Olympia Morata


One evening, before retiring, the renowned German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe picked up from his large library a rather obscure collection of letters and poems from a young protagonist of the Italian Reformation and read with interest her tales of dreams and disappointments, hopes and frustrations, difficult decisions and every day struggles in one of the most travailed periods of European history. As he put down the book, he commented in his diary, “I have read the Letters by Olympia Fulvia Morata, which have shed a whole new light on the actual condition of Protestants in those days.”

Her Times

For 16th century Protestants and humanists, Olympia Morata was much more than a simple portrayer of her times. In De poetis nostrorum temporum (On the Poets of Our Times, 1551) Italian humanist Lilio Gregorio Giraldi wrote: “Among them is Olympia Morata, a girl gifted beyond her sex. Not content with her original language, she has perfected her knowledge of Latin and Greek letters, so much that she appears to be a wonder to almost everyone who hears her.” Her epitaph called her “a woman whose genius and singular knowledge of both languages [Latin and Greek], whose probity in morals and highest zeal for piety were always held above the common level.”

Those words would have been the joy of her father, Fulvio Pellegrino Morato, who had raised her from the youngest age in the love and knowledge of both classical literature and the Protestant faith. We don’t know much about his life. A native Celio Secondo Curioneof Mantua, a northern Italian city, he was for some time exiled from Ferrara, Olympia’s birthplace, maybe for religious reasons. We know that, as he taught Latin and Italian literature, he introduced his students to the writings of John Calvin and other Reformers.

Fairly well-known in humanistic circles, particularly after the publication of his essay on the rhymes used by Dante and Petrarca, Fulvio had found immediate popularity, especially with women, with his book, On the Meaning of Colors and Flowers, published in Venice in 1535. Today, he is remembered mostly for his most cherished and laborious work—the careful upbringing and education of his daughter Olympia.

When Fulvio Morato returned to Ferrara in 1539, the court of the Dukes of Este was marked by the obvious tension between Duke Ercole II and Duchess Renée. Ercole had started to rule at the time of Ferrara’s greatest glory, after his fathers had fought fiercely to maintain their independence against frequent attacks and threats by their neighboring “giants”—the Pope on one side and the Republic of Venice on the other. By hard work and good strategies, they had been able to secure good alliances, fortify their borders and city structures, and make their court a haven for study, discoveries, beauty, and art. His goal was to preserve and enlarge that glory.

Renée, on her hand, was the second daughter of King Louis XII of France, a very intelligent woman raised in the Protestant faith. Resenting the fact that she had been sent to an unappreciative duke for a marriage of convenience, she had arrived in Ferrara with a large escort of French servants and courtiers, so much that her quarters had become like a foreign city. When her brother-in-law, King Francis I, began to persecute Protestants in France, she opened her doors and protected them with everything in her powers. “If God had given me a beard, they would now be my subjects,” she used to say, referring to the Salic laws that excluded females from ascending the French throne.

Soon, the disagreements between the duke and duchess proved to be more than a simple contrast of interests. Renée’s sympathies for the Reformed faith were incompatible with Ercole’s attempts to preserve the graces and favor of the Pope. In spite of her cries of protest and sincere sorrow, many of her courtiers, including some of her dearest companions and friends, were slowly sent back to France, and tougher measures were looming on the horizon.

An Unusual Appointment

It was into that contrasting world that Olympia was summoned in 1539 as a tutor and companion for 7 year old Anna, the oldest daughter of the duke and duchess. It was a position of tremendous honor. Sons and daughters of nobles throughout the duchy and from other lands all vied for the chance to be educated in such a prestigious court. Olympia, on the other hand, was not invited simply to further her education, but to tutor Anne and to add to the court’s glory.
We don’t know how much Olympia, then 13, knew or understood the problems at court. We can assume that she had been taught the proper etiquette in such situations, and that she chose to display great discretion. From her letters, we know that she embraced her task with passion, devotion, and enthusiasm. We have letters to her from her teachers, praising her talents and exhorting her to forsake traditional women’s occupations, such as embroidery or hair dressing, and to devote her entire time to the pursuit of higher knowledge. We also have a detailed letter from her father, with step-by-step instructions on how to acquire a perfect pronunciation and enunciation of Latin.

