Grassi gets a fright

Peter Burke

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.

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