The Musketeers of the Cosmos II: History of great silence. Galileo Galilei

How the Inquisition wanted Galileo to recant and consider his model a simple mathematical hypothesis. Although his sentence was commuted and he was condemned to live under house arrest, Galileo remained faithful to his method until he died in 1642, the year Isaac Newton was born.

The Musketeers of the Cosmos II: History of great silence. Galileo Galilei
Panoramic view of Florence, Italy. Photo by Heidi Kaden / Unsplash

A few years ago, I knew the city of Florence; I was coming from Rome and crossed, with my eyes open, the central provinces of Lazio, Umbria, and Tuscany. The origins of this immortal town go back to Etruscan and Roman experiences. It reigned in the Middle Ages and was the homeland of the Medici, who made it the "center of the Italian Renaissance."

The Italian language was coined here, with Dante at its head, pursuing his elusive Beatrice. One expects, at any moment, to find the immortal poet near the Ponte Vecchio reciting passages from the Divine Comedy and contemplating the Arno, which flows through the city. It is also the land of Michelangelo, of Cellini, of mythological gods.

From Palazzo Pitti, there is a panoramic view of the historic city, dominated by the majestic dome of the Cathedral (St. Mary of Fiore) created by the genius of Brunelleschi. Visit the Church of Santa Croce, where the urns containing the remains of four great Italians, Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli, and Galileo, are preserved.

But it was Galileo, the tireless scrutinizer of the celestial spaces, who occupied my thoughts. The man of the telescopes and defender of Copernicus rested in that place called the Pantheon of the Florentines. His ashes were more fortunate than Kepler's, scattered to the wind by the vagaries of war.

In 1610, Galileo published his work The Starry Messenger, which accounts for Jupiter's satellites. He thus gained entry to a unique position: mathematician and philosopher at the court of the Medici. The Academia dei Lincei, presided over by Prince Federico Cesi, names him a member in a memorable banquet where the word "telescope" appears for the first time; this is the baptism of the astronomer's powerful spyglass.

Some colleagues consider that theology has preeminence over geometry, astronomy, music, and medicine and argue that they are more excellently contained in the Bible than in the books of Archimedes, Ptolemy, Boethius, and Galen. But theology, Galileo cautiously warns, does not descend to the lower and humbler speculations of the subordinate sciences. That is, to Rome, what belongs to Rome, and Caesar what belongs to Caesar.

Naturally, the Church was not satisfied with such reasoning. Rumors circulated throughout Italy. There was talk about a new Luther who denied the miracles of the Bible and challenged the Church, using mathematical sophistry. Galileo's subtle dialectic failed. The accusation is larvated.

Copernicus' book was put "under observation." Despite the intrigue, people like Cardinals Dini and Bellarmine opposed a tolerant and civilized thesis to the Galilean "ravings." In "case of doubt," Bellarmine said in a letter: one cannot abandon the Holy Scriptures as expounded by the Holy Fathers...

Portrait of Galileo Galilei.
Portrait of Galileo Galilei. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Despite warnings that he was in grave danger, Galileo passionately defended his discoveries and demolished imaginary charges himself. The ambassador of Duke Cosimo II of Tuscany wrote, greatly alarmed, to his sovereign: Galileo has relied more on his advice than on his friends...() We have tried to persuade him to keep quiet and not to continue to make this conflict more difficult...

In this way, we arrive at the decree that the qualifiers of the Holy Office issued on February 23, 1616, in which it was expressed that the affirmation that the Sun is the center of the world is foolish and absurd, philosophical and formally heretical since it expressly contradicts the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures. As for the assertion that the Earth is not the center of the world nor is it motionless, but that it moves in its totality and also with a daily motion, the Holy Office says: deserves the same censure in philosophy and, from the point of view of theological truth, it is at least erroneous in faith.

In the meantime, Copernicus' historical work The Revolutions was "authorized" after some corrections were imposed on it (in reality they were sections crossed out), in the year 1620. However, it was clear that the Church had declared war on science. A few years before, more precisely since Thursday, February 25, 1616, in the archives of the Inquisition one can read the following declaration: ...

... The censure imposed by theologians on the propositions of Galileo, according to which the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from its place, while the Earth moves and does so also with a daily motion, had been given to publicity; and His Holiness addressed Cardinal Bellarmine to summon the said Galileo before him and to exhort him to abandon the said opinion; And that, in case Galileo should refuse to obey the commissary, before a notary and witnesses, he should command him to abstain from teaching or defending that opinion and doctrine, and even from discussing it; and if he should not submit to this, that he should be imprisoned.