In her responses, we see a pliable young girl, willing to go to any length to meet the expectations of those around her. Her words echo the recommendations of her teachers, drawing countless examples from ancient literature and mythology to reinforce each point. In 1541, we first see a product of her efforts in her Prolegomena to Cicero’s Stoic Paradoxes, a speech she delivered in front of a large audience of noblemen and scholars, in perfect Latin, showing an astounding knowledge of authors such as Horace, Lucretius, Juvenal, Homer, Isocrates, Xenophon, Lucian, and Plutarch.

Her fame rapidly increased. Eager to show the magnificence of their court, where such a higher education is afforded to women, the duke and duchess scheduled more public discourses for Olympia, who continued to revel in their praises. “I am so glad,” she wrote her father. “It’s wonderful to know I have won the approval of the great and unconquered Duke Ercole II. There is no other prince living today whom I would rather please. May this joy last forever!”

These words of praise for a paladin of Roman Catholicism may seem puzzling, since her works, even at that early time, display clear signs of a Reformed theological education. Surviving from those days are some short compositions on religious matters, including a satirical poem on the style of her teacher Celio Curio, De Vera Virginitate, where she explains that the virginity flaunted by nuns is actual idolatry if not accompanied by true devotion to God.

We also notice Olympia’s understanding of Reformed doctrine in her translation into Latin of the first two novels of Boccaccio’s Decameron, where her deliberate choice of theological language is obvious. This is not surprising, knowing that most of her teachers were Protestant and that she could avail herself of a large library of books of all sorts, including the latest theological works.

At the same time, even Protestant Renée was not free from compromise, especially on the much debated subject of the Lord’s Supper. In spite of John Calvin’s personal appeals to avoid the Mass as an idolatrous and blasphemous rite, only a few people at court had the courage to act on his advice and were inevitably punished.

Olympia’s letters are silent on this particular issue. It’s only when we read her later writings that we discover, in retrospective, that her mind was totally absorbed by her academic studies, to the neglect of religious thoughts. She mentions doubts: on one hand, the perceived impossibility to pray to God until certain “whether he has elected us from time eternal;” on the other hand, a Lucretian concept of a distant god who is indifferent to the affairs of men.Renee of France, by Francois Clouet

“I had fallen, you see, into the error of thinking that everything happened by chance and of believing ‘that there was no God who cared for mortal things,’ so great was the darkness that had overwhelmed my soul.”

Celio Secondo Curione

A Turn of Events

In 1547, Olympia’s happy days of uninterrupted academic studies came abruptly to an end. Her father became ill and Olympia, being at that time also quite frail in body, was sent back to be of some assistance to him while regaining her strength. Her letters from that time are still focused on her desire to return to court and to her studies. Even when she discovers that her physician and teacher John Sinapius had unexpectedly returned to Germany in April 1548, her main concern is to ask him to present a collection of her poems to King Ferdinand I and to Anton Fugger, then the richest man in Europe and a great patron of the arts.

The true shattering event of Olympia’s life came around the end of the same year, after her father’s death. Confidently returning to resume her previous position at court, Olympia was met by an unforeseen and astonishing refusal. Anna, her young student and companion, had been given in marriage to Duke Francis of Guise, a champion of Roman Catholicism, and had moved with him to France, so Olympia’s services were no longer needed. Besides, Olympia was now a 22 year old woman—no longer a child prodigy to be put on display.

There were undoubtedly other reasons for Olympia’s rejection. Her letters indicate that the door was closed not only to her but to her whole family, an action that a generous person like Renée would not have taken lightly. In a later letter to her teacher and mentor Celio Curio, Olympia talks of being “immediately abandoned” by the duchess “and received only in the most humiliating manner,” because of the “hatred and slanders of certain evil people.”

Some have suggested that the main one of these “certain evil people” was Jerome Bolsec, a French Carmelite theologian who had turned to Protestantism while maintaining a compromising attitude and love for controversies, and later became one of Calvin’s bitterest enemies. This conclusion is corroborated by a 1553 letter by John Sinapius to John Calvin, where he asserts that Bolsec was responsible for laying false accusations against him and his wife Francoise.

