Galileo & Roberto

One of the books that I am currently reading is Rob Iliffe’s Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton (a full review will follow when I finish it but I can already say it will be very positive). I stumbled more than somewhat when I read the following:

…and Lucas Trelcatius’s list of some of the most significant places in Scripture, which was composed as a response to the Catholic interpretations of various texts offered by the great scholar (and scourge of Galileo [my emphasis]) Cardinal Robert Bellarmine.

Four words that caused me to draw in my breath, why? Let as first take a look at the meaning of the word scourge:

A scourge was originally a particularly nasty and extremely cruel multi-thong whip. Transferred to describe a person it means: a person that causes great trouble of suffering. Can Robert Bellarmine really be described as “scourge of Galileo”?

Robert Bellarmine (actually Roberto Bellarmino) (1542-1621) was a Jesuit scholar who was specialist for post Tridentine theology, that is the theological teachings of the Catholic Church as laid down as official church doctrine at the Council of Trent (1545-1563. He rose through the ranks to arch-bishop and then cardinal, was professor for theology at the Collegio Romano, the Jesuit University in Rome, and later the universities rector. In the early seventeenth century he was regarded as the leading Catholic authority on theology and as such he was a powerful and highly influential figure in Rome.


Robert Bellarmine artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

How did Bellarmine’s life interact with that of Galileo? The first contact was very indirect and occurred after Galileo had published his Sidereus Nuncius, making public his telescopic discoveries. Bellarmine inquired of the mathematician astronomers under Clavius’ leadership at the Collegio Romano, whether the discoveries claimed by Galileo were real. Being the first astronomers to confirm those discoveries, Clavius was able to report in the positive.

In 1615 Galileo wrote his Letter to Castelli in which he argued that those Bible passages that contradicted Copernican heliocentricity should be re-interpreted to solve the contradiction. He was stepping into dangerous territory, a mere mathematicus—the lowest of the low in the academic hierarchy—telling the theologians how to interpret the Bible. This was particularly risky, as it was in the middle of the Counter-Reformation given that the Reformation was about who is allowed to interpret the Bible. The Protestants said that everyman should be able to interpret it for themselves and the Catholic Church said that only the Church should be allowed to do so. Remember we are only three years away from the Thirty Years War the high point, or should that be the low point, of the conflict between the two religions, which led to the destruction of most of central Europe and the death of between one and two thirds of its population.


Justus Sustermans – Portrait of Galileo Galilei, 1636 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Galileo’s suggestion in his letter came to the attention of his opponents in the Church and led the Pope, Paul V, to set up a commission of eleven theologians, known as the Qualifiers, to investigate the propositions of heliocentricity.

In the meantime Paolo Antonio Foscarini (c. 1565–June 1616), a Carmelite father, attempted to publish his Epistle concerning the Pythagorean and Copernican opinion of the Mobility of the Earth and stability of the sun and the new system or constitution of the WORLD, which basically contained the same arguments for reinterpreting the Bible as Galileo’s Letter to Castelli. The censor of Foscarini’s order rejected his tract, as too contentious. I should point out at this point something that most people ignore that is all powers both civil and religious in Europe exercised censorship; there was no such thing as free thought or freedom of speech in seventeenth century Europe. Foscarini wrote a defence of his Epistle and sent the two pieces to Bellarmine, as the leading theologian, for his considered opinion. Bellarmine’s answers the so-called Foscarini Letter is legendary and I reproduce it in full below.

My Reverend Father,

I have read with interest the letter in Italian and the essay in Latin which your Paternity sent to me; I thank you for one and for the other and confess that they are all full of intelligence and erudition. You ask for my opinion, and so I shall give it to you, but very briefly, since now you have little time for reading and I for writing.

First I say that it seems to me that your Paternity and Mr. Galileo are proceeding prudently by limiting yourselves to speaking suppositionally and not absolutely, as I have always believed that Copernicus spoke. For there is no danger in saying that, by assuming the Earth moves and the sun stands still, one saves all of the appearances better than by postulating eccentrics and epicycles; and that is sufficient for the mathematician. However, it is different to want to affirm that in reality the sun is at the center of the world and only turns on itself, without moving from east to west, and the earth is in the third heaven and revolves with great speed around the sun; this is a very dangerous thing, likely not only to irritate all scholastic philosophers and theologians, but also to harm the Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture false. For Your Paternity has well shown many ways of interpreting Holy Scripture, but has not applied them to particular cases; without a doubt you would have encountered very great difficulties if you had wanted to interpret all those passages you yourself cited.

