Celio Secundo Curioni

The musty smell of a room too long away from sunlight gagged in Curioni’s throat. It reminded him that he too, had been a long time hidden from the reaches of the sun. It must have been two months now that he had been held captive in the castle of Capranio. He wondered if he’d ever get out.

An iron gate clanged shut in the distance. Footsteps echoed down the hallway. Curioni had a visitor. Perhaps he was to be set free!

Hardly. The guard informed him that his new home, until he forgot his foolishness, was to be a neighboring priory, the convent of San Venigno. His new home offered some improvement from the last. He had freedom to move within the premises and liberty to continue his studies — but no more talk of free salvation, mind you!

This convent was the neighborhood stronghold of superstition. From miles around, crowds came to look at the relics. On the altar there was a shrine containing the skulls and some of the bones of St. Agapetus and St. Tibur, the martyr. These were presented for adoration on holy days. Celio Curioni could not stand by. There was something about this man that abhorred the darkness of error. It was the same “something” that loved the sunshine of truth. So Curioni devised a plan.

In the monastery library lay an old dust-covered Bible. No one troubled to read it. Curioni located the key to the shrine where the relics lay. Then one day, in 1530, when the monks were occupied elsewhere, he took the Bible from the library and exchanged it for the bones in the box. With chalk, he had written the following words on the Bible’s cover: “This is the Ark of the Covenant, wherein a man can inquire of the true oracles of God, and in which are contained the true relics of the saints.”

Carefully he closed the lid and locked it. He left the building, carrying the relics with him, which he buried. The key was replaced where he found it. No one had seen him. The shrine continued to be adored.

A saints’ day arrived. The monks went to the shrine to carry the relics in the usual procession past a thousand eager faces. The worshipers had assembled but, when the box was opened, the relics had been replaced by the Living Oracles of God.

No words can describe the fury of the crowd. All thoughts turned to Celio Curioni. But the neighborhood was searched in vain for the fugitive. He had disappeared as effectively as the remains of Agapetus and Tibur.

Returning to Milan, Celio found his world in a state of disarray. War was raging in Italy between Charles V and Francis I of France. Taxes crushed the already poverty-stricken inhabitants. Famines came. Then pestilence. Those who could leave, did so. That is, all except Curioni. He went about helping the poor, whispering consolation to the dying, and with his own hands burying the dead. He gave away everything he had to spare.

When prosperity returned to Milan, the populace overwhelmed him with gratitude. A Milanese noble named Isacchi, invited him to live in his villa and some time afterward Curioni was wed to the beautiful and talented Margarita Bianca, daughter of Curioni’s benefactor. Curioni was content, accepted and duly affluent. He was prepared to spend his remaining days in the enjoyment of family and home.

Not far from the quiet precinct of his happy home was the town of Castiglione. To this town, a fiery, Dominican friar arrived from Turin. Curioni slipped Luther’s “Commentary upon the Epistle to the Galatians” into his pocket as he set out to hear the friar.

A large and disorderly crowd had gathered. They were not disappointed. With vehement outbursts, the friar yelled to the crowd, “Why does Luther please the Germans? Because he allows them to live in sin and calls that Christian liberty!” The crowd jostled one another as they watched the overfed friar dealing his hatred. The fellow continued, “He says that our Lord was only a man, and that He was never born of a virgin.” The preacher raved on until the audience was inflamed against the reformers and the simple Gospel they dared to preach.

Curioni could not stand by. He asked for permission to speak. The hushed audience gazed in amazement on this mild man from the countryside.

“You have brought many serious charges against Luther,” he said, addressing the monk. “Will you show us the book or the page wherein he has taught these heresies?”

“No, not now,” replied the flustered monk, “but come with me to Turin and I will then find you the passages.”

“Then,” said Curioni, “I will tell you the page and the book where Martin Luther has taught the very opposite.”

With Luther’s treatise in hand, he read aloud to the people a series of extracts which effectively demolished every one of the friar’s charges. The effect on the crowd was sudden. Hooting and swinging, they struck the friar. Had a superior officer not intervened, he likely would not have escaped.

The monk hurried to Turin, and lost no time in letting the Board of Inquisition know about it. Bishop Abentino Cirica had Curioni, the truthful heretic, in his power. Curioni slept that night in prison. But he slept well. He had been faithful to his Lord and to the Gospel.

Celio Secundo was a victim of the spiritual darkness that shrouded sixteenth-century Italy. He had been rigorously interrogated by the bishop and many accusations had been leveled at the modest scholar. The bishop threatened him with a death of agony at the stake. But since Curioni had friends in Turin, the bishop didn’t dare carry out his threats without a decree from the Pope.