Renée of France, by Francois Clouet

In any case, Olympia’s life was uprooted and turned around. Suddenly, she found herself living with a poor widowed mother who had four daughters to marry and a six-year old son still to raise. There were bills to pay and immediate needs to be met. Most of all, everything that she had ever lived for had suddenly come to an end.

At this devastating time of her life, only one friend stood by her side—Lavinia della Rovere, a young noblewoman who had spent long periods of time at the Este castle during her husband’s frequent absences as a condottiero. Lavinia visited Olympia whenever possible and offered her assistance. Together, the women read and discussed Scriptures. Olympia left us a literary rendition of their discussions in her Dialogue Between Lavinia della Rovere and Olympia Morata, which gives a clear insight into her spiritual development.

It was at this time that the two women became involved in an effort to free Fanino Fanini, a fervent believer who had recanted his conversion to Protestantism and, under the burden of guilt, had embarked in a relentless evangelistic campaign around the cities and villages of the area, to the point of converting a whole nunnery. Fanini had been placed in custody directly under the authority of the duke, who showed no intention of letting him go in spite of many fervent pleas.

It was an important case. If Fanini were to be executed, it would have been the first religious execution in the duchy. Besides, Fanini had been a well known baker and a faithful husband and father, and the popular opinion was strongly on his side. Together, Olympia and Lavinia visited Fanini and wrote letters to generate further support to his cause. This pursuit and the renewed desire to know the true God of Scriptures now occupied all of Olympia’s time.

Love and Exile

Just as unexpected as her rejection from court, at this point a new character enters Olympia’s scene—Andreas Grunthler, a medical doctor from Schweinfurt, Germany, who had come to Ferrara to study and who was a good friend of John Sinapius. It’s possible that Olympia had met him earlier, but we can only make assumptions. In one of her letters to him, she refers to an apparent initial aversion to him (“I used to tell you openly that I had taken a dislike to you”), maybe during one of those earlier encounters.

Duke Ercole IIAll we know is that at this time Andreas proposes to Olympia, who falls madly in love with him. It looks like a perfect match, as the couple shares the same faith and love for literature, poetry, and academic studies. They get married at the end of 1549 or early 1550, and make plans for their life together.

By this time, the situation in Italy had become quite intolerable for Protestants. Nicodemism, the widespread attitude of secret adherence to the Protestant religion which John Calvin had condemned so fiercely, was becoming increasingly impossible. The only two options for Protestants in Italy were now death or flight. Andreas and Olympia chose the second one. Being German, Andreas could take his wife back to his home country where he hoped to find a job. After some deliberation, they decided to take Emilio, Olympia’s younger brother, with them.

At this point we see a whole new Olympia—a young woman in love, overtaken with passion, sorrow, and fear while her husband is away to secure a job and a home. “My dear husband, I wish so much to be with you! Then you could see clearly how great is this love I feel for you. It’s incredible to think how I can be hopelessly consumed by it! There is nothing, however painful or difficult, which I would not eagerly perform if it could please you,” she wrote.

Duke Ercole II

Andreas returned from his scouting trip with mixed news. The only job he could find was as a physician for the emperor’s troops in Schweinfurt, possibly stationed there to enforce the provisional religious ruling imposed by Charles V with the Augsburg Interim. It was not what Andreas had hoped, but it was work. Looming on the horizon was also the fear that the unrest and frequent skirmishes shaking the country would escalate into a full scale war.

Still, with all its religious restrictions and hostilities, Germany was safer than Italy for Protestants, so Olympia, Andreas, and Emilio embarked on a 500 mile journey from Ferrara to Schweinfurt. Some short visits with friends, first with George Hoffmann at Kaufbeuren and then with John Sinapius and his family at Wurzburg, allowed the weary couple to find some rest and spend much time in theological studies, taking advantage of the abundance of books freely available in Germany. Olympia had now time to look back and reflect on her bitter experience at home. Finally, she was able to conclude, in a letter to Curio, “I am glad for all that has happened to me, for if I had lingered any longer in that court, it would have been the end for me and my salvation.”