Second, I say that, as you know, the Council [of Trent] prohibits interpreting Scripture against the common consensus of the Holy Fathers; and if Your Paternity wants to read not only the Holy Fathers, but also the modern commentaries on Genesis, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Joshua, you will find all agreeing in the literal interpretation that the sun is in heaven and turns around the earth with great speed, and that the earth is very far from heaven and sits motionless at the center of the world. Consider now, with your sense of prudence, whether the church can tolerate giving Scripture a meaning contrary to the Holy Fathers and to all the Greek and Latin commentators. Nor can one answer that this is not a matter of faith, since it is not a matter of faith “as regards the topic”, it is a matter of faith “as regards the speaker”; and so it would be heretical to say that Abraham did not have two children and Jacob twelve, as well as to say that Christ was not born of a virgin, because both are said by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of the prophets and the apostles.


Third, I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary; and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me. Nor is it the same to demonstrate that by supposing the sun to be at the center and the earth in heaven one can save the appearances, and to demonstrate that in truth the sun is at the center and the earth in the heaven; for I believe the first demonstration may be available, but I have very great doubts about the second, and in case of doubt one must not abandon the Holy Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Fathers. I add that the one who wrote, “The sun also riseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose,” was Solomon, who not only spoke inspired by God, but was a man above all others wise and learned in the human sciences and in the knowledge of created things; he received all this wisdom from God; therefore it is not likely that he was affirming something that was contrary to truth already demonstrated or capable of being demonstrated. Now, suppose you say that Solomon speaks in accordance with appearances, since it seems to us that the sun moves (while the earth does so), just as to someone who moves away from the seashore on a ship it looks like the shore is moving, I shall answer that when someone moves away from the shore, although it appears to him that the shore is moving away from him, nevertheless he knows that it is an error and corrects it, seeing clearly that the ship moves and not the shore; but in regard to the sun and the earth, no wise man has any need to correct the error, since he clearly experiences that the earth stands still and that the eye is not in error when it judges that the it also is not in error when it judges that the stars move. And this is enough for now.

With this I greet dearly Your Paternity, and I pray to God to grant you all your wishes.

At home, 12 April 1615.

To Your Very Reverend Paternity.

As a Brother,

Cardinal Bellarmine


(Source for the English transl.: M. Finocchiaro, The Galileo Affair. A Documentary History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989), pp. 67-69.Original Italian text, G. Galilei, Opere, edited by A. Favaro (Firenze: Giunti Barbera, 1968), vol. XII, pp. 171-172.)

A, in my opinion, brilliant piece of measured, diplomatic writing. Bellarmine tactfully suggests that one should only talk of heliocentricity hypothetically, its correct scientific status in 1615, the first empirical proof for the movement of the Earth was found in 1725, when Bradley discovered stellar aberration. He, as the great Tridentine theologian, then reiterates the Church’s position on the interpretation of Holy Scripture. Finally he brings, what is without doubt, the most interesting statement in the letter.

Third, I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary; and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false.

What he says is bring proof and we’ll reinterpret the Bible but until then…

On 24 February the Qualifiers delivered the results of their deliberations on the heliocentricity hypothesis:

( i ) The sun is the centre of the universe (“mundi”) and absolutely

immobile in local motion.

( ii ) The earth is not the centre of the universe (“mundi”); it is not

immobile but turns on itself with a diurnal movement.

All unanimously censure the first proposition as “foolish, absurd in philosophy { i.e. scientifically untenable] and formally heretical on the grounds of expressly contradicting the statements of Holy Scripture in many places according to the proper meaning of the words, the common exposition and the understanding of the Holy Fathers and learned theologians”; the second proposition they unanimously censured as likewise “absurd in philosophy” and theologically “at least erroneous in faith”.

It should be pointed out that although the Qualifiers called the first statement heretical, only the Pope could formally declare something heretical and no pope ever did, so heliocentricity was never officially heretical.

Pope Paul V now ordered Bellarmine to covey the judgement of the Qualifiers to Galileo and to inform him that he may not hold or teach the heliocentric theory. This he did on 26 February 1616. Bellarmine was not one of the Qualifiers and here functioned only as the messenger. By all accounts the meetings between Bellarmine and Galileo were cordial and friendly.

When Galileo returned to Florence rumours started spreading that he had been forced to recant and do penance, which was of course not true. Galileo wrote to Bellarmine requesting a letter explaining that this was not true. Bellarmine gladly supplied said letter, defending Galileo’s honour. However Galileo made the mistake in 1633 of thinking that Bellarmine’s letter was a get out of jail free card.

Bellarmine died in 1621 and between 1616 and his death there was no further contact between the Cardinal and the mathematicus. Personally I can see nothing in the three interactions, indirect and direct, between Bellarmine and Galileo that would in anyway justify labelling Bellarmine as the “scourge of Galileo”. This accusation is historically highly inaccurate and paints a wholly false picture of the relationship between the two men. I expect better of Rob Iliffe, who is without doubt one on Britain’s best historians of seventeenth century science.

NB Before somebody pops up in the comments claiming that Robert Bellarmine was one of the three Inquisition judges, who confirmed the death sentence on Giordano Bruno. He was but that has no relevance to his interactions with Galileo, so save yourself time and energy and don’t bother.

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Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

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