Sunday, February 15, 2009


Pope Benedict XVI's recent declaration that Galileo Galilei was correct in his declaration that the planets, including the Earth revolved around the sun in an elliptical path was taken by some anti-Catholics and non-believers as a formal pardon.

Hello? Are you people daft? Galileo was pardoned way back in the 16th century after his celebrated trial. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, a Jesuit took up his defense brilliantly. He proved to be an astute advisor to Galileo. Otherwise he would have been burned at the stake as a heretic. Instead he was pardoned after his rather fork tongued recantation and allowed to live in comfort if not luxury in Florence under the care of his natural daughter, the nun Suor Maria Celeste.

Galileo's Villa in exile is in an area known as Pian dei Guillari, which was located up in the colorful Florentine hills. It was fraught with symbolism for during the Renaissance carnivals abounded with guillari - a combination of Jokers, confidence men and bufoons.

Pope Urban VII, who descended from the powerful Barberini clan, one of the members of the so called black papal nobility of Rome was a man endowed with a monumental ego and a lust for building churches and palaces. The Roman "Popolo" which is another word for the proletariat coined an aphorism regarding the Barberini clan which is still used whenever a familiar situation regarding the plunder of buildings comes up.

"Whatever the Barbarians left unsacked and unplundered in Rome; the Barberini followed in their footsteps and outdid them."

Pope Urban was haughty, testy and full of his own sense of Gravitas. ( as the ancient Romans used to say) It means dignity, majesty and face all rolled into one. He was also spoiled and used to commanding others since childhood. The Popes until the early 20th century had the power of condemming a man or woman to death by beheading or by hanging.

Galileo was a man of Science. Many of us consider him the Father of Modern Technology. Yet Galileo was a very conceited man, arrogant to an extreme and contemptuous and mocking of all those who did not agree with him on anything he declared or wrote. He brooked no arguements or discussions. In some ways he was more intolerant than the Vatican Curia.

He had written several scientific tracts on Astronomy. Copernicus before him, had declared that the sun was the center of our Universe and the planets, Earth among them, and they all revolved around the sun.

Galileo reiterated this in many of his writings. The Church kept mum anxious not to whip up controversy. Indeed, even the Barberini Pope knew he was right. Why? Elementary. All the monasteries, cathedrals, churches, convents, and palaces which the Church built followed the principles set up by Copernicus and Galileo.Their architectural plans all followed the sun. Their altars and loggias and stained glass windows attest to this.

An astute man would have been delighted with such a result. Ahime! Galileo was not what one would call wise. Indeed many geniuses are anything but prudent. He could not leave well enough alone. His ego demanded much more. Galileo wanted to humiliate the Pope. He wanted to be RIGHT and damn the cost. The whole blasted world had to know that he - Galileo Galilei had humiliated the ignoramus Pope Urban and taught him and the entire Roman Curia a lesson in Science and Astronomy.

So he worte his famous/infamous "Dialogue of Two Worlds" in which he ridiculed the Pope.
Urban was enraged. He demanded a retraction of the book. Uppity Urban had no choice because the whole book denigrated him. So, there was no question of excising certain sentences. The work had to be retracted in its entirety.

Galileo not only refused to take back anything which had offended Urban, he now publicly challenged him to retaliate.

What had begun as a small squall in a teapot turned into a celebrated if not notorious trial. Then some malicious members of the Curia jumped on the bandwagon. Remember, Galileo, for all his mathematical, scientific and even technical razzle dazzle had few friends because of his abrasive and abusive manner.

His pride and his incautiousness led to his downfall. He may have been tortured. Perhaps he may have dared them to do it. His fragile state of health could not handle it. I ask you dearies, who can really cope with torture?

Galileo recanted. His life was spared. He was remanded into the custody of his natural daughter, the nun Suor Maria Celeste, whom he had ignored for most of his life. By that time, he was almost blind. The stars, planets and moons he had studied so endlessly with telescopes he had developed and invented himself now remained forever out of his sight. Could he have had a worse Karmic punishment?

I often visited his Astronomical laboratory at Arcetri, in the vicinity of Pian dei Guillari. It remains mindboggling to this day.

I think anti-clericalism which was common in the middle 17th century until the past century propangandized the myth of a narrow minded and obtuse Catholic Church. Galileo was the perfect grist for the frequent bashing.

The fact that even this present Pope, Benedict XVI praised Galileo as a "divine man" proves that he felt somewhat compelled to issue this declaration.

When I lived in the Villa of the Saracen in Bellosguardo which lies on the opposite side of the hill where Pian dei Guillari is I was told by historians that twenty some odd years prior to his quarrels with the Church and the Pope, he had a sumptuous Villa almost diagonally across from my Villa.

When Zubin Mehta once told me that he was living in Jean Harlow's former mansion in Beverly Hills, I thought I would drop a few names.

"Wow! Harlow herself. But did you know that Galileo used to be my neighbor 450 years ago and that Baccio D'Agnolo, the architect of my Villa was Michelangelo's Maestro?"


  1. Tempest in a teapot indeed. From a Human viewpoint here on Earth, the Sun DOES go around the Earth!

    As for dropping celebrity names,
    I used to live in the 18th century Pennsylvanian farmhouse, a two room cottage with two-foot thick fieldstone walls, where the singer-songwriter Jim Croce lived just before his untimely end in 1973. The rent was 600 dollars a month. I'll bet it will still be standing, and still regarded as beautiful, long after Jean Harlow's mansion has become a tenement in the slum that Beverly Hills will become sooner than most people think. ;-)

  2. PS, here's Jim Croce singing one of the songs he wrote in that cottage:

  3. And here's a prettier one by Jim Croce the Troubadour. By the way, you know the word "troubadour" was originally Arabic, and Jim's very Southern Italian face is resonant of that heritage:

  4. Cara Isabella,

    I love your forays into church history. Fascinating! (I never knew Galileo was such a pill). In our college philosophy classes, Galileo was always compared with Giordano Bruno, who did not recant and was burned at the stake. I have passed your Galileo article on to two Vatican watchers, and know they will enjoy it as much as I did.




Isabel Van Fechtmann

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