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Rhyming Rome: Luther’s In Clementem Papam VII

Carl P.E. Springer

University of Tennessee Chattanooga

Martin Luther’s relationship with the city of Rome is not uncomplicated. When the young Augustinian friar first caught sight of the eternal city (probably from Monte Mario) in 1510 or 1511, he says that he dropped to his knees and saluted it as “holy” (Salve, sancta Roma!). To judge from his own reminiscences of his youthful trip years later, it seems that his attitude towards the city changed completely during the course of his only visit there. He was appalled at the evidence of greed and lust on the part of the Roman clergy and began to doubt whether painfully crawling up the Scala sancta was actually efficacious. Most scholars would agree that by the end of his life, Luther’s attitude to the city of Rome had changed completely, from respectful love to vehement hatred. If there is a hell, he opined, repeating an Italian proverb, Rome must be built over it.

In this paper, I will take a somewhat different approach, arguing that the kind of vitriolic anger Luther expresses in his late treatise “Against the Papacy in Rome, Founded by the Devil” (1545) deserves to be situated within its appropriate emotional context. For the first half of Luther’s life, after all, the bishop of Rome was his spiritual father. Luther’s “hatred” of the Pope should perhaps be likened to the feelings some adolescent sons have for their fathers, in other words, something other than the more detached antipathy of later Protestants who never visited the city of Rome or ever belonged to the Roman Catholic church. Luther’s coarse and sometimes abusive language in this respect also deserves to be reconsidered. Such discourse offends the modern reader but was really not all that uncommon in more Rabelaisian times than ours. We should also consider the possibility that this prolific author cultivated a literary persona, not so very different perhaps than Juvenal’s, a persona developed over the years to meet the expectations of his readers. Not infrequently, Luther represents himself as a plain-spoken, even angry commoner, not particularly gifted with words, but in fact he was raised in a well-to-do household, was very well educated, and became one of the best-selling authors of his age. In fact, Luther’s literary persona may be part of a consciously constructed “brand” and not at all representative of his true feelings towards Rome.

As evidence for this point of view, I will analyze a short poem of Luther’s written sometime after Clement VII (1523-1534) became pope. The original manuscript has been lost and there is some doubt as to whether Luther himself wrote the poem. (Frings does not analyze the poem in his study of Luther’s Latin poetry.) I will argue that the poem is indeed Luther’s, based on its playful, mocking tone and the kind of elaborate punning which we discover in his other Latin poems.  Most significant of all, I will also argue, is the fact that in the poem he calls Rome “ours” (nostram…Romam; see WA 35, 599), years after he had been excommunicated. We know that Luther continued to think and write about Rome, the ancient Republic and Empire as well as the contemporary city, his entire life long, and in fact refers to the city in 1546 in his last written statement (WA Tischreden 5, 317-8).  This poem is evidence of his continued identification with the city which he so loved … and hated.

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Neo-Latin in the Old and New World: Current Scholarship

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