Biographies & Memoirs


Vainglorious ambition, pure ignorance, and inadvertence

While Galileo awaited the outcome of this first hearing, confined to assigned rooms in the palace of the Inquisition, a second team of three theologians cross-examined the Dialogue itself. In less than a week, these consultors to the Holy Office, two of whom had served on the commission charged with reviewing the book the previous September, turned in statements of varying length and vehemence, all concurring that the book unabashedly backed Copernicus.

“It is beyond question that Galileo teaches the Earth’s motion in writing,” concluded the Jesuit panelist, Melchior Inchofer. "Indeed his whole book speaks for itself. Nor can one teach in any other way those of future generations and those who are absent except through writing . . . and he writes in Italian, certainly not to extend the hand to foreigners or other learned men, but rather to entice to that view common people in whom errors very easily take root.”

Not only did Inchofer submit the longest of the three condemnations of the Dialogue, but he also felt personally affronted by it. “If Galileo had attacked some individual thinker for his inadequate arguments in favor of the stability of the Earth, we might still put a favorable construction on his text,” Inchofer said; “but as he declares war on everybody and regards as mental dwarfs all who are not Pythagorean or Copernican, it is clear enough what he has in mind.”

Galileo had pleaded ignorance of the more harshly worded warning. Now the consultors claimed he had violated even the most liberal interpretation of the more lenient reproof—as in fact he had. Although the Dialogue displayed the imprimatur of the Sacred Palace, it reeked of heresy all the same, leaving the tribunal in a quandary the remainder of the month, trying to decide what must be done.

On April 28, a memo from Father Commissary Vincenzo Maculano da Firenzuola reached the papal vacation retreat at Castel Gandolfo, where Urban had closeted himself with nephew Francesco Cardinal Barberini. Although the pope had instigated the trial of Galileo, Cardinal Barberini, as one of the ten inquisitor judges in it, expended every possible effort to protect his former mentor and fellow Lyncean Academician from his uncle Urban’s anger. Perhaps Cardinal Barberini even suggested the very course of action that the commissary now reported having successfully accomplished—that is, he had persuaded the Holy Congregation to let him deal extrajudicially with Galileo.

“And not to lose time,” the father commissary wrote to Cardinal Barberini, “I went to reason with Galileo yesterday after luncheon, and after many exchanges between us I gained my point, by the grace of God; for I made him see that he was clearly wrong and that in his book he had gone too far.”


Image envisioning Galileo in prison

The commissary, a Dominican priest like Father Riccardi but trained as a military engineer, well understood the virtues of the Copernican worldview. More than that, he personally preferred to separate the construction of the universe from considerations of Holy Writ. But in that private tete-a-tete, he persuaded Galileo to confess so as to let the affair end quietly with the least loss of face all around.

“The Tribunal will retain its reputation and be able to use benignity with the accused,” the commissary concluded his report to Cardinal Barberini. “However things turn out, Galileo will recognize the grace accorded to him, and all the other satisfactory consequences that are wished for will follow.”

On Saturday, the last day of April, Galileo reentered the commissary’s chambers for a second formal hearing.

Over these intervening days of reflection, Galileo explained as he began the next set of his remarks recorded in the trial transcript, it had occurred to him to reread his Dialogue, which he had not looked at for the past three years. He meant to see whether, contrary to his own beliefs, something had perchance fallen from his pen to give offense.

“And, owing to my not having seen it for so long,” he explained, “it presented itself to me like a new writing and by another author. I freely confess that in several places it seemed to me set forth in such a form that a reader ignorant of my real purpose might have had reason to suppose that the arguments brought on the false side, and which it was my intention to confute, were so expressed as to be calculated rather to compel conviction by their cogency than to be easy of solution.”

Here Galileo singled out his prized theories—the argument from the sunspots and the testimony of the tides—as having been presented far too powerfully, when in fact they provided no proof. He supposed he had succumbed to “the natural complacency which every man feels with regard to his own subtleties and for showing himself to be more skilful than the generality of men in devising, even in favor of false propositions, ingenious and plausible arguments.

“My error, then, has been—and I confess it—one of vainglorious ambition and of pure ignorance and inadvertence.”

