Europe in the 16th century

Τhe 16th century can be called the century of religious Reformation (Burns, 1973, p. 168), or the new faith as some historians would write (Gombrich, 2008, p. 230). After 1500, Rome was the seat of papal power. In addition to their role as the religious leaders of Christianity, the popes, over the years, would become essential patrons of the arts in order to promote the glory of the Christian Church. A characteristic example can, of course, be seen in Pope  Leo X and the pontiff Pope Clement VII who came from the family of the Florentine Medici and, during their stay in the papal seat, erected a number of dazzling buildings in Rome (Gombrich, 2008, p. 231).

The Church of St. Peter's was thought to be transformed into the most incredible temple of Christianity that would house the greatest works of art of the time (Burns, 1973, p. 117). Raphael, the most famous artist in 1514, was in charge of the first phase of the work (Burns, 1973, p. 119). The expanses of these operations were extremely high. At the same time while the financial demands, for instance of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, the small armed forced at the protection of Pope and the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, which was established at that era; and the papal mercenary armies participating in the Italian wars remained very high (Burns, 1973, p. 183). Historians argue that these circumstances led to the creation of indulgences on behalf of the Pope so that the faithful could purchase absolution of their sins by offering remarkable income to the church (Gombrich, 2008, p. 230).[1]

These practices of papal authority would lead in 1517 to the walling of the 95 theses, the oppositions handwritten by Luther (1483-1546) at the Church of Wittenberg stigmatizing the practice of merchandising divine grace and forgiveness. Very soon, his theses would be printed and circulated to a large number of people making use of new technology and the spread of information (Barbier, 2006, p. 185). The religious Reformation was the result of more profound and earlier processes. The tremendous social change that was achieved through the invention of metal type printing had led to the quicker information of a more significant portion of the population who were in favour of translating the Bible into their native languages (Febvre & Martin, 1958; Gombrich, 2008, p. 235).

For instance, Jan Hus, in 1415, tried to convey ideas similar to Luther's, but he was found to be heretic, convicted, and his followers in Bohemia were wiped out. In Strasbourg, Johann Mentelin published a translation of the Bible in German in 1466 (Gombrich, 2008, p. 234), which became a commercial success despite the many errors of the version. People wanted to acquire and study the Bible in their native language, or in vulgate as it would have been called at that time.

After Luther and his followers seceded from the papal church, German princes began to positively envision their independence from church rule (Burns, 1973, pp. 168–169). Frederick the Wise or Frederick III (1463-1525) would become Luther's most excellent protector and defender since after his disavowal by the Diet of Worms in 1521, his assassination was almost expected (Gombrich, 2008, p. 233). For this reason, Frederick fled Luther to the castle of Wartburg where the first translation of the New Testament into German was to take place, composing a peculiar vulgate of the German language as at that time the Saxons and the Bavarians did not speak the same dialect (Janzin & Güntner, 2006). The spread of printing had as a direct result the standardisation of the written word, but as the example of Luther's translation proves, the spoken word, expressed in the form of dialects, eventually suffered the influence of typographical standardisation (Burke, 1987, p. 39).

In the same era, after the death of the Emperor Maximilian (1459-1519), Charles V (1500-1558) of Habsburg was proclaimed emperor. Furthermore, because of his kinship with Isabella of Castile, he would be entitled to also become king of Spain as well as its possession in the New World. He would also be known as Carlos I Of Spain (Burns, 1973, pp. 208–209). His empire was called the kingdom on which the sun never sets, although, in reality, his rule over the vast empire was particularly tenuous and ultimately short-lived (Gombrich, 2008, p. 231). As the correspondence of the Spanish ambassadors to Italy, a country whose political influence was claimed by both Charles V and King Francis I of France, reveals, there was always intense concern about the acquisitions of the empire (Levin, 2018, pp. vii, 61).

Charles V's empire was destined to be short-lived. The fighting in the name of religious change was fierce, and the number of German princes siding with the Protestants was growing. On the other hand, the constant warfare with the kingdoms of France and England and the disfavor shown by some popes to the empire added to the problems (Levin, 2018, pp. 8–9). Finally, the onslaught of Vienna in 1529 by the Turks, despite its failure, was another blow to the faltering empire (Gombrich, 2008, p. 237). Charles installed his brother, Ferdinand I (1503-1564), as Archduke of Austria and later Holy Roman emperor, and handed over the kingdoms of Spain, Naples, Sicily, the Netherlands, and Franche-Comté to his son Philip II (1527-1598) (Burns, 1973).

The Religious Reform continued with Zwingli (1484-1531) in Zurich and Calvin (1509-1564) in Geneva and took the dimensions of a social revolution in the territories of the German principalities, weakening their imperial and royal power both at the level of battle and at the socio-political and economic level. The Council of Trent began in 1545 and concluded eighteen years later, aiming to counter Protestantism and a series of counter-reforms to strengthen the church's authority (Burns, 1973, p. 215). Proper education of the faithful was deemed essential, and for this reason, their readings owed to be supervised (Gombrich, 2008, p. 239). The Counter-Reformation moved very quickly by publishing the first Index Librorum Prohibitorum as early as in 1549 that consisted of more than 1000 titles under the papacy of Paul II (Barbier, 2006, pp. 199–202).[2]

At this time, the splendour of the colorful royal robes would begin to decline. The colour black as proof of seriousness and frugality would begin to be chosen by aristocrats and clergy alike (Gombrich, 2008, p. 238). The court of Philip II was considered the most austere court in Europe, where everything was determined by the protocol. A large number of the royal counselors were monks. However, the policies of mass sentencing to be burnt at the stake of those deemed heretical did not have the same effect on Spain and the Low Countries under Phillip's rule (Burns, 1973). Continuing clashes and rebellions were widespread in the Low Countries, which concluded at the separation and autonomy of them from the Spanish Empire. In fact, during one of those conflicts in 1566, the palace of Philip's minister would be looted, and much of his collections, such as his library, destroyed (Brooker, 2015, p. 66).


[1] Today, manuscripts and printed indulgences are preserved. In fact, historians claim that John Gutenberg printed some after the 42-line Bible was published (Wagner et al., 2010; Wight, n.d.).

[2] This list of censored books was not an unprecedented undertaking. For example, in France, following Lefevre d'Etaple's (1455-1536) efforts to translate the Bible, the Paris Theological School began publishing similar indexes of prohibited books (Barbier, 2006, p. 191).