When the greatest scourge of the Catholics, Gustav Adolf, the 'Lion of the North', fell at the battle of Lützen in the autumn of 1632, that grim war north of the Alps had raged for fourteen years. All across Catholic Europe thanksgiving masses were said. When news of the Swedish King's death reached Rome, His Holiness Pope Urban VIII ordered a Te Deum to be performed in the Sistine Chapel, and he himself sang the versicles.
Most of the inhabitants of the Italian states also gave thanks to God, glad to have avoided the war itself and the great, destructive bands of soldiers that plundered and starved whole regions. But this did not mean the Italians had been spared misfortunes of every sort. War's sinister step-brother, the plague, was ravaging the peninsula.
The Grand Duchy of Tuscany and its capital, Florence, were severely affected. Everyone knew the symptoms: sufferers were stricken with faintness, and after a few hours black buboes appeared in the groin and armpits. The buboes were a sure sign. Everyone knew then what to expect. The sick and their relatives could do little more than wait. And they did not have to wait long. Soon, dark spots appeared all over the body, followed by a high fever, the bouts of bloody vomiting and a swift, certain death.
In the small village of Arcetri, on a wooded hillside just south of Florence, an old man sat writing his will. He had to make a journey to Rome and wanted to be prepared for every eventuality. If the plague did not get him on the road, the strain of travelling might finish him off; in addition he had been ill most of the autumn, with dizziness, stomach pains and a serious hernia. And even if he survived these difficulties, and the cold winter wind from the Apennines did not give him pneumonia, he had no idea what awaited him in Rome, only that his arrival was unlikely to be celebrated with a special mass.
He had attempted to put off the journey all the previous autumn by pleading that he was elderly and frail. It had made not the least difference; if anything it had irritated his powerful enemies even more. The last summons he had received had been quite unambiguous: if he did not come instantly of his own volition he would be arrested, put in chains and taken away despite his advanced age and high standing.
He walked the short distance through the bare cornfields and vineyards to visit his two daughters. Both were nuns at the convent of San Matteo, married only to Christ. He had personally been instrumental in this. Only a couple of years ago he had moved to the villa in Arcetri, to be closer to both of them. Now he was not sure if he would ever meet them again. But he knew they would pray for him, and that their prayers might be needed.
Next, he sent a summons to his only son and his two small grandchildren, both boys, so that he could take his leave of them. The elder of the boys had just turned three and had been christened after him. The will that he had just made named his son as his sole heir.
The old man's employer and protector was the youthful Grand Duke of Tuscany. Although the name of Medici still commanded some respect, the 22-year old ruler could do nothing to prevent his ageing mathematician and philosopher from having to make this humiliating and dangerous journey. But the Grand Duke provided the most comfortable means of travel at his disposal, a commodious carriage from the grand ducal carriage houses. The trip would still take at least a fortnight, but it would ease the strain on the old man a little.
On 20 January 1633, he set out southwards from Florence. After a couple of days' travelling through the Chianti region he arrived at Siena, where he had spent a winter during his youth, almost half a century earlier. Now wind and sleet blew across the brick-red, amphitheatre-like city square, and he had no time to relive old memories. He continued slowly southwards through the great chestnut forests on the slopes of Monte Amiata, the mountain that forms an almost perfect cone as it rises steeply above the low wooded hillsides that surround it.
When he got to Ponte a Centina near the little border town of Acquapen-dente, a nasty surprise greeted him. Because of the plague no one was allowed into the Papal States without fourteen days' quarantine. Sleeping accommodation was pitiful and it was hard to buy food. He managed to get bread and wine, and occasionally a few eggs. His orders had been to come to Rome as quickly as possible, and the old man believed he had been given exemption from quarantine. But the border guards had their orders: no exceptions regardless of errand.
Finally he was able to proceed, past Lake Bolsena, down to Viterbo and on to the Via Cassia, one of the many roads that radiated from the ancient city of Rome. That soon took him into the city.
He arrived in Rome on 13 February. It was the first Sunday in Lent and two days before his sixty-ninth birthday. Here, one small consolation awaited him: he was to be the guest of the Grand Duke's Ambassador until his case came up.
Theimpressivevillaon theslopesofMonte Pincioconjured upmemories of happier visits to Rome, when his name had been on the lips of everyone in the city and all of them - professors, cardinals, noblemen, even His Holiness himself - wanted to hear about his theories and discoveries. Now the Embassy had become a benign prison. But at least for the time being he was spared real imprisonment. This gave him the slender hope that everything might yet be sorted out amicably.
Hope grew as week after week went by and the Ambassador appeared to work assiduously on his behalf. The spring came, he could sit in the great park that surrounded the villa, and enjoy elevated views right across the city to St. Peters on the far side of the Tiber and admire the dome that his great Tuscan compatriot Michelangelo had constructed. But he was racked with rheumatism, and the news from his family back home in Florence was troubling: the plague had flared up once more. The Florentines heard the constant ringing of small bells in the evening darkness, announcing that the corpse-bearers were at work.
In reality, the Ambassador achieved little by his enquiries, other than to gain time. But he revealed none of this in order to spare the old man as much anxiety as possible. Finally, on 9 April, the summons came: the Grand Duke's mathematician and philosopher, signor Galileo Galilei, had to appear before the Holy Office, also known as the Inquisition, in three days' time. There he would be interrogated and incarcerated for an indefinite period, until judgement was delivered in the case against him.
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