Dismissed, he left the room at that point, the record shows, but put his head in the door moments later asking permission to show his good faith, as he now felt ready to do, by softening his stance on Copernicus: “And there is a most favorable opportunity for this, seeing that in the work already published the interlocutors agree to meet again after a certain time to discuss several distinct problems of Nature not connected with the matter already treated. As this affords me an opportunity of adding one or two other ‘Days,’ I promise to resume the arguments already brought in favor of the said opinion, which is false and has been condemned, and to refute them in such an effectual way as by the blessing of God may be supplied to me. I pray, therefore, this Holy Tribunal to aid me in this good resolution and to enable me to put it into effect.”

By this suggestion, Galileo apparently hoped to save his Dialogue from being banned.

After hearing this heartfelt plea, the commissary returned Galileo to the Tuscan embassy, out of consideration for the arthritic pains that now tormented the old man more than usual.

“It is a fearful thing to have to do with the Inquisition,” Ambassador Niccolini observed after welcoming Galileo once again at Villa Medici. “The poor man has come back more dead than alive.”

The Inquisition had not yet decided Galileo’s fate, by any means, and still retained the power to have him tortured or imprisoned. Nevertheless, the change of venue, which Galileo immediately communicated to his friends and family, bathed them all in its sweet reprieve.


THE DELIGHT DELIVERED to me by your latest loving letter was so great, and the change it wrought in me so extensive, that, taking the impact of the emotion together with my being compelled many times to read and reread the same letter over and over to these nuns, until everyone could rejoice in the news of your triumphant successes, I was seized by a terrible headache that lasted from the fourteenth hour of the morning on into the night, something truly outside my usual experience.

I wanted to tell you this detail, not to reproach you for my small suffering, but to enable you to understand all the more how heavily your affairs weigh on my heart and fill me with concern, by showing you what effects they produce in me; effects which, although, generally speaking, filial devotion can and should produce in all progeny, yet in me, I will dare to boast that they possess greater force, as does the power that places me far ahead of most other daughters in the love and reverence I bear my dearest Father, when I see clearly that he, for his part, surpasses the majority of fathers in loving me as his daughter: and that is all I have to say.

I offer endless thanks to blessed God for all the favors and graces that you have been granted up till now, Sire, and hope to receive in the future, since most of them issue from that merciful hand, as you most justly recognize. And even though you attribute the great share of these blessings to the merit of my prayers, this truly is little or nothing; what matters most is the sentiment with which I speak of you to His Divine Majesty, Who, respecting that love, rewarding you so benificently, answers my prayers, and renders us ever more greatly obligated to Him, while we are also deeply indebted to all those people who have given you their goodwill and aid, and especially to those most preeminent nobles who are your hosts. And I did want to write to Her Most Excellent Ladyship the Ambassadress, but I stay my hand lest I vex her with my constant repetition of the same statements, these being expressions of thanks and confessions of my infinite indebtedness. You take my place, Sire, and pay respects to her in my name. And truly, dearest lord Father, the blessing that you have enjoyed from the favors and the protection of these dignitaries is so great that it suffices to assuage, or even annul all the aggravations you have endured.

Here is a copy I made you of a most excellent prescription against the plague that has fallen into my hands, not because I believe there is any suspicion of the malady where you are, but because this remedy also works well for all manner of ills. As to the ingredients, I am in such short supply that I must beg them for myself, on which account I cannot fill the prescription for anyone else; but you must try to procure those ingredients that perchance you may lack, Sire, from the heavenly foundry, from the depths of the compassion of the Lord God, with Whom I leave you. Closing with regards to you from everyone here, and in particular from Suor Arcangela and Suor Luisa, who for now, as far as her health is concerned, is getting along passing well.


Most affectionate daughter,


The hard-to-fill prescription for plague preventive that Suor Maria Celeste enclosed on a separate slip of paper has not survived with her letter. Perhaps Galileo lost the recipe as a result of keeping it with him for luck or inspiration. No doubt it called for heroic measures of faith, strength, virtue, and acceptance of Divine Will—and none would deny the need for all of these in the days ahead.

On May 10, Galileo returned for his third deposition in the commissary’s chambers, to tender his formal written defense.

“In an earlier investigation,” Galileo’s statement began, “I was asked whether I had informed the Most Reverend Father Master of the Sacred Palace about the private injunction issued to me sixteen years ago by order of the Holy Office—’not to hold, defend, or teach in any way whatever’ the opinion of the Earth’s motion and the Sun’s stability—and I answered No. Since I was not asked the reason why I did not inform him, I did not have the opportunity to say anything else. Now it seems to me necessary to mention it, in order to prove the absolute purity of my mind, always averse to using simulation and deceit in any of my actions.”

