Martin Luther in Rome: Piazza Martin Lutero in the Eternal centre

Luther nailing his 95 Theses in Wittenberg, a caption from "Luther" (2003), with Joseph Fiennes playing Martin Luther.

“Lutero voleva rinnovare la Chiesa, non dividerla”

“Luther wanted to renew the Church, not to divide it”

(Pope Francis to the Finnish Lutheran delegation, 19th January 2017)


We leave theology to theologians, what interests us here is spatial and central: the Piazza Martin Lutero near the Colosseum, in the centre of Rome. Ironically enough Luther was not exactly interested in immortalising himself in space, and was against every kind of cult of personality. Yet today his name adorns many features on the map: streets, squares, avenues, quarters, institutes, and cultural centres. These Lutherian toponymic inscriptions are numerous in Germany and Protestant countries[1], but the Piazza Martin Lutero in Rome is of special interest for us: Luther is again in the heart of Rome, and this time to stay.

A beginning at Wittenberg

For some days Wittenberg[2] had got back its status of five hundred years ago: it is the centre of the world. Some days are too short to rediscover, think and evaluate the heritage of Martin Luther, whose cry in 1517’s Wittenberg was the “birth act” of the Reformation. The commemorative service of the 31st of October was attended by the German president, the Federal Chancellor, and heads of Protestant denominations, as well as the most eminent Catholic cardinal of Germany.

German dignities in the Reformation 500th anniversary in Wittenberg, 31st October 2017. From left to right: culture minister, Monika Grütter; Federal Chancellor, Angela Merkel; Bundestag speaker, Wolfgang Schäuble; chairman of the Evangelical Church in Germany, bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm; first lady, Elke Büdenbender; and German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Source: Kirche+Leben.

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder 1532. Source: Cranach Digital Archives.

Luther made his 95 Theses, published them and sent them to the local bishop in Wittenberg[3]. The German town was thus the known birthplace of the Reformation. But what happened in Wittenberg was greatly shaped in Rome: the Eternal City had a lasting effect on Luther.

Martin Luther in Rome for the first time: a visit over hell

In 1511 Luther headed to Rome with another monk of the Augustinian Order. Luther had been enthusiastic to see the Eternal City and the Capital of Christendom. But his expectations were overthrown by his disappointments: Rome was a city where every aspect of the Divine was to sell. “If there is Hell, then Rome is built over it!”, he says, calling it a “cesspit of sin”. This first presence of Luther in Rome was essential to his later refusal of Indulgences and his arguments against the excesses of the Roman Curia.

Martin Luther in Rome for a second time: piazza Martin Lutero

On 15th Seprember 2015 a new toponym was added to the map of Rome: a piazza Martin Lutero was inaugurated in presence of the leaders of Protestant communities of Italy and a German Bundestag delegation, and with the backing of the Holy See. The sign reads “Piazza Martin Lutero, teologo tedesco de la Riforma (1483-1546)” (Martin Luther Square, German theologian of the Reformation).

Inauguration of Piazza Martin Lutero in Rome, the photo is from Repubblica.

The square is located in the very heart of Rome, some hundred meters away from the Colosseum and by the famous Domus Aurea. Luther is now present in the heart of the Eternal City. The local Protestant communities hailed the initiative as “pluralism of the faith”, and “secularism of the state”. But for us, we will look further: the name of Martin Luther is now written, permanently, in the centre of Catholicism and the City that refused him once, when he protested against her excesses. It is about the right to narrate, that is, the right to officially exist in the centre.

Place names as right to narrate

On official maps, place names are not “mere names”, but are political markers and revealers of the zeitgeist. Toponymy is not only what it shows and inscribes on the map, but in what also it hides and omits from it. In this regard, place names as revealers of power relations: he or she who have the right to be commemorated have thus their place in the “narrative of the place”. Place names inscribe the commemorated in the collective memory. Edward Said points out to this fact in his essay Invention, Memory and Place (2000):

Memory and its representations touch very significantly upon questions of identity, of nationalism, of power and authority. Far from being a neutral exercise in facts and basic truths, the study of history, which of course is the underpinning of memory, both in school and university, is to some considerable extent a nationalist effort premised on the need to construct a desireable loyalty to and insider’s understanding of one’s country, tradition, and faith.

