Siena, Italy, 1633
Just off the coach from Rome—where he had endured a trial for heresy against the Catholic Church for contradicting Holy Scripture—Galileo Galilei strode into the opulent parlor of the Episcopal Palace, home of the archbishop of Siena, the Most Reverend Ascanio Piccolomini.
Though Siena wasn’t Galileo’s beloved Arcetri—his home in the hills west of Florence—it was a lot closer to Rome, and he was grateful for the opportunity to stay here. And while he was here he was hopeful for a brief respite to visit his two daughters in the San Matteo Convent.
The room was a dizzying feast for the eyes, with riches draped everywhere: wondrous rugs and gilded furniture, walls adorned with heavenly treasures, including a haunting representation of Christ's martyrdom. As he sat there waiting, Galileo could hardly draw his gaze away nor ignore the painful parallels between his own suffering and that of Christ’s.
Glancing around, however, it was difficult to consider this as suffering in any form. Galileo had taken up residence in the home of the Florentine Ambassador to Rome while the trial had taken place and for the ensuing ten days awaiting the verdict. Now, he braced himself while the court determined where he would serve his imprisonment.
The uneven pulse of approaching footsteps—two people, he surmised, both men by their long strides—snapped him out of his reverie. Just as he stood up, the archbishop's herald swept into the room and announced, “His Excellency, the Archbishop Piccolomini.”
Piccolomini entered the room, clad in his purple cassock, a white rochet overlaying it, a hooded mozzetta covering his shoulders, and a purple zucchetto atop his balding head, with a gold pectoral cross on a chain around his neck and secured over his right breast.
“Forgive me, dear Galileo, for keeping you waiting. I was celebrating Mass this morning.”
As the archbishop approached his guest he extended his right hand. Galileo instinctively knelt and kissed the archbishop’s ring, a sign of loyalty and obedience to the Church.
“Your Excellency, thank you for seeing me and allowing me to reside here in your magnificent palace during my imprisonment. I promise not to bring you trouble,” he said, rising from his kneeling position.
“Have you been so thoroughly humbled, my friend? That is not the Galileo I have come to know. Here, do sit down.” Piccolomini gestured toward a pair of luxurious chairs set off to the side of the room near the fireplace, the wooden logs within crackling fiercely as orange and yellow sparks leapt from the flames.
“Come, tell me all that has transpired, for it has been some time since we spoke, and while I have heard fragmentary accounts, I would prefer to hear the whole tale from you yourself.”
“As you wish, Excellency. As to the beginning of it all, we have spoken of it before, so I will be brief. But for the sake of the memory, I will go back to where I think it all began.
“You might recall that in 1609, or perhaps the following year, I became aware that a Dutchman had created a device consisting of a tube with glass lenses at either end, which was capable of magnifying vision such that far away objects appeared closer. A ‘telescope,’ he called it. I was able to divine its operating principles such that I was able to build one myself and improve upon its capabilities.
“It was simply a matter of the shape of the lenses and the length of the tube. Those who were using the device in other places were using it merely to observe ships and troops at a distance, which has obvious tactical advantages and for which the device is eminently useful. I believe I was most probably the first to point a telescope at the heavens. Truly, the experience was illuminating. You have, of course, had this experience yourself, Your Excellency?”
“Yes, Galileo, I have. One of your disciples, if one may call him that, passed this way and made his device available to us. Some among my advisors cautioned against looking through it, claiming that it produced visions by way of witchcraft…that God had not meant for man to view the heavens in any other way than with the eyes God gave him, for fear of being confused and deceived by its false images. Yet, against such counsel I chose to look through the device. And indeed, I saw the moon and the satellites of Jupiter, just as you had described them! It was this experience that compelled me to begin our correspondence and now our close acquaintance.”
