One of Galileo's closest friends in Venice was the Servite monk Paolo Sarpi. Brother Sarpi was an extremely scholarly man who had occupied an elevated position within his order at its headquarters in Rome, where he had been on good terms with Pope Sixtus V and above all with the powerful Jesuit, Robert Bellarmine. When the heads of the order wanted to reform their cloisters, Sarpi was chosen for the job. He was sent northwards from Rome as a highly trusted and respected cleric.
Sarpi was, in reality, a man full of doubts, influenced by the Reformation and the new ideas of his age. He wriggled out of the assignment, settled in Venice and offered his services to the republic, but remained within the Servite Order. In this way he led a kind of double existence. He wore a mask that protected him from the wrath of the Inquisition. Behind it, he lived a reserved and cautious life with the equivocation and sceptical ambivalence he felt towards all accepted truths, whether in religion, politics or science. Amongst the things he doubted was the Holy Trinity, and he believed Jesus was a prophet, not the son of God. He discussed such views with rabbis in Venice, an intellectual exercise that was far from safe.
Sarpi and Galileo were naturally drawn to each other. Theological questions certainly did not interest Galileo, but Sarpi's sceptical inquisitiveness was all-encompassing. The two discussed cosmology, mechanics, kinematics and the theory of heat - the latter resulting in a rather imprecise instrument for measuring temperature, the "thermoscope".
Relations between Venice and Rome were strained. The Republic defended its independence, while the papacy was worried that heretical ideas from the north might creep in through Venice, and tried to assert its supremacy in all matters connected with religious life.
The crisis came when two priests were arrested in Venice in 1605 and accused of murder. The church demanded that, following the normal rules, they be handed over to their clerical superiors, who would then look into the matter. The Venetian Senate refused to hand them over and instead arraigned the priests before a secular court. The church regarded this as a serious attack on its privileges.
In Rome, the jurist and theologian Camillo Borghese had just been elected pope under the name Paul V. His personal lifestyle was simple and modest - but he had very definite ideas about the absolute authority of the papacy. The very day after his election he ordered the immediate decapitation of a writer from Cremona, whose offence had been to compare a former pope with the Roman Emperor Tiberius.
Pope Paul was furious at Venice's treatment of the two priests, and mobilised his best ecclesiastical lawyers to draft a recommendation, a legal basis for action against the Republic. This work was handed over to a group of Jesuit experts, led by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, Sarpi's old friend, and the man who had played a decisive role in the case against Giordano Bruno.
Based on this recommendation, the Pope brought out his greatest weapon, apart from open warfare: in April 1606 he placed an interdict on Venice. He forbade all ecclesiastical services to the Venetians, like mass, the giving of communion and other sacraments, including Christian burial. This meant that anyone who died in Venice, had to spend eternity in a Dantesque hell.
During the Bruno affair the Venetian authorities had not bent over backwards to try to save the sceptical friar from extradition. But now it was no longer a question of a friar's fate, or that of a couple of priests - it was a question of power, of just how much legal sovereignty an independent state really had in relation to the Church.
So the Senate struck back hard and fast. It ordered all priests in the Venetian region to regard Rome's interdict as invalid, it expelled all Jesuits from Venetian soil and drafted its own legal counter-recommendation which concluded that the Pope's bull of excommunication was "not in keeping with any natural reason whatever, and in contravention of the teachings of Holy Writ, of the Church Fathers' doctrines and of the holy canonical writings". The interdict was therefore "not only illegal and unwarranted, but also void and without force of any kind"17.
This recommendation - and here one can really talk about "spitting in Rome's eye" - was formulated by Paolo Sarpi. The friar represented a new era in the political field. He was defending the modern, secular state which can arrive at independent decisions on an impartial legal, rather than a theological, basis.
In so doing Brother Paolo Sarpi had stepped forward and shown that, behind the mask, he was a very courageous man. But when the crisis developed to the point of war, he was ordered to present himself at Rome. He very wisely refrained from making the journey.
The interdict was rescinded after a year, after a compromise that satisfied neither of the parties. But there were some who remembered Sarpi's involvement.
Venice's labyrinthine network of narrow, dark alleys should have been an ideal place for assassination. But the two armed men who attacked Sarpi one autumn evening in 1607, did not manage to complete the job. They left the friar bleeding profusely, with a stab wound through his cheek, but not dead. Whether it was the Pope himself or the even more hurt and enraged Bellarmine who was behind the murder attempt, has never been firmly established.
Sarpi had his own suspicions. "I recognise the Roman curia's stilus," he said. Stilus can mean both "style" and "sharp instrument". The attackers got away.
The Senate realised that Sarpi needed better protection. A papal spy who was caught in 1610 while trying to ingratiate himself with Sarpi's secretary, was immediately sentenced to drowning in the lagoon; a punishment he avoided by admitting and documenting that he had been sent by the Pope. Gradually Sarpi found peace enough to begin his magnum opus: the history of the Council of Trent, a critical historical review of the very basis of the Counter-reformation.
Galileo followed his friend's deeds at a certain respectful distance. Political and legal matters were not within the ambit of his interests, nor in fact was Venice's independence, the more so since he had plans to leave the Republic as soon as an opportunity presented itself. He kept in contact with Sarpi, but certainly had no interest in clashing with papal authority. He might have good use for his contacts in Rome. Above all he did not share the Venetian repugnance of Jesuits, who after all was said and done included several of Italy's finest mathematicians in their ranks.
He was even less willing to fall out with the deeply religious Grand Duchess Christina, who still wielded a lot of influence at the court in the Palazzo Pitti. Because now, the chance he had been waiting for had arrived.
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