It seems that Galileo "agreed" and several years of meditative activity passed. However, the Tuscan astronomer's tongue was active to such an extent that the Duke ordered him to return to Florence, which Galileo did not without stating that the ignorance, malice, and impiety of my adversaries had won the game.

Amid contradictions, he wrote his The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (in 1618). He sent it to Austria under the protection and benevolence of Archbishop Leopold. He was wrong in judging the matter of the comets that made their sporadic appearance in those years and stated that they were optical illusions. He refuted the Jesuit Father Grassi, who was right in the sense that comets move in regular orbits, at a distance much greater than that of the Moon. Galileo's immense ego made him rave: greatness has its blemishes.

Grassi's study represents Jesuitism cautiously approaching the truth and refuting the hitherto infallible Aristotle. Galileo was slow to respond and when he did he composed Il Saggiatore in the form of a letter addressed to Monsignor Cesarini, Chamberlain to the Pope, in which, with continual sarcasm, he questioned Tycho Brahe and added that no one was going to deprive him of the glory of his discoveries. Galileo, without realizing it, was setting the stage for his trial.

In 1623 Maffeo Barberini, a man of Renaissance impetus who admired Galileo and even Copernicus was elected Pope.

In 1630 Galileo finished his Dialogue on the Ebb and Flow of the Sea which, when presented to Urban VIII -in a lengthy audience-, merited a recommendation from the Pontiff that he should change the title to Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. A careful reading of this book revealed a defense of the Copernican theory that was at odds with the spirit and the letter of the decree of 1616. As it was, the book -with many delays and hesitations- came out in 1632 and in a few weeks, the Vatican felt deceived.

On April 12, 1633, Galileo presented himself to the Holy Office and a dialectical process began in which he was "more dead than alive", because the idea that the famous astronomer had mocked the Pope, which was not true, penetrated the papal chambers. In the trial, apart from the moral pressure, he was not subjected to any torture, but he was subjected to the supreme humiliation: to abjure the ideas that had been expensive to him. Here is the scene: it took place in the Church of the convent of Minerva and was ordered by the Tribunal of the Holy Office or Sacred Cardinal Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, a learned institution founded by the wisest Pope Paul III. It is June 22, 1633.

It has been 90 years since Nicolaus Copernicus slept the eternal sleep; it has been 90 years since his immortal book was published. Thirty-three years have passed since Giordano Bruno was burned for holding his ideas. Only three years have passed since the death of a wise and unfortunate man, Johannes Kepler, a friend of Tycho Brahe. Observe the scene: in the center of the room, an old man of venerable demeanor is kneeling wearing sackcloth because he is a heretic who is going to abjure. The following is a transcription of some of the minutes of the trial and abjuration.

Two days after the interview, on April 30, Galileo was called in for a second interrogation in which he was asked if he had anything to say. He made the following statement:

In the course of continuous and attentive reflections of some days about the questions which were put to me on the 12th of the present month and in particular about whether sixteen years ago, a mandate was imposed on me by order of the Holy Office, according to which I was forbidden to hold, defend or teach "in any way" the opinion which had just been condemned - of the motion of the Earth and the stability of the Sun, it occurred to me to carefully reread my printed Dialogue, which I had not seen for three years, to carefully observe whether, against my most sincere intention, something had escaped my pen, through inadvertence, from which could be inferred, on the part of some reader or of the authorities, not only a certain tinge of disobedience on my part but also other circumstances that might lead one to believe that I had transgressed the mandate of the Holy Church.

As, by kind permission of the authorities, I enjoyed the liberty of calling my servant, I was able to procure a copy of the book and, having obtained it, I applied myself with the utmost diligence to its reading and the most minute consideration of its contents. And as I had not seen the work for a long time, it seemed to me, so to speak, that it was a new book, written by another author. I therefore freely confess that in several places, in one form or another, a reader ignorant of my real purpose might well have reason to suppose that the arguments adduced in favor of the false opinion, which I intended to confute, were so expressed as to seem more calculated to compel persuasion, by their convincing character, than to be easily refuted.