“Very good, Your Excellency. Very good, indeed. You can see, then, why I became so very excited and enthusiastic about using this device to observe the heavens—for I was making discoveries that nobody else in the world had seen and for which few men had the appreciation. It became clear to me, having read the work of Copernicus, that these discoveries supported his interpretation of the heavens: that the Sun, and not the Earth, stands at the center of the universe. And that the Earth and the movable stars—the planets such as Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and Venus—all revolve around the Sun, too, and that the Earth itself turns on its axis, fixed at the North and South, rotating toward the East, and that the moon revolves around the Earth.
“And furthermore, I observed that Venus, in a similar fashion to the Moon, exhibits phases, waxing and waning, showing that it indeed revolves around the Sun, and that the moons of Jupiter revolve around it, as our moon revolves around the Earth. I observed that Saturn is not one body, but three which move together, and that the outer two fade and return over time. I observed stars in the Milky Way galaxy that cannot be seen by eyes alone and craters and mountains on the Moon. And all this, taken also with the evidence from the tides—which are caused, I believe, by the movement of the water as the Earth revolves—convince me that Copernicus was right. I have spoken to many people, learned men and Churchmen and those among the nobility, and many have been convinced by this evidence. Many, but not all.”
“Yes,” the archbishop concurred, “and some of those who do not agree with you see themselves as ardent Defenders of the Faith whose mission is to resist heresy wherever they find it. You have made more than a few enemies, Galileo. Some very powerful.”
“Indeed, though I did not fully appreciate the extent of my peril. And it seems now, in retrospect, that was not so much due to my scientific observations as to how I attempted to reconcile the apparent conflict between the Holy Scriptures and those observations. I wish now that I had never written that letter to Grand Duchess Christina.”
“Then why did you, my friend?”
“Benedetto Castelli, a Benedictine, if you recall, was one of my students and I discussed my discovery with him. Very bright and more than a little ambitious.”
“Ambitious, you say?” the archbishop chuckled. “Go on.”
“Yes, well, it is said one notices his own faults most in others. In any case, Benedetto had occasion to break fast with Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici, Ferdinando’s son and his wife, the Grand Duchess Christina, and Cosimo Boscaglia, who is teaching at the University of Pisa, like Benedetto, and who does not like me even a little bit.
“Boscaglia apparently took great exception to Benedetto’s representation of my work and propounded a great many Scriptural oppositions to it. Benedetto did his best to refute them, but after the meal, Benedetto was called into audience with the Grand Duchess to make further answer on the theological points. When Benedetto informed me of this occurrence, I subsequently decided that it might be best if I addressed the Grand Duchess’s concerns myself. I did not anticipate the extent to which copies of that letter would circulate. Certainly not all the way to Rome! I sent that letter to her in 1615, and by early the next year it had become clear to me that I was going to have to go to Rome and defend my opinions and reputation before I was summoned by the Inquisition.”
“So you went to Rome voluntarily?” the archbishop inquired. “You were not summoned?”
“Yes, I went voluntarily. I did not know that I had already been referred to the Inquisition. But I did not meet with them formally, and there was no trial or even questioning.”
“Hmm, I heard many rumors to the contrary. So, what did happen?”
“Well, earlier in 1616, Monsignor Ingoli instigated a discussion about the matter, and I defended my observations and their interpretation, including my opinions about reconciling Scripture with the clear implications of scientific observations. Once I got to Rome, I attempted to obtain an audience with His Holiness, hoping for a decision from the highest authority. But before I could do so, Cardinal Bellarmine requested my presence and informed me that the works of Copernicus and several others of the same bent were to be placed on the Index and that I could not hold the opinion of Copernicus nor teach or defend it. I understand now that after the Inquisition made their findings and presented them to the pope, he directed Bellarmine to give me that warning.
“A short while later, I had the opportunity to speak with His Holiness, who reinforced the Church’s position, so I began preparations to return home. But already, rumors circulated that I had been summoned to appear before the Inquisition, had been tried, found guilty, and punished!
