War and Heresy

In September 1624, as Galileo sat at home in Florence finishing his "Letter to Ingoli", a new Jesuit professor was taking up his position at the Collegio Romano. His name was Father Spinola, and he used his inaugural lecture to launch a sharp attack on those who "sowed the seeds of heresy" by airing new and unbiblical scientific views. There is little doubt that he had discussed this with his religious brother, the offended Father Grassi.

Orazio Grassi had now had time to study The Assayer in considerable depth, and was ready to hit back at Galileo. Most of his colleagues were ready to support him. One of the points on which Grassi attacked, though excessively quibbling, did lie in an extremely dangerous area. It concerned Galileo's important distinction between a body's actual, fundamental characteristics, and its secondary ones, which Galileo almost regarded as a kind of illusion created by the senses.

So what of the Eucharist? Grassi asked quietly.

According to Catholic doctrine, the bread and the wine were physically changed by a miracle into Jesus' body and blood, although their outer characteristics - colour, smell and taste - remained the same. But Galileo said that colour, smell and taste were "merely indications". This must mean that he abjured the miracle itself - there could hardly be anything miraculous in preserving indications, illusions that had their root in the human sensory system.

Grassi was no small fry within the powerful Jesuit order. Just at that time he had been given the prestigious job of designing the Collegio Romano's new church, dedicated to the order's founder, the saintly Ignatius. The Sant' Ignazio church never turned out as grandly as planned, but that was not Grassi's fault. He intended to give it a magnificent dome - which perhaps not totally unintentionally would have blocked out the light to the library of the Dominican monastery close by!

Grassi's Eucharist objection - which was printed in his book Comparison of the Weights of The Balance and The Assayer a couple of years later - was regarded by most as a curiosity. Galileo's thoughts were purely scientific and never had any pretensions to theological relevance. Furthermore they were promulgated in a book that had passed the censor and was even dedicated to the Pope. But the objection was disquieting, because if it was sustained by the Inquisition, no supporter in the world would be able to save Galileo from a charge of heresy. And perhaps that was the hint behind Father Spinola's general railing against the sowers of apostasy.

Galileo was worried and made discreet enquiries. Privately he was assured that no steps would be taken against The Assayer.

But his fears were not groundless. Simultaneously he had news from Rome that must needs worry him: the hunt for heretics was continuing under Urban VIII as well.

Just before Christmas 1624 a disturbing event took place not far from the Collegio Romano. In the Dominicans' church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva the members of the Inquisition had assembled to pass a sentence. The accused was the former Archbishop, Marco de Dominis. He had once dabbled in geometry and optics, lived in the Republic of Venice and had been a friend of Paolo Sarpi and Gianfrancesco Sagredo. As an enemy of Bellarmine and the Pope's increasing worldly power he had fled to England, where he eventually oversaw the publication of Sarpi's great work on the Council of Trent, a work that depicted in such detail the intrigues behind the many far-reaching decisions that it was immediately placed on the Index.

But de Dominis quarrelled with the English and returned to Rome where he abjured all his heretical acts (including the book publication). With his dissolute background he was a social success in Rome during the first, optimistic year of Urban VIII's pontificate. He resumed his scientific work and wrote a dissertation on Galileo's pet subject, the tides, which he had had every opportunity of studying on the English Channel.

But Marco de Dominis' enemies had most decidedly not forgiven him. He was arrested, his effects examined, and a charge was then brought against him concerning heretical things he had written about marriage in an unpublished manuscript. During his examination he admitted that he drew a distinction between two classes of religious dogma. Those which concerned faith directly were sacrosanct. But others, for instance a number of resolutions adopted at Trent, could be discussed. This was precisely the same distinction that Galileo had drawn for interpreting cosmological phenomena.

Archbishop de Dominis was sentenced to death. It was a sentence that aroused a great deal of attention in Rome, as the accused was already dead when the sentence was read. He had passed away in prison during the trial; poisoned, according to some. Nevertheless, the Inquisition spared no pains when once the judges had finished their investigations. The body was dug up and lay in a coffin in the "dock". After the death sentence had been passed, de Dominis' cadaver and all his writings were driven from Santa Maria sopra Minerva to Campo de' Fiori, where they were all publicly burnt, together with a portrait.

Father Spinola and Father Grassi were not Galileo's only opponents amongst the Jesuits. Towards the end of the year a German Jesuit arrived in Rome. He was an astronomer, a thorough observer, who had studied sunspots minutely for many years. He well knew that the constrictions which a worship of Aristotle and Ptolemy placed on the investigation of natural things had to go. Some said that deep down he had become a Copernican, a fact which he, of course, could hardly announce from the lectern in the Collegio Romano.

This Jesuit was Father Christopher Scheiner, the sunspots observer who had tried to build up a good relationship with Galileo, but had only succeeded in being blackguarded twice by Galileo's pen. And if Spinola was fearful and Grassi insulted, Scheiner was furious.

Scheiner quickly got his bearings in the intellectual and clerical landscape of his Roman religious brothers. He gained much influence over a cardinal who had just joined the Jesuits. This was Alessandro Orsini, the man who had attempted to teach Paul V about the tides on the same day that the Inquisition condemned Copernicus. Now, even his sympathy had swung away from Galileo.

Just then, another of Galileo's friends, the Pope's nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, disappeared for a while from Rome and the papal sphere of influence, because he had been appointed diplomatic envoy to Paris. Conditions in Rome were always shifting in this way, alliances were formed and dissolved, sympathies radically re-thought.

There were sufficient grounds for Prince Cesi to call for some caution, despite the marvellous contacts the Lynceans still had with the Vatican. And even now the greatest revolution of all had not made itself much felt, because it came gradually, at first imperceptibly. Of all the changes it was certainly the most important, because it occurred right at the top of the system: Pope Urban VIII himself was in the process of transformation.

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