Paolo Sarpi

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Engraving of Fra Paolo Sarpi by George Vertue (1684–1756)

Fra (Brother) Paolo Sarpi (August 14, 1552 – January 15, 1623) was a Venetian patriot, scholar, scientist and church reformer. His most important roles were as a canon lawyer and historian active on behalf of the Venetian Republic; and he has been credited with developing the first systematic arguments for atheism.[1]

Early years[edit]

He was born Pietro Sarpi in Venice, the son of a tradesman, but was orphaned at an early age. He was educated by his maternal uncle and then Giammaria Capella, a Servite monk. Ignoring the opposition of his remaining family, he entered the Servite order in 1566. He assumed the name of Fra (Brother) Paolo, by which, with the epithet Servita, he was always known to his contemporaries.[2]

Sarpi was assigned to a monastery in Mantua around 1567. In 1570 he sustained theses at a disputation there, and was invited to remain as court theologian to Duke Guglielmo Gonzaga.[3] Sarpi remained four years at Mantua, studying mathematics and oriental languages. He then went to Milan in 1575, where he was an adviser to Charles Borromeo;[4] but was transferred by his superiors to Venice, as professor of philosophy at the Servite convent. In 1579, he became provincial of the Servite order.[5] He went to Rome on business connected with reform of the order, which brought him into close contact with three successive popes, as well as the grand inquisitor and other influential people.

Sarpi returned to Venice in 1588, and passed the next 17 years in study, occasionally interrupted by the internal disputes of his community. In 1601, he was recommended by the Venetian senate for the bishopric of Caorle, but the papal nuncio, who wished to obtain it for a protégé of his own, accused Sarpi of having denied the immortality of the soul and controverted the authority of Aristotle. An attempt to obtain another bishopric in the following year also failed, Pope Clement VIII having taken offence at Sarpi's habit of corresponding with learned heretics.

Venice in conflict with the Pope[edit]

Main article: Venetian Interdict
Statue of Paolo Sarpi in the Campo Santa Fosca in Venice

Clement VIII died in March 1605, and the attitude of his successor Pope Paul V strained the limits of papal prerogative. Venice simultaneously adopted measures to restrict it: the right of the secular tribunals to take cognizance of the offences of ecclesiastics had been asserted in two leading cases and the scope of two ancient laws of the city: one forbidding the foundation of churches or ecclesiastical congregations without the consent of the state, the other forbidding acquisition of property by priests or religious bodies. These laws had been extended over the entire territory of the republic. In January 1606, the papal nuncio delivered a brief demanding the unconditional submission of the Venetians. The senate promised protection to all ecclesiastics who should in this emergency aid the republic by their counsel. Sarpi presented a memoir, pointing out that the threatened censures might be met in two ways – de facto, by prohibiting their publication, and de jure, by an appeal to a general council. The document was well received, and Sarpi was made canonist and theological counsellor to the republic.

The following April, hopes of compromise were dispelled by Paul's excommunication of the Venetians and his attempt to lay their dominions under an interdict. Sarpi entered energetically into the controversy. It was unprecedented for an ecclesiastic of his eminence to argue the subjection of the clergy to the state.[6] He began by republishing the anti-papal opinions of the canonist Jean Gerson (1363–1429). In an anonymous tract published shortly afterwards (Risposta di un Dottore in Teologia), he laid down principles which struck radically at papal authority in secular matters. This book was promptly included in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and Cardinal Bellarmine attacked Gerson's work with severity. Sarpi then replied in an Apologia. The Considerazioni sulle censure and the Trattato dell' interdetto, the latter partly prepared under his direction by other theologians, soon followed. Numerous other pamphlets appeared, inspired or controlled by Sarpi, who had received the further appointment of censor of everything written at Venice in defence of the republic.

The Venetian clergy largely disregarded the interdict and discharged their functions as usual, the major exception being the Jesuits, who left and were simultaneously expelled officially.[7] The Catholic powers France and Spain refused to be drawn into the quarrel, but resorted to diplomacy.[7] At length (April 1607), a compromise was arranged through the mediation of the king of France, which salvaged the pope's dignity, but conceded the points at issue. The outcome proved not so much the defeat of the papal pretensions as the recognition that interdicts and excommunication had lost their force.