There are in particular two arguments-one relating to sunspots and the other to the ebb and flow of the tides-which indeed come to the reader with much greater appearance of force and vigor than he who thought them flimsy and intended to refute them must have given them, as indeed I truly and sincerely held and hold them to be flimsy and liable to refutation. And as an excuse to myself, for having fallen into error so foreign to my intention, not contenting myself entirely with saying that when a man sets forth the arguments of the opposing party with the object of refuting them, he ought, especially if he writes them in the form of a dialogue, to set them forth in their strictest form and not to conceal them to the disadvantage of his adversary. ... not content, then, I say, with this excuse, I have recourse to that natural complacency which every man feels regarding his subtleties, and in showing himself more skillful than the generality of men in devising, even in favor of false propositions, ingenious and plausible arguments. With all this, though with the avidior sim gloriae quam sat est of Cicero, if I were now to contrive the same reasonings, I should doubtless so weaken them that they would not even have the appearance of that force of which they are really and essentially devoid. My mistake, then, has been, and I openly confess it, a mistake of vainglory and ambition, and sheer ignorance and inadvertence.

This is what occurs to me to say concerning such a particular, and what manifested itself to me on re-reading my book.

The interrogation ended with this statement by Galileo, but he, having been dismissed from the room, returned to the precinct and voluntarily made the following supplementary statement:

And in confirmation that I did not hold and do not hold as true the condemned opinion, of the motion of the Earth and the immobility of the Sun if I were given, as I desire, the means and time to offer a clearer demonstration of it, I am willing to do so; and there is a very favorable opportunity for it, considering that in the work already published the interlocutors agree to meet again after a certain time and discuss different problems of nature which have no relation to the matters treated in the first meetings. As this offers me an opportunity of adding one or two "days," I promise to summarize the arguments already adduced in favor of that opinion, which is false and has been condemned, and to refute them in the most effective way that God's blessing can inspire me. I pray, therefore, for this holy tribunal to help me in this good resolution and to permit me to put it into practice.

Astronomer Galileo demonstrated the operation of his telescope in court.
Astronomer Galileo demonstrated the operation of his telescope in court.

The following is a transcription of the text of the Saint Tribunal:

Seeing that you, Galileo, son of Vincenzo Galileo, a Florentine, seventy years of age, were denounced in the year 1615 to this Holy Office, for holding as true the false doctrine taught by some that the Sun is the center of the world and is motionless and the Earth moves, and also with a daily motion; for having disciples to whom you taught the same doctrine; for corresponding with certain mathematicians of Germany concerning the same; for publishing certain letters entitled on sunspots in which you developed the same doctrine considering it to be true; and for opposing the objections of the Holy Scriptures, which from time to time speak against such a doctrine, by glossing the said Scriptures according to the signification which you give them; and seeing that afterwards the copy of a document was presented in the form of a letter in which it is said that you wrote it to a former disciple of yours and in which there are different propositions which follow the doctrine of Copernicus and which are contrary to the true sense and authority of the Holy Scriptures:

This Holy Tribunal, having, therefore, the intention of proceeding against the resulting disorder and damage, which were to the increasing detriment of the holy faith, by mandate of His Holiness and of the most eminent cardinals of this supreme and universal Inquisition, the theological qualifiers qualified as follows the two propositions concerning the stability of the Sun and the motion of the Earth:

The proposition that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from its place is absurd and philosophically false, and formally heretical because it expressly contradicts the Holy Scriptures.

The proposition that the Earth is not the center of the world and is not stationary, but moves, and also with a daily motion, is equally absurd and false as a philosophy, and from the point of view of theological truth, is at least, erroneous in faith.

Galileo was then rebuked as follows:

But it being so that at that time it was desired to treat you leniently, the Holy Congregation, before His Holiness, decreed on February 25, 1616, that his eminence the lord cardinal Bellarmine should command you to abandon in general the said false doctrine and, in case you should refuse to do so, the commissary of the Holy Office should impose upon you the command to abandon the said doctrine and not to teach it to others, not to defend it or even to discuss it, and, if you should not obey such a prohibition, you should be imprisoned. And in the execution of this decree, on the following day and in the palace, in the presence of his eminence, the said lord cardinal Bellarmine, after you had been kindly exhorted by the said lord cardinal, there was imposed upon you by the father commissary of the Holy Office of that time, before a notary and witnesses, the command that you abandon the aforesaid false opinion entirely and that in the future you would not hold it or defend it or teach it, in any way, neither verbally nor in writing; and after you had promised to obey, they let you go.

And so that such a pernicious doctrine might be entirely uprooted and not later insinuated to the grave prejudice of Catholic truth, the Holy Congregation of the Index published a decree by which it prohibited books dealing with this doctrine and declared the doctrine itself false and entirely contrary to the Sacred and Divine Scriptures.

Fresco by Luigi Sabatelli shows Galileo Galilei teaching one of his experiments.
Fresco by Luigi Sabatelli shows Galileo Galilei teaching one of his experiments. Image: Cinquo Cose Belle

And because a book recently appeared here, published last year in Florence, the title of which shows that you were the author, for the title is: "The Dialogue Galileo Galilei Concerning the Two Chief World Systems"; and seeing that the Holy Congregation was afterward informed that by the publication of the said book the false opinion of the motion of the Earth and the stability of the Sun was daily gaining ground, careful consideration was given to the said book, and in it was discovered a patent violation of the aforesaid injunction which had been imposed upon you, for in that book you defended the said opinion, previously condemned and thus declared before you, although in the book you resort to various stratagems to produce the impression that the question remains undecided and is only probable, which, however, is a most serious error, for an opinion can by no means be probable if it has been declared and defined as contrary to the Holy Scriptures.

Accordingly, by our order, you were summoned before this Holy Office, where, having been examined under your oath, you acknowledged that you had written and published the book. You confessed that you had begun to write the said book some ten or twelve years before after the mandate had been imposed upon you, as stated above; that you arranged for permission to print it without, however, making known to those who gave you the license, that you had been commanded not to hold, defend, or teach the doctrine in question, in any manner whatsoever.

You likewise confessed that the wording of the said book observes in many places in such a manner that the reader might imagine that the arguments adduced in favor of the false opinion are intended, by their persuasive character, to compel conviction rather than to be easily refuted, and you excused yourself for having fallen into error, as you said, so foreign to your intention, by the fact of having written the book in the form of a dialogue, and by the natural complacency which every man feels regarding his subtleties, and by showing himself more skillful than the generality of men in devising, even in favor of false propositions, ingenious and plausible arguments.

And, having been granted a convenient time to prepare your defense, you presented a certificate in the handwriting of his eminence, Cardinal Bellarmine, which you obtained, as you affirmed, to defend yourself against the calumnies of your enemies, who stated that the Holy Office had made you abjure and punished you, a certificate in which it is declared that you neither abjured nor were punished, but that you had only been made aware of the declaration formulated by His Holiness and published by the Holy Congregation of the Index, a declaration in which it is established that the doctrine of the motion of the Earth and the stability of the Sun is contrary to the Holy Scriptures, and that, therefore, it cannot be defended or sustained. And, as there is no mention in the certificate of the two articles of the prohibition, that is, the injunction "not to teach" and "in any way," you thought we were to believe that, in the course of fourteen or sixteen years, you had lost all memory of it, and that that was the reason why you said nothing of the prohibition when you asked permission to publish the book. And all this you said, not by way of excuse, for your error, but to see if it could be construed as ambitious vainglory, rather than malice; but the certificate which you produced in your defense has only aggravated your fault since it says in it that such an opinion is contrary to the Holy Scriptures, and yet you dared to discuss and defend it and to hint at its probability; And the fact that you have obtained the license craftily and cunningly, is of no avail to you, since you did not mention the prohibition imposed upon you.

And since it seemed to us that you did not tell us the whole truth concerning your intentions, we thought it necessary to submit you to a rigorous interrogation, in which (without prejudice, however, to the matters confessed by you and set forth above concerning your declared intentions) you answered like a good Catholic. Then, having seen and maturely considered the merits of your cause, together with your above-mentioned confessions and excuses and all that was right to be looked at and considered, we have come to formulate the below signed final sentence against you:

Invoking, therefore, the most sacred name Our Lord Jesus Christ, and that of his most glorious Mother, the eternal Virgin Mary, in this our final sentence, which, in judgment, with the advice and assistance of the reverend masters of sacred theology and doctors of both rights, our assessors, in the cause and causes present before us, before the magnificent Carlo Sinceri, doctor of both rights, procurator of this Holy Office, on the one hand, and you Galileo Galilei, the defendant, here present, examined, judged and confessed as stated above, on the other hand. .. We say, pronounce, sentence and declare that you, the said Galileo, by reason of the matters adduced in the trial and of what you confessed before, have made yourself, before the judgment of this Holy Office, vehemently suspected of heresy, viz, of having believed and held the doctrine - which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures - that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world, and the doctrine that an opinion can be held and defended as probable after it has been declared and defined as contrary to the Holy Scriptures; and, consequently, you have incurred all the censures and penalties imposed and promulgated in the sacred canons and other provisions, general and particular, against such offenders. Wherefore We are content to absolve you, provided that, with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, you abjure, curse, and detest, before Us, the aforesaid errors and heresies, or any other error or heresy contrary to the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church, in the manner prescribed by Us.

And so that this, your grave and pernicious error and transgression, may not go entirely unpunished, and so that you may be more cautious in the future and for others, a warning that they should refrain from similar offenses, We order that the book of the "Dialogue of Galileo Galilei" be prohibited by public edict.

We condemn you to the formal imprisonment of this Holy Office, for as long as it may seem to Us, and, by way of salutary penance, We commend you for the next three years to repeat once a week the seven psalms of penance. We reserve to Ourselves the liberty to moderate, commute or annul, in whole or in part, the aforesaid punishments and penalties.

And thus we say, pronounce, sentence, declare, command, and reserve ourselves in this way, which is the best way that is lawful and that we can rightly use.

Galileo replied:

I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzo Galilei, Florentine, seventy years of age, personally constituted on trial and kneeling before you, most eminent and most reverend cardinals of the Universal Christian Church, general inquisitors against heretical malice, having before my eyes the Holy and Sacred Gospels which I touch with my hands, I swear that I have always believed, and do believe now, and, God willing, will believe in the future, all that the Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church holds, practices and teaches. But because after this Holy Office having judicially imposed upon me the injunction that I should entirely abandon the false opinion that the Sun is the center of the world and is motionless and that the Earth is not the center of the world and moves and that I should not hold, defend or teach in any way, verbally or in writing, the said false doctrine, and after having been notified that the said doctrine was contrary to the Holy Scriptures - I wrote and published a book in which I discuss this new doctrine already condemned and adduce greatly convincing arguments in favor of it, without giving any solution of them, I have been judged vehemently suspected of heresy, that is, for having held and believed that the Sun was the center of the world and immobile and that the Earth was not the center and that it moved.

Therefore, today, wishing to erase from the minds of your eminences and from those of every Catholic Christian this vehement suspicion, justly conceived against me, with sincerity of heart and unfeigned faith I abjure, I curse and detest the aforesaid errors and heresies and in general every other error, heresy and sect contrary to the Holy Church, and I swear that in the future I will never again say or affirm, verbally or in writing, anything that may give occasion for similar suspicions, as far as I am concerned; Rather, if I should meet any heretic or person suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office or the inquisitor or to the ordinary of the place where I am. Furthermore, I swear and promise that I will comply with and observe in full all the penalties that have been imposed on me or that this Holy Office may impose on me. And, in the event of transgressing any of these my promises and oaths (God forbid), I will submit myself to all the punishments and penalties imposed and promulgated in the sacred canons and other provisions, general and particular, against such offenders. Help me, then, God and these Holy Gospels which I touch with my hands.

Galileo, the favorite of pontiffs had been condemned. After the humiliation of which his judges were more grieved than the astronomer himself, there was no further physical punishment. In Rome, he stayed at the grand duke's villa, Trinita del Monte, then at the palace of Archbishop Piccolomini in Siena, and his last years were divided between his villa in Arcetri (one of the many friends who visited him in those times said melancholy ". ...the few "arpens" of my farm are getting me accustomed to the heavy fathoms of my tomb..." (note: the arpens is a Gallic measure, approximately equivalent to half a hectare).

Galileo is explaining his ideas to an incredulous listener.
Galileo is explaining his ideas to an incredulous listener.

Finally, he spent his last years in his beloved Florence, visited by numerous -some eminent- friends; there is talk of the famous poet John Milton, the celebrated author of Paradise Lost, who conversed with our great man, almost blind, in his Florentine apartments around 1638. At that time our old astronomer returned to his old passion: the science of dynamics (part of mechanics that studies together with the motion and the forces that cause it).

The first notions of dynamics are due to Galileo (later extended by Newton, D'Alambert, Lagrange, and Hamilton). At that time he had just written Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences, which is an example of an ever-renewed genius (the book is considered the most brilliant of all his books and was published, almost clandestinely, in Leyden and Vienna).

By that time the blindness is almost total. Filled with desperate pride he says to a friend: Alas! your friend and servant Galileo has been irremissibly blind in this last month (1637). In such a way this heaven, this earth, this universe that I, with marvelous discoveries and clear demonstrations, enlarged a hundred thousand times, surpassing the beliefs of the wise men of past ages, will henceforth contract for me to the small space that my physical sensations can fill.

Galileo died shortly after, in 1642, the year in which another man was born in England who would also become a colossus over time: Isaac Newton. In Florence, in the Church of Santa Croce, this humble essayist paid tribute to the obsessed of the heavens, permanent scrutinizer of space, Galileo, son of Vicenzo Galileo.

By Adolfo Hernández Muñoz, Source: Correo del Maestro. Núm. 28, p.23-39.