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Paolo Sarpi

Paolo SarpiBorn: 14-Aug-1552
Birthplace: Venice, Italy
Died: 14-Jan-1623
Location of death: Venice, Italy
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Activist, Religion

Nationality: Italy
Executive summary: Venetian patriot, church reformer

Venetian patriot, scholar and church reformer, born at Venice, on the 14th of August 1552, and was the son of a small trader, who left him an orphan at an early age. Notwithstanding the opposition of his relatives, he entered the order of the Servi di Maria, a minor Augustinian congregation of Florentine origin, at the age of thirteen. He assumed the name of Paolo, by which, with the epithet Servita, he was always known to his contemporaries. In 1570 he sustained no fewer than three hundred and eighteen theses at a disputation in Mantua, with such applause that the duke made him court theologian. Sarpi spent four years at Mantua, applying himself to mathematics and the Oriental languages. After leaving Mantua, he repaired to Milan, where he enjoyed the protection of Cardinal Borromeo, but was soon transferred by his superiors to Venice, as professor of philosophy at the Servite convent. In 1579 he was sent to Rome on business connected with the reform of his order, which occupied him several years, and brought him into intimate relations with three successive popes, as well as the grand inquisitor and other persons of influence. Having successfully terminated the affairs entrusted to him, he returned to Venice in 1588, and passed the next seventeen years in study, occasionally interrupted by the part he was compelled to take in the internal disputes of his community. In 1601 he was recommended by the Venetian senate for the small bishopric of Caorle, but the papal nuncio, who wished to obtain it for a protégé of his own, informed the pope that Sarpi denied the immortality of the soul, and had controverted the authority of Aristotle. An attempt to procure another small bishopric in the following year also failed, Pope Clement VIII professing to have taken umbrage at Sarpi's extensive correspondence with learned heretics, but more probably determined to thwart the desires of the liberal rulers of Venice. The sense of injury, no doubt, contributed to exasperate Sarpi's feelings towards the court of Rome. For the time, however, he tranquilly pursued his studies, writing those notes on Vieta which establish his proficiency in mathematics, and a metaphysical treatise now lost, which, if Foscarini's account of it may be relied upon, anticipated the sensationalism of John Locke. His anatomical pursuits probably date from a somewhat earlier period. They illustrate his versatility and thirst for knowledge, but are far from possessing the importance ascribed to them by his disciples. His claim to have anticipated William Harvey's discovery rests on no better authority than a memorandum, probably copied from Caesalpinus or Harvey himself, with whom, as well as with Bacon and Gilbert, he maintained a correspondence. The only physiological discovery which can be safely attributed to him is that of the contractility of the iris. It must be remembered, however, that his treatises on scientific subjects are lost, and only known from imperfect abstracts.

Clement died in March 1605; and Pope Paul V assumed the tiara with the resolution to strain papal prerogative to the uttermost. At the same time Venice was adopting measures to restrict it still further. The right of the secular tribunals to take cognizance of the offenses of ecclesiastics had been asserted in two remarkable cases; and the scope of two ancient laws of the city of Venice, forbidding the foundation of churches or ecclesiastical congregations without the consent of the state, and the acquisition of property by priests or religious bodies, 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 having 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 received with universal applause, and Sarpi was immediately made canonist and theological counsellor to the republic. When in the following April the last hopes of accommodation were dispelled by Paul's excommunication of the Venetians and his attempt to lay their dominions under an interdict, Sarpi entered with the utmost energy into the controversy. He prudently began by republishing the anti-papal opinions of the famous canonist Gerson. In an anonymous tract published shortly afterwards (Risposta di un Dottore in Teologia) he laid down principles which struck at the very root of the pope's authority in secular matters. This book was promptly put upon the Index, and the republication of Gerson was attacked by Robert Bellarmine with a severity which obliged Sarpi to reply in an Apologia. The Considerazioni sulle censure and the Trattato dell'interdetto, the latter partly prepared under his direction by other theologians, speedily followed. Numerous other pamphlets appeared, inspired or controlled by Sarpi, who had received the further appointment of censor over all that should be written at Venice in defense of the republic. Never before in a religious controversy had the appeal been made so exclusively to reason and history; never before had an ecclesiastic of his eminence maintained the subjection of the clergy to the state, and disputed the pope's right to employ spiritual censures, except under restrictions which virtually abrogated it. Material arguments were no longer at the pope's disposal. The Venetian clergy, a few religious orders excepted, disregarded the interdict, and discharged their functions as usual. The Catholic powers refused to be drawn into the quarrel. At length (April 1607) a compromise was arranged through the mediation of the King of France, which, while salving over the pope's dignity, conceded the points at issue. The great victory, however, was not so much the defeat of the papal pretensions as the demonstration that interdicts and excommunications had lost their force. Even this was not wholly satisfactory to Sarpi, who longed for the toleration of Protestant worship in Venice, and 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, and in which the Bible would have been an open book. The republic rewarded her champion with the further distinction of state counsellor in jurisprudence, and, a unique mark of confidence, the liberty of access to the state archives. These honors exasperated his adversaries to the uttermost. On the 5th of October he was attacked by a band of assassins and left for dead, but the wounds were not mortal. The bravos found a refuge in the papal territories. Their chief, Poma, declared that he had been moved to attempt the murder by his zeal for religion, a degree of piety and self-sacrifice which seems incredible in a bankrupt oil-merchant. "Agnosco stylum Curiae Romanae", Sarpi himself pleasantly said, when his surgeon commented upon the ragged and inartistic character of the wounds, and the justice of the observation is as incontestable as its wit. The only question can be as to the degree of complicity of Pope Paul V.