Attempted assassination[edit]

Statue of Paolo Sarpi, Campo Santa Fosca, Venice, near the place where he was stabbed

The republic rewarded him with the distinction of state counsellor in jurisprudence and the liberty of access to the state archives. These honours exasperated his adversaries, particularly Pope Paul V. In September 1607, at the instigation of the pope and his nephew Cardinal Scipio Borghese, Fra Sarpi became the intended victim of an assassination attempt by an unfrocked friar and brigand by the name of Rotilio Orlandini to kill Sarpi for the sum of 8,000 crowns, assisted by Orlandini's two brothers-in-law.[8][9] However, Orlandini's plot was discovered, and when the three assassins crossed from Papal into Venetian territory they were arrested and imprisoned.[8]

On October 5, 1607 Sarpi was attacked by assassins and left for dead with fifteen stiletto thrusts, but he recovered.[8] His attackers found both refuge and a welcome reception in the papal territories (described by a contemporary as a "triumphal march"), and papal enthusiasm for the assassins only cooled after learning that Brother Sarpi was not dead after all.[8] The leader of the assassins, Poma, declared that he had attempted the murder for religious reasons. "Agnosco stylum Curiae Romanae," Sarpi himself said, when his surgeon commented on the ragged and inartistic character of the wounds. Sarpi's would-be assassins settled in Rome, and were eventually granted a pension by the viceroy of Naples, Pedro Téllez-Girón, 3rd Duke of Osuna.[10]

Later life[edit]

The remainder of Sarpi's life was spent peacefully in his cloister, though plots against him continued to be formed, and he occasionally spoke of taking refuge in England. When not engaged in preparing state papers, he devoted himself to scientific studies, and composed several works. He served the state to the last. The day before his death, he had dictated three replies to questions on affairs of the Venetian Republic, and his last words were "Esto perpetua," or "may she endure forever."[citation needed]

History of the Council of Trent[edit]

In 1619 his chief literary work Istoria del Concilio Tridentino (History of the Council of Trent), was printed at London. It appeared under the name of Pietro Soave Polano, an anagram of Paolo Sarpi Veneto (plus o). The editor, Marco Antonio de Dominis, did some work on polishing the text. He has been accused of falsifying it, but a comparison with a manuscript corrected by Sarpi himself shows that the alterations are unimportant. Translations into other languages followed: there were the English translation by Nathaniel Brent and a Latin edition in 1620 made partly by Adam Newton,[11] and French and German editions.[12][13]

Its emphasis was on the role of the Papal Curia, and its slant on the Curia hostile. This was unofficial history, rather than a commission, and treated ecclesiastical history as politics.[14] Sarpi in Mantua had known Camillo Olivo, secretary to Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga.[15] His attitude, "bitterly realistic" for John Hale, was coupled with a criticism, that the Tridentine settlement was not conciliatory but designed for further conflict.[16] Denys Hay calls it "a kind of Anglican picture of the debates and decisions",[17] and Sarpi was much read by Protestants; John Milton called him the "great unmasker".[18]

This book, together with the later rival and apologetic history by Cardinal Pallavicini, was criticized by Leopold von Ranke (History of the Popes), who examined the use they have respectively made of their manuscript materials. The result was not highly favourable to either: without deliberate falsification, both coloured and suppressed. They write as advocates rather than historians. Ranke rated the literary qualities of Sarpi's work very highly. Sarpi never acknowledged his authorship, and baffled all the efforts of Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé to extract the secret from him.

In the 20th century, Hubert Jedin was very critical of Sarpi's work, as tendentious. On the other hand there is some evidence that he wrote using original documents that have not survived. His approach was partisan in its framing, but the writing on the Council is considered now to be quite careful given the premises.[19]

Other works[edit]

In 1615, a dispute occurred between the Venetian government and the Inquisition over the prohibition of a book. In 1613 the Senate had asked Sarpi to write about the history and procedure of the Venetian Inquisition. He argued that this had been set up in 1289, but as a Venetian state institution. The pope of the time, Nicholas IV, had merely consented to its creation.[20] This work appeared in English translation by Robert Gentilis in 1639.[21]

A Machiavellian tract on the fundamental maxims of Venetian policy (Opinione come debba governarsi la repubblica di Venezia), used by his adversaries to blacken his memory, dates from 1681.[22] He did not complete a reply which he had been ordered to prepare to the Squitinio delia libertà veneta, which he perhaps found unanswerable. In folio appeared his History of Ecclesiastical Benefices, in which, says Matteo Ricci, "he purged the church of the defilement introduced by spurious decretals." It appeared in English translation in 1736 with a biography by John Lockman.[23] In 1611, he attacked misuse of the right of asylum claimed for churches, in a work that was immediately placed on the Index.

His posthumous History of the Interdict was printed at Venice the year after his death, with the disguised imprint of Lyon. Sarpi's memoirs on state affairs remained in the Venetian archives. Consul Smith's collection of tracts in the Interdict controversy went to the British Museum. Francesco Griselini's Memorie e aneddote (1760) was based on Sarpi's unpublished writings, later destroyed by fire.