“None of these rumors being true, I asked Cardinal Bellarmine for a letter explaining what had transpired, which he graciously provided. Little did I know at the time how important that letter would become. I returned home and let the matter rest for the most part, as I had teaching responsibilities and my children to attend to. Vincenzo was only ten years old then, and the girls fifteen and sixteen.”
“And had you left it there, you would have been safe,” Piccolomini observed. “So what possessed you to write that book?”
“Ah, well, the root of that must be in my dispute with Jesuit Father Orazio Grassi over the comets. The man is a blithering idiot. His arguments on the comets weren’t even his, they were Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s, and he presented them poorly. I responded with my Discourse on Comets, in which I dissected his stupidity. Of course, Grassi responded, not even man enough to put his name on the reply. He used the name of one of his students.
“Obviously, I could not let that lie, so I wrote Il Saggiatore, The Asssayer, perhaps my greatest written work. Since he could not dispute the science any further without looking foolish, he resorted to theology in his last response. And from what I understand, a similarly worded complaint was filed a couple years later with the Inquisition.
“But I would not have written The Assayer at all if Cardinal Barberini had not been elected pope that same year, 1623. I went to Rome after his election and spoke with him some half-dozen times. When I left, I was sure I had permission from His Holiness to discuss heliocentrism, as long as I did it in a purely hypothetical manner, not defending or extolling the view but merely explaining how my scientific observations seemed to support the conclusion.
“His Holiness felt that since God had the power to make the universe as described in Scripture, and yet have it appear as the observations supported, we could never know the truth of the matter from observations alone.
“So I returned home to write the book, careful not to defend the Copernican model, but only to show how the observations supported the model so as to explain the appearances. I felt myself very clever to have hit upon the idea of structuring the book as a dialogue, much like that of Plato’s work.
“But that is where the seeds of my destruction were planted, watered by my ego and illuminated by my arrogance, only to reap a crop of woe. Well, you have read it. I put the pope’s argument in the mouth of the simpleton. He took it worse than I imagined. In my defense, I had obtained imprimatur from the censor in Rome where it was originally intended to be published. But then bubonic plague hit, and I could not return to Rome, so I obtained the second approval from Florence.”
“So, when the Holy Father heard of the book, he had the Inquisition call you to Rome?” Piccolomini asked.
“I admit, as I did when I was questioned by the Inquisition, that my biggest fault was an over-exuberance in my own cleverness in trying to show how the scientific evidence might be so convincing if it were not for the contrary light of Scripture.
“The thing of it all, however, seemed to come down to whether I had received a formal injunction not to hold, teach or defend the Copernican model all those years ago, at the meeting with Cardinal Bellarmine. The Inquisition had minutes from the meeting that confirmed I had been so enjoined. I don’t think they were aware that I had the later letter from Cardinal Bellarmine that stated the opposite, that I was only given an informal warning. The Inquisition was stymied when I revealed that, and the prosecutor came to me after the questioning and suggested that if I were to confess to my over-enthusiasm in emphasizing the support given by science to the Copernican model over the Scriptural truth, that I might be convicted only of Slight Suspicion of Heresy and released with a light punishment.
“But, having agreed to this, when I returned to give my confession, I was informed that the bargain had been revoked, I believe by His Holiness, and that on pain of torture I was to renounce to their formula and be convicted of Vehement Suspicion of Heresy and punished with a lifetime of imprisonment, as well as being forbidden to do any further work in this area. And thus, now, I find myself at your mercy and in your debt for however you managed to have me remanded to your custody.”
“Well, for all your irascible ways, Galileo, you still have friends in this world, and I number myself among them. I think you are right—though I cannot say that publicly, of course. So I must limit my support to hosting you here and making sure your imprisonment is not too onerous to bear.
“But I must go now. I have duties to attend to. Wait here and enjoy the warmth of the fire. When your things have been placed in your apartment, someone will come and take you there. We will speak again soon. And as you contemplate the fire in the hearth, be grateful that you are not staked to a burning pile of rushes.”
“Indeed, Your Excellency. Indeed.”