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Response to Review of The Roman Inquisition: Trying Galileo

I would like to offer a reply to Maurice Finocchiaro’s harsh and misleading review, couched in tones that are especially unfortunate given the circumstances in which the book was written. I challenge the view that it is ‘a deeply flawed book’, with only ‘tiny merits’, ‘such that laypersons and scholars can ignore the book, if they are trying to learn about Galileo’s trial’. Tom Mayer anticipated that Galileo enthusiasts would  object to his intervention and some views, and would have relished replying. He cannot now respond. Finocchiaro’s insensitive attack is implicitly also partly against myself. I was one the publisher’s Readers for all three volumes in the trilogy on the Roman Inquisition in the Age of Galileo, and my cryptic favourable opinions are quoted on the blurbs.(1a) I was asked to act as a Reader having in my ‘retirement’ written an overall study of the inquisitions in Italy, The Italian Inquisition.(2a) Having received the manuscript draft for the first volume, I submitted a long, enthusiastic report, and asked for anonymity to be waived so that we could discuss possible changes (of content and style), and other issues to our mutual advantage. Tom contacted me immediately, suggesting we meet as he was about to lecture in Britain. We met in Oxford and spent many fruitful hours together. Some weeks later I received an email announcing that he had been told he was terminally ill. Later he told me he hoped he could complete the trilogy as he had already done most of the research he had wanted to do. My recommendations when reading drafts of the second and third volumes had to take account of what might be done under his treatment and the threat of imminent death. Tom’s hoped-for return to Italy was not forthcoming. He might otherwise have been able to access the elusive ASV dossier about which Finocchiaro exercises himself. (When Finocchiaro was able to see it in 1986 and 2004, Mayer was focused on his deep studies of Cardinal Pole and his circle, and had not yet decided to turn to the later Roman Inquisition, and the Galileo trial).

In the Finocchiaro v Mayer confrontation in this review, we have an acknowledged expert on Galileo taking on a master of the central Holy Office. I am, like Tom Mayer, ‘a relative novice’ in Galilean scholarship. The Galileo Affair was included in my teaching at all student levels over many years, making good use of Finocchiaro’s work, and especially his excellent collection of translated documents.(3a) Mayer while writing his trilogy produced a similarly valuable document collection for seminar discussion, concentrating on the trial and surrounding correspondence, and not on extracts from Galileo’s writings that Finocchiaro had incorporated. Were I still teaching undergraduates I would use both collections, as my review indicated.(4a) Does Finocchiaro regret the competition? Finocchiaro in turn can be seen as a ‘novice’ in inquisition scholarship, outside the narrow Galileo trial or trials, Mayer’s trilogy shows unrivalled knowledge of the Congregation of the Holy Office from the late-16th to mid-17th century, while Italian scholars like Massimo Firpo and Vincenzo Lavenia may know more about the Congregation in the mid-16th century, others more on the Congregation of the Index, and some of us know more about tribunals outside Rome and their relations with the Congregations in Rome. In terms of Galilean scholarship I would stress that Trying Galileo is among other things a convincing riposte to a great deal of nonsense and misunderstanding produced by Galileo specialists over decades concerning inquisitorial procedures and documentation. Finocchiaro complains about Mayer’s (over)use of technical terms in Latin and Italian. But in the past seemingly obvious English translations have badly misled scholars and students; as with ‘precept’, ‘process’, ‘expedition’, ‘repetition’. He complains that Mayer does not explicitly say what the phrase successive ac incontinenti means; but the point of his previous discussion (doubtless boring to ordinary lay readers), was to show that wide reading indicates that past and contemporaneous interpretations of the words varied, and we need to be cautious in giving a clear answer.(5a)

While Trying Galileo can be treated as a stand-alone volume, it is best seen as part of a trilogy. Certainly for scholarly purposes a good knowledge of the first volume is nearly essential for an overall understanding of both the environment of Galileo’s trial, its conduct and mis-conduct. Prosopographical aspects of A Papal Bureaucracy can elucidate the roles played by those involved with Galileo; for example its discussion of Michelangelo Seghizzi (especially pp. 112–18), whose 1616 ‘precept’ has been the trigger for so much academic debate, and is contested in Finocchiaro’s review. This might help with points raised at the top of page three of the review. Mayer saw Seghizzi as a stickler for procedures. While there may be issues with overwhelming some lay readers with technical terminologies, experts and semi-experts need to learn from Mayer’s deeper knowledge of the official records. It is also important to consider his comments on issues such as ‘expeditio’ and acting ‘extra-judicially’.(6a) On the latter I suggest that further research into the letters between the Cardinal Secretaries and local inquisitors over the century would probably reveal this as a more common procedure. Finocchiaro summaries the 11 steps in a typical trial as given by Mayer. Sampling records of local processi and correspondence suggests other short-circuiting procedures, agreements to forego defences and repetitions, plea-bargaining, as I suggested to Tom Mayer. He pointed out that ‘The Inquisition could be incredibly thorough and incredibly sloppy’ (p. 41). Much of his first volume substantiated this verdict. It also argued relevantly for declining standards of procedure and ability of personnel as the Barberini papacy went on, and as favouritism and concepts of loyalty eroded expertise. The merits of Mayer’s account of the 1632– situations concerning Galileo include insights into who had real expertise, who did not, who were sloppy and who were trying to get round political as well as prosecution problems – heresy or disobedience. Also worth noting are Mayer’s suggestions that Galileo listened to poor advisers rather than savvy ones (knowing both the procedures and the crucial personnel’s merits and demerits), causing himself more trouble – needlessly? A conclusion not to Finocchiaro’s taste?

