How did Galileo’s contemporaries view the Decree of the Congregation for the Index of Books issued on March 5, 1616, and suspending until “corrected” Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus, which was supposedly “altogether contrary to the Holy Scripture”? Today, on Saturday May 7, 2016, we recall that on Saturday May 7, 1616, Father Paolo Sarpi of the Servites, a noted lawyer and scholar in the service of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, submitted his legal opinion of the Decree to the Doge.
Allow me to draw your attention to five points: (1) Sarpi calls Copernicus “the most learned professional astronomer that the world has ever had,” (2) he says that the Decree is “bound to cause puzzlement for the novel practice of suspending an old book seen by the whole world and previously uncensored,” (3) “the persons who practice the profession of astronomer are very few, one need not fear that a scandal can emerge,” and therefore (4) he recommends that Venice publish and endorse the Decree lest “considerable harm [come] to the concordat reached between the Apostolic See and the Most Serene Republic in 1596 on the matter of the prohibition of books,” (5) while others, it seems, suggested publishing the Decree “without […] a public endorsement” from the Venetian Republic, making it legally void under her jurisdiction. (NB. Venice was one of the principal centers of the printing industry; hence the special concordat.)
Here is the Sarpi’s text in extenso, highlighting the passages mentioned above:
I have seen the decree of the Roman Congregation for the Index of books, submitted to the Most Excellent College [i.e., the Cabinet] by the Most Illustrious Lord Count Dal Zaffo [Count Contarini of Jaffa], Expert Councillor on Heresy. In accordance with the order of Your Serenity, and speaking with reverence, I will say this.
That decree contains two parts. The first is a prohibition of five books by Protestant authors recently printed on the other side of the Alps: two of them contain only doctrines that are heretical and contrary to the holy faith; the other three, although they do not treat mainly of religion, nevertheless contain many heretical doctrines. Thus, one can be sure that prohibiting them is a service to God and contributes to the conservation of the purity of the holy religion.
The second part of the decree is the suspension of a book by the famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, and furthermore the prohibition of a letter printed in Naples on the same subject by another author who follows his doctrine. Nicolaus Copernicus was a Catholic clergyman, a lecturer at the University of Rome, and a close acquaintance of Pope Paul III (God bless his soul) when he was a cardinal and also after he became pope; his book was printed slightly less than 100 years ago and was seen and read by all Europe with the judgment that its author was the most learned professional astronomer that the world has ever had; indeed the reform of the calendar made by Pope Gregory XIII was based on his doctrine. For these reasons, the suspension of the book is bound to cause puzzlement for the novel practice of suspending an old book seen by the whole world and previously uncensored either by the Council of Trent or by Rome. On the other hand, we must consider that this kind of doctrine does not touch in any way the power of the state and does not provide any benefit to temporal authority; nor does it affect the art of printing in this state, for it is certain that none of these books have ever been printed in Venice (but rather in Rome); and even if they had ever been printed here with the proper license, there may be important reasons for allowing prohibition. In any case, since the persons who practice the profession of astronomer are very few, one need not fear that a scandal can emerge. Therefore, I would judge that to allow the prohibition and the suspension for these three other books cannot cause any public harm.
However, I would point out with reverence that if the prohibition were to be published without receiving a public endorsement, it would do considerable harm to the concordat reached between the Apostolic See and the Most Serene Republic in 1596 on the matter of the prohibition of books; and for innumerable and extremely important reasons, it is right and necessary to keep it alive with every diligent care. Thus, it would be a public disservice if the Roman decree were published and promulgated in Venice by the Father Inquisitor or other clergyman, after the merely oral approval of the Most Illustrious Lords Expert Councillors [on Heresy], as I believe the Father Inquisitor plans to do. Instead, for the preservation of the public interest I would deem it necessary to have a meeting of the Office of the Inquisition and the [State] Council [on Heresy] for the purpose of compiling a decree that would state substantially this: that on such and such a date there was a meeting of the Office of the Inquisition and such and such Most Illustrious Lords Councillors; that such and such a decree of the Roman Congregation of the Index was examined and read; and that it was decided to publish it. This action should be recorded in the book of public proceedings of the Office of the Inquisition; and if the Father Inquisitor should want to print in Venice the Roman decree, he should not be allowed unless he adds the abovementioned Venetian decree; thus, anyone seeing the Roman prohibition would simultaneously see the endorsement given by the representatives of the public, and the concordat will be respected.
I submit my opinion to the sublime wisdom of Your Serenity. (Berti, pp. 151-153; trans. Finocchiaro, pp. 109-111)
Finocchiaro further notes: “As far as I know, the procedure recommended by Sarpi was never followed, and so perhaps the anti-Copernican decree of the Index was never legally valid in the Venetian Republic. The situation was analogous in France.”