Correspondence networks and published letters[edit]

Sarpi as an intelligencer operated with a large political and scholarly network of correspondents; there are around 430 letters that survive from it.[24] Early letter collections were: "Lettere Italiane di Fra Sarpi" (Geneva, 1673); Scelte lettere inedite de P. Sarpi", edited by Aurelio Bianchi-Giovini (Capolago, 1833); "Lettere raccolte di Sarpi", edited by Polidori (Florence, 1863); "Lettere inedite di Sarpi a S. Contarini", edited by Castellani (Venice, 1892).[25]

Some hitherto unpublished letters of Sarpi were edited by Karl Benrath and published, under the title Paolo Sarpi. Neue Briefe, 1608–1610 (at Leipzig in 1909).

A modern edition (1961) Lettere ai Gallicane has been published of his hundreds of letters to French correspondents. These are mainly to jurists: Jacques Auguste de Thou, Jacques Lechassier, Jacques Gillot. Another correspondent was William Cavendish, 2nd Earl of Devonshire; English translations by Thomas Hobbes of 45 letters to the Earl were published (Hobbes acted as the Earl's secretary), and it is now thought that these are jointly from Sarpi (when alive) and his close friend Fulgenzio Micanzio, something concealed at the time as a matter of prudence.[26] Micanzio was also in touch with Dudley Carleton, 1st Viscount Dorchester.[27] Giusto Fontanini's Storia arcana della vita di Pietro Sarpi (1863), a bitter libel, is important for the letters of Sarpi it contains.


Sarpi read and was influenced by both Michel de Montaigne and Pierre Charron.[28] In the tradition of earlier Tacitists as historian and sceptical thinker, he innovated in political thought, by his emphasis that patriotism as national pride or honour could play a central role in social control.[29]

In religion, he was certainly suspected of a lack of orthodoxy: he appeared before the Inquisition around 1575, in 1594, and in 1607.[30] Sarpi hoped for the toleration of Protestant worship in Venice, and he had hoped for a separation from Rome and the establishment of a Venetian free church by which the decrees of the council of Trent would have been rejected. Sarpi's real beliefs and motives are discussed in the letters of Christoph von Dohna, envoy to Venice for Christian I, Prince of Anhalt-Bernburg.[31] Sarpi told Dohna that he greatly disliked saying Mass, and celebrated it as seldom as possible, but that he was compelled to do so, as he would otherwise seem to admit the validity of the papal prohibition. He was a patriot first and a religious reformer afterwards. Sarpi's maxim was that "God does not regard externals so long as the mind and heart are right before Him."[32] Sarpi had another maxim, which he formulated to Dohna: Le falsità non dico mai mai, ma la verità non a ognuno. (I never, never lie; but I do not divulge every fact to everyone.)

Though Sarpi admired the English prayer-book, he was no Protestant. The opinion of Le Courayer, "qu'il était Catholique en gros et quelque fois Protestant en détail" (that he was Catholic overall and sometimes Protestant in detail) is partially true if approximate. At the end of his life, however, he favoured the Calvinist Contra-Remonstrants' side at the Synod of Dort, as he wrote to Daniel Heinsius.[33][34] Finally, Diarmaid MacCulloch suggests, he may have moved away from dogmatic Christianity.[35]

Scientific scholar[edit]

Sarpi wrote notes on François Viète which established his proficiency in mathematics, and a metaphysical treatise now lost, which is said to have anticipated the ideas of John Locke. His anatomical pursuits probably date from an earlier period. They illustrate his versatility and thirst for knowledge, but are otherwise not significant. His claim to have anticipated William Harvey's discovery rests on no better authority than a memorandum, probably copied from Andreas Caesalpinus or Harvey himself, with whom, as well as with Francis Bacon and William Gilbert, Sarpi corresponded. The only physiological discovery which can be safely attributed to him is that of the contractility of the iris.

