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Galileo Galilei: Scenes 2 & 4, Trial & Recantation


Before I tell you the specifics about Scenes 4 and 2 (the trial and sentencing of Galileo, respectively), some backstory is required. Also, you might want to get a snack, because this one's a doozy.

Cardinal Barberini, of whom we spoke in Scene 7, was voted to the papacy in the summer of 1623, taking the name Urban VIII. Did you know that a newly-ordained Pontiff can only take either his own name or the name of a previous Pope — and they are barred from taking the name Peter?

Galileo wanted to pay his respects to the new Pope, but illness prevented him from setting out for Rome until spring of 1624. He arrived on April 23 and was greeted warmly by Pope Urban, who, over the course of about a month, met with Galileo on five separate occasions, walking with him through the Vatican Gardens.

The Council of Trent and the edict of 1616
One of the things the two men likely discussed was the Edict of 1616. Remember the Jesuits we talked about in Scene 7? How they accused Galileo of defying Scripture by asserting that the earth moved around the sun? And how Galileo answered them, in a published Letter to Grand Duchess Christina, where he said that God had given men senses and intellect in order to study His works, and that the Bible was not a textbook about astronomy? In that letter, he also pre-emptively argued against the suppression of Copernicus's model, an action he feared the Church was on the verge of taking:

To ban Copernicus now that his doctrine is daily reinforced by many new observations and by the learned applying themselves to the reading of his book, after this opinion has been allowed and tolerated for those many years during which it was less followed and less confirmed, would seem in my judgment to be a contravention of truth… And to prohibit the whole science would be but to censure a hundred passages of Holy SCripture which teach us that the glory and greatness of Almighty God are marvelously discerned in all His works and divinely read in the open book of Heaven. For let no one believe that reading the lofty concepts written in that book leads to nothing further than the mere seeing of the splendor of the Sun and the stars and their rising and setting, which is as far as the eyes of brutes and of the vulgar can penetrate. Within its pages are couched mysteries so profound and concepts so sublime that the vigils, labors, and studies of hundreds upon hundreds of the most acute minds have still not pierced them, even after continual investigations for thousands of years.

After writing his letter, Galileo, in 1616, made a trip to Rome, in an attempt to clear his name of heresy and to clarify the Church's position on these teachings. He picked a pretty bad time to present these questions: prompted by the Protestant Reformation (beginning in the early 1500s), Counter-Reformation initiatives within the church finally culminated in the Council of Trent, convened by Pope Paul III. Over a period of 18 years, the Council of Trent brought together various leaders of the religious order to discuss the running of the church, including the education of the clergy, and the interpretation of the Holy Scripture. In retaliation against Martin Luther's teachings, the church declared that "no one, relying on his own judgment and distorting the Sacred Scriptures according to his own conceptions, shall dare to interpret them."

So Galileo shows up in Rome, wanting to know their position on the Copernican model, which has already been condemned by many within the order as heretical. He presents to Pope Paul III a manuscript treatise on the tides (which he believed were caused by the earth's motion and not by the gravity of the moon). The Pope hands the matter to his theological adviser, Cardinal Bellarmino, to deal with it.

Cardinal Bellarmino read the treatise and replied that the Bible clearly states that the sun travels around the earth, and that as such, trying to prove otherwise was against the ruling of the Council of Trent. Eleven cardinals were convened, then, to make a pronouncement on the Copernican model. Two edicts were set forth:

I. The Sun is the center of the world, and consequently is immobile of local motion.
II. The Earth is not the center of the world, not is it immobile, but it moves as a whole and also with a diurnal    motion.

The cardinals unanimously voted the first of the two statements to be both "formally heretical" as well as "foolish and absurd" in philosophy. The second concept was found to be "erroneous in faith," which meant that while it did not directly contradict the Bible, it still undermined a matter of faith.

After the edict, Galileo was summoned to the palace of Bellarmino, who informed him that he must abandon the teaching of the Copernican model as fact.

A week later, the church published a proclamation on the Copernican model: that it was "false and contrary to Holy Scripture." Copernicus's book was suspended, pending corrections, and several other books were suspended, or worse, condemned -- prohibited and destroyed. Galileo's work, however, escaped mention.

Back to the Vatican, 1624
As Cardinal, Maffeo Barberini had fought against the edict of 1616, and had succeeded, a month after the original edict was issued, to strike the word "heretical" from the document. Barberini saw the Copernican model as a useful mathematical tool, and because he believed it would never be proven, also did not see it as dangerous. He assured Galileo that the edict never would have passed if it had been presented during his time as Pope, and told Galileo that he was free to apply himself to consideration of the Copernican model, provided that such consideration was labeled as a hypothesis.

