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The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History
edited and translated with an introduction and notes by maurice a. finocchiaro
university of california press, 382 pages, $50 cloth, $12.95 

The Galileo affair lasted twenty years. It began pleasantly, almost innocently, in December 1613 in Florence at a breakfast to which Cosimo II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, invited his mother, the Grand Duchess Christina, and the Benedictine monk and mathematics professor Benedetto Castelli, among others. Both Cosimo and Castelli had been students of Galileo, who since 1610 had been Chief Mathematician and Philosopher to the Grand Duke, but Galileo was not present that morning.

The discussion at table took up Galileo’s telescopic discovery of the moons of Jupiter and its implications for the Copernican theory. A professor of philosophy named Cosimo Boscaglia offered his view that the earth could not be in motion because Holy Scripture taught the opposite. As breakfast ended, Madame Christina called Castelli back to inquire whether this alleged conflict between the Bible and the new astronomy could be reconciled. As Castelli later reported to Galileo, he “commenced to play the theologian,” and in defense of reconciliation of Scripture and the new science apparently acquitted himself well.

The Galileo affair ended most unpleasantly in June 1633 in Rome where Galileo, on his knees before the cardinals of the Inquisition at a formal ceremony in the convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, spoke these words, among others:

. . . having been judicially instructed with injunction by the Holy Office to abandon completely the false opinion that the sun is in the center of the world and does not move and the earth is not the center of the world and moves . . . with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith I abjure, curse, and detest the above-mentioned errors and heresies . . . .

Galileo at the age of seventy had been convicted of “vehement suspicion of heresy” as a result of the publication of his masterpiece, Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, his books were banned, and he was forbidden ever to publish again. When the prison sentence was later ameliorated to house arrest, Galileo returned to Florence, where he lived nine more years and wrote an even greater book, Discourses on Two New Sciences. His death in 1642 began, rather than ended, the controversy over the Galileo affair.

The events of these two decades—including Galileo’s brilliant effort to harmonize science and scripture in his “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” the Church’s disastrous decree of 1616 branding Copernicanism as heretical, the tolerant pontificate of Urban VIII that encouraged Galileo to write the Dialogue and allowed its publication, Urban’s reversal of mind that led to the cruel and irrational trial and conviction—constitute one of the most important chapters in the long history of the interplay of science and religion. The Galileo affair is certainly among the most thoroughly studied events in modern intellectual history. So persistent have been the disputed questions of Galileo’s guilt or innocence and the significance of his case that even Pope John Paul II has not escaped them; a decade ago the current Pope, admitting that Galileo had suffered “at the hands of men and departments within the church,” appointed a papal commission to re-study the case”with virtually no constructive results to date.

All the commentators on the case in this century have relied on the same small set of documents, made available in their original Italian and Latin in Volume XIX of Antonio Favaro’s Edizione Nazionale delle Opere di Galileo Galilei. But never before has this collection, known to be incomplete, been fully translated into English. For this extremely valuable work we now owe a debt of gratitude to Maurice A. Finocchiaro, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History is mainly composed, as it should be, of documents newly translated and arranged into accessible categories. Castelli’s 1613 letter to Galileo leads off, followed by Galileo’s thoughtful reply which he later lengthened and transformed into the “Letter to the Grand Duchess.” Ominous letters rapidly follow; in February 1615, for instance, a Dominican Father Niccolo Lorini denounced Galileo to the Holy Office for “rash or suspect” ideas. A famous 1615 letter from Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino to the Carmelite Father Paolo Foscarini is also here, raising the large question of the choice between holding the Copernican theory as a hypothesis or as a reality. (This worthwhile and debatable distinction was unfortunately never adequately discussed, as the case against Galileo was later based on his alleged disobedience to a dubious injunction of the Holy Office.)

Of crucial importance to Galileo’s later difficulties were the documents of 1616, when not only was Copernicanism declared to be “foolish and absurd in philosophy and formally heretical,” but Galileo himself was personally warned by Bellarmino not to “hold or defend” the theory. Years later, Galileo’s trial pivoted on the question of whether he had also been ordered not to “teach” Copernicanism “in any way,” but by then Bellarmino was long dead and the signed affidavit he had given Galileo was ignored by the Inquisition.

The 1633 trial documents include several depositions given by Galileo, a report by the Commissary General of the Inquisition about his agreement with Galileo for a plea-bargain (overruled by Pope Urban), the Inquisition’s sentence, and Galileo’s final abjuration. The Holy Office had such total confidence in its own judgments that the Cardinal Inquisitors responded as follows to Galileo’s avoidance of an explicit defense of the Copernican theory in the Dialogue:

. . . in the said book you try by means of various subterfuges to give the impression of leaving it [Copernicanism] undecided and labeled as probable; this is still a very serious error since there is no way an opinion declared and defined contrary to divine Scripture may be probable.

But The Galileo Affair is more than documents. Professor Finocchiaro has provided an excellent succinct introduction that summarizes the tragic affair and places it in historical context. There is as well a valuable chronology of events and biographical glossary. Superb notes and bibliography bring the book to a close.

Galileo’s fine prose—and that of his adversaries as well—rendered into modern English, is clear and readily comprehensible. This fact itself, supported by Finocchiaro’s scholarly apparatus, makes it possible to say that this book allows readers to make up their own minds about the Galileo affair, without the filter of an intermediate view. About no previous analytical or biographical work in English could that be said without some qualification. And in at least this reviewer’s opinion, it is unlikely that anything but sympathy for Galileo’s plight will be fairly derived from these documents. Although it was Galileo who was commanded at the end to “recite the seven penitential Psalms once a week for the next three years,” clearly many others then and since should have been doing the same penance.

Robert L. Spaeth is Professor of Liberal Studies and Co-Director of the Christian Humanism project at St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota.

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