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 framing state papers, he devoted himself to scientific studies, and composed several works. 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, is undoubtedly not his. It has been attributed to a certain Gradenigo. Nor did he complete a reply which he had been ordered to prepare to the Squitinio della libertŕ veneta, which he perhaps found unanswerable. In 1610 appeared his History of Ecclesiastical Benefices, "in which", says Ricci, "he purged the church of the defilement introduced by spurious decretals." In 1611 he assailed another abuse by his treatise on the right of asylum claimed for churches, which was immediately placed on the Index. In 1615 a dispute between the Venetian government and the Inquisition respecting the prohibition of a book led him to write on the history and procedure of the Venetian Inquisition; and in 1619 his chief literary work, the History of the Council of Trent, was printed at London under the name of Pietro Soave Polano, an anagram of Paolo Sarpi Veneto. The editor, Marco Antonio de Dominis, has been accused of falsifying the text, but a comparison with a manuscript corrected by Sarpi himself shows that the alterations are both unnecessary and unimportant. This memorable book, together with the rival and apologetic history by Cardinal Pallavicini, is minutely criticized by Ranke (History of the Popes, appendix No. 3), who tests the veracity of both writers by examining the use they have respectively made of their manuscript materials. The result is not highly favorable to either; neither can be taxed with deliberate falsification, but both have colored and suppressed. They write as advocates rather than historians. Ranke rates the literary qualities of Sarpi's work very highly. Sarpi never acknowledged his authorship, and baffled all the efforts of the prince de Condé to extract the secret from him. He survived the publication four years, dying on the 15th of January 1623, laboring for his country to the last. The day before his death he had dictated three replies to questions on affairs of state, and his last words were "Esto perpetua." His posthumous History of the Interdict was printed at Venice the year after his death, with the disguised imprint of Lyons.

Great light has been thrown upon Sarpi's real belief and the motives of his conduct by the letters of Christoph von Dohna, envoy of Christian, prince of Anhalt, to Venice, published by Moritz Ritter in the Briefe and Acten zur Geschichte des dreissigjährigen Krieges, vol. ii. (Munich, 1874). 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, and thus betray the cause of Venice. This supplies the key to his whole behavior; he was a patriot first and a religious reformer afterwards. He was "rooted" in what Diodati described to Dohna as "the most dangerous maxim, that God does not regard externals so long as the mind and heart are right before Him." Sarpi had another maxim, which he thus formulated to Dohna: Le falsitŕ non dico mai mai, ma la veritŕ non a ognuno. It must further be considered that, though Sarpi admired the English prayer-book, he was neither Anglican, Lutheran nor Calvinist, and might have found it difficult to accommodate himself to any Protestant church. On the whole, the opinion of Le Courayer, "qu'il était Catholique en gros et quelque fois Protestant en détail", seems not altogether groundless, though it can no longer be accepted as a satisfactory summing up of the question. His scientific attainments must have been great. Galileo Galilei would not have wasted his time in corresponding with a man from whom he could learn nothing; and, though Sarpi did not, as has been asserted, invent the telescope, he immediately turned it to practical account by constructing a map of the moon.

Father: Francesco Sarpi
Mother: Isabella Morelli

    University: University of Padua

    Excommunicated 21-Apr-1607
    Assassination Attempt 5-Oct-1607
    Italian Ancestry



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