The Thirty Years War was the first great European war. It began as a struggle over power and religion in Bohemia, and was fought out mainly in the innumerable German states, large and small - there were approximately
300 independent political entities of which eighty were large enough to play a practical part. But gradually the balance of power in Europe itself became the real driving force behind the bloodbath. Spanish influence at the Imperial court at Prague was strong, and the Spaniards could legitimise their struggle for power as support for the Emperor and as a campaign for Catholicism in apostate northern Europe.
The energetic Ferdinand II became emperor in 1619, and he immediately put all his resources into gaining control of the Bohemian Protestant rebels. At first the war went extremely well, from Rome's point of view too. The Protestant forces were crushed in 1620 at Bila Hora - the white mountain -in Bohemia. With Spanish help Emperor Ferdinand brutally followed this up by confiscating estates and executing prominent Protestants in Prague.
After that he organised a large army under the command of the tactical genius Wallenstein. Wallenstein solved the logistical problems of war by simply allowing his soldiers to plunder and pillage their way through the landscape - doing away with the need for long supply lines. This method also had the advantage that it eased army recruitment. Within the plundered areas there was simply no other way to live.
The success of the Emperor and Wallenstein in the south meant that they began turning their gaze to northern Germany. Not only might they win back the Lutheran areas to Catholicism, but a naval base on the Baltic would mean influence over the North Sea and the Baltic States.
This frightened German Hanseatic cities as well as the English, Dutch, Swedes and Danes. But it was also very worrying for Catholic France, which certainly did not want its arch-rival Spain to gain a dominant position in large parts of Europe.
Thus the war put the Pope in a dilemma. The papal court was traditionally the arena for intense rivalry between Spain and France. But the Pope was also a temporal monarch who ruled over the Papal States, and he had the Spanish dominated Kingdom of Naples as a powerful neighbour right on his southern border.
Urban VIII Barberini was a francophile. His career had taken off in France, where he had shone at court. As pope he needed a powerful France for political reasons, as a counterweight to Spain. But the French, led by Cardinal Richelieu gradually began to support the Protestants quite openly. This was something that the Prince of the Church could not countenance. Urban had to show solidarity with the imperial war effort, but his solidarity was limited to words of encouragement: he provided neither funds nor troops.
Instead the money went to the construction of the Papal States' own defences, and not a little to the Barberini family itself. The extent of this nepotism can be glimpsed from the fact that when he was elected pope, Maffeo Barberini had an estimated fortune of 15,000 scudi. After a few years on St Peter's throne he purchased an entire region and its noble title for his nephew Taddeo for 750,000 scudi.59 And Taddeo was only one of many relatives.
This caused discont in Rome. People whispered that the Pope was not sufficiently concerned with the Catholic faith and its dissemination - indeed, that he was apathetic or veering towards the heretical.
Urban VIII noted the change of atmosphere and became more and more mistrustful. His open, inquisitive nature slowly congealed into a rigid self-importance that brooked no contradiction or criticism, either of his political or religious judgements or his purely personal and not inconsiderable vanity.
The Barberini Pope had always been superstitious, something Galileo's enemies in Rome tried to capitalise on. There were rumours of a horoscope that predicted imminent death for both Urban and his nephew Taddeo. The horoscope was said to have been cast by a Vallumbrosan monk, and some (perhaps knowing that Galileo had gone to school at Vallombrosa) claimed that it was actually the "mathematician and astrologer" Galileo who was responsible. Galileo understood the gravity of this and got one of his friends in Rome to intercede, a Florentine with the resounding name of Michelangelo Buonarroti, nephew of the great Renaissance master. Galileo extricated himself from the affair - but the danger of rousing the Pope's displeasure was emphasised by the fate of the Vallumbrosian monk: he was arrested and died in prison awaiting his trial.
Urban VIII had no need to fear the portents of the sky; he was to live another fourteen years. But increasingly often he was away from Rome. He had a magnificent papal summer residence built in the Alban Hills some miles south of the city, where the summer climate was pleasant and the white wine excellent. Out here, near the small town of Castelgandolfo Urban felt relatively safe from his adversaries, but he still had his food tasted by servants before he dared to eat it himself.
Within Italy itself problems were mounting. The Pope's relations with Tuscany and the grand ducal family took a serious turn for the worse due to an inheritance conflict over the little dukedom of Urbino. For safety's sake Urban had his troops occupy the area, which he wanted to annexe to the Papal States.
All this occurred gradually during the 1620s. The emergence of a new epoch, the "marvellous combination of circumstances" which Galileo had rejoiced over in 1623, was definitely in the process of receding.
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