When in Rome . . .
Galileo in Rome: The Rise and Fall of a Troublesome
William R. Shea and Mariano Artigas.
226 pp. Oxford University Press, 2003. $28.
Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) traveled to Rome six times during
his storied career. His stays there are retraced, with plenty of
fresh details, in Galileo in Rome, a new biography that
focuses on the astronomer's relations with the Catholic Church.
The authors are William R. Shea, a well-known historian of
17th-century science, and Mariano Artigas, a Catholic priest and
philosopher of science who came into the limelight recently for his
discovery in the Holy Office archives of a new document on Galileo's
suspiciously heretic atomism. The book is brilliantly written for a
lay audience, without critical notes. Sources are firsthand but
consist almost entirely of Galileo's correspondence, which is
voluminous yet always represents the points of view of Galileo and
his friends. The inevitable consequence is that others, including
his adversaries, are often drawn with approximate strokes or appear
to always act only in their own self-interest.
The book is motivated by a genuine effort to revisit Galileo's time
and environment. However, it is not an attempt to find a new
approach to writing Galileo's biography. Nor do the authors explore
Galilean natural philosophy and its intermingling of scientific and
religious ideas. Shea and Artigas refer to discoveries in
mathematical physics only hastily, and they never even mention
Plato, whose great myth concerning the divine creation of the
universe played an influential role in Galileo's Copernicanism.
The authors' central preoccupation is instead the events leading up
to and including Galileo's trial by the Holy Office's Tribunal of
the Inquisition during his last visit to Rome, in 1633, where he was
judged strongly suspected of heresy. The charge against him was that
in publishing Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems in
1632, he had disregarded a supposed formal injunction made in 1616
that he should not teach as true the Copernican theory that the
Earth rotates and moves around the Sun. The documents of 1616 that
resulted in the 1633 indictment are ambiguous. One of these
documents just states that Galileo was warned of the error of
holding that the Sun is at rest and the Earth in motion; another
document—which was not signed or notarized (and was therefore
held in the 19th century to be a forgery)—says additionally
that Galileo was told not "to hold, teach, or defend [that
opinion] in any way verbally or in writing," and that he
"promised to obey."
Shea and Artigas, in their discussion of the trial, relay the most
classic conjectures about these documents. They suggest that Pope
Urban VIII decided to bring his protégé Galileo to
trial mainly for psychological reasons. "In all this sorry
affair, pride was to play at least as great a role as
doctrine," they observe.
The authors indicate that the book's real purpose is to derive from
Galileo's odyssey a teaching for present times:
The Galileo Affair remains as fascinating as ever, and it
has much to teach us that is relevant to our own day. We believe it
is the first step in a proper assessment of the relations between
science and religion, and we hope that our account will help readers
come to grips with the issue and enable them to answer for
themselves questions that often arise concerning this affair.
Was the Church wrong to condemn Galileo? Or were theologians correct
in trying to defend Holy Scriptures? These are the questions to
which our authors refer—questions that, in the Catholic world,
have been the subject of a lively discussion on the relations
between science and faith ever since the Church's reexamination of
Galileo's indictment in 1992. But Pope John Paul II closed that case
without rehabilitating Galileo, and a special Vatican commission
concluded that the Church was not at fault. The commission reasoned
that if Galileo had accepted the advice of Cardinal Bellarmine to
treat Copernicanism as an as-yet-unverified scientific hypothesis,
the drama would not have developed.
Here Shea and Artigas take the Church's side, criticizing Galileo
for his dogmatic attitude and for requesting that Catholic theology
adapt the Bible to fit an unproven cosmology:
Had Galileo been able to demonstrate the truth of
Copernicanism, all would have been well, but he did not have and was
never to have such a proof.
What Galileo proposed was not
only damaging to his own position but seriously misconceived.
Science progresses by conjectures that are refuted but even more
so by conjectures that are confirmed, and theologians were right
to be cautious about ideas that lay outside their domain of
expertise. . . . If science is always to take precedence, might
Scripture not be left undefended against wild and subversive
ideas put forward in the name of science? . . . If necessary,
those passages in Scripture that allude to natural things should
be reinterpreted to fit with what is known through science. But
the case for a particular scientific theory has to be made and,
in the case of Copernicanism, Galileo never had a proof positive
that it was true.
What about the argument that the tides are a mechanical effect of
the movement of the Earth on its axis and around the Sun, which
Galileo presented in Rome in early 1616 as a piece of technical
evidence in favor of Copernicus? "The theory is
ingenious," the authors say, "and Galileo argued for it
very skilfully, but it happens to be wrong." This is
misleading, however; Shea and Artigas fail to acknowledge that
between 1616 and 1633 no one had managed to refute this theory.
Some of the most interesting material in Galileo in Rome
has nothing to do with Galileo's trial. The initial pages of the
book offer an excellent description of Rome at the end of the
Renaissance as a mecca for applied mathematical sciences, thanks to
the Jesuit school of astronomy founded by Clavius and to Roman
superiority in architecture and engineering. Evidence of that
prowess can be found in some of the technological achievements
recounted, such as the relocation of a very heavy obelisk (a column
25 meters high) from the Circus of Caligula and Nero to the center
of St. Peter's Square, where 800 workers and 140 horses were
required to raise it. Calendar reform, which was a highlight of
Clavius's career, is also mentioned: The modern European calendar in
universal use nowadays was developed in Rome in 1582 as an
everlasting scientific and religious monument to the glory of the
Counter-Reformation. These pages will help counteract the still
widespread idea of a papist obscurantism as the sworn enemy of all
modernity.—Pietro Redondi, Università di Milano-Bicocca