“The catholic church gripped onto tradition much tighter”
This was not a clear-cut case of science versus religion, of who was right and who was wrong. The possible ramifications of Galileo’s conclusions were terrifying to the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation had dominated Europe throughout the 16th century, shaking Western Christianity to its core. In order to maintain its authority during a time of great instability, the Catholic Church gripped onto tradition much tighter than they ever had before.
The last thing the papacy needed was Galileo advocating for Copernicanism, which not only threatened the traditional interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, but also the authority of the Church itself. This was a dangerous and sensitive time to go up against Catholicism, as Galileo had discovered. However, despite the ban, he was still allowed to discuss Copernicus’ theories on the condition that he treated them in a purely hypothetical sense.
Quietly waiting for the whole debacle to subside, Galileo continued his work. Despite the controversy, he had not wavered from his support for heliocentrism but by this point he was in his 50s and suffering from recurring periods of ill health, which made his research slow down significantly.
Then in 1623, seven years after his condemnation, it appeared that Galileo’s luck was finally about to change. His long-time friend and supporter Cardinal Barberini – who had valiantly defended him during the Inquisition – was elected to the head of the Catholic Church as Pope Urban VIII. Galileo was ecstatic. Although he was still banned from openly advocating heliocentrism, he believed that with his friend as the head of the Catholic Church, the opportunity to have his research accepted was now within his grasp.
With renewed vigour, Galileo started to work on a new book, which compared the Copernican and Ptolemaic systems. He
received permission from the pope to do so during a visit to Rome in 1624, under the condition that Copernicanism would be treated purely as a theoretical hypothesis. After receiving approval from the watchful Vatican censors in 1630, Galileo finally published his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems two years later in 1632.
Dialogue consisted of a series of conversations between three characters, Salviati, Sagredo and Simplicio. Salviati, a Copernican scientist, argues in favour of Galileo’s theory, while Sagredo acts as an impartial scholar. Simplicio supports geocentrism and is depicted by Galileo as an idiot, emphasised by Simplicio’s derogatory name, which translates to ‘simpleton’ in Italian. After years of struggle, Galileo’s ambition had finally been achieved. His defence of Copernicus was printed in black and white for the world to see. He had deviously disregarded the stipulation that heliocentrism must be portrayed as mere theory – and he had even managed to do it all with the Church’s approval. Galileo basked in his success, unaware that his downfall was right around the corner.
Galileo had taken on the Catholic Church all those years ago but now the battlefield was completely different. Copernicanism had not actually been banned until the Inquisition in 1616 and the issue had not been about Galileo himself, rather the threat heliocentrism posed to the power of the papacy. Now Galileo had crossed a line by publicly promoting a theory that had been officially condemned by the Church.
To make matters worse, he had offended his powerful one-time ally, the pope – the one man who could have really helped him. When Pope Urban gave Galileo permission to write his Dialogue, he asked that the astronomer include his progeocentric arguments in favour of Ptolemy. Galileo’s creation of Simplicio insinuated that, along with those who supported the Ptolemaic system, the head of the Church was a fool. He had single-handedly ensured that any help he could have received from Pope Urban was now just a pipe dream.
To save face, the Church needed to make an example of the man who was causing so much trouble. After all, if Galileo could openly express his support for heliocentrism, what would stop others from starting to voice their own interpretations of the Bible and its scriptures? Denounced as a heretic, Galileo was summoned to Rome in 1632 to face trial, while his Dialogue was forbidden from sale.
By now, Galileo was almost 70 years old, frail and suffering from poor health. It took him an exhausting five months to reach Rome, so his trial did not begin until in February 1633. When he arrived, he was confined and interrogated as his accusers tried to coax a confession out of him. He had been charged with violating the 1616 injunction against him – something he vehemently denied.
The investigators hoped that by threatening Galileo with the prospect of torture, he would soon relent and admit to his wrongdoings. Instead, he stayed true to his ideas and insisted that he had followed the rules set before him by merely discussing Copernicanism. He even added that his Dialogue had been approved by the Church itself. However, after a couple of months, Galileo was struggling to maintain this tricky stance as his health continued to deteriorate. Finally, he gave in and told the investigators what they wanted to hear – that his Copernican argument had been too forceful.
The weak and elderly scientist clung to the hope that the Inquisition would take pity on him, considering his age and condition, but he had no such luck. In June, Galileo was convicted of heresy and forced to publicly renounce his support for Copernicus’ theory and heliocentrism. At the same time, he also had to announce that he wholeheartedly believed in the Ptolemaic system, with the Earth well and truly positioned at the centre of the universe. Meanwhile, his Dialogue was officially placed on the Church’s list of prohibited books.
Galileo’s punishment did not end there. Initially given life imprisonment, his sentence was commuted to house arrest and he spent the rest of his life cooped up in a Florentine villa. But this did not prevent him from continuing to work on his theories, even though he was slowly going blind. Choosing a less controversial topic, Galileo returned to his investigation into mechanics. During his last years, he wrote one of his most famous works, Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences. This magnum opus summarised approximately three decades of Galileo’s research in the field of physics, including his ideas on the laws of motion.
As for the Catholic Church, it would take them over three centuries to admit that Galileo had been right all along. Despite the obstacles he faced, there is no doubt that Galileo helped to establish science in the intellectual world, even if this was not achieved during his lifetime. It is a testament to the man’s tenacity that 80 years after his death, his heliocentric theories were eventually vindicated by another great scientific mind, Isaac Newton. Galileo continues to be a scientific inspiration to this day. In 1989, an unmanned spacecraft sent to study Jupiter and its moons was named after the Italian scientist, so his legacy lives on – even in the stars.
RIGHTGalileo Galilei, the man who challenged the Catholic Church
Galileo demonstrates his telescope to Venetian enthusiasts in Piazza San Marco, Venice, in 1609 BELOWIn the Inquisition court, Galileo is questioned by a jury
ABOVE One of the earliest telescopes Galileo created was the refracting telescope, which gathers more light than the human eye
LEFTThe strength of rods and beams, as shown in Galileo’s final work Two New Sciences
ABOVE Galileo before the Holy Office in the Vatican, after the Inquisition condemned him
BELOW Galileo’s tomb, located at the Santa Croce Basilica in Florence, Italy