Galileo: Heretic 
by Pietro Redondi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal.
Allen Lane, 356 pp., £17.95, April 1988, 0 7139 9007 4
Show More
Show More

One of the most intriguing features of the dramatic clash between Galileo and the Holy Office of the Inquisition is its apparently endless capacity to generate new hypotheses about the aims of the protagonists and even the minor figures in the cast. What was Galileo himself trying to do? Was he simply a disinterested investigator of nature, a man of science who found himself involved in theological controversy, more or less by accident? Was he a committed Copernican, as fanatical in his own way as his ecclesiastical opponents? Or was he a devout Catholic with his own ideas about the direction in which the Church should move? What were the aims of the Inquisitors? Were they disinterested investigators of deviators from orthodoxy, whoever these turned out to be, or were they trying to trap Galileo? If the latter, was anyone encouraging them from behind the scenes? What was the role of the Pope in all this – the pro-intellectual Urban VIII, in whose time Galileo was condemned, and the anti-intellectual Paul V, in whose time he received his first warning? What was the role of the Jesuit cardinal Roberto Bellarmino? It seems fairly clear that in 1616 Galileo was enjoined not to hold the proposition that the Sun is in the centre of the universe, that in 1633 he was tried by the Roman Inquisition on a charge of ‘vehement suspicion of heresy’, and that he was condemned to indefinite imprisonment, later commuted to house arrest in his Tuscan villa. Beyond this small zone of clarity, however, many important points remain obscure.

In the last generation or so, many different answers have been given to these questions. According to Ludovico Geymonat, author of one of the most influential studies of Galileo, first published in 1957, Galileo’s project was to gain the support of the Church for the new science in general, and Copernicanism in particular. He was engaged in the politics of culture. Like Geymonat, Giorgio de Santillana sees Galileo as engaged in cultural politics, as ‘a classic type of humanist, trying to bring his culture to the awareness of the new scientific ideas’, but adds that he was foiled by a conspiracy of three men – Niccolo Lorini, a Dominican friar and professor of ecclesiastical history at Florence, his Dominican colleague Tommaso Caccini, and the Florentine philosopher Lodovico delle Colombe. According to Arthur Koestler, however, Galileo was the victim of his own fatal flaws: ‘vanity, jealousy and self-righteousness combined into a demoniac force which drove him to the brink of self-destruction’. According to Stillman Drake, who has devoted a lifetime of research to Galileo, Galileo was a zealot, not for Copernicus but for the Church, anxious to prevent it from taking a false step and condemning what might be later proved to be true. According to Paul Feyerabend, Galileo used ‘propaganda’ and ‘psychological tricks’ in defence of his cause, a suggestion which deserves to be elaborated by a scholar familiar with the media, the rhetoric and the techniques of self-presentation in 17th-century Italy.

The epistemological issues raised by the Galileo affair are also fascinating, and much more subtle than legend would have it, notably the legend of the condemned scientist muttering Eppur si muove – ‘After all, it does move!’ The opposing positions were both expressed with lucidity and vigour in texts dating from 1615, the year before the warning to Galileo. On one side, Roberto Bellarmino thought it would be useful to treat the heliocentrism of Copernicus as a hypothesis that would enable the Church to ‘save the appearances’. What is dangerous, he said, is ‘to wish to affirm that the Sun is really in the centre of the universe.’ On the other side, Galileo, in his letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, pointed out that the Bible never lies, but is sometimes misinterpreted. If it seems to say that the Earth is in the centre of the universe, this is because the Holy Spirit has adapted or ‘accommodated’ the text to the capacity of ordinary people. What is dangerous is to interpret such a passage literally, instead of looking for its true meaning. It has sometimes been suggested that Bellarmino was a better philosopher of science than Galileo, or at least a more forward-looking one, since he anticipated the relativism of later centuries. If so, we should also say that Galileo was a better and more forward-looking theologian than Bellarmino. Both the famous letters of 1615 undermine literal interpretations and suggest that the truth is hidden behind the appearances.

After so much research on the Galileo affair, one scarcely expects anyone to come up with a really novel hypothesis to explain the condemnation. However, this is what Pietro Redondi, an Italian scholar working in Paris, has done in his Galileo Eretico, first published by Einaudi in 1983 and just translated into English. Redondi has not only produced a new hypothesis, he has also discovered a new document. This is something of an achievement, given the fact that the Holy Office does not normally allow access to their archives. Redondi was admitted to the archives, so he tells us, only because he had inferred the existence of an unpublished document which the custodians could not or at any rate did not deny having. He was allowed to see a volume of manuscripts, although he was authorised to consult only the two-page letter for which he had asked (whether or not he looked at the rest of the volume, Redondi does not confess).