A Greek Psaltery

Olympia probably devoted much of this time on a project she had begun before leaving Ferrara—the composition of a Greek psaltery. As author Holt N. Parker wrote, “An English prose translation of a Greek verse translation of a Greek prose translation of ancient Hebrew verse is a curious object, and it is difficult for us modern readers to recapture why these poems were regarded by Morata’s contemporaries as her most glorious achievement.”

The fact is, these psalms were praised and appreciated beyond measure. Parker helps us to understand in part an excitement which may seem strange to us after centuries of songs and liturgies in our own language. “Morata’s Psalms represent a unique moment in the cultural history of Europe,” he explains. “They are an exemplary product of both halves of biblical humanism. There had been a flourishing tradition, among the evangelically minded, of turning the Psalms into classical Latin meters […] Morata, however, was the first to use Greek.”

Besides this innovative spirit, we see in Olympia’s work an exceptional diligence and courage. Her careful and bold choice of words betrays a deep understanding of both the Greek classics and Scriptures. Chris Stevens, who has translated some of Olympia’s poems for the upcoming novel Weight of a Flame, the Passion of Olympia Morata, told us, “Olympia’s poetry shows a grand infatuation with the classical epics of Homer, and her psalm writing showcases a heart aflame with love for the Scriptures. Her commanding and beautiful use of the Greek language indicates an intelligent young woman who would have been a delight to know and a sheer pleasure to be friends with.”

Olympia’s rendition of the Psalms was not a sterile, academic pursuit, but was meant to be widely used by Reformers who were well acquainted with the Septuagint (often better than with versions of the Bible in their own languages) and could sing these Psalms with fellow believers from any country. It’s quite possible that her husband helped Olympia to set the Psalms to music.

A New Home

Finally, Olympia, Andreas, and Emilio arrived in Schweinfurt, where they settled fairly easily with the help of Andreas’ relatives and old friends. Accepting a passionate plea from John and Francoise Sinapius, Olympia took their daughter Theodora with her to be tutored along with Emilio. It’s possible that Olympia tutored some local children from time to time.

For the rest of the time, she was busy studying, corresponding with Reformers, and probably enjoying her role, for the first time in her life, of wife and mother. We hear that she attended a good church where the pastor—almost certainly Johann Lindemann—greatly impressed her with his personal integrity and adherence to Scriptures. “In these dangerous times he flatters no one,” she wrote to a friend in Italy, “and inveighs as a preacher should against those who might easily increase his income, if he fawned on them. He lives a life in accordance with his words. Further, there are many good men here, ‘reborn not from perishable seed but through the incorruptible Word of the living God.’ For their sake we are glad to be here and have most willingly left behind for you ‘the fleshpots of Egypt.”

The “many good men” were friends and relatives of Andreas who met frequently at the Grunthlers to read Scriptures or theological books. Olympia mentioned repeatedly her gratitude for this opportunity, which was now practically inexistent in her own country. In fact, news from Italy were mostly discouraging. Fanino Fanini had been executed, and more believers were fleeing in search for safety. “Although I am held by the deepest desire for my family, I would rather go to the ends of the earth than return to where that man [Pope Julius III] has such power to be cruel,” she wrote Curio.

Moved by a deep desire to help her countrymen, she finally appealed to a famous Lutheran theologian, Matthias Flacius Illyricus, asking him to translate some German theological works into Italian and offering her assistance in this pursuit. We don’t know if he ever replied.

Strengthened by her studies and regular church attendance, Olympia had no hesitation, when their friend George Hoffmann offered Andreas a position as royal physician in Catholic Linz, in sending a firm refusal. “Our decision is this: we will not worship according to a perverse and impious religion but rather profess ourselves Christians. If, as it commonly happens in other places, the Antichrist’s Pirates would spy on us and try to force us to attend their ceremonies, then it is absolutely impossible for us to go there for, as I said, we would be sinning against God.”

War, Pestilence, and Fire

By 1553, peace in Schweinfurt became a memory of the past. Occupied by the forces of Albrecht Alcibiades, Margrave of Brandenburg Kulmbach, the city became quickly besieged by troops from Wurzburg, Bamberg, and Nuremberg. The siege was long and difficult, bringing along, as so often happens, famine and a raging pestilence, which, according to some reports, killed half of the population. Andreas himself became gravely ill and barely survived.