The Dialogue, simple Simplicio, and the Roman censor
Upon completion of his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World, Galileo submitted his work to the Roman censor for review, an action required of all publications. After arguing at length, through his mouthpiece Salviati, that the presence of sunspots, and the tides, and the phases of Venus (among other things) all indicated without doubt that the earth moved around the sun, Galileo was careful to close his work by reminding his readers that it was all a hypothesis, as Urban had required: "this invention," Salviati says, "may very easily turn out to be a most foolish hallucination and a majestic paradox."

On June 16, 1630, Galileo's Dialogue passed review, pending a few alterations. The Pope was displeased with the title (which, at the time, included a reference to the tides); Galileo was asked to change it to something more mathematical. Also, both the preface and the conclusion must support the Pope's philosophy of science: that was, that all the mysteries of nature existed because of the omnipotence of God.

The sudden death of his Roman publisher forced Galileo to seek publication in Florence instead. As such, he then needed to submit his work to the Florentine inquisitor, which he did; afterwards, he felt obliged to inform the Vatican that events had transpired forcing him to publish in Tuscany. The reply Galileo received requested a resubmission of the manuscript. But how to do it? Italy was in the midst of the plague, and the possibility that his entire tome would reach Rome without being confiscated (for fear of contagion) was low. Galileo requested that he be allowed to submit only those sections of the manuscript which had originally been contested, with the allowance that the censor could change those sections as he saw fit.

The censor eventually agreed. The Florentine censor found Galileo's work to be full of humility, and reverent to the authority of the church superiors, and, Galileo writes, "he acknowledges (as do all those who have read the book) that I should be begged to publish such a work."

In May 1631, the Roman censor, not quite finished with the necessary corrections to the preface and conclusion, nevertheless agreed to let the remaining part of Galileo's work be published. "I want to remind you," he wrote, "that His Holiness thinks the title and subject should not focus on the ebb and flow of the sea but absolutely on the mathematical examination of the Copernican position on the Earth's motion … It must also be made clear that this work is written only to show that we do know all the arguments that can be advanced for this side, and that it was not for lack of knowledge that the decree [the Edict of 1616] was issued in Rome; this should be the gist of the book's beginning and ending, which I will send from here properly revised."

The work was finally printed and published in 1632. At first it met with great success. It was delayed in reaching Rome (because of the plague), but finally arrived in late May. It immediately provoked the ire of the Jesuits. And it reached Pope Urban at a time when he was struggling with the Thirty Years' War, with cries of nepotism (after promoting several of his relatives to the cardinalate), and with secret fears of Spanish spies inside the Vatican -- fears so strong that he refused to speak above a whisper. The Pontiff, struggling under the weight of all these challenges, had no time to read Galileo's book. Instead, his advisers, many of them ardent enemies of the astronomer, advised him that Galileo had made him look a fool by allowing his character, Simplicio, to be the mouthpiece for the Pope's philosophy.

"I feel the Pope could not have a worse disposition towards our poor Signor Galilei," wrote an ambassador. "When His Holiness gets something into his head, that is the end of the matter, especially if one is opposing, threatening, or defying him, since then he hardens and shows no respect to anyone."

Galileo Before the Holy Office
[Galileo Before the Holy Office, a painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury]

In September, an official edict was passed, announcing that Galileo's work could no longer be sold -- although it had already sold out. Galileo was summoned to appear before the inquisitor in October. Galileo appealed to the Pope, asking if, because of the rampant plague and his own ill health, he might be excused from traveling to Rome? The answer was no. Galileo was allowed to travel to Rome at his own pace, but come he must.

Scene 4: The Trial (finally)

[Caitlin Mathes, scribe; Matt Hayward and John Holiday, inquisitors in rehearsal]

The text of Scene 4 of the opera is taken, at times, almost verbatim from Galileo's trial. Galileo stands before two inquisitors: Reverend Father Fra Vincenzo Maculano de Firenzuola, and Lord Carlo Sinceri, Prosecutor of the Holy Office.

The inquisitors ask whether Galileo knows why he has been summoned (yes); whether he would recognize the book for which he was summoned (yes); whether he acknowledges the book as his (yes). They ask him about his 1616 trip to Rome, and what he learned there: "That the movement of the earth is repugnant to the Holy Scripture," he replies.