The letter, which is printed at the end of Galileo: Heretic, is anonymous. It is effectively a denunciation of Galileo as a heretic. It notes that Galileo ‘openly declares himself a follower of the school of Democritus and Epicurus’ – and therefore, a believer in atoms – and goes on to point out the incompatibility between this view and the dogma of trans-substantiation, which depends on the scholastic distinction between the ‘accidents’, the appearances of bread and wine in the consecrated host, and the ‘substance’, the body and blood of Christ. In other words, the atomists are necessarily unorthodox in their view of the truth behind the appearances. Redondi identifies the author of this anonymous denunciation as Orazio Grassi, professor at the Jesuit College in Rome.

It is well-known that the difference of opinion between Professor Grassi and Professor Galilei about the comets seen in the sky in 1618 turned into a major controversy, embittered by personal enmity. Galileo’s copy of Grassi’s lecture on the comets survives, annotated with insults like ‘ass’, ‘buffalo’, ‘most elephantine’ – pezzo d’asinaccio, bufolaccio, elefantissimo. Galileo’s published reply, scarcely more gentle, provoked an answer from Grassi, under the title of ‘The Balance’, which hinted broadly that Galileo believed in something the mere mention of which was ‘offensive to pious ears’ – viz., the motion of the Earth. Galileo’s famous pamphlet ‘The Assayer’ (published in 1623) was a response to Grassi’s answer, indeed a mockery of it. And now Redondi is suggesting that Grassi had the last word, in an anonymous letter which begins with the words ‘Having recently looked at Signor Galileo Galilei’s book entitled “The Assayer” ... ’

In a sense, Redondi is replacing one conspiracy theory by another, the Dominicans by the Jesuits. This change leads him, however, to the revolutionary conclusion that the heresy for which Galileo was condemned was not his notorious Copernicanism, but his atomism. One might say that he jumps to this conclusion. If Galileo was denounced for one heresy, this would not stop him being summoned to court on suspicion of another. It was only to be expected that Redondi’s book would be strongly criticised by fellow historians (one discussion, in the Rivista Storica Italiana, runs, in true Italian style, to sixty pages and accuses Redondi of writing ‘historical fiction’, fantastoria). Galileo: Heretic is certainly a highly sophisticated piece of narrative, moving with ease between the events of the Galileo affair and the story of Redondi’s own detective work, his quest. It is also a good deal more than that. Even if its conclusions were to be rejected, the book would retain much of its value as history for its account of the Roman intellectual world in the first half of the 17th century and for the method which underlies this account.

Redondi’s book first appeared in a series of ‘microhistories’ edited by Carlo Ginzburg, a series of studies employing the concepts of anthropologists and concerned with history from below, often at village level. At first sight, few figures appear more remote from microhistory than Galileo, although he, like Ginzburg’s heretical miller Menocchio, who saw the cosmos in terms of worms in a cheese, was summoned to account for himself before the tribunal of the Inquisition. All the same, Redondi’s study is related to its companions in the series by the author’s concern with the rituals of everyday life in Rome and, at a more profound level, with the relation between politics and culture, which he discusses much more fully than Geymonat and Santillana had done. He studies the Galileo affair as a ‘social drama’, which reveals many of the conflicts, overt and covert, of the society in which the trial took place.

The city in which Galileo was fêted in 1611, warned in 1616 and condemned in 1633 was Bernini’s Rome: the ‘incomparable theatre of tyranny and politics’, as Redondi calls it, an appropriate capital for a ‘theatre state’ in which the Pope’s lack of divisions was camouflaged or compensated for by a magnificent succession of sacred dramas – processions, blessings, masses, canonisations of saints, executions of heretics, and other spectacles. Redondi is a connoisseur of the Roman scene of the period, and some of his best passages deal with rituals. There are the Carnival rites of 1626, including academic performances – and a religious play by Orazio Grassi. There are the ‘Judicial Rites’ of 1624: in effect, the sentencing of a heretic (a dead man, inconveniently for the Inquisitors), Marcantonio De Dominis, sometime Catholic Archbishop of Spalato (now Split) and Anglican Dean of Windsor (and a mathematician into the bargain). There is also, inevitably, the drama of Galileo’s trial. These set-pieces are written in a style of appropriate bravura, so it is a pity to have to record that Redondi has been ill-served by his translator. One would never guess from this rather wooden English version that the original is marvellously readable. The translation is sometimes obscure and not always accurate (the description of De Dominis as ‘deacon’ rather than ‘dean’ is a fairly typical error).

