SHiPS Resource Center ||   UPDATE: The Trial of Galileo
Galileo's trial ma have been more about politica than religion.

Galileo was not only good at science; he was expert at patronage and the politics of persuasion. He deftly exploited his discovery of the satellites of Jupiter, for example, by naming them "Medician stars." By creating a celestial--and therefore permanent--emblem of the Medici family, Galileo encouraged the wealthy dynasty to support his work. At the same time, he helped quell the controversy over his astronomical observations by associating them with the famous family.

The episode is important for two reasons. First, it reminds us that science is not free. Galileo shows how a "scientist" crafted support for his research long before Western European culture recognized science as a profession or supported it through public revenue. Second, understanding Galileo's role in the patronage system of his day can throw light on the trial of Galileo, probably the most frequently cited case of conflict between science and religion.

In the 17th century, astronomers--and others who pursued Natural Philosophy--often found their support from the court of some prince, where money was available for such leisure pursuits. Galileo, adept at court politics, eventually earned himself status in the most presitgious and wealthiest court in Europe: the Papal court at the Vatican in Rome.

What eventually happened there, according to Mario Biagioli (1993), was a routine event of Renaissance Italy: the fall of the great courtier. It was customary for the Prince of any court to demonstrate his absolute authority from time to time. He typically did so by banning one his favorite courtiers, or favoritti. Such banishment could not be arbitrary, though, if the Prince was to also maintain his moral claim to power. Thus the Prince would typically portray the courtier as having committed some unpardonable act, such as betrayal of the Prince. The Prince thereby enhanced his image, presenting his exercise of authority as guided by higher principles, obliging him, no less, to suffer the loss of a close friend. Justice, of course, did not enter into these "court" proceedings.

According to Biagioli, up until the time of the now famous incident with the Church in 1633, Galileo was among the Pope's favorite courtiers. Galileo then likely became a victim of ordinary court politics. How would the Pope have justified Galileo's fall from grace politically? Galileo's failure to follow the Church's 1616 edicts on the teaching of Copernicus would certainly have provided a convenient de jure scenario. His 1632 publication provided an opportune target, even though Galileo had been actively promoting Copernicanism since 1609.

In retrospect, we have cast Galileo in a highly conventional melodrama of triumph over adversity. The villians have become members of the Church who thwarted the progress of science by refusing to accept plain, unequivocal observations. Hence, the scientific moral (both lesson and ethic): always be open to evidence--and beware of religious blinders. While thematically tidy, such a portrayal grossly misrepresents the intellectual sophistication of Galileo's contemporaries in the Church. By the 1630s, few intelligensia (including those in the Vatican) accepted the Ptolemaic view that we now associate with the Church's intolerance. Rather, they endorsed the alternative system of Tycho Brahe, who placed the planets in orbit around the sun, and the sun in orbit around the Earth.

Howard Margolis's (1991) careful analysis of Galileo's Two Principal World-Systems reveals that while Galileo framed the famous dialogue as between Ptolemaic and Copernican spokesmen, he had to cleverly craft his argument so as to not criticize Tychonic geocentric views, as well. The debate--and the context of Galileo's trial--was thus far more complex than is typically rendered. Galileo's "crime" may have been more personal than religious--provoking his friends in the Vatican court who believed in the Tychonic system.

If Biagioli's interpretation is correct, then the conflict between religion and science in this paradigmatic case was more nominal than real. Galileo's trial, and his subsequent "fall," may have been an elaborate staging for what was, in the context of the time, a more mundane episode of court politics.


  • Biagioli, Mario. 1993. Galileo: Courtier. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
  • Margolis, Howard. 1991. "Tycho's System and Galileo's Dialogue." Studies in the Hist. and Phil. of Sci. 22:259-75.
Link to: classroom simulation, the Retrial of Galileo

updated: 6/20/07

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