Academy in Rome celebrates historic stargazing by Galileo
ROME — Top Renaissance scientists and scholars gathered on a grassy hill overlooking Rome one starry spring night 400 years ago to gaze into a unique innovation by Galileo Galilei: the telescope.
“This was really an exciting event. This was the first time that Galileo showed off his telescope in public to the educated people of Rome, which was the center of culture in Italy at that time,” said Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, Vatican astronomer, as he stood on the same knoll.
The original gathering April 14, 1611, was sponsored by the world’s oldest scientific academy – the National Academy of Lincei – of which Galileo was a member. Today, the hill is part of the American Academy in Rome, which wanted to celebrate its connection to Galileo with events including an April 7 discussion of faith and science with Brother Consolmagno.
Christopher Celenza, the director of the American Academy, said Renaissance scholars “gathered here to celebrate Galileo and the invention of what they termed at this meeting, the telescope. It was the first time the word telescope was used” to refer to the device Galileo had perfected in 1609 and started using to study the heavens.
Those gathered on the Janiculum hill included Jesuit scholars, including Jesuit Father Christopher Clavius, who helped devise the Gregorian calendar 40 years earlier.
Celenza said a 17th-century newsletter archived at the Vatican Library reported what had happened that night: The men looked through Galileo’s leather telescope, trying to see what he had reported: a number of celestial bodies circling Jupiter.
Brother Consolmagno said the unveiling of the telescope was so significant because “this is the first time that science is done with an instrument. It’s not something that just any philosopher could look at. You had to have the right tool to be able to be able to see it,” because one’s own eyes were no longer enough.
People often don’t realize that Galileo was in very good standing with the Church and with many Church leaders for decades before his trial in 1633, he said.
Just a few weeks after he demonstrated his telescope on the Roman hillside, Galileo was “feted at the Roman College by the Jesuits, who were really impressed with the work he had done. At this point, he had burst onto the scene as one of the great intellectual lights of the 17th century,” Brother Consolmagno said. “Even at his biggest point of trouble, Galileo was always a faithful son of the Church – his two daughters were nuns – and he was friends with many of the people of Rome, including future popes.”
The real reason that Galileo was eventually brought before the Inquisition and found guilty of suspected heresy is still a mystery, he said.
Galileo for years managed to evade any problems for maintaining that the earth revolves around the sun. He received permission, including from the pope’s personal censor, to publish his book, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.” He was willing to make corrections to the text, but the inquisitors would not allow it. They were unable to find him guilty of heresy, however, “so they changed the verdict at the last minute to found guilty of vehement suspicion of heresy,” Brother Consolmagno said. “All of which makes me suspect that the trial was a political setup that had nothing to do with philosophy.”
“The Spanish ambassador to the Holy See had accused Pope Urban VIII in public of being a closet Protestant because he wasn’t vigorously enough supporting the Spanish” side in their fight against the so-called Protestant side, he said. Punishing Galileo was a way to “pay off some people who were mad at Galileo anyway; to send a message to the Medici (the ruling family of Tuscany) to stay out of the war; and to show the Spanish that ‘look, I really am not a closet Protestant.’”
Galileo’s reputation was restored in 1992 by a special Vatican commission established by Pope John Paul II.
-- Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service
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