International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Retrying Galileo 1633-1992

by Maurice A. Finocchiaro

Introductory Essay by Owen Gingerich

What really happened in Rome in 1633 the world may never know. What is now evident is that since 1633 the epochal confrontation between Galileo and the Inquisition has been subject to reinterpretation after reinterpretation. And as Maurice Finocchiaro makes clear in this book, we know today a great deal more about the circumstances in1633 than the public knew then. Finocchiaro gives a play-by-play analysis of the successive discussions of the Galileo affair, and in the process he describes how the Vatican documents gradually became known. In 1810 the entire Vatican archives was hauled off to Paris, and Napoleon specifically requested the Galileo file with the unfulfilled intention of publishing it. The Galileo file took a circuitous journey via Vienna before being returned to Rome in 1843. It finally became available in three separate essentially complete editions in 1877–78.

Eventually much of the controversy about the Galileo affair concentrated on Galileo’s failure to comply with a formal warning issued in 1616 not to hold or teach the claim that the earth moved. This aspect of the affair took center stage in the 1950s with the 1955 publication of Giorgio de Santillana’s The Crime of Galileo, in which he argued that a document purporting to be a formal injunction served on Galileo in 1616 (which forbade him teaching Copernicanism “in any way whatsoever”) was a forgery invented to incriminate the Florentine astronomer and to guarantee his conviction. A decade later Stillman Drake weighed in with the opinion that the document was genuine, prepared “just in case,” but that the injunction had never been served since it was not notarized, although nevertheless it played a key if essentially illegal role in the trial. What Finocchiaro’s thorough and systematic analysis of the historical record shows is that neither argument was new. In 1870 a young German scholar, Emil Wohlwill, first proposed that the injunction was a forgery, and in 1879 the Austrian scholar Karl von Gebler noted that the document was presumably inoperative because it had not been notarized. (More recently the biographer Annibale Fantoli has convincingly argued the injunction did not have to be notarized to be effective, and that it is highly likely that the injunction was actually served on Galileo who conveniently forgot about it in light of a less restrictive letter he had obtained from Cardinal Bellarmine.)

Finocchiaro suggests that Pope John Paul II’s move to “rehabilitate” Galileo has simply created yet another myth, for in the public mind the trial that accused the astronomer of heresy has been reversed. But Galileo never admitted to the Inquisition that he actually believed the heliocentric doctrine (despite the clear enthusiasm for it in his Dialogo) and since he was specifically instructed to say that he had not believed so in his public abjuration, he was not found guilty of heresy, and his punishment was essentially for disobeying orders by publicizing heliocentrism. Finocchiaro’s Retrying Galileo, along with Ernan McMullin’s The Church and Galileo, are the sine qua non foundation for continuing reinterpretations of the Galileo Affair.