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The trial (1633)

ritratto di galileo

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  • Galileo Galilei before the Tribunal of the Inquisition. Oil on canvas by Niccolò Barabino, 1888. Reduced replica of the fresco at Palazzo Celesia in Genoa (Private collection, Genova).
  • Frontispiece of the Index of Banned Books, 1664 edition, containing the ban on Galileo's Dialogo and the readmission of Copernicus after being corrected (Index librorum prohibitorum Alexandri VII pontificis maximi iussu editus, Romae, ex typographia Reverendae Camerae Apostolicae, 1664).
  • An elderly prisoner, probably Galileo Galilei. Watercolor drawing by François Marius Granet, 19th cent. (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes)
  • Galileo in prison. Painted by Bartholomé Esteban Murillo, 17th cent. Present location of the work unknown.

After a disastrous journey, complicated by a long, unpleasant period of quarantine at the border, Galileo arrived in Rome, where he stayed as a guest at the Villa Medici, the residence of the ambassador, Niccolini. The first impression was encouraging. In the villa he was in fact a prisoner, he told Cioli, but one who received a 'treatment very gentle and benign, entirely different from the threatened cords, chains and prison' that he had so greatly feared. He had also been visited by an official of the Inquisition, who had engaged him in pleasant conversation, listening to his words and encouraging him with his 'great humanity.' But it was harder to deceive a shrewd ambassador than a fearful old man, and Niccolini's impression had been quite other: 'It can be taken for certain that the man was sent … to hear what he has to say and how he speaks about and defends his ideas, in order to find out what should be done and how to proceed with him.' In other words, the man was a spy. And the initial confidence of Galileo, who trusted in a swift, painless solution to his case, was undermined by the Pope's behaviour, increasingly cold, detached and set in his opinions, even in response to the pleas of Tuscan diplomats and of the Grand Duke in person to soften his attitude. Galileo, guilty of having wanted to 'impose need' on 'omnipotent God' by laying on Him the burden of the creation of a moving Earth (in this, returning to an earlier error and 'badly advised' by Ciampoli), was already receiving favoured treatment by being allowed to reside at the Villa Medici while awaiting his trial. During the trial, it was understood, there would be no alternative to detention within the walls of the Inquisition, and the time would not be brief, neither more nor less than that required by the procedure. Niccolini did not tell Galileo of this in order to spare him 'great suffering', but soon had to inform him of his summons to give evidence and his imminent transfer. Insisting on his 'poor health', recounting how 'for two nights in a row' he had 'cried out and complained constantly of his arthritic pains', had served only to obtain a promise that he would be assigned decent rooms, 'perhaps even unlocked.' The despair that was battering Galileo's morale deeply perturbed the affectionate Niccolini, who became seriously concerned that he might die, but he could do nothing more than express his sincere grief: 'Truly he deserves every good, and all of this house, which greatly loves him, feels indescribable pain.'


Galileo appeared before the Inquisition, not once but three times in the course of a month, during which he lived in confinement but, as had been promised the Tuscan ambassador, who considered it a good omen, in the apartments of the Fiscal Procurator rather than the 'cells usually assigned to criminals'. His international standing and the good offices of the Grand Duke of Tuscany had served to achieve some good at least. The trial, however, followed a quite unusual course. Since the first interrogation, in fact, the content of the Dialogue had played an entirely marginal role. Galileo had been very clever; precluded by decree from formally asserting the truth of heliocentrism, he had nevertheless constantly presented it as the only plausible position. He had always treated the opposing position as an alternative, in practice advancing the philosophical and physical reasons, as much for one side as for the other. When interrogated the first time, he could even maintain (although only by arguing that black is white, and little convinced himself) that he had demonstrated 'the contrary of the said opinion of Copernicus', showing how the latter's 'reasons' were 'invalid and not conclusive.'


A commission met for further analysis, almost identical to the previous one, except that Father Monster was replaced by a Theatine father. But to what purpose? The court already had before it a thorough, minutely detailed statement. Any attempt to discover in the text of the Dialogue formal grounds for the accusation of heresy would have been without purpose, since it was not possible to go beyond the strong suspicion of a convicted adherence to the theories of Copernicus. To condemn Galileo a different hand of cards would have to be found. A way forward was seen in his violation of a injunction alleged to have been imposed on him in 1616, in the presence of the then Commissary of the Inquisition, Michelangelo Seghezzi, in which he was forbidden to hold, defend or teach in any way whatsoever, in either words or writing the heliocentric theory. Publication of a book that examined it in detail would have contravened the second part of the injunction, and such contravention was necessary for a condemnation. Among the documents before the court was the notarial deed that gave legal force to the injunction, but Galileo did not recall ever having been summoned before a notary and, as stated in the draft record of the interrogation, he pulled out 'a sheet of paper written in twelve lines on one side only, which began: "We, Robert, Cardinal Bellarmine, having, etc…"' He recalled only this. Bellarmine's declaration did indeed prohibit defending or holding, that is, believing in or declaring to be true, the Copernican theory, as contrary to Holy Scripture, but it made no mention of teaching it in any way whatsoever, in either words or writing. So, unexpectedly, there were two different documents, which did not agree in content. And the one in the hands of the Inquisition was a very strange notarial deed, drawn up by an unknown notary whose name appeared nowhere, lacking a seal or any kind of signature, either that of the notary or the witnesses or, obviously, of Galileo. It was never publicly shown and seems to have been merely a draft or, on the worst diagnosis, a specially prepared forgery. There was no trace of any more formal document. Had that injunction really existed?