Even the flight of the Margrave in 1554 was a false victory for the citizens of Schweinfurt, as the besiegers plundered the town and burned it almost entirely to the ground. Olympia, Andreas, and Emilio narrowly escaped the flames, only to be captured and imprisoned in a nearby town. It is difficult, as we follow Olympia through this rapid succession of misadventures, to imagine the full range of her feelings. This is how she described her escape, “Among the refugees I looked like the queen of the beggars. I entered the town with bare feet, unkept hair, torn clothes (which weren’t even mine but had been loaned me by some woman). I was so exhausted from the journey that I developed a fever, which I could not get rid of in all my wanderings.”

Louis XII

By yet another unexpected turn of events, the small Grunthler family was freed through the mediation of some friends and took refuge first with Count Philip of Rieneck and then with the Counts of Erbach, in the Odenwald, who left a lasting impression on Olympia’s mind as examples of faith and devotion in a troubled land.

Finally, in 1554, Olympia, Andreas, and Emilio reached Heidelberg, where Andreas was offered a professorship in medicine. After some initial struggles to get back on their feet with no money and no belongings, in a town now threatened by a new wave of pestilence, the Grunthlers managed to settle. We read that Olympia kept tutoring students in the Greek language. Her health, however, was irreparably ruined. From her description of her symptoms, it seems as though she had tuberculosis. When the Elector Palatine Frederick II finally invited her to teach Greek at the university, she had to decline.

There is some obscurity regarding this appointment. While some sources mention the invitation, there are no records of her teaching and she never talks about it in her own writings. It seems safe to conclude, then, that she declined because of her health.

We also don’t know in what capacity Olympia was invited to teach—if she had been offered an actual chair (which would have made her the first woman in history to receive such an honor) or just a temporary position as lecturer. In any case, it was a great honor which reflects the enormous esteem and admiration she had earned in her lifetime.

There is no hint of disappointment in Olympia’s refusal of such a prestigious appointment. We know that Elector Frederick had also repeatedly invited her to teach at his court, and that she had always declined. Her mind seemed now set on the heavenly courts which were clearly getting closer, to the point that she didn’t even care about physical recovery. Her husband tells us that, to those who encouraged her that she could still get better, “she would say that God had measured out a certain course of life for her, brief but full of work and woe, and she did not want to turn ‘from the finish line back to the starting gate.'”

Paradoxically, in this resignation to her illness and approaching death, Olympia displays the greatest clarity of mind and firmness of conviction. During her last months on earth, she wrote repeated letters to her friends and family in Italy, encouraging them to rely on God’s strength. Hearing that Anna’s husband, the Duke of Guise, was responsible for much of the massacre of Christians in France, she sent her a long and affectionate letter, begging her to take a firm position in defense of the persecuted, ignoring personal danger.

We see her full arc, from a timid young girl, totally absorbed by her studies and desirous to please those around her to a woman strong in the Lord, who has developed—through rejection, hardship, exile, illness, and all the horrors of war—an unshakeable faith, a deep concern for others, and a compelling desire for heaven.

Olympia died on October 26, 1555, not yet twenty nine years old. Sadly, most of her works have been lost in the destruction of Schweinfurt. Some of her letters, poems, and psalms were collected by Celio Curio and published in two editions: the first in 1558, dedicated to Isabella Bresegna, a prominent Italian Protestant of Spanish descent, and the second in 1562, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth of England. In Italy, her works were soon added to the list of forbidden books.

Simonetta Carr is the author of the series, Christian Biographies for Young Readers, published by Reformation Heritage Book. She has written a novel for young girls on the life of Olympia Morata (Weight of a Flame, the Passion of Olympia Morata), scheduled to be published in the summer 2011 by P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ, 2011.

She is a Sunday School teacher at Christ United Reformed Church, Santee, California, where she lives with her husband Tom and four of her eight children. As member of CURC Foreign Missions Committee, she is involved in the planting of a Reformed church in Milan, Italy, which confesses the Three Forms of Unity.