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Sunday, August 20, 2017
Date Posted:
7/28/2003

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)


IL Gioiello Arcetri: If only walls could speak!


Dr Clive Gillis

The church history trail easily goes cold. Nevertheless if enough people are asked, someone will usually know.

Tracking down the villa in Arcetri on the southern hillsides of Florence was no exception. Here Galileo was a virtual prisoner for the last nine years of his life by order of the Pope and the Holy Roman Inquisition.

Il Gioiello, as the villa is still called, is now a private property. My wife, who speaks some Italian, had several animated and waving encounters before we providentially parked right outside it. Each helpful bystander tried to point out that we were way off track. Each forcefully insisted that the famous telescope is in the Galileo museum by the River Arno in the city centre. This we well knew having been there several times. No! we want to see Il Gioiello.

Il Gioiello is situated a mile or so from the crowds thronging the centre of Florence. The lanes are narrow, the walls are high, and the villas behind those walls belong to the super rich. A few locals were braving the heat at siesta time. Down in Florence city centre one school party after another and thousands of tourists were filing endlessly past the Galileo monument in the huge dimly lit Franciscan church of Santa Croce (Holy Cross). But without knowing the secrets of Il Gioiello their understanding of the Galileo affair must remain as dim as the illumination in the church.

His imprisonment

Rome has made much of the Protestant prints of “Galileo in Prison”, which are supposedly fabricated. But modern historians now admit Il Gioiello was far harsher than Sienna where his room was “richly furnished … with silk tapestries.” Within days of arriving at Il Gioiello he visited his devoted daughter on her deathbed in a nearby convent. When he returned he wrote, “By sinister coincidence, on returning home from the Convent in company with the doctor who had just told me her condition was hopeless and she would not survive the next day … I found the Inquisitor’s Vicar here, who informed me of a mandate of the Holy Office at Rome, that I must desist from asking for grace [not to be under perpetual house arrest] or they would take me back to the actual prison of the Holy Office. From which I infer that my present confinement is to be terminated only by that other one which is common to all,” meaning of course, his death.

His arthritis flared. He wrote, “my hernia has become more serious and my palpitations worse…”. He had “immense sadness and melancholy … [and] perpetual sleeplessness”. He then became blind. He asked to see a doctor in Florence, but the Inquisition refused, though later they relented after an inspection by the Inquisition’s medical expert. Even then he was still kept under house arrest and was refused permission to be carried out on a chair by his friends. When he addressed his letters “From my prison in Arcetri,” he was not exaggerating.

John Milton’s visit

Worse than blindness, the Inquisition was deliberately and maliciously allowing that great intellect to rust by isolating him from company. He said, “Old age lessens the speed and vividness of my thinking … I struggle … to understand … things I proved when I was younger”. Protestant Europe was outraged. John Milton, “found and visited the famous Galileo, grown old, a prisoner of the Inquisition”. Milton was shocked to discover Rome’s stranglehold on learning in Italy. This was brought about through the Inquisition, and “the servile condition to which [learning] has been brought”. At some personal risk, Louis Elsevir of the Protestant Dutch printing firm at Leyden, which had well served the Reformation by printing Bibles, sought out Galileo at Il Gioiello, with plans to beat the Inquisition and publish all his works.

A whisper

The world has believed for nearly four years centuries that this “tragic mutual incomprehension” (as Pope John Paul II lamely called the condemnation of Gailileo by the Inquisition in the course of his apology ceremony in 1992) which led to such cruel treatment of the old scientist, was due to the Dominican Inquisition’s rejection of Galileo’s views on astronomy rather than a dastardly ambush by the Jesuits. Indeed this infamous behaviour of the Jesuits would never have come to light had not some whispers escaped from Il Gioiello and come down to us through the centuries.

In a letter written early from Il Gioiello, Galileo commented on the severity of his treatment by the Inquisition. He wrote of the global nature of his gagging order that it was “an express order that they should not allow any [italics mine] of my works to be reprinted which have been printed many years ago or grant permission for any new work, a most rigorous order, I say, again all my works … [italics mine]. For Galileo had written on every conceivable aspect of science, not just astronomy, yet his gag was to be total. This was unusual for the bureaucratic Inquisition, who much preferred to make their point by dividing up a heretic’s writings into sound and unsound, taking years in the process and getting well paid for their trouble.

Pietro Redondi

In the 1980’s Pietro Redondi, a French historical researcher with an intimate knowledge and access to the great libraries of Italy, was working upon Galileo’s ideas on the nature of light. During this research he came upon a most intriguing whisper from Il Gioiello which led to the discovery of a hitherto unknown document in today’s Inquisition. After further fascinating research into the murky world of Rome’s Jesuits, their guilt was finally established. Had Galileo not been brought low in Il Gioiello the vital clue would have been lost.

