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Lelio Sozini

Lelio Francesco Maria Sozini (Latin Socinus) (1525-1562) was born at Siena on January 29 1525. 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 ancestor 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 spells his surname Sozini, latinizing it Sozinus) 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 (to Bibliander he gave a manuscript of the Koran) as we’ll 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 Sand in 1678, amplified by subsequent writers, makes him a leading spirit in alleged theological conferences at Vicenza, about 1546; the whole account (abounding in anachronisms, including the story of Sozini's flight) must be rejected as fabulous.

At this period the standpoint of Sozini 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 Camillo of Sicily, a gentle mystic, surnamed Renato, 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 Munster) and Zürich (lodging with Pellican). He is next at Wittenberg (July 1550 to 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 Cracow. 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 Sozini 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 Sozini'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 Sozini's closest intimate, his warmest and wisest friend. Sozini'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 Sozini 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 Sozini 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 Sozini 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), Sozini was involved in pecuniary anxieties. With influential introductions (one from Calvin) he visited in 1558 the courts of Vienna and Cracow 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 Sozini 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, Sozini 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 Sozini 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:

  1. He derived from Lelio in conversation (1552-1553) the germ of his theory of salvation;
  2. 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.

Sozini’s extant writings are:

  1. De sacramentis dissertatio (1560), four parts, and
  2. De resurrectione (a fragment)

These were first printed in F. et L. Socini, item E. Soneri iractatus (Amsterdam, r654). To these may be added his Confession (1555), printed in Hottinger, Hist. eccles. N.T. ix. i6, 5 (1667); and about twenty-four letters, not collected, but may be found dispersed, and more or less correctly given in Iligen, in Trechsel, in the Corpus reformatorum edition of Calvin's works, and iii E Burnat, L. Socin (1894); the handwriting of the originals is exceedingly crabbed. Sand adds a Rhapsodia in Esaiam prophetam, of which nothing is known. Beza suspected that Sozini had a hand in the De haeretzcis, an sant persequendi (1533); and to him has also been assigned the Contra libellum Calvini (1554); both are the work of Castellio, and there is no ground for attributing any part of them to Sozini. Beza also assigned to him (in 1567) an anonymous Expl’icatio (1562) of the proem of St John's Gospel, which was the work of Fausto; this error, adopted by Zanchi, has been a chief source of the misconception which treats Lelio as a heiesiarch.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.