He then reviewed the events of 1616 that led to his asking Cardinal Bellarmino for the affidavit that he attached herewith as evidence. “In it one clearly sees that I was only told not to hold or defend Copernicus’s doctrine of the Earth’s motion and the Sun’s stability; but one cannot see any trace that, besides the general pronouncement applicable to all, I was given any other special order.”

Since Cardinal Bellarmino’s private communication precisely matched the terms of the public Edict of 1616, Galileo argued, and neither document contained the words nor teach or in any way whatever, these phrases now struck him as “very new and unheard.” He should not be mistrusted, he said, for having forgotten, “in the course of fourteen or sixteen years,” whether such terms had ever been uttered in his presence. And really, he had seen no need to notify the master of the Sacred Palace of his private injunction from Cardinal Bellarmino, when it said nothing more specific than the published public one.

“Given that my book was not subject to more stringent censures than those required by the decree of the Index,” Galileo continued, "I followed the surest and most effective way to protect it and purge it of any trace of blemish. It seems to me that this is very obvious, since I handed it over to the supreme Inquisitor at a time when many books on the same subjects were being prohibited solely on account of the above-mentioned decree.”

Therefore, he hoped the “Most Eminent and Most Prudent Lord Judges” would concede that he had neither willfully nor knowingly disobeyed any orders given him. Indeed, “those flaws that can be seen scattered in my book were not introduced through the cunning of an insincere intention, but rather through the vain ambition and satisfaction of appearing clever above and beyond the average among popular writers.”

After he logically ordered all the details of his affair, explained his thinking, defended the purity of his intention, and declared himself ready to make amends, Galileo pleaded for mercy. “Lastly, it remains for me to pray you to take into consideration my pitiable state of bodily indisposition, to which, at the age of seventy years, I have been reduced by ten months of constant mental anxiety and the fatigue of a long and toilsome journey at the most inclement season—together with the loss of the greater part of the years of which, from my previous condition of health, I had the prospect.” He hoped his judges would deem his decrepitude and disabilities adequate punishment for his mistakes.

“Equally,” he concluded, “I want them to consider my honor and reputation against the slanders of those who hate me.”

Over the next several weeks, while the tribunal prepared its final report to the pope, Galileo resumed his now familiar occupation of waiting in suspense at the Tuscan embassy. Unbeknownst to him, the grand duke had decided to stop paying Galileo’s bills there, expecting him to cover his own expenses henceforward. Ferdinando offered no explanation for this uncharacteristically ungenerous action, but he may have been moved by Urban’s warnings in the Galileo affair, by the April incarceration of another Florentine citizen—Mariano Alidosi—in the prisons of the Holy Office, and by the fiscal strain of paying for the ravages of the plague. Whatever the reason, Ambassador Niccolini took the news badly.

“In regard to what Your Most Illustrious Lordship tells me,” he wrote the secretary of state on May 15, “namely that His Highness does not intend to pay for Signor Galilei’s expenses here beyond the first month, I can reply that I am not about to discuss this matter with him while he is my guest; I would rather assume the burden myself.”

The ambassador made this pledge in the full knowledge that his “guest” might remain under house arrest in his villa for as long as six months—until the trial process lumbered to its untimely resolution.

Urban had returned to Rome meanwhile from Castel Gandolfo and reinserted himself into the disposition of Galileo’s case. He could see immediately how the inquisitors of the Holy Office fell into pro- and anti-Galileo factions: Some of them had actually attempted to read the Dialogueand came away from it feeling enlightened; others bristled at the dishonesty they perceived in Galileo’s pathetic defense.  All of them, however, agreed that Galileo had, at the very least, disobeyed direct orders.

Even if Urban’s former love for Galileo had remained untarnished, instead of being tainted by betrayal, he could not now deny the obvious. The accused had defended a condemned doctrine. Nor could Urban risk any overt leniency toward Galileo, considering how the Thirty Years’ War had raised doubts about his own guardianship of the Catholic faith. And no matter how much Urban admired the achievements of Galileo’s lifetime, he had never shared his outlook on the ultimate goal of scientific discovery. Whereas Galileo believed that Nature followed a Divine order, which revealed its hidden pattern to the persistent investigator, Urban refused to limit his omnipotent God to logical consistency. Every effect in Nature, as the handiwork of God, could claim its own fantastic foundation, and each of these would necessarily exceed the limits of human imagining—even of a mind as gifted as Galileo’s.

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