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Si Loin de Rome: Chronique d'un Renégat (review)
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Catholic authorities in the sixteenth century and beyond found the life of Bernardino Ochino (1487–1546) an alarming demonstration of the perils posed by unrestrained theological speculation. Protestant opinion was far more ambiguous. Within the Reformation camp he was an impressive, if unconventional and unpredictable, convert. The son of a Sienese barber, Ochino joined the observant Franciscans at an early age. He soon rose to prominence and in 1533 became vicar general of the order. Later he entered the newly formed Capuchins and within a short time was elected their general. Ochino was also a celebrated preacher throughout the Italian world from Naples to Venice. Suspicions eventually arose regarding the orthodoxy of his sermons and writings. Accusations of Protestant sympathies led in July 1542 to a summons to appear in Rome. Instead, he fled north to Geneva, where Calvin, after some misgivings, allowed him to enter the pastorate. From Geneva, he moved to Basel, Strasbourg, Augsburg, and, in 1548, England. Ochino remained in England until Mary Tudor ascended the throne. He then returned to Geneva, arriving on the day of Michael Servetus's execution. Afterwards, he wandered from one Swiss city to another, but nowhere received a warm welcome due to the increasingly controversial nature of his theological views. Expelled from Zurich in late 1563, he spent the winter in Nuremberg and then travelled to Poland. Again, his stay was brief. Ochino went finally to Moravia, where he died in 1564.

Ochino's life is by every measure an engaging and fascinating story, one that deserves close study with a fresh interpretative eye. Postel's account, unfortunately, fails to meet the challenge. The author casts the book as a historical novel —a chronicle, according to the title. He views his task as joining the inventiveness of the novel to the reality of history. Ochino's spiritual journey and physical peregrinations become an adventure story replete with the making and breaking of friendships, deep affection for his wife and children, and an unceasing need to test the reigning orthodoxies, both Catholic and Protestant. The approach is not wholly successful. The attempt to humanize Ochino by dwelling, for example, on the warmth and depth of love between him and his wife approaches the maudlin. If Postel has an interpretative perspective, it is that Ochino was an unconstrained, progressive, and hence thoroughly modern, person. Renegade in the sense of a traitor to Rome and his many Italian patrons is a descriptor that figures prominently in the title. The term also hints at Ochino's self-reliant deliverance from the constraining shackles of Rome. The sojourn in Geneva allowed Ochino, according to Postel, to liberate his conscience. Unfortunately, the author never advances the interpretation beyond these meager and pedestrian, outdated and unconvincing suggestions.

Postel self-consciously pitches the book to a broadly informed popular audience. The generous reader might add that he seeks to convey something of the flavor of a reflective, if impressionistic, essay. On the other hand, given the constant introduction of historical figures without the slightest explanation of their background and significance, one can hardly imagine that the book would be accessible to a learned public. It requires considerable knowledge of the period to follow the narrative and even then the reader is frequently challenged by unexplained shifts in time and place. Scholars will be puzzled for other reasons as well.

Entirely devoid of a critical apparatus —there are no footnotes and but the barest of bibliography —it is difficult to assess with precision the scholarly contribution of this study. Much of the dialogue appears to have been invented. In the absence of references to historical sources, the reader is reluctant to accept the authenticity of the conversations that the author has inserted into the mouths of the many persons who populate the text. Individuals familiar with Postel's earlier work —the Traité des invectives au temps de la Réforme (2004), for instance —will surely be disappointed by the present study. Tales of romance and adventure have their place in historical studies, but they must rest on rigorous and critical appraisal of the sources. A series of imagined vignettes, however lively and poignant, is insufficient.

Copyright © 2008 The Renaissance Society...

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