LAW AND THEATER
THE RECANTATION OF GALILEO GALILEI (PART I: HISTORICAL BACKGROUND)
The next project in my “Law and Theater” discussion is another play by Eric Bentley, “The Recantation of Galileo Galilei.” My previous discussion of Bentley’s “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” can be found here and here. Today, I will go through some of the background information about Galileo and his trial before the Roman Inquisition. Next week, I will review the play itself.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was one of, if not the preeminent scientists of his day. He made significant contributions to the disciplines of physics, mathematics, astronomy, kinematics, natural philosophy, and applied science and technology. Stephen Hawking has written that Galileo, “perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science.” In other words, in the scientific world, Galileo is a big deal.
This was not enough to save him from the Roman Inquisition. According to Doug Linder at the University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law, sometime in the 1590s, Galileo concluded that the heliocentric model of the solar system described by Nicolaus Copernicus was correct. His observations of moons orbiting the planet Jupiter in 1610 reinforced this view. This brought him into conflict with certain elements in the Roman Catholic church.
The 1616 Admonition
In 1616, with the controversy over heliocentrism coming to a climax, Galileo went to Rome in an attempt to reconcile Copernicus’ views with those of the Church. Instead, Cardinal Bellarmine issued an order, preventing Galileo from defending the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun. This admonition did not prevent Galileo from discussing heliocentrism. Nevertheless, for the next few years Galileo avoided discussing the subject.
The 1633 Trial
In 1623, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini was elected Pope, and took the name Urban VIII. As a cardinal, Barberini had developed a friendship with Galileo. His election as pope encouraged Galileo to once again openly discuss heliocentrism. In 1629, he completed writing Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, a comparison of the Copernican and Ptolemaic theories. The book was published in 1632.
Although Pope Urban had requested that Galileo not advocate heliocentrism in Dialogue, the book does make a case for the Copernican system. This earned the ire of the pope, and Galileo lost one of his major supporters. This led to his trial before the Inquisition on suspicion of heresy in 1633.
In June of 1633, the Inquisition handed down its sentence. Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” for holding heliocentric opinions, and was required to recant them. He was also held under house arrest for the rest of his life. Finally, his Dialogue was banned, and he was prohibited from writing any further books during his lifetime.
The Catholic Church did not allow the publishing of Copernican theories until 1822, and the Dialogue remained on Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books until 1835. In 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret at how the Church handled the Galileo case.