The trial stagnated. Given the 'various difficulties in pursuing the case and bringing it to a conclusion,' wrote Vincenzo Maculani, Commissary of the Inquisition, to one of the Pope's cardinal nephews, it would be necessary for Galileo to confess. If he continued to deny 'that which manifestly appeared in the book written by him', it would become necessary to apply 'greater rigour in justice', a neutral, aseptic term that meant nothing other than torture. But this was not a method that could be used with such a famous figure, who was moreover in poor health. Maculani requested and obtained 'the power to confer with Galileo outside the court.' He visited him in his confinement and after some hours' of discussion persuaded him to confess, promising in exchange that he would soon regain his freedom. Sure of having made him 'recognise his wrongdoing', by convincing him 'of having been in error and in his book of having exceeded', Maculani was equally sure that the court, being able thereby to retain 'its repute', would 'use clemency.'


But things did not go as Maculani expected. Galileo, in the event, brought before the court again, did declare himself guilty - but only of an error in style. In any case, in a system based mainly on formal cavils and ritualistic sophistry, he was certainly entitled to use the same arms to defend himself. Acknowledging the fact that it was three years since he had last looked at his Dialogue, he had sought to verify whether, against his ' purest intention', there might have 'come forth from his pen' inadvertently anything to cause misunderstanding. The book, upon renewed evaluation, appeared to him 'from its long disuse almost like a new text and by another author', and so - he 'freely confessed' - it had become clear to him that the reader, unaware of his objectives, might have formed a mistaken idea that 'the arguments supporting the false side', that is the Copernican (sunspots and tides in particular), 'were expressed so effectively that they were powerfully convincing rather than easily dismissed.' The error, he continued, was caused by ambition, by that 'natural pleasure that each man takes in his own subtle arguments', and by seeking to appear 'more shrewd than is common in men in finding, even for false propositions, ingenious and seemingly probable arguments.' In brief, everything had been due to an excess of virtuosity and Galileo declared himself ready to make amends by invalidating those overly convincing arguments as effectively as possible. The inability to tolerate confinement any longer and the prospect of torture suddenly thrust on him had achieved this result. On that same day, Galileo was allowed to return to the Villa Medici, still segregated, but among friends.


Maculani, according to the ambassador, Niccolini, wished to bring everything to an end quickly and peacefully: 'He expresses… a willing intention … to ensure that this case is quashed and silence imposed on it.' But here again he had calculated wrongly. In a third deposition Galileo reiterated his line of defence. But the resumé of the trial, which covered the whole story since 1616, already gave a clear idea of the direction it was desired to take. Deliberate falsities, deceitful interpretation of documents and attribution of dubious opinions, such as that 'God really laughs, cries, etc.', and that 'the miracles worked by saints are not true miracles', were marshalled to worsen Galileo's position.


Indeed, after two months of total silence the Inquisition met in the Quirinal Palace, in the presence of the Pope, reiterating the need to have Galileo confess 'over and above his purest intention', since his stylistic repentance had been unconvincing, having recourse to torture if necessary. It had already been decided to condemn the Dialogue, to reduce the heliocentric theory to perpetual silence by declaring it heretical, to force Galileo to make a public retraction and to inflict on him an exemplary prison sentence. Niccolini knew of this; but on this occasion too, moved to pity, he kept his silence. He spoke with the Pope in an attempt to calm matters, but came up against the familiar falsely paternalistic coldness. Galileo was interrogated again and refused to move an inch from his former position: 'I am here in obedience. I have not held this opinion since Bellarmine's declaration, as I have said.' On the following day the sentence was read. The book was instantly banned: in presenting as 'undecided and expressly probable' a theory contrary to Holy Scripture, and thus heretical, Galileo had laid himself open to the strong suspicion of believing it true, thus incurring all the penalties 'imposed and enacted against such criminals.' His 'severe and pernicious error' could not remain unpunished. He was thus sentenced to retract his presumed convictions, to be detained in the prison of the Inquisition for a term to be decided and, as a matter of course, to recite 'once a week the seven penitential Psalms' for the next three years. Three of the ten cardinals who constituted the court of the Inquisition did not sign the decree. Maculani did, readier to make promises than to disobey higher decisions. And Galileo was now obliged to defame science.


Texts by Sara Bonechi

English translation by Anna Teicher

Last update 16/gen/2008