What connected Martin Luther, a young monk and philosophy instructor at the University of Erfurt, to Rome (a thousand miles away)? The story began when Luther’s monastic order, the Augustinians, sent him on a journey to Rome in late 1510. He set off on foot, staying in monasteries along the way.
When Luther approached Rome, he saw a skyline of towers—along the twelve miles of walls surrounding the city, at bridges, nobles’ homes, ancient monuments, and even the Vatican—built for protection as well as style.
Following the route of pilgrims, Luther walked through pastures and vineyards to visit Rome’s most ancient churches, kneeling as he climbed the Holy Stairs (Pontius Pilate’s staircase of twenty-two marble steps that Jesus Christ climbed before his trial and crucifixion), repeating the Our Father on every step.
Rome had been decaying for centuries, and only the popes’ initiatives improved the city. In the late 1400s, Pope Sixtus IV had restored the city’s aqueduct system for its water supply, improved the port, and re-fortified the city’s defenses.
Luther had no chance to see or meet Pope Julius II, who was away leading a military campaign to drive French armies out of Italy.
Nor could Luther see the grand design of Saint Peter’s Basilica (as it was under construction) or the paintings by Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, and Raphael in the Vatican Palace (which was closed to commoners).
Was Luther’s journey to Rome the reason he called for reform of the Church? Years later, Luther’s son reported that before Martin Luther reached the top of the Holy Stairs, he heard God’s voice saying, “the just shall live by faith,” but no confirmation has been found.
Scholars who have examined Luther’s writings find nothing that shows his visit had an impact on his view of the Church or his spiritual beliefs. He returned to Erfurt and continued to teach there until the Augustinian order transferred him back to Wittenberg in 1512.
Imagine if you were a monk visiting Rome in the early 1500s. Would the holy sites have left you in awe, or would you have concluded the Church needed reform?