Redondi’s descriptions of the everyday dramas of Papal Rome are perhaps too long for a book which claims to be concerned with Galileo, and a little self-indulgent. They set the scene for Galileo’s controversies with the theologians, however, showing us as well as telling us that in Rome in the 17th century the publication of a scientific treatise might be a dramatic event, and leading up to the suggestion that in its day ‘The Assayer’ was ‘a literary sensation’, written not only for Galileo’s fellow researchers but for a wider public of virtuosi. The Renaissance ideal of the universal man was not yet dead in Bernini’s Rome, as the example of Bernini himself may remind us, a sculptor and architect who was also capable of writing a play for Carnival and staging it in a theatre of his own design. Come to that, Orazio Grassi was something of a universal man, a major architect, as Redondi points out, as well as an astronomer and a mathematician. This many-sidedness is manifest in the author’s glittering description of the Roman cultural scene, in which he evokes such figures as the brilliant rhetorician Agostino Mascardi, the neo-stoic moralist Virgilio Malvezzi, whose reputation would extend from Charles I’s England to Philip IV’s Spain, and the aristocrat Virginio Cesarini, author of a lost commentary in verse on Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things, a commentary which presumably discussed the atomism for which Grassi reproached Galileo. The split between the two cultures had still to take place.

Redondi also takes us ‘back-stage’ – to use his favourite metaphor – to reveal the conventions of intellectual warfare in this period and to convey the excitement of battle. He reminds us that the controversy between Galileo and Grassi was a fight between masked men. Grassi’s original discussion of comets was published as the work of ‘one of the Fathers of the Collegio Romano’ and it was answered in the name of Galileo’s friend Mario Guiducci. Grassi’s reply, ‘The Balance’, was written, like many controversial works of the time, under a more-or-less anagrammatic pseudonym, in this case ‘Lotario Sarsi’. Redondi gives us a gripping account of the way in which ‘Sarsi’ was unmasked by the Galileans, who suspected Grassi and set a trap for him, placing an advance copy of ‘The Assayer’ in a bookshop called The Sun. Grassi heard about it and ‘rushed there’: ‘He arrived out of breath ... “He changed colour” and, with that irascible and impulsive character known by all, could not restrain himself from scolding the bookstore owner, as if he had anything to do with it. Although Galileo had kept him waiting three years for a reply, he said, it would take him only three months to reciprocate.’

The incident is presented as a skirmish in a long campaign waged between two factions, the friends of Galileo and his enemies, or, more generally, between the supporters and the opponents of what Redondi calls una linea di apertura culturale e politica, translated by Rosenthal as ‘liberalisation’. This interpretation of the Galileo affair, like the ‘dark lights’ described in Chapter Four, at once obscures and illuminates. It illuminates by making the reader aware of the fact that 17th-century Rome was an arena in which cliques, factions and pressure groups struggled for access to the centre of power, for the Pope’s ear. In this sense, Galileo: Heretic is a successful work of ‘microhistory’. It is flawed, however, by the author’s refusal to carry micro-historical analysis far enough to dissolve his simple, anachronistic models of progressives and reactionaries.

In a sense, Redondi is being deliberately anachronistic. Since Leszek Kolakowski published his book on Christians without a Church in Warsaw in 1965, I have not seen a study of Early Modern Europe which so insistently demands an allegorical reading (though the translator offers no assistance to readers unfamiliar with contemporary Italian politics). The apertura for which Galileo was working echoes the famous apertura a sinistra of a few years ago. The Jesuits, Redondi’s bêtes noires, are nicknamed ‘Piazza Gesu’, thus aligning them with the Christian Democrats, whose headquarters in Rome are on that square. Grassi’s plot against Galileo is described as G3, a 17th-century equivalent of P2. It is all great fun – but unfortunately there is a price to pay for these analogies. The price is over-dramatisation. Redondi presents the past in simplistic terms of heroes and villains. There is a little too much chiaroscuro here.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences