Religion, Politics & Patronage: The Galileo Affair

By Alex Johnson

Galileo Galilei once said that, “There is no event in nature, not even the least that exists, such that it will ever be completely understood by theorists” (Drake 91).  This is certainly true for natural phenomenon, even though they are constantly available to us for observation, but sadly, we find that this statement is often true of historical phenomenon as well, because they can only be observed through the surviving records.   

Despite this, or perhaps, in spite of this, we are in constant pursuit of an understanding of the past.  The Galileo Affair is a prime example of this.  Every facet of this event has fascinated historians and scholars of religion for almost 400 years.  What happened?  Why, and what does it all mean for us today?  That last question is something that I am attempting to answer in my undergraduate thesis and is a question that requires much more time than I will have in this short essay, so instead I will concern myself with giving a brief overview of what I perceive to be the answers to those first two questions; what happened and why? 

The core events of the Galileo affair occurred in 1633, when Galileo stood trial for heresy concerning the content of his book A Dialogue Between the Two Chief World Systems.  Found guilty, he was sentenced to an indefinite period of imprisonment, which was later commuted to life under house arrest.  The crime that he was convicted of was vehement suspicion of heresy, a technical term meaning that he had taught a false, heretical doctrine, but had not done so out of deliberate malice toward the Church. 

He was also accused of having violated a previous order that had been given to him in 1616 by Pope Paul V, via a messenger, Cardinal Bellarmine.  According to the Inquisition, Galileo had been forbidden to “hold, teach or defend” the notion that the Earth moved and that it moved around the sun. 

Galileo’s version of these events is slightly different.  He presented, at trial, a signed letter from the messenger, Cardinal Bellarmine, which stated that Pope Paul had only commanded Galileo to avoid holding or defending heliocentrism. The letter said that Galileo should only have been told not to teach heliocentrism, if he resisted the initial order.                                                       

Unfortunately for Galileo, the head of the Inquisition invited himself to this meeting and upon seeing that Galileo did not resist, he exploded into rage and insisted that Galileo should also refrain from teaching heliocentrism.  Because this was a violation of the orders he had been given, Cardinal Bellarmine did not sign the document Paul V had given him containing these orders.  He brought the document back with him when he returned to the Vatican and from there it disappeared for over a decade until it was mysteriously located by an unknown person and sent to the Pope, only a month after Galileo published the Dialogue.  Despite the legal validity of Bellarmine’s letter, the Inquisition chose not to believe Galileo, and so he was condemned for heresy and forced to publicly recant his belief that the Earth moves around the sun.

Having given this light speed tour of the “what” of the Galileo affair, I would now like to take a look at the “why” of the cause of these events, in particular the 1633 trial.  Although there were numerous contributing factors, the key component was Pope Urban VIII.  Why did Urban VIII send Galileo to the Inquisition?  During the trial, the Tuscan ambassador to Rome asked the very same question and he tells us that the Pope, “answered with the same outburst of rage, that he had been deceived by Galileo” (Biagioli 338).  

To be more specific, Urban VIII claimed that Galileo had betrayed him by secretly having the Dialogue printed without first sending it to the Vatican for approval.  The problem with this claim is that Galileo sent his incomplete manuscript to Rome several times in order to get feedback on it before proceeding to the next stage and, he received frequent updates from his Vatican contacts appraising him of the status of things.  For example, on June 16, 1630 he received a letter that read, 

The Father Master…says that he likes your work and that tomorrow morning he will talk to the pope about the frontpiece [preface] and that as the rest goes, after fixing a few little things like those we fixed together, he will give you the book back.” (Biagioli 338).

In contrast to this statement, the Pope claimed that he had never read the Dialogue.  Did the Pope receive the book and simply neglect to read it?  This would not be in keeping with his previous friendship with Galileo.  

Did the Master of the Sacred Palace lie to Galileo by telling him that the Pope had approved the book?  This is even more unlikely since everyone who handled the book at the Vatican was also a friend of Galileo.  In fact, the Pope would later accuse these same people of having been in league with Galileo (Biagioli 337).

So, if the book was sent to the Vatican (which it certainly was) and if it was given to the Pope (which it certainly was), what explains the Pope’s claim that he had never read the book and that it never actually reached him?

Since it seems absurd to think that Galileo’s own comrades would have turned against him by not giving his manuscript to the Pope, other culprits must be found.  For example, there was Cardinal Scheiner, a philosophical enemy of Galileo.  Stillman Drake, a historian of astronomy, suggests that Scheiner may have been the one who showed Urban VIII the note from Galileo’s meeting with Cardinal Bellarmine in 1616.  This is the note that the Inquisition used to establish the “fact” that Galileo had been forbidden from teaching heliocentrism (Drake 76).  The note mysteriously appeared in the Vatican shortly after the Dialogue had been published and might explain Urban VIII’s sudden change of heart.  

One wonders however, why Urban VIII would claim that he had never seen the book at all if his real reason for sending Galileo to trial was this note.  If he had read the note but not the book, where would he have gotten the idea that Galileo was teaching heliocentrism in the Dialogue?  There are many other discrepancies in the Pope’s version of these events and this suggests that his true motive had nothing to do with Galileo himself or his book.  So once again, we return to the question of why Urban VIII would destroy the career of a beloved friend.  What was there to be gained from such an act?

The key that unlocks this mystery is the knowledge of the mechanics of the medieval patronage system, in which both Galileo and Urban participated.  Alvise Contarini, a Venetian ambassador to Rome, expressed the chief danger of patronage when he said, “Nobody is well enough supported and connected to be sure of not falling under any circumstances” (Biagoli 315).  The fall that he speaks of is the sudden and irreversible removal of favor and financial support from a particular client.  Such falls from grace were not unheard of in this period.  In fact, they were so common that several books were written for courtiers to aid them in avoiding such a terrible fate.  

One such text was Matteo Pellegrini’s The Qualities of the Scholar which are Inconvenient to the Courtier.  Of the many topics covered in Pellegrini’s courtier’s manual is one which he called the “Fall of the Favorite” (Biagioli 325). The Fall was a ritual in which a patron presented himself as having been forced to drop a client as the result of some form of betrayal.  The effect on the client, however, was more than simply being fired from a job.  Being dropped in this manner was akin to being blacklisted.  When a patron dropped a client, all of the patron’s other clients were expected to withdraw contact and support from the fallen one as well or suffer a similar fate (Biagioli 328).

The Fall served a twofold purpose; first, it allowed a patron to avoid the consequences of a grievous mistake by transferring all of the blame to their favorite client.  No one would suspect a patron of framing his own favorite, so surely this meant that the client was actually guilty of the alleged crimes.  Second, not only did the patron avoid any damage to his own reputation, but he actually gained status in the eyes of others, since, by punishing his well known favorite, he would appear to be absolutely dedicated to justice.  This effect was accentuated by outward shows of sorrow at having to sacrifice the client to justice.  It is clear from the numerous works devoted to the subject, that the fall was a political strategy commonly used during this period.  

But did Urban VIII actually use said technique on Galileo?  To answer this question we should look for two things, an inciting incident which would create a need for such an extreme tactic and examples of feigned sorrow at the fate of Galileo.

Urban VIII developed a need to drop Galileo as a client after the “scandal of the consistory” when Cardinal Borgia,  the ambassador from Spain, read an inflammatory letter that insulted the Pope’s ability to rule (by accusing him of protecting heretics) and suggested that the king of Spain wanted him removed as Pope (Biagoli 335).  

Borgia had insulted Urban VIII to his face, which was a serious blow to the Pope because it suggested to others that they could get away with such behavior as well.  But Borgia’s actions effected more than just the Pope’s ego.  As the ambassador from Spain, Borgia was conveying a threat from the king of Spain (Phillip IV) which could have resulted in Urban VIII being removed from office. This was not an instance of saber rattling.  A secular ruler (Otto I of Germany) had succeeded in getting a Pope (John XII) removed from office in 963.  

The second sign of the Pope’s use of the Fall tactic can be seen in the letters of the Tuscan ambassador to the Grand Duke, in which Urban VIII expresses, several times, his great heartfelt regret of having to send Galileo to trial.  Urban VIII was quoted as saying that “Mr. Galileo was still his friend” and that “he was sorry to have to displease him but one was dealing with the interests of the faith and religion” (Finnoch 236, 247).

Despite his professed anger at Galileo for the alleged offense of having published the Dialogue without his permission, Urban VIII wanted to give the impression that this was not the true reason that Galileo had to be sent to the Inquisition.  After all, Galileo was his “friend” and surely a real friend would overlook such a slight infraction.  The actual problem, according to the Pope, was that Galileo was endangering the Church.  

 A higher cause was at stake here, the souls of Christians who would potentially be led astray by the false and “perverse” doctrine that Galileo taught.  In this way, Urban VIII would avoid any semblance of pettiness and was able to present himself as a noble defender of Christianity, rather than as a patron dropping a client for a politically expedient purpose. This, I believe, is the true cause of the Galileo affair.  Urban VIII, when cornered by the threat of being forcefully removed from the Papacy, chose to strike back, not by attacking his accuser, but by improving his reputation through sacrificing his friend, Galileo.


After serving for four years in the United States Marine Corps, including a tour in Japan, Alexander Johnson returned to his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, to continue his education. He has completed the requirements for a BA in Religious Studies with a minor in Film at Georgia State University and expects to graduate in December 2011. His research interests include geek culture, the history of American sexuality and the relationship between science and religion. In 2010, he presented a paper on misogyny in geek culture at the annual meeting of Pop Culture Association-South. He recently completed an honors thesis entitled, “It Wasn’t Supposed to Be This Way: Science, Religion and Politics in the Galileo Affair.

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