Finocchiaro, having decided he dislikes Mayer’s intrusion into Galileo studies, along with his admittedly dense style, picks out other less crucial issues. He objects to Mayer’s references to Urban VIII being ‘purged’; but such debilitating medical procedures could have added to the Pope’s dilatoriness and muddle at crucial stages in the investigation. A 1632 letter ordered Galileo to come from Florence to Rome ‘per tutto il mese di ottobre’, which Mayer translates as ‘by the end of October’. Finocchiaro’s understandable suggestion it should be ‘for the whole month of October’ faces the problem that the letter was dated in Rome on 25th September, which would have made it very hard for Galileo to receive the letter, get organised and travel down for the 1st. And would the papacy give him a terminal date for leaving at the end of the month? If so, Mayer’s translation could indicate the message’s intention.(7a)

Finocchiaro concludes: ‘The book displays a pervasive anti-Galilean animus, expressed in language that is emotionally charged and full of negative connotations’. Reading his review, I think of pots and kettles! Yes, there are flaws, as in all our work (and in Finocchiaro’s own page references), and some of these are particularly understandable given the circumstances under which the volumes were concluded; but there are also more than just ‘tiny merits’. Tom Mayer set out to study the Roman Inquisition in the age of Galileo, using dense central Holy Office archival materials to show how the Congregation worked, the theoretical procedures, the guidelines from manuals, the bureaucratic operations, conscientious procedures under dedicated personnel, and mis-management or corruption by others. He shows the mis-management and sloppiness under Urban VIII and his Cardinal relatives, and in the Stage of Italy volume distortions of local inquisitorial roles and justice by nuncios and other agents. Trying Galileo is a case study, witness to all the above merits and demerits. It takes one of the most written about, and consequential cases of the period. It should clear away for good some of the conspiracy theories about the Trial that have peppered debates about the Church’s treatment of Galileo, adding to what some recent scholars, besides Maurice Finocchiaro, have already contributed, such as Vittorio Frajese and Sergio Pagano (in Italian), Francesco Beretta (in French ), while challenging some of their interpretations. Some of this should help ‘lay readers’, who have linguistic and library limitations. Wider-ranging inquisition expertise from a novice Galilean, should make hardened Galileans take note, even if all their arguments are not overturned. Mayer should not be rudely rejected because he sees flaws in Galileo’s behaviour and character, as well as in the opposing Barberini factions.(8a)


  1. The other volumes: The Roman Inquisition: A Papal Bureaucracy and Its Laws in the Age of Galileo (University of Pennsylvania Press, PA, 2013); The Roman Inquisition on the Stage of Italy, c.1590–1640 (University of Pennsylvania Press, PA, 2014).Back to (1a)
  2. Christopher F. Black, The Italian Inquisition (New Haven, CT, 2009). A very late editorial intervention changed the title, misleadingly suggesting Italy only had one inquisition, ignoring branches of the Spanish (in Sicily and Sardinia), and remnants of the old Episcopal in Naples, which I had covered! Italian edition: Storia dell’Inquisizione in Italia, trans. and ed. Gian Luca D’Errico  (Rome, 2012).Back to (2a)
  3. Maurice A. Finocchiaro, The Galileo Affair. A Documentary History (Berkeley, LA and London, 1989); and his Retrying Galileo, 1633–1992 (Berkeley, LA and London, 2005). I have not yet seen his The Trial of Galileo. Essential Documents (Indianapolis, IN, 2014).Back to (3a)
  4. English Historical Review, 129 (April 2014), 453–5.Back to (4a)
  5. He had translated it as ‘And thereafter, indeed immediately’: The Galileo Affair, pp. 147 and 345, n. 40, admitting the Latin text was ambiguous, and could not be resolved.  Mayer in The Trial of Galileo had given ‘thereafter and immediately’ (p. 93), and glossed (note 5), that incontinenti meant ‘without any other intervening legally significant act; it denotes no certain amount of time’, and be seen as anything from three days to ten years. See also his ‘The Roman Inquisition’s Precept to Galileo (1616)’, British Journal for the History of Science, 45 (2010), 327–51.Back to (5a)
  6. Extra-judicially’, as a short-cutting tactic to bring about a quick conviction, could  produce a lesser or worse result for the accused than a fully played out processo. In Mayer’s view, Commissary Vincenzo Maculano’s well-known proposal to act extra judicially could have got Galileo to admit some guilt, and avoid a formal sentence, and suffer little; though the bid seemingly led to a threat of torture as he was uncooperative (pp.116–17).Back to (6a)
  7. Mayer shows that the minute for the letter is ‘an exceptional mess’, and sections about the precept were rewritten. We have the Pope ordering ‘li facci un precetto di presentarsi per tutto il prossimo mese di Ottobre avanti il P. Commissario del Offitio’, and also ‘faci precetto di presentarsi in Roma nel sudetto tempo’. ‘nel’ would add to the implication of a single presentation within the month before the Commissario. (Trying Galileo, p.282, n. 278). Cf.  Annibale Fantoli, The Case of Galileo. A Closed Question?, trans. George V. Coyne (Notre Dame, IN, 2012), p. 171, which translates another text that Galileo was to be ordered ‘to appear within the month’.Back to (7a)
  8. Mayer, p.217, indicates the guilty parties, from the Pope and Cardinal Secretary Antonio Barberini, Commissary Maculano downwards, ‘responsible for damaging deviations from the Inquisition’s usual trial course’; nearly all the participants.Back to (8a)