Sarpi wrote on projectile motion in the period 1578–84, in the tradition of Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia; and then again in reporting on Guidobaldo del Monte's ideas in 1592, possibly by then having met Galileo Galilei.[36] Galileo corresponded with him. Sarpi heard of the telescope in November 1608, perhaps before Galileo. Details then came to Sarpi from Giacomo Badoer in Paris, in a letter describing the configuration of lenses.[37] In 1609, the Venetian Republic had a telescope on approval for military purposes, but Sarpi had them turn it down, anticipating the better model Galileo had made and brought later that year.[38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ By Gerald Curzon in Philosophy Now magazine. A link to the article profiling Sarpi is available here, accessed March 2014.
  2. ^ "Paolo Sarpi (1552–1623)". The Galileo Project. Retrieved on 13 November 2008.
  3. ^ Paul F. Grendler (22 June 2009). The University of Mantua, the Gonzaga & the Jesuits, 1584–1630. JHU Press. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-8018-9171-7. Retrieved 24 July 2012. 
  4. ^ Richard Tuck, Philosophy and Government 1572–1651 (1993), p. 97.
  5. ^ William James Bouwsma (1968). Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty: Renaissance Values in the Age of the Counter Reformation. University of California Press. p. 359. ISBN 978-0-520-05221-5. Retrieved 24 July 2012. 
  6. ^ Contemporary diaries published by Enrico Cornet (Vienna, 1859) relate the incidents of the Venetian dispute from day to day.
  7. ^ a b Eric Cochrane, Italy 1530–1630 (1988), p. 262.
  8. ^ a b c d Robertson, Alexander, Fra Paolo Sarpi: the Greatest of the Venetians, London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Co. (1893), pp. 114–117
  9. ^ The Cambridge Modern History, Volume 4: Fra Paolo Sarpi, Cambridge University Press (1906), p. 671
  10. ^ Wooton, David, Paolo Sarpi: Between Renaissance and Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press (1983), ISBN 0-521-23146-9, p. 10
  11. ^  "Newton, Adam". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. 
  12. ^ Peter Brand, Lino Pertile, The Cambridge History of Italian Literature (1999), p. 315.
  13. ^ W. J. Patterson, King Jamee VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom (1997), p. 247.
  14. ^ William J. Bousma, Venice and the Defense of Liberty, pp. 568–9.
  15. ^ Wootton, p. 8.
  16. ^ John Hale, The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance (1993), p. 138.
  17. ^ Denys Hay, Annalists and Historians (1977), p. 140.
  18. ^ Peter Burke, The great unmasker: Paolo Sarpi, 1551–1613, History Today 15 (1965), p. 430.
  19. ^ Wootton, pp. 104–5.
  20. ^ Brian Pullan, The Jews of Europe and the Inquisition of Venice, 1550–1670 (1998), p. 15.
  21. ^  "Gentili, Robert". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. 
  22. ^ John Jeffries Martin, John Martin, Dennis Romano, Venice Reconsidered: The History and Civilization of an Italian City-state, 1297–1797 (2000), p. 495.
  23. ^ Paolo Sarpi; John Lockman (1736). A treatise of ecclesiastical benefices and revenues. .... printed for Olive Payne and Joseph Fox. p. i. Retrieved 24 July 2012. 
  24. ^ Joad Raymond (2006). News Networks In Seventeenth Century Britain And Europe. Routledge. p. 36. ISBN 978-0-415-36008-1. Retrieved 27 July 2012. 
  25. ^ "Paolo Sarpi". New Advent.
  26. ^ Joad Raymond, News Networks in Seventeenth Century Britain and Europe (2006), p. 37.
  27. ^ Aloysius Martinich, Hobbes: A Biography (1999), p. 38.
  28. ^ Gianni Paganini, The Return of Scepticism: From Hobbes and Descartes to Bayle (2000), p. 328.
  29. ^ Richard Tuck, Philosophy and Government 1572–1651 (1993), p. 98-9.
  30. ^ Hatch, Robert A. "T H E S C I E N T I F I C R E V O L U T I O N".
  31. ^ Published by Moritz Ritter in the Briefe und Acten zur Geschichte des dreissigjährigen Krieges, vol. ii. (Munich, 1874).
  32. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica 1902.
  33. ^ Hugh Trevor-Roper, From Counter-Revolution to Glorious Revolution (1992), p. 96.
  34. ^
  35. ^ Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490–1700 (2003), p. 409.
  36. ^ Jürgen Renn (2001). Galileo in Context. Cambridge University Press. p. 81. ISBN 978-0-521-00103-8. Retrieved 24 July 2012. 
  37. ^ Robert S. Westman (2 July 2011). The Copernican Question: Prognostication, Skepticism, and Celestial Order. University of California Press. p. 441. ISBN 978-0-520-25481-7. Retrieved 25 July 2012. 
  38. ^ Michael Sharratt, Galileo: Decisive Innovator (1994), pp. 13–5.


Further reading[edit]

Sarpi's life was written by his disciple, Fulgenzio Micanzio, whose work is meagre and uncritical. In the nineteenth century there were biographies, including that by Arabella Georgina Campbell (1869), with references to manuscripts, Pietro Balan, Fra Paolo Sarpi (Venice, 1887) and Alessandro Pascolato, Fra Paolo Sarpi (Milan, 1893).

A contemporary account of Sarpi's writings on religion that argues for his historical importance as a philosophical atheist is found in David Wootton's Paolo Sarpi: Between Renaissance and Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1983).

External links[edit]