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5 Myths about Galileo

This article is part of the 5 Myths series.

Myth #1: The pope’s greatest enemy after Luther was Galileo.

Allow us to introduce Paolo Sarpi, a contemporary of Galileo. Much read by Protestants were the writings of the Venetian Paolo Sarpi (1552–1623), a one-time friend of Galileo. Sarpi’s greatest work is his History of the Council of Trent (Istoria del Concilio Tridentino). This monumental work established Sarpi as the most formidable adversary of the Counter-Reformation in Italy.

Why the Council of Trent? As noted by Frances Yates,

In the earlier years of the sixteenth century many people were looking earnestly forward to a General Council of the Church in which points at issue between Catholics and Reformers should be resolved. . . . There were here involved two totally different conceptions as to the function of a General Council: one side held the view that the Protestants should be represented at it, and that a formula should be reached, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, by which unity should be restored to the Church; the other side refused to consider concessions to Reformers and concentrated on the tightening up of an intense discipline under the Pope.1

This was not to be, and the Council of Trent became the charter of the Counter-Reformation. Yates notes:

If the right course had been pursued at Trent, Sarpi indirectly suggests, the Church as a whole would have been reformed somewhat on the model of the Anglican reform (marriage of priests, Communion sub utraque, and the liturgy in the vernacular are all, of course, features of the Anglican Church). But the wrong course was pursued, and the Church, instead of being reformed, was deformed with new papal usurpations.2

Author David Wootton reflects as follows:

Sarpi presents with care all the proposals for the reform of the Church and dissects the conflicting views of the theologians. . . . Above all, of course, he conveys the view that a true Council should be superior to the pope, that the Council should determine its own agenda rather than having one imposed upon it by the papal legates, and should not depend upon papal ratification for its decrees.”3

Wootton notes that Sarpi viewed the Council of Trent as “a tragic history of hopes and expectations disappointed, of corruption and the abuse of power triumphant.” Voltaire cited Sarpi’s views of the Council of Trent as follows:

Finally we have the great Council of Trento,—but the dogma is indisputable, since the Holy Spirit used to come weekly from Rome to Trento, in the mail trunk, [according] to what Fra Paolo Sarpi says, however Fra Paolo Sarpi was slightly close to heresy.4

John Milton referred to Sarpi as the “great unmasker,” while Wootton writes that the Catholic historian Hubert Jedin described Sarpi “as the papacy’s greatest enemy after Luther.”

The writings of Sarpi fueled intense anger and hatred, to the extent that assassins inflicted fifteen stiletto wounds on the body of Sarpi on October 5, 1607, and left him for dead, but he recovered. Alexander Robertson picks up the story:

“[Sarpi] did not often refer to his enemies, but one or two utterances have come down to us. When the surgeon, Acquapendente, probing the most severe of the wounds, enlarged on its “stravaganza” (or roughness), Fra Paolo said, “And yet the world says it was done in ‘the style of the Roman Curia.”5

The Council of Trent determined that the church is the ultimate interpreter of Scripture and recognized the Bible and the tradition of the church as equally authoritative. In writing of “the office of grave and wise theologians to interpret the passages,” Galileo was affirming the view of the church as the ultimate interpreter, and he urged integrity in interpreting Scripture. In contrast, we would place more emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in the personal revelation of God through the Scriptures and less emphasis on scriptural interpretation through “grave and wise theologians.” Trent’s decision on this issue would have serious implications for scientific matters.

Myth #2: Galileo deserves the credit for the history of the telescope.

Paolo Sarpi was also an experimental scientist, a proponent of the Copernican system, and a one-time friend of Galileo. His role in the history and perfection of the telescope in the Republic of Venice should never be underestimated.

In July 1609 our story shifts from the invention of the spyglass in Holland to the Republic of Venice. A key figure in this interlude is the Venetian Paolo Sarpi. In their book entitled Galileo’s Telescope, authors Massimo Bucciantini, Michele Camerota, and Franco Giudice introduce Sarpi as follows:

This is the Sarpi who intrigues us: the man who, before becoming totus historicus and politicus—director and prime actor in the battle against the Papal Interdict (1606–1607) and then the famous condemned author of the Istoria del Concilio Tridentino (1619)—tirelessly probed scientific matters and who, in the story of the spyglass, was destined to play a key role that has often been underestimated in studies on the history of the telescope and in some cases overlooked entirely.6

The Republic of Venice was in conflict with the pope, and Sarpi radically argued against papal authority in matters of state. Sarpi had received news of the telescope already in November 1608. At that time, it was rumor only; he did not have a specimen before him to examine the secret of the spyglass. The next year, this was no longer a rumor in Venice. On July 21, 1609, Sarpi penned these words:

A spyglass has arrived that makes far away things visible. I greatly admire it because of the beauty of the invention and its skillful craftsmanship, but I find it worthless for military purposes, either on land or at sea.7

In a short time, the secret was open:

Thanks to the work of master craftsmen who instantly grasped that there was money to be made, the occhiali in canna or trombette became an open secret and could be purchased in many cities, proving not only their widespread circulation but also the poor quality of many specimens.8

Therein lay the key. The lenses were of poor quality, but the instrument was a great novelty.