The Assayer

It happened like this. In 1623 Galileo published a book which is called in English The Assayer. It contested the astronomical views of one Lotario Sarsi, an unimportant pupil of the Jesuits. In this book Galileo firmly rejected Aristotle’s theory of matter and followed the Greek philosopher Democritus and the Franciscan William of Ockham, in proposing a very well defined atomic structure of matter. Then subsequently, and completely out of character for such a rigorous mind as Galileo’s, Redoni noticed that Galileo, by writing subtly and introducing changes a little at a time, and by relying on inexact definitions and ambiguous choice of words, progressively dismantled his thesis of the atomic structure of matter. Fortunately, Redoni, undaunted, asked Why?

Vincenzo Viviani

We must briefly retrace our steps. It so happened that in 1638, a year after Galileo went blind, Providence brought a brilliant sixteen year old boy with a flare for mathematics, Vincenzo Viviani, to Il Gioiello. As a young lad without influence, the Inquisition had no interest to him. Viviani loved the old scientist, who taught him much. In return Viviani “wrote his letters, read aloud his responses and helped Galileo reconstruct his earlier investigations”. In effect he became a “second son”, one who came to know the mature Galileo inside out as, winter by winter, they conversed deep into the dark night.

Twelve years after Galileo’s death in Il Gioiello in 1642, Viviani completed the earliest biography of Galileo. The taint of heresy was such that even that work had to be published after Viviani’s own death in the 18th Century. Viviani was incensed that he had lived under the Popes Urban VII, Innocent X and Alexander VII who had glorified themselves, expending vast sums on enormous, elaborate marble tombs bearing their effigies, admired by millions in St Peter’s, Rome, to this day, while he could not get the Franciscans of Santa Croce in Florence even to raise a simple plaque to Galileo. Childless, Viviani left his entire estate for that purpose.

Galileo’s intimacy with Viviani at Il Gioiello must make Viviani’s reminiscences reliable. Writing about the publication of The Assayer in 1623, Viviani insists that it was this event that was the cause “of all the misfortunes to which from that hour [italics mine] until his last days Signor Galileo was subjected by relentless persecution for his every deed and word”. Viviani is definite that it was following the publication of The Assayer and not after the 1616 trial that “slanders and refutations from his enemies and opponents … then [italics mine] kept him almost always in distress”.

The mysterious G3

Redondi’s research subsequently led him right into the heart of today’s Inquisition where he discovered a previously unknown anonymous denunciation of Galileo to the Inquisition. It was labelled “G3”. The sanctimonious and anonymous informant had no complaints about Galileo’s views on astronomy but laid a grave complaint about the theory of atoms in The Assayer. He maintained that this theory posed a serious threat to transubstantiation and the Mass as set forth by the Council of Trent. Now, in “G3” the “3” was probably the number of sheets. But was “G” Galileo or is this the first letter of the informant’s name? We shall see.

The indictment ran, “Having in these past days perused Signor Galileo’s book entitled The Assayer, I have come to consider a doctrine … rejected by Aristotle but received by the same Signor Galileo … this doctrine appears false … very difficult and dangerous … I propose to you Very Reverend Father … its meaning … which will serve as my warning”. Then “G” explains Galileo’s theory of atoms in detail and with great intellectual grasp, quoting with precise accuracy from The Assayer. “G” concludes, “if one admits this philosophy of accidents as true, it seems to me, that makes greatly difficult the existence of the accidents of the bread and wine which in the most Holy Sacrament are separated from their substance … which is the error condemned by Sacred Tridentine Council [Council of Trent] Session 13 Canon 2 … which consequence seems to me in conflict with the whole communion of Theologians … [and] repugnant to the Sacred Councils”.

“G” could be in one of three camps. He was unlikely to be a Dominican because they were Galileo’s open opponents. They ran the Inquisition and had no motive for secrecy. Nor was it likely to come from the scientific community because it had greeted The Assayer with delight and Galileo was lauded in the exclusive Accademia dei Lincei [Lynx like ones] in Rome.

On the other hand, the Jesuits who had supported Galileo at first were now faced with a challenge to the mass at this crucial time of Counter Reformation. They were regaining Protestant churches and congregations wholesale in Bohemia, Moravia, Germany and Poland, and defacing their interiors with flamboyant baroque decoration with a huge central sunburst to promote transubstantiation. Lotario Sarsi (see above), whose views The Assayer totally rubbished, was really a pseudonym concealing a Jesuit Father Grassi, one of the chief scientists at Rome’s immensely powerful Collegio Romano, the forerunner of today’s Georgian University.

We shall see in the next issue, DV, whether Fr. Grassi was in reality “G” and how the whole exercise of destroying Galileo anonymously was conducted with breathtaking, typically Jesuit, cloak and dagger intrigue, more like fiction than real life.

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