Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Philip Gavitt: "The Roman Inquisition on Stage"

Philip Gavitt

Book Review

Thomas F. Mayer, The Roman Inquisition on the Stage of Italy c. 1590-1640. University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, 2014), 361 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4573-8

1> This is the middle book of Thomas F. Mayer’s trilogy on the Roman Inquisition, framed by an initial volume that sets out its structure, function, and procedures as it developed after the Council of Trent, and a final volume, published posthumously, that analyzes Galileo’s trial under the light of the function and purpose of the Roman Inquisition. This middle volume serves as a bridge between the first and third volumes by examining how the Roman Inquisition applied its rules and procedures to a number of cases, both famous and obscure, in three test areas: Naples, Venice, and Florence. Mayer’s main argument is that even though the course of the Inquisition ran very differently in each of these three areas, they were united by the overriding political character of the institution, and in particular, the decreasing importance of the popes’ own agents and locally-appointed inquisitors, and the increasing reliance of the papacy on its diplomatic representative, the papal nuncio, to negotiate the tensions between the papacy’s use of the Inquisition as an extension of its political power and the interests of local officials in maintaining at least some form of autonomy and local control.

2> The argument thus forms a lightly worn apparatus that structures the chapters and takes care to set out in each case the larger political context of the Inquisition’s operations. Thus in Naples, the struggle between the papacy and “local” authorities played out under the shadow of Pope Urban VIII’s (r. 1623-1644) desire to lighten the heavy hand of Spanish dominion, in particular that of Cardinal Borja, whom the pope made Archbishop of Seville in hopes that the Tridentine decrees on episcopal residence would  keep him geographically distant. Although these specific hopes were not to be realized, Urban VIII succeeded to a degree in excluding Borja and thwarting the latter’s aims to give the Spanish crown control over the taxation of clergy, and most importantly, to thwart the Viceroy’s plans to allow the Spanish rather than the Roman Inquisition to operate in Naples. Urban VIII’s strategies paradoxically involved strict adherence to rules of procedure while using means well beyond the scope of the Inquisition itself to conquer the attempts of local and Spanish authorities to protect and hide defendants and to assert papal control over the Inquisition. The second chapter then more narrowly focuses on the case of the natural philosopher, Tommaso Campanella, and in it Mayer specifically argues that Clement VIII (r. 1592-1605), intent as he had been on destroying Campanella and bringing him to trial, succeeded only in prolonging Campanella’s imprisonment. Only when Urban VIII, two popes later, eventually established much clearer boundaries and lines of authority over the Inquisition through increasing reliance on the papal nuncio, could the trial of Campanella finally proceed.

3> Pope Paul V (r. 1605-1621), who ruled after Clement but before Urban, was more concerned to establish the authority of the Inquisition in Venice than in Naples, and the political context of his interactions with Venetian authorities occurred with the Venetians’ far greater sense of autonomy and open defiance of the Paul V’s attempts to bring the Inquisition under papal control after the interdict. Paul V not only had to contend with the close ties among the laymen who decided whether cases should be referred to the Inquisition, but also with the independence of the Venetian press, an independence  supported vigorously by the Venetian Senate.

4> Chapter 4 takes up the three most prominent cases of the Venetian Inquisition, those of Giordano Bruno, Cesare Cremonini, and Marcantonio De Dominis. The Inquisition pursued all three cases with great intensity. Giordano Bruno’s case was the most well-known, resulting in his being  burned at the stake in 1600. Cremonini, the author of a treatise on the soul, came under the scrutiny of the Inquisition for denying the immortality of the soul. The Inquisition also was most interested in whether De Coelo had made any mention of Galileo. Meanwhile Marcantonio de Dominis attracted the attention of the Roman Inquisition because of his association with Paolo Sarpi, the flight to England of De Dominis (and subsequent wish to return to Rome, which was granted), and for his work on the ecclesiastical republic that argued that authority within the Church came not from papal monarchy but from the bishops as representatives. It was Urban VIII who brought him speedily to trial, which continued even after the defendant’s death. From these prominent cases, as well as the cases involving Sarpi and the theologians associated with him, Mayer concludes that the Venetians, through refusing requests for extradition and losing critical paperwork, could protect its subjects from the Inquisition when it was so motivated, but could equally give them up, as in the case of Bruno and De Dominis, whose ideas not even the Venetians could defend, and  “both [of whom] could be safely sacrificed in order to gain the Venetians a little political currency in Rome” (151).

5> By contrast, the grand dukes of Florence had showed early on their willingness to cooperate with the Roman Inquisition with the trial and execution of Pietro Carnesecchi in 1567. The documentary evidence for the overall Florentine situation is more sparse, except for a very extensive set of documents for the prosecution of the rulers of Castel del Rio, documents in the Biblioteca Estense of Modena. These documents concern the prosecution of Rodrigo and Mariano Alidosi. Although their heresies were quite modest (Rodrigo Alidosi was said to have denied a belief in demons), the Roman Inquisition took an interest in these men, who were well protected not only by the Tuscan grand dukes but who also had connections to the emperor and to the king and queen of France. The grand dukes succeeded also in prolonging the prosecution of the case, especially under Pope Paul V, who was scrupulous about procedural legalities. Urban VIII, once again, was more effective using the same strategy he had used elsewhere, working through the nuncio on the diplomatic side rather than exclusively through the use of the powers of the Holy Office. Mayer buttresses his argument concerning the political nature of the Inquisition by showing that the Holy Office reacted much more harshly to open defiance and contempt of the Inquisition than they did to whatever minor heresies to which the Alidosi might have subscribed.

6> Mayer warns his readers in the introduction that they would be well served to read the first volume of the trilogy before tackling this second volume, and certainly those who follow his advice will have a much easier time navigating the procedures and the cast of characters who served as prosecutors, defendants, local officials, and papal agents. Moreover, there are times that Mayer took for granted a detailed knowledge of the defendants of the Inquisition that not all readers, unless they are thoroughly immersed in the field of Inquisition studies, will have.

7> This slight weakness, however, can be more than forgiven, since not only in this volume, but in the trilogy as a whole, readers will find the most authoritative account of the Roman Inquisition available in any language. Mayer’s immersion in the primary sources is as comprehensive as their survival allows them to be, and he goes well beyond the recently published and eminently useful four-volume collection and explication of sources by Leen Spruit and Ugo Baldini. Moreover, despite the author’s self-described tendency to “go my own way,” Mayer’s conclusions never stretch the evidence too thin. He is scrupulously cautious and his narrative overflows with detail. The wry and ironic wit by which we remember him in person also enliven a work that is monumental and comprehensive by any standard.


Philip Gavitt is Professor and former Chair of the Department of History at Saint Louis University. In 1992 he founded the Saint Louis University Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and is the author of Charity and Children in Renaissance Florence: The Ospedale degli Innocenti, 1410-1536 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990) as well as Gender, Honor and Charity in Late Renaissance Florence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). He is co-editor (with Rebecca Messbarger and Christopher Johns) of Pope Benedict XIV: Art, Science, Spirituality (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016). He is also working on a book-length project on religious orders and the early Catholic Reformation.


Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Nine (2016): Texts & Contexts


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