals, etc., are spurious. The news of his uncle's death reached Fausto at Lyons through Antonio Maria Besozzo. Repairing to Zürich Fausto got his uncle's few papers, comprising very little connected writing but a good many notes. Fausto has so often been treated as a plagiarist from Lelio that it may be well to state that his indebtedness, somewhat over-estimated by himself, was twofold:

#He derived from Lelio in conversation (1552–1553) the germ of his theory of salvation;
#Lelio's paraphrase (1561) of "?tpxi~" in John i. I as "the beginning of the gospel" gave Fausto an exegetical hint for the construction of his Christology.

Apart from these suggestions, Fausto owed nothing to Lelio, save a curiously far-fetched interpretation of John viii. 58 and the stimulus of his pure character and shining qualities. The two men were of contrasted types. Lelio, impulsive and inquisitive, was in quest of the spiritual ground of religious truths; the drier mind of Fausto sought in external authority a basis for the ethical teaching of Christianity.


Sozzini’s extant writings are:

*"De sacramentis dissertatio" (1560), four parts, and
*"De resurrectione" (a fragment)



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