Against the motion of the Earth (1612-1615)
There has been in Florence an inept speaker, who has come out strongly against the motion of the Earth; but this good man is so knowledgeable about the author of this doctrine as to call him Hypernicus . Now may Your Excellency see from where and by whom po or philosophy is so mistreated.
In late 1612 Galileo, scornful as usual, informed Cesi that the Dominican, Niccolò Lorini, professor of Ecclesiastical History at the Studio of Florence, had written to him saying that 'the views of that Hypernicus, or whatever he is called,' seem opposed to Divine Scripture. And in mistreating poor philosophy, Lorini was in good company. A real network of adversaries, 'a band of malign individuals envious of the virtue and merits' of Galileo were uniting, as he was warned by Lodovico Cardi Cigoli, under the guidance of the Archbishop of Florence, Alessandro Marzimedici. The instigator of this initiative was probably the already notorious Lodovico delle Colombe, who had circulated the year before a work entitled Contro il mo to della Terra [Against the Motion of the Earth] in which, he was convinced, he 'dealt a death blow' to Copernican thought, by opposing to it every passage in Holy Scripture that would seem to contradict it. Galileo was now thrust, in spite of himself and for the first time, onto the slippery path of comparing scientific theories and holy texts. And when the path is slippery, it is easy to slip. In the letter sent to Benedetto Castelli in late 1613, he set forth his position: nature and Holy Scripture are both the 'Divine Word'; but while nature is a language 'of things ... that never transgress the terms of the laws imposed on them', Scripture is a language 'of words', a useful means of 'adaptation to the capacities of ordinary people' and requiring the mediation of an interpreter, who cannot be limited to the literal meaning, especially when the significance of the words seems to conflict with what 'reason and experiment puts before our eyes.' That is to say: nature is the true, divine language, which cannot be subject to its divulged version, good only for those unable to understand it directly. As Galileo explained elsewhere: 'Names and attributes must be accommodated to the essence of things, and not the essence to the names, because things came first, and their names subsequently.'
The Letter to Castelli began to circulate in manuscript form and was soon widely disseminated in secret, going beyond the boundaries of the small Galilean circle. Denunciations soon arrived, and the polemic spread beyond Tuscany. Lorini again, speaking for the Fathers of the 'most religious Monastery of S. Marco' in Florence, sent a letter to the Congregation of the Index. Six weeks later another Dominican, Tommaso Caccini, who had been thundering against the Copernican perversion from the pulpit of the church of Santa Maria Novella, made a spontaneous declaration before the Inquisition. That the strings were pulled by a single puppeteer is clear from a letter sent to Tommaso Caccini by his brother Matteo to dissuade him from 'mixing himself in the affairs of others' and reprove him for having 'let himself be such a stupid fool as to stir up the doves.' This was a barely concealed allusion to the name of Delle Colombe who as usual continued to weave his plots in collusion with people of the lowest cultural level. Among the latter was the Bishop of Fiesole, Baccio Gherardini, who in a surge of geocentrism 'erupted with the greatest vehemence' against Galileo without knowing - as Galileo himself tells us - that the father of the heliocentric theory 'was not a live Florentine, but a dead German', that is, Copernicus.
There followed a trial in which several people, all of them friars, were called upon to testify. The accusations against Galileo, direct and indirect, were very serious, concerning not only the Letter to Castelli, of which a copy that may have been forged was sent to the Inquisition, but, more significantly, his strong, well-founded support of the Copernican system, whose very bases it was purposed to declare heretical. All this was seen by the accusers against a murky background of so-called deviant friendships, such as that with Paolo Sarpi, 'so famous in Venice for his impiety', and 'others from Germany' (the academicians of the Lincei, of German, and thus Protestant, origin) and of shocking heresies regarding the strictly theological area, attributed to people identified only as his 'disciples' or generically as 'Galileians.'
In parallel with the trial, a debate had arisen among figures of higher intellectual standing: the viewpoint of science against that of the Church. In 1615, in a letter officially addressed to Christine of Lorraine, the bigoted Dowager Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Galileo insisted on defending the independence of scientific research from religion and warned against 'barring the way to free philosophising on the world and on nature, as if everything had already been established with certainty and made clear.' The Letter to Christine of Lorraine (which, like the Letter to Castelli, prudently remained unpublished) was essentially a reply to Robert Bellarmine, the future saint, who had played a leading part in the discussion on Copernican thought. 'The supposition that the Earth moves and the Sun stands still answers to all the appearances ... and is well said,' he wrote, but to maintain that the Sun 'actually' stands at the centre of the universe and does not move from east to west, while the Earth rotates around it, 'is a very dangerous thing, which not only disturbs scholastic philosophers and theologians, but also endangers Holy Faith by rendering false Holy Scripture.' Bellarmine's position was based on the sophistic distinction between abstract hypothesis and truth based on the observation of nature, a position in which the Church had taken refuge since the emergence of the new cosmological theories, concerned not with the appearances of the phenomena but with the credibility of Holy Scripture, given the glaring scientific errors that were beginning to be exposed in it. By now, direct experience and Galileo's astronomical discoveries confirmed beyond doubt many mathematical demonstrations of Copernicus, exposing the falsity of Aristotle's and Ptolemy's arguments regarding the movement of planets in the solar system. The path of simple theoretical confrontation thus appeared increasingly arduous. The arguments against the merely hypothetical nature of heliocentrism were too many and too hard to disprove from a standpoint not based in physics or astronomy. But the Church had other, very different, means of safeguarding its own impregnability.
Texts by Sara Bonechi
English translation by Anna Teicher
Last update 16/gen/2008