All things considered, it’s hard to imagine how the Mantuan Reform of Carmel could have produced a finer example of excellence than Battista Spagnoli. During the difficult days before the Protestant Reformation, most religious orders had fallen into a spirit of lethargy and laxity, and in some cases, into frightful abuses. The Congregation of Mantua was a spontaneous grouping of Carmelite friars in northern Italy who made the decision to bind themselves to a stricter way of life and a more demanding spirituality. They promised to be rigorous in observing poverty and simplicity of life, as well as more attentive to prayer and reflective living. Although they were not hostile to the parent order, the Mantuans maintained a semi-independent status with a vicar general of their own, and a solid commitment to a more challenging holiness.
Young Baptist came from a family who served the Gonzaga dynasty, the Dukes of Mantua. He entered the reformed community at Ferrara and made his profession there in 1464. He performed well in his studies in Theology at the University of Bologna steadily until he completed a Doctorate by 1475. It was during this vigorous period of study that he developed his love for poetry in the style of classical Latin antiquity. Although most of his long life was occupied with promoting religious fervor and addressing the war and peace issues of his time, he never abandoned his interest in composing beautiful works of poetry and prose. The late 15th century was the apex of the age of Christian Humanism in literature, and Baptist threw himself into that circle with characteristic enthusiasm. His friendships included a wide spectrum of humanistic writers, including Pomponio Leto and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. No less than the great Erasmus of Rotterdam gave Baptist his nickname, the “Christian Vergil.” Even Shakespeare refers to him in Act IV of Love’s Labours Lost.
Perhaps Baptist’s most popular poetic work was his Pastoral and Youthful poems, divided into Ten Eclogues. It was an extensive and very charming collection of verses written in the style of Publius Vergilius Maro, the Vergil of classical Latin, who was also a native of Mantua. This masterpiece has been published over 150 times, at least 100 of them during the following century. Even Edmund Spencer and John Milton found his literary style worthy of imitation. In addition to the delights of his poetic work, Baptist wrote detailed and hard hitting commentaries on the violent and bloody political situation of Renaissance Italy. He never forgot his calling as a reformed friar, as he wrote encouragement to his fellow Carmelites to treasure their interior life of prayer, solitude, and recollection. Some of his most beautiful prayers and poems honored Mary and other saints.
Baptist was honored by his brothers of the Mantuan Congregation when they chose him to be Vicar General in 1483. His first two-year term was later followed by 5 others, giving him an impressive 12 years of leadership of that reform. He was tireless in promoting faithfulness to the Carmelite Rule, and devotion to the will of God in all things. As Vicar General, he managed to get the popular Marian shrine of Loreto entrusted to the Mantuan friars in 1489. But as good as his writings were, his most effective lesson came from his personal holiness.
Since he was dealing with the highest officials in the Church, Baptist saw all too clearly the degree to which corruption and laxity had infiltrated the hierarchy and the Roman Curia. He was merciless in his criticism of permissiveness among leading clerics, even at the highest levels, since his fame and popularity as a literary figure gave him a kind of immunity in the popular mind. In 1489, he stood up in St. Peter’s and preached a hard-hitting discourse on negligence to Pope Innocent VIII and the cardinals (who very much needed to hear such a message). His relentless condemnation of greed, violence, and sexual immorality was so widely known that even Martin Luther and the Protestant reformers quoted him in later years as one who knew what had to be done to rescue the Church.
Baptist’s successful leadership later inspired his old student Sigismondo Gonzaga, Cardinal Protector of the Carmelites, to engineer his election as Prior General of the entire order. Gonzaga used his influence to transfer the chapter of 1513 to Rome, where he could influence the votation of the chapter fathers. Baptist protested that he was not healthy enough for such an important office at that critical time for the Church. But Cardinal Gonzaga insisted that his former tutor was the best man for the job, and Baptist was elected.
After he became General in 1513, Baptist was invited to attend the Fifth Lateran Council, which promised hope of serious reform. Pope Leo X also gave him a task of mediating a peace settlement between the king of France and the duke of Milan in 1515. But it seems that by that time, when Baptist was over 65, the limits of age and illness kept him from completing the vigorous actions that he might have accomplished a decade or two earlier. It is truly sad that such a cultural lion turned out to be a mediocre General, but no one lives at his peak of talent forever. And no one doubted the quality of his dedication to a renewed Church, or the strength of his loving relationship with God.