In the opera, he then produces a letter from "His Holiness, then Cardinal Barberini," which he has received in Scene 7. This is historically inaccurate, a simplification made for the sake of brevity; the letter which Galileo presented was actually from Cardinal Bellarmino, the Cardinal who presided over the events in 1616. The letter said that while the theory of Copernicus contradicted Holy Scripture, it could be taken and used hypothetically, although never held or defended absolutely.

Unbeknownst to Galileo, there was some paperwork from the meeting in 1616 which indicated that Galileo was neither to hold, nor defend, nor teach the Copernican theory. The teach part, having been omitted from all the papers Galileo himself had from that meeting, was the crux: it meant that he could not even hold as hypothetical the geocentric view of the universe.

The Cardinals tear up Galileo's letter, and declare that "It is beyond question that Galileo teaches earth's motion in his book."

Galileo, repentant, explains that he has recently revisited his work, and that he has seen several passages where he may have "argued with too much force what I do not hold to be true."
"My faults are many," he explains to the inquisitors. "I confess, I was, as Cicero said, 'Too desirous of glory.'" He volunteers to rewrite any passages the church deems unacceptable. The inquisitors inform him that they will confer, and that he will reappear in front of the inquisition on June 22, 1633, for sentencing.

Scene 2: Recantation

Galileo Facing the Roman Inquisition
[Galileo Facing the Roman Inquisition, by Cristiano Banti]

Realizing that recanting his beliefs would result in a lighter sentence, Galileo confessed to wrongdoing and admitted that, in his enthusiasm for presenting his theories, he had gone too far in his book. However, despite his recantation, he was sentenced to life imprisonment at a hearing on 22 June, 1633, seven of the ten Cardinals finding him "vehemently suspected of heresy." Three of the ten Cardinals present refused to sign the sentence.

The life sentence, although it seems harsh now, was soft in comparison to the alternatives, which included being tortured on the rack followed by being burned on the stake.

The translated text of the recantation is as follows:

I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei of Florence, aged seventy years, tried personally by this court, and kneeling before You, the most Eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinals, Inquisitors-General throughout the Christian Republic against heretical depravity, having before my eyes the Most Holy Gospels, and laying on them my own hands; I swear that I have always believed, I believe now, and with God's help I will in future believe all which the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church doth hold, preach, and teach.

But since I, after having been admonished by this Holy Office entirely to abandon the false opinion that the sun was the center of the universe and immovable, and that the earth was not the center of the same and that it moved, and that I was neither to hold, defend, nor teach in any manner whatever, either orally or in writing, the said false doctrine; and after having received a notification that the said doctrine is contrary to Holy Writ, I did write and cause to be printed a book in which I treat of the said already condemned doctrine, and bring forward arguments of much efficacy in its favour, without arriving at any solution: I have been judged vehemently suspected of heresy, that is, of having held and believed tha the sun is the center of the universe and immovable, and that the earth is not the center of the same, and that it does move.

Nevertheless, wishing to remove from the minds of your Eminences and all faithful Christians this vehement suspicion reasonably conceived against me, I abjure with sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I curse and detest the said errors and heresies, and generally all and every error and sect contrary to the Holy Catholic Church. And I swear that for the future I will neither say nor assert in speaking or writing such things as may bring upon me similar suspicion; and if I know any heretic, or one suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor and Ordinary of the place in which I may be.

I also swear and promise to adopt and observe entirely all the penances which have been or may be by this Holy Office imposed on me. And if I contravene any of these said promises, protests, or oaths, (which God forbid!) I submit myself to all the pains and penalties which by the Sacred Canons and other Decrees general and particular are against such offenders imposed and promulgated. So help me God and the Holy Gospels, which I touch with my own hands.

I Galileo Galilei aforesaid have abjured, sworn, and promised, and hold myself bound as above; and in token of the truth, with my own hand have subscribed the present schedule of my abjuration, and have recited it word by word. In Rome, at the Convent della Minerve, this 22nd day of June, 1633. I, Galileo Galilei, have abjured as above, with my own hand.

As with Scene 4, much of the text of Scene 2 is taken directly from the trial records. At the end of the scene, Pope Urban VIII approaches Galileo. "Do you remember how we used to walk in the garden?" he asks. "You remarked upon the birds singing in the hedgerow. Did you know -- eventually I couldn't sleep, what with these wars and all that noise? Did you know, Galileo, I had them killed." This is not a dramatic conceit of the opera. Pope Urban really did order all the birds of his garden slaughtered, so that his sleep was not interrupted by the nighttime calls of birds.