Sarpi was the scientific interlocutor of Galileo. But time was of the essence for Galileo to construct spyglasses of his own. We read:

The week of September 22 to 29 [1609] proved fateful for Galileo. It would mark the beginning not only of a new trade, that of a lens maker admired and sought after throughout Europe, but also of a new life. At forty-six years of age, he was about to see his existence change dramatically. The perfection of the Dutch spyglass and its repurposing into an astronomical instrument would completely transform his [Galileo’s] routine and work. . . . People in town spoke of nothing else.9

Galileo presented a spyglass to the Senate of Venice on August 24, 1609; its tube was approximately sixty centimeters long and forty-two millimeters in diameter, with a magnification power of eight. Everyone was “abuzz with talk” about Galileo’s being able to greatly surpass in quality the spyglass that had been developed in Holland. We do not know precisely when Galileo commenced work on his first spyglass. But we do know not only that Sarpi was well informed about the spyglass but also that he had been actively involved in its construction, as we shall see below, from a letter of his dated March 16, 1610.

Paula Findlen elaborates: “Sarpi used his extensive political network to collect news of the spyglass; he was frequently seen with Galileo, discussing technical problems, identifying the best artisans and materials, and observing the heavens” (emphasis ours).

Myth #3: Galileo gave careful credit to his peers.

A landmark in the birth of modern astronomy occurred on March 13, 1610: the publication in Venice of Galileo’s legendary Sidereus Nuncius (or Sidereal Messenger). It was the first published scientific work based on observations that Galileo had made through his telescopes, and the treatise contained Galileo’s early observations of a mountainous moon, myriad stars in our Milky Way galaxy that were beyond the grasp of the naked eye, and four Medicean moons that orbited the planet Jupiter.

On March 16, 1610, only three days after the publication of the Sidereus Nuncius, Sarpi wrote a letter to Jacques Leschassier, which alludes to spyglasses that Sarpi had made. That letter, in part, reads:

As you know, this instrument is composed of two lenses (which you call lunetes), both of which spherical, one with a convex surface and the other concave. . . . We [Sarpi and his entorage] made one from a sphere with a diameter of six piedi, and the one from another sphere a digit smaller in diameter.10

And now, a note of strategy and intrigue. When writing up his section about the history of the spyglasses used for his observations in the Sidereus Nuncius, all credit belongs to Galileo himself. Sarpi is excluded from any mention.

Galileo was fiercely territorial about his role in perfecting the telescope, and he did not wish to acknowledge the names of others. Creating the perception that Galileo himself heroically developed such instruments in total isolation was clearly the goal, but it is false. Valuable insight is provided here by Bucciantini, Camerota, and Giudice. The omissions are glaring, and they are careful to note this: “The Sidereus is also a work in which intentional gaps and voids stand out. . . . When we read it with disenchanted eyes and, so to speak, ex parte veneta, what emerges is an equally systematic and conscious attempt to conceal people, words, and events.”

Here we find Sarpi, who had “shared nearly twenty years of endless conversations about nature and humankind” with Galileo, betrayed by Galileo. Was Sarpi not Galileo’s closest scientific interlocutor while Galileo was in Padua? What a dramatic turn of events, as expressed by Bucciantini, Camerota, and Giudice: “There is no doubt that the collaboration of Sarpi and his entourage was decisive, although Galileo never publicly acknowledged this.”

In summary, the crucial role played by the Venetian Paolo Sarpi:

is amply demonstrated . . . by the fact that he conducted his celestial observations at the monastery of Santa Maria dei Servi. . . . The fact remains that the history of the spyglass does not travel along a single vector or one-way path but, as Venice demonstrates, is an archipelago of overlapping human and intellectual events: a collective story that must be recounted in its simultaneity in order to be reconstructed and reassembled piece by piece (emphasis ours).11

Myth #4: Science is nonterritorial and fully transparent.

Personalities and agendas can sometimes drive scientific outcomes, and the process is not always objective. In the life of Galileo, some men of the cloth flashed their glory; the history of astronomy, too, is filled with some examples of those seeking to be first and, in the process, to receive glory for their discoveries. Trampling over one’s peers only for personal reasons would be a crime. In this context, we are reminded of a small extract of a poem by Robert Frost:

Of all crimes the worst
Is the theft of glory.
Even more accursed
Than to rob the grave.12

The church of Galileo’s day had an agenda, to preserve the power of the church at all costs. Their power was all encompassing, even in questions of science. Power plays and the personal interests of Galileo’s opponents prevailed.