The invention of tradition is a method for using collective memory selectively by manipulating certain bits of the national past, suppressing others, elevating still others in an entirely functional way. Thus memory is not necessarily authentic, but rather useful.

To add a commemorative name on the map is part of that processus of inventing memory for a place. In capital cities this processus becomes of major importance: capital cities are supposed to be the political centres of their respective polities, and their showcase and connection with the outer world. To exist on a capital city’s map is to be present in its constructed history and narrative, too. Martin Luther does exist on the map of Germany: many cities and towns, related to his story, add “Lutherstadt” to their name (See the second map below), and most German cities name a street or a square after him. He is confirmed on the map of Germany. But in the Eternal City, for long blasted by Luther, does he have a place?

Piazza Martin Lutero of Rome, not far from the Colosseum and near the Domus Aurea. Open Street Map.

Luther’s right to narrate in the Eternal City

Rome is unique in terms of sovereignty: the Eternal City is the seat of the Italian State; but also of the Holy See, the sovereign central government of the Church (which is not the Vatican, the Holy See and the Vatican City State being two different distinct entities). The Holy See is not sovereign out of Italy’s choice: it is per se the oldest sovereign entity in the West and maybe in the world. its sovereignty dates back to Emperor Constantine and giving Rome sovereign prerogatives in the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, and the later transfer of the pontifex maximus status, one of the sovereign attributes of the Emperor, to the Pope. By the Fifth Century the Sovereignty of the Apostolic See of Rome was well-established and became the cornerstone of every authority in the West, after the fall of the Western Empire.

Rome has been the seat of the sovereign Holy See for 1700 years, and of the Italian State for almost 150 years. The Italian Constitution recognises the sovereignty of the Catholic Church in the person of the Holy See. Yet the Holy See is sovereign by itself, with or without temporal possessions, and Rome in this regard is unique as it host two sovereignties: the one of the Republic of Italy and the other, older, is the Holy See’s and which is today the only remnant of the sovereign tributes of the Roman Empire.

The map of the Eternal City is thus shaped by the long sovereignty of its existence: the one of the pontifices maximi, that isEmperors then Popes. In Rome, toponyms related to Augustus, Vespasian and Constantine and old Roman gentes stand alongside those related to Popes and princes of the Church. Most popes have left toponyms on the map: Via Anastasio II, Via Gregorio VII, Piazza Pio XII, amongst others. Even Pius IX, a fierce opponent to the occupation of Rome by the troops of the Savoyard kings, has his Via Pio IX, to the west of the Vatican. The Papal toponyms exist among those of Roman nobles (at the service of the Curia), and among many saints and figures of Christianity. “Roma è il centro della cristianità. Ne è orgogliosa.“, Rome is the centre of Christianity, and she is proud of it, says Ignazio Marino, then mayor of Rome.

Among Emperors, Popes, Roman nobles, and great saints, stands a small but central Piazza Martin Lutero. The German theologian of the Reformation is now present among them. He has the “right to exist” on the map and his story the “right to be narrated”. Luther’s name written on the map in the heart of Rome is an indicator of a much bigger change: the Catholic hierarchy is reflecting, deeper, upon Luther’s ideas. Pope Francis has already said it many a time: Luther’s intention was to renew the Church, not to divide her. A great leap towards reconciliation: the excommunication against him is not yet rescinded, Luther is not (yet?) a saint, but the Catholic Church is, finally, saying: “I hear what you say”, and gives him the right place to be present in her centre.


[1]One-eighth of humanity belong to Protestant denominations today. And Protestantism, by its many currents and theological schools, does participate in all aspects of Christianity, positively and negatively.

[2]Officially Lutherstadt Wittenberg.

[3]For these five hundred years Martin Luther, the central figure of the Reformation movement, has been controversial and misunderstood : proponents of the Roman Catholic Church see him as a figure of division, reformed Churches and denominations consider him as the champion of the true Christian cause against the corrupt Roman Church. But Luther was neither: he was an honest man, a well-read theologian who wanted to reform the Church, without any intention of creating division. When he passed away in 1546 the Church was one in his eyes: no Roman Catholic, Protestant, or “Greek” Churches, just one Holy, Apostolic Church in dire need for reform and renewal.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Jack Keilo ( Jacques Keilo ) (November 4, 2017). Martin Luther in Rome: Piazza Martin Lutero in the Eternal centre. Centrici. Retrieved July 25, 2024 from

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