Biagioli’s Galileo, Courtier

Mario Biagioli’s Galileo, Courtier (University of Chicago Press 1993, paperback 1994, ISBN 0–226–04560–9) examines the major stations of Galileo Galilei’s career in the context of the contemporary courtly society, and especially its patronage system. Clocking in at over 500 pages in the German translation I read (an accidental bookstore discovery), the writing is somewhat long-winded and repetitive. That however is the extent of my criticism. Biagioli gives a fascinating description of social climbing at Italian 17th century courts, and embedding Galileo’s own rise and fall in that context offers quite a few surprises.

Galileo started his career as professor at the universities of Pisa and then Padua. This was however not nearly as prestigious as today: being paid to work implied low social status. Galileo aimed higher and, through a network of friends as well as generous gifting of his telescopes, eventually acquired the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici in Florence to whom he dedicated his discovery of four Jupiter moons. Such patronage relations were styled as voluntary on both sides: the patron offering generous gifts of a usually material nature, the client offering novel inventions for the patron’s amusement and greater glory. In Galileo’s case those would be scientific discoveries and witty debates with another patron’s clients. The patrons themselves never took side on the concrete issues debated by their clients, as being wrong would mean losing face. (Never mind that they often didn’t quite understand the issues anyway.)

Biagioli goes on to describe such debates, on floating bodies or a newly observed comet, but I’ll jump ahead to the grand finale which is of course Galileo’s Inquisition trial for promoting the heliocentric Copernican system. That system had been declared heretical in 1616 so one would expect no surprise here: in his 1632 book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo promoted heliocentrism over the geocentric Ptolemaic system backed by the church – so naturally our hero of science was condemned by a backward church, right? Not quite. There is another popular reading, namely that Galileo was condemned for insulting the Pope, but that’s also not quite right. The reality was rather more complex.

The current Pope, Urban VIII né Maffeo Barberini, had been a long-time admirer of Galileo’s work, and his secretary, Giovanni Ciampoli, was one of his old friends. Galileo sensed his chance for a magnum opus in this fortunate constellation. Indeed, Urban requested the Dialogue from him. The final redaction was supposed to be performed by Ciampoli, and the imprint by the Accademia dei Lincei at Rome. Galileo dutifully submitted the manuscript to Pope and Inquisition for inspection, and incorporated all requested changes – naturally intended to keep everything on a witty hypothetical level, and not to endorse Copernicanism too strongly.

Then a number of unexpected things happened. The head of the Accademia died, leaving the institute in confusion. The plague broke out, making travel from Galileo’s home in Florence to Rome difficult. Galileo eventually achieved permission to perform the final redaction and imprint in Florence instead. This was still the version signed off by the Pope, but the lack of oversight over the actual publication later gave the Inquisition a necessary pretext.

The surprising nail in the coffin was the Thirty Years War. Urban’s attempts to negotiate between the French King and the Habsburgs were a total failure. The Spanish ambassador to Rome caused a scandal when he accused Urban of sympathizing with the Protestants and even suggested having a council on the matter. After a brawl he had to be forcibly removed from the room. Fearing a Spanish invasion, Urban was powerless to have him recalled as ambassador. He instead sent away two cardinals suspected as Spain’s accomplices, one of whom had been Galileo’s benefactor. Urban then fired Galileo’s friend Ciampoli, either because he had dared to improve one of Urban’s letters or because he also suspected him of Spanish collaboration.

Urban now descended into complete paranoia. He was terrified by negative horoscopes, feared poisoning, locked himself up in a castle and only received visitors that had been thoroughly searched. He was heard screaming about Ciampoli and Galileo conspiring against him. Wounded by the accusation of impiety, Galileo’s latest publication gave a perfect pretext to both get rid of him and restore Urban’s reputation as defender of the faith. It did not help that the Dialogue represented the geocentric system through one ludicrous Simplicius, a common rhetorical device in courtly disputes for the amusement of patrons, but which Urban in his paranoia now assumed to represent himself.

Here Biagioli makes another important point: when an illustrious patron wanted to remove an illustrious client, he could not simply dismiss him. That would amount to an admission that the patron had been a poor judge of character for taking on the client in the first place. Rather, a spectacular show of sudden treason on the part of the client had to be staged, both to justify the removal and to prevent anyone from publicly supporting the client.

That was exactly what happened in 1633 with the Inquisition trial against Galileo. The latter was so surprised that he actually went to court to defend himself, rather than metaphorically fall on his sword as was expected of disgraced clients. The court was consternated: Galileo could produce the written permission for his publication, and there were no substantial alterations compared to the permitted manuscript. Legally this was no case of heresy. But then, after a couple of days, Galileo had a sudden change of mind and signed a confession. We don’t know what happened but one may safely assume that promises and threats were involved. After having arranged a show trial for his disgraced client, Urban could not possibly have him exonerated. And so ended Galileo’s career as a courtier.

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