The Works of Galileo

Scripture and Copernicanism

Conference with Bellarmine

On February 25th, the Congregation of the Index instructed Cardinal Bellarmine to meet with Galileo and warn him in advance of the impending decree. In 1616, the Pope outlined three steps for Bellarmine to take in his meeting with Galileo, depending on Galileo’s response. The three steps are outlined in this table: (Figure 1) . These three steps may be explained as follows:

  1. Bellarmine would admonish Galileo to abandon Copernicanism as true, and only discuss it hypothetically. Galileo would be expected to acquiesce, and if so, the matter would be dropped.
  2. Should Galileo object, Bellarmine would issue an injunction, signed by a notary and proper witnesses, commanding Galileo to abjure Copernicanism and not even to discuss it hypothetically.
  3. In the unlikely event that Galileo persisted in obstinacy, he should be imprisoned.

The three steps were formally noted in a surviving document of Pope Paul V:

“His holiness ordered the Most Illustrious Cardinal Bellarmine to call Galileo before himself and warn him to abandon these opinions; and if he should refuse to obey, the Father Commissary, in the presence of a notary and witnesses, is to issue him an injunction to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it; and further, if he should not acquiesce, he is to be imprisoned.” Pope Paul V, trans. Finnochiaro, "The Galileo Affair."

What really happened when this meeting took place at Bellarmine’s residence on February 26, 1616? In this momentous conference with Bellarmine, which steps were completed? Every historian’s interpretation of the Galileo affair turns on this crucial question.

Evidence that the conference concluded with step one: According to Inquisition minutes for March 3rd, Bellarmine reported that when he warned Galileo to abandon Copernicanism except hypothetically, Galileo acquiesced. Because Galileo did not refuse this request, there is no mention of more severe measures. The Inquisition then proceeded with the decree, forbidding Copernicus until it could be corrected, but without any mention of Galileo, or of Galileo’s writings. In letters at this time Galileo expressed satisfaction in the fact that Copernicus was only suspended until it could be corrected hypothetically. Cardinal del Monte wrote the Grand Duke that Galileo “has come out of this in excellent position,” and that “his enemies have not reached their intentions in this way.” The Pope himself granted a friendly audience with Galileo only one week after the decree of the Index. And at Galileo’s request, Bellarmine gave Galileo a letter stating that Galileo had not been asked to abjure. Galileo kept this letter from Bellarmine in his own possession.

Evidence that the conference proceeded past step one: On the other hand, a mysterious document dated February 26th is found in the Inquisition’s files. This report alleges that Galileo was commanded to abjure and refrain from discussing Copernicanism, even hypothetically. This claim is contrary to the official deposition given by Bellarmine in 1616, and to Galileo’s later testimony in 1633. Several features of this document are problematic. First, the document suggests that Segizzi, the Dominican Commissary who was present at the meeting, issued the injunction before Galileo had a chance to acquiesce. This action would have been highly irregular. Second, the document is unsigned; the signatures of a notary, witnesses, and even Galileo would be expected. Third, the alleged witnesses were not properly qualified. Fourth, the document is not an original, but is copied onto blank sides of existing pages in the file, as if it were added by the compiler as an unofficial report. What is one to make of this document? Perhaps Galileo initially hesitated to acquiesce to the decree, and the Commissary jumped in prematurely with the injunction, which Bellarmine then overruled and refused to sign?

We do not know; television cameras were not present to record the conversation. By the time of Galileo’s trial in 1633 Bellarmine was deceased, but Galileo produced Bellarmine’s letter as evidence that no injunction had been given. Galileo stuck by the account given in the letter, and strenuously denied that he was ever commanded to abjure, or that anyone other than Bellarmine had admonished him in 1616. The Segizzi document will lead to Galileo’s prison sentence in 1633.

For important and contrasting accounts of the events of 1616, see Fantoli, Langford, and Santillana (more info). Many of the documents are translated in Finocchiaro, The Galileo Affair. Santillana, in support of the first scenario above, suggests that the report was maliciously fabricated by Segizzi. However, Fantoli reports that a handwritten note on the minutes of Feb 25 written hastily, in Italian, by Segizzi’s secretary, also alleges the injunction (which would support the second scenario above). These things are summarized in the table below.

In 1621, Grand Duke Cosimo II, Cardinal Bellarmine, and Pope Paul V died.

Exhibit revised 11/16/04.

Figure 1 Figure 1 - Return to Text

Pope Paul’s three steps for the Decree of 1616.

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Exhibit credit: Kerry Magruder, with the assistance of , Marilyn B. Ogilvie, Duane H. D. Roller.

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