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On Trial for Reason, by Maurice A. Finocchiaro

03 July 2020

A study of Galileo’s trial could look more widely, says Nicholas Cranfield

JOHN SANFORD (d.1855), who scandalously married the adulterous Baroness of Cloncurry, was Vicar of Nynehead in Somerset until 1835. As a former royal chaplain to the Viceroy of Hanover, the Duke of Cambridge, he used connections when he travelled to Tuscany in the 1830s. He bought, among other Medici-commissioned memorabilia, a full-length portrait of the Pisan Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) by Justus Sustermans (1597-1681), as well as a pearwood bust.

The wooden sculpture is reckoned to be the work of the flamboyant Baroque sculptor Gian Battista Foggini (1652-1751) and was carved fifty years after its sitter died under house arrest at his home in Tuscany (1642). Surprisingly, it is a reliquary, in the back of which is a glazed tabernacle that still conserves a piece of crimson fabric from Galileo’s professorial chair.

Like his contemporary William Shakespeare, Galileo attracts any number of writers and theories. Professor Finocchiaro, by his own lights, is the doyen among the viri Galilei, writing about him for the past forty years and here using his own translations, which somewhat compromises the status of his nuanced readings.

As a mathematician, first in his Alma Mater in Pisa and then, from 1592 to 1610, at the University of Pisa, Galileo studied motion, criticising Aristotle’s Physics and inclining more to Archimedes. From Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), he confirmed the theory of a moving earth by telescope.

His private correspondence that questioned biblical certitude was censured, but a 1616 case against him was dropped by the Inquisition, although he was formally warned not to speak about the earth’s motion. The later Pope Urban VIII emerges as a patron who helped to ensure that Copernicanism was not declared a heresy then, and even held six audiences with Galileo, whose later book on the comets, The Assayer, was dedicated to him.

The book, however, that Galileo went on to publish in 1632, Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, was thought to have crossed the line; the subsequent trial and Galileo’s continuing rehabilitation form the core of Finocchiaro’s book.

This begins by explaining the Copernican understanding of retrograde planetary motion and the annual stellar parallax and then advances through Galileo’s own discoveries of sunspots and the heliocentric geokinetic doctrine.

He draws widely on what we know of juridical process in the courts of Rome, but does not explore the culture as widely as, say, Eileen Reeves does in her brilliant 1997 study Painting the Heavens, which is a pity, as artists rather than scientists or statesmen were among the first to make use of Galileo’s findings

For all that Galileo was a Rationalist and Modernist, the reliquary bust (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich) suggests that his fame was maintained in a quasi-religious way long before he was accorded Christian burial, finally in 1737. What drew a West Country parson, or maybe his errant noble lady, to become such devotees to the Pisan astronomer two centuries after his death?


Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.


On Trial for Reason: Science, religion, and culture in the Galileo affair
Maurice A. Finocchiaro
OUP £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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