BBC Radio 4 has a series called Great Lives, which is presented by former Conservative MP and now journalist, writer and broadcaster Matthew Parris. On the programme a ‘lay person’ talks about a figure, usually from history, who is their hero or role model, their comments being filled out by an ‘expert’ on the life of the figure in question. The format is in the form of a light-hearted three-way chat. Three years ago the BBC DJ Bobby Friction chose Galileo Galilei as his Great Life. At the time I listened and not surprisingly found the programme cringe worthy, dismissed it and forgot about it. However over the weekend people, who should know better, were promoting the programme on social media. Against my better judgement I listened to the whole thing again and decided to write this brief post on just one aspect, the greatest historical blunder, of the programme.
Before turning to the main topic of this post there is an aspect of the programme that needs to be addressed first. As explained above the discussion always includes an ‘expert’ to fill out with facts the account given of the subject of the programme. A programme about Galileo, so we can expect a historian of science as expert, yes? No! Instead of a historian of science what we get is Dr David Berman a reader in theoretical physic from Queen Mary College London. This is unfortunately a very common habit amongst journalists and broadcasters. They want someone to comment on, or explicate some aspect of, or episode out of the history of science, they ask a scientist and not a historian of science. Whilst I’m quite happy to acknowledge that there are some scientists who are also competent historians of science, they are unfortunately a small minority. The majority of scientists when asked to talk about the history of their subject usually deliver something highly inaccurate, factually false and toe curlingly cringe worthy. David Berman is no exception. As I wrote above, I’m not going to waste my time, and yours, doing a blow by blow analysis of this sorry mess but just address the one truly glaring clangour that our so-called expert drops towards the end of the discussion.
In an exchange beginning at about 22.20mins we hear the following:
MP: But he was friends with the Pope, why didn’t the Pope stick up for him?
DB: Oh, so he was friends with Urban VII who was the Pope, who was around the time when he started the book and the original censor but by then he died and we had Urban VIII…
He we have the classic example of a so-called expert who has literally no idea what he’s talking about and just makes something up that he thinks sounds plausible. For those that don’t know their papal history and/or the story of Galileo’s interaction with the papacy I will explain.
Paul V (1552–1621) was the Pope (1605–1621) who set up the commission of theologians in 1616 to consider the status of heliocentricity, which ruled it “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture”. He then instructed Cardinal Bellarmine to meet with Galileo and to inform him that he was no longer allowed to teach the truth of heliocentricity.
Both Bellarmine and Paul, however, assured Galileo that he was, at this time, in no personal danger. Paul died in 1621 and was succeeded by Gregory XV (1554–1623) who as Pope (1621–1623) played no significant role in the life of Galileo.
Gregory was succeeded in 1623 by Cardinal Maffeo Barbarini (1568–1644) who became Urban VIII.
Those of you wondering where Urban VII fits into this, he doesn’t. Giovanni Battista Castagna (1521–1590) ruled as Pope Urban VII for just twelve days between 15 and 27 September 1590, when Galileo was just beginning his career as professor for mathematics in Pisa. Urban VII’s twelve-day papacy was the shortest in history.
As an additional comment no Pope was ever the censor, as claimed by Berman, but naturally employed others to do this work for the Church.
As Matthew Parris rightly claims Cardinal Maffeo Barbarini had been a friend and supporter of Galileo’s since the publication of the Sidereus nuncius in 1610 as well as being a patron of the Accademia dei Lincei, the small elite scientific society that had elected Galileo a member in 1611 on the strength of his telescopic discoveries. It was also the Lincei who gave the telescope its name. When Barbarini was elected Pope in 1623 the Lincei published a broadsheet celebrating his election, which contained the first every illustrations made with a microscope.
The Lincei also published Galileo’s Il Saggiatore (The Assayer), which was dedicated to the new Pope in 1623.
Barbarini much enjoyed Il Saggiatore and showed Galileo much favour. Galileo grasped the opportunity and persuaded the Pope to let him write a book describing the geocentric and heliocentric systems to prove that the Catholics did not favour the former out of ignorance of the latter, as he claimed the Protestants were alleging. Urban agreed to his request but under the condition that the two systems were presented equally without bias and without favouring either.
The book that Galileo wrote, his Dialogo, a polemic masterpiece, was of course anything but unbiased, tilting the arguments so far that any reader would be led to the conclusion that the heliocentric system was vastly superior to the geocentric one; a claim for which he had no empirical proof. He topped the whole thing off by putting the Pope’s own thoughts on the subject, a direct quote, into the mouth of a figure who was close to being a simpleton at the climax of the book.
That Urban was pissed off by the results should not have come as a surprise to Galileo and things took their inevitable course. The motto of the story is don’t play your friend for a fool when he happens to be an all powerful absolutist ruler.