Galileo recognized that scientific truth exists external to the observer and that it is not in the observer’s power to make things true or false. The book of nature transcends human power: individuals have no influence over satellites orbiting Jupiter or over the spots on the seething surface of our sun. Galileo said, “It is beyond the power of any created being to make [propositions] true or false, in defiance of what they are de facto by their own nature.” Although there are many questions in astronomy, the wondrous quality of the open book of nature is its transparency. It is beyond imagination that a human being can “instruct” God how to create his universe. As Tagore put it earlier, “‘The learned say that your lights will one day be no more,’ said the firefly to the stars. The stars made no answer.” Most questions have answers, as was already evident to Galileo. There are truths out there to be found, and if we seek, we shall find.

Galileo raised a key issue: that of personal agendas and of personal interest. Many readers might think that today personal interest is out of the equation for scientific matters, but nothing could be further from the truth!

Myth #5: Dead men tell no tales.

Sarpi died on January 15, 1623, having survived two attempted asassination attempts. As to the stature of Sarpi, we read, in the words of Robertson:

In the domain of astronomy, Galileo called him, “My father and my master.” As a mathematician … “No man in Europe surpasses Master Paolo Sarpi in his knowledge of the science of mathematics.13

And so the list continues:

Acquapendente, the famous surgeon of Padua, called him, “The oracle of this century.” As a magnetician, della Porta of Naples, and Gilbert of Colchester, acknowledged his learning, the former saying, “I do not blush, but consider myself honoured to confess, that many things concerning magnetic phenomena I have learned from Fra Paolo, a true ornament of light, not only of Venice, but of Italy, and of the whole world.14

What dignity might be accorded, in death, to a personage of this insight and stature? Alexander Robertson D.D. sets the scene:

For over two hundred years his body [the body of Sarpi] found no secure resting-place, but had to be built up into walls and altars, concealed in private houses, “contents unknown,” into seminaries and libraries, to hide it from the wolf-like hunt of its enemies.15

The ninth desecration of the remains of Sarpi took place in 1846, “. . . when, on the 1st of November–the “day of the Dead”–the Venetians flocked through the great door of San Michele (usually kept shut) to visit the graves of their friends in the Campo Santo, they were astonished to find that all trace of Fra Paolo’s tomb had disappeared. The marble slab was gone, and the pavement of the atrium was restored to its original condition. . . The next thing was to institute a strict inquiry as to who were the authors of this outrage. . . The result of the inquiry, as is recorded in the books of the Austrian police, was to trace it to the monks of San Michele, who got their orders from the Patriarch of Venice, who received his direct from Pope Gregory XVI” pens Robertson.

The slab was found; hidden away, but not destroyed and the stone coffer was still in its place, with strong metal bindings. The final and tenth reburial ceremony took place on November 19, 1846; Sarpi had died in 1623. Dead men may tell no tales, but their bodies most certainly do.


  1. Frances A. Yates, “Paolo Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 7 (1944): 133
  2. Yates, “Paolo Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent,” 133
  3. David Wootton, Paolo Sarpi: Between Renaissance and Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 106.
  4. Voltaire, Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol. 7, Dictionnaire philosophique I (Paris: Furne, 1847), 363. The original quotation in French reads, “Enfin nous avons le grand Concile de Trente,—mais le dogme en est incontestable, puisque le Saint-Esprit arrivait de Rome à Trente, toutes les semaines, dans la malle du courrier, à ce que dit Fra Paolo Sarpi, mais Fra Paolo Sarpi sentait un peu l’hérésie.” We are grateful to Jacqueline Riffault-Silk and Francoise Combes for their English translations.
  5. Alexander Robertson, Fra Paolo Sarpi: The Greatest of the Venetians (London: George Allen, 1911), 186–87.
  6. Massimo Bucciantini, Michele Camerota, and Franco Giudice, Galileo’s Telescope: A European Story, trans. Catherine Bolton (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 34.
  7. Bucciantini, Camerota, and Giudice, Galileo’s Telescope, 35
  8. Bucciantini, Camerota, and Giudice, Galileo’s Telescope, 37.
  9. Bucciantini, Camerota, and Giudice, Galileo’s Telescope, 38.
  10. Quoted in Bucciantini, Camerota, and Giudice, Galileo’s Telescope, 43.
  11. Bucciantini, Camerota, and Giudice, Galileo’s Telescope, 44, 52.
  12. Robert Frost, “Kitty Hawk,” Atlantic Monthly, November 1957, 52–56.
  13. Alexander Robertson, Fra Paolo Sarpi: The Greatest of the Venetians (London: George Allen, 1911), xi.
  14. Robertson, Fra Paolo Sarpi: The Greatest of the Venetians, xi.and xii.
  15. Robertson, Fra Paolo Sarpi: The Greatest of the Venetians, ix.and x.

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