So the bishop set off for Rome and left Curioni in a filthy dungeon. With his feet chained to the thick walls, and with sentries in the building, it looked like Celio Curioni was trapped for the last time, that he was going to pay the ultimate price for his love to God and His truth.

His feet began to swell and caused him intense suffering. The pain would have been unbearable but for his remembrance of the sufferings of Christ. When Curioni recalled the agony of the cross, he said later, “By comparison, my bodily pain was as nothing beside the suffering of His soul for me.”

Curioni entreated the jailer to release one foot at a time that it might heal. Then the process would be reversed and his chain changed to the other foot. And so he passed his days with pain and relief, pain and relief.

The soon return of the bishop was inevitable and then nothing, it seemed, could save him from being burned alive. Day followed lonely day. Curioni sat and thought in his little cell. And as he did, he remembered that he had, in happier times, visited this fortress before. By daylight he examined every part of the room, or at least as far as his chains would allow. Hour after hour, day after day, he tried to remember the layout of the building. Slowly the details came. But what good was it to him with that chain holding his foot? A daring idea dawned on his tired brain, an idea that would exceed in audacity and ingenuity any previous act of his life.

First Curioni removed the boot from the free leg and filled it with the tattered remains of his shirt. There was a stool in the room within reach. One stool leg was broken off and the stool was propped against the wall. Then the false foot was attached to the wooden leg from the stool. This, in turn, was fastened to his knee. As best he could, he covered his three legs with the large Spanish cloak that reached to his heels. Then with a prayer in his heart, he sat back and waited.

Doubtless the waning twilight aided him when the jailer arrived. With an inarticulate grumble, his captor fastened the chain on the sham leg instead of the real one. Both legs were free! Curioni breathed his thanksgiving to the Lord.

The jailers, never suspecting danger, had left the door unlocked. They were confident because he was chained.

As he opened the door, it creaked. He held his breath and waited. But no footsteps came to steal his hopes away. Carefully he crept down the stairway and along the corridors to the outer entrance. It was locked! Ruin stared him in the face. To break down the door, if he could, would alarm the guards. To remain there would be madness. Any moment footsteps might be heard.

With one supreme effort, in his weakened condition, Curioni scaled the wall to a window, and fell unharmed into the deserted street. Curioni was saved! He had, with the Lord’s help, escaped from the jaws of the lion.

When morning dawned and the keepers entered the cell, they stood amazed. It was perfectly inexplicable. The little man with a thirst for truth had flown away. Curioni was free once more to spread the message of hope that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

The heretic escaped! From mouth to mouth the message ran through the streets of Turin. And as it went, the wilder it became. In fact, the escapades of Celio Secundo Curioni were so well known that the church hierarchy decided to take an official stand on his latest escape from the walled fortress.

The Devil himself had come, they said, to the heretic’s aid and, assisted him in extricating himself from the just resentment of the church. Curioni, they said, was in league with Satan himself.

It was an interesting story they told but Curioni didn’t allow them to cherish such opinions for long. Soon after, there appeared a printed pamphlet, written by himself, explaining everything.

The Inquisition raged. Curioni moved from town to town. He would be awarded a seat at some university, for he was a renowned scholar, only to leave it and flee for his life.

He moved from Pavia to Ferrara and then to Lucca. Again and again he escaped by a hairsbreadth. But Curioni saw that his native land was closed to him forever. After running many desperate risks, he arrived in Zurich, Switzerland, leaving his wife Margarita, and his children behind. He sought employment there. Soon after, he became the rector of a college in Berne. But before he could begin this new employment, he had one perilous journey before him that would cause the boldest to hesitate. He had to return secretly to Lucca and bring his wife and children to the safety of Switzerland.

Friends in Lucca agreed to make arrangements for his family while he waited in the nearby town of Pescia where he was not as well known. There he stabled his horse at an inn, ordered some refreshments and sat down to dinner. But he had been reported on. A group of local thugs, led by a barisello (a captain of the Papal Guard) surrounded the inn. Suddenly the door was flung open and the soldiers burst into the room.

More than once Celio had been near martyrdom but never nearer than at that moment. In utter despair, he sprang from the table, clutching in his hand the knife he had been using to cut his meat. The Inquisitors, as cowardly as they were cruel, drew back. It was the moment he needed. Curioni rushed to the door. The ruffians seemed paralyzed. They let him cross the courtyard to the stable and he had already mounted his horse before the spell was broken. In mad pursuit, the bullies determined he would not get away. The chase was becoming desperate when God reminded them that He was still over all.

A furious thunderstorm broke over Lucca that night. In the noise and confusion, Curioni vanished. His friends spirited his family to a rendez-vous and, from that time on, his native land, shrouded by the shadow of spiritual death, would know him no more. But not before this “Martin Luther of Italy” had raised the gospel banner over a score of towns and, through it, had seen some of his countrymen brought to the light.