Machiavelli, Galileo and the censors

by CARLO GINZBURG

Cristiano Banti’s 1857 painting Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition IMAGE/Wikipedia

Introduction

The names of Niccolò Machiavelli and Galileo Galilei have for four centuries served as vivid shorthand for two of the defining controversies of Renaissance Europe. The first was detonated by The Prince, in which Machiavelli asserted the autonomy of political virtù, a capability irreducible to the terms of the received ethical order; circulating in manuscript from 1513, it was printed by permission of the Medici Pope Clement VII in 1532. The second, a century later, was Galileo’s adoption and defence of Copernican astronomy, which up-ended the Ptolemaic world-view. Both were profoundly threatening to ecclesiastical authority. ‘Machiavellianism’ implicitly set a limit to priestly competence in the judgement of public affairs, while Copernican heliocentrism was at odds with both the dominant ‘Peripatetic’ philosophy—derived from Aristotle via Aquinas—and the letter of Scripture. Between them lay the third, and greatest, controversy of the 16th century, that of the Reformation, which provoked a general Vatican counter-movement against the spread of heresy and indiscipline. Key moments in the creation of the Counter-Reformation included the founding of the Society of Jesus (1540), the renewed Roman Inquisition (from 1542), the Council of Trent (1545–63), and the promulgation of the Index of Prohibited Books (1559). This was the censorious landscape within which Kaspar Schoppe advanced his case in defence of Machiavelli’s thinking in 1519, and where, for twenty years, Galileo traded diplomatic ambiguities with Church authorities before submitting to his inquisitors’ ruling in 1633. Here we publish Carlo Ginzburg’s exploration of these episodes, drawn from Nondimanco. Machiavelli, Pascal, to be published in English by Verso next year. The essay exemplifies Ginzburg’s practice of microhistory, of which he has been a pioneer since his earliest works, The Night Battles (1966) and The Cheese and the Worms (1976, and the first of his books to appear in English, winning instant acclaim). His remarkable range extends to monographs on painting—Piero della Francesco and Picasso’s Guernica—and studies in English literature, as well as discussions of historical method. The ‘micro’ in Ginzburg’s microhistory refers to procedure rather than objects, indicating how ostensibly small historical traces, minutely studied, may disclose unsuspected realities of considerable significance. His bent is for the exception—which in this essay is also his subject. The unifying theme of the text is the logical distinction between ‘absolute’ and conditional reasoning: between discourse simpliciter or categorical, and that qualified variously as ex hypothesi, sub conditione or secundum quid. Here was a small crevice in discourse that opened onto an arena where the great stakes of Renaissance culture could be played out on all sides, the space of Nevertheless.

Kaspar schoppe’s attempt, at the height of the Counter-Reformation, to rehabilitate the impious Machiavelli by presenting him as a champion of Catholic orthodoxy appears paradoxical today. All the same, it offers valuable cues for interpretation.footnote1 It is worth examining this bold, failed initiative in a different perspective. Schoppe (in Latin Scioppius, Scioppio in Italian) was born in 1576 in Neumarkt, in the Upper Palatinate, into a Lutheran family. In 1597 he went to Italy, where he spent the greater part of his life. After his conversion to Catholicism in 1599, which he attributed to the experience of reading Cesare Baronio’s Annales ecclesiastici, Schoppe wrote a large number of learned and polemical works, among them numerous anti-Jesuit tracts published under various pseudonyms. He died in Padua in 1649.

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