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When in Rome . . .

Pietro Redondi

Galileo in Rome: The Rise and Fall of a Troublesome Genius.
William R. Shea and Mariano Artigas.
xii + 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.

Urban VIII . . .Click to Enlarge Image

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

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