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  • Writer's pictureMichal J A Paszkiewicz

Napoleon and the Galileo files

Napoleon, staring at a burning Moscow

While I enjoyed the new Ridley Scott film Napoleon, it was perhaps disappointing that it hadn't been made into a TV series instead. The film barely scratched the surface of some of the biggest events of Napoleon's incredible feats, his military genius, or his politics. The conquest of Europe seemed to be handled in a matter of just a few scenes.

One drama that most people don't know about Napoleon is about the curious case of the Galileo files.

Napoleon had a varying relationship with the Church. He was baptised a Catholic and remembered his First Holy Communion as one of the happiest days in his life. Over time he became more sceptical of religion, claiming for example that "religion is a sort of inoculation or vaccine which, while satisfying our sense of the supernatural, guarantees us from the charlatans and the magicians". He sought to try to control the Church in France, for example by forcing Church tribunals to annul his marriage with Joséphine. But there was a far more violent and dramatic side to the relationship.

In February 1798, Napoleon captured Rome, and demanded that Pope Pius VI renounce his temporal power. This meant that the Pope could remain as Head of the Church, but would not have any political control over the Papal States. The Pope refused, so Napoleon imprisoned him. Pius VI died in August 1799.

Napoleon wanted to keep French Catholics on his side, so he threw a lavish funeral for Pius VI, and in 1801 he signed a Concordat with the new Pope, Pius VII. This agreement reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church as the majority church of France, at the cost of dropping all claims on Church lands that had been confiscated during the French Revolution and forcing all French clergy to swear an oath of allegiance to the state.

Despite this agreement, Napoleon and Pius VII were always in conflict. In 1804, at Napoleon's coronation, he humiliated the Pope by placing the crown on his own head in rejection of tradition.

In 1808, Napoleon captured Rome for a second time, and once again abolished the Papal government in 1809. In answer, the Pope excommunicated him. Napoleon pointed his cannons at the papal bedroom and Lieutenant Radet kidnapped the Pope. Pope Pius VII was imprisoned for six years, before being freed by the Allied forces. Pius VII immediately restored the Jesuit order, the Inquisition, and the Index of Condemned Books as a means to challenge the French Republic.

What has any of this got to do with Galileo? In 1810, after Napoleon's second capture of Rome, he decided to transfer all of the Vatican's archives to France. The first convoy contained 3,239 cases, and there were two further convoys containing Inquisition files.

Napoleon sought to find propaganda in the Vatican documents that could be used to discredit the Papacy for his own gain. As part of this project, Charles Barbier recommended that the Galileo files should be published with a French translation as a means to shame the Papacy. Napoleon personally approved the project.

During the process, Jean Delambre and Giambattista Venturi investigated the Galileo files, looking for texts that would condemn the Inquisition. Venturi found that there was no major conspiracy or persecution of Galileo from the Inquisition, but rather that the issue was that Urban VIII, who had been friendly with Galileo and supported his works, had felt insulted by Galileo putting him in the role of Simplicio in the Dialogue, a dimwitted character who couldn't keep up with the arguments. Delambre, on the other hand, claimed that Galileo had been at fault by being insincere in his second trial, a claim that Koestler repeated in The Sleepwalkers.

Both of these claims are still controversial for Historians of Science - there are no extant records predating or during the trial that suggest that the Pope considered Simplicio to be a representative of himself. It is plausible that this link was only established after the trial as a mockery of the Pope and his influence in the trial. Galileo's insincerity was clear when he claimed that his Dialogue had actually presented Geocentrism favourably and discredited Copernicanism by all means. But the lack of sincerity is not mentioned in the proceedings, and he wasn't tortured to make him correct this blatant lie. Ultimately the Inquisition found his crime to be the breaking of the Injunction given to him in the first trial banning him from teaching Copernicanism as absolute Truth rather than as a hypothesis. The lack of sincerity would also not justify the severity of Galileo's punishment, putting him in House Arrest for the rest of his life and forcing him to miss his daughter Virginia's funeral.

After the Pope returned to the Papal States in 1814, France started to return records. During the whole drama, numerous records were lost, including files from the Galileo affair. The invasion in 1798 had burnt and plundered parts of the Inquisition archives before anything else. While the French initially intended to return the records, the process was deemed too expensive and 3,600 volumes of Inquisition trial proceedings and 300 volumes of Inquisition sentences (2/3 of the archives received in Paris) were burnt or sold to cardboard manufacturers. Papal envoys explicitly asked for the return of the Galileo files, but the French bureaucracy blocked and sidestepped the requests. A number of files were only returned in 1843, after the death of Count Pierre-Louis de Blacas, when his widow found the files and handed them in to the Papal nuncio to Vienna.

While Napoleon was exiled on St Helena Island, the Pope wrote to the British government asking for better treatment of the former Emperor. Napoleon reconciled with the Church shortly before his death and received a confession and last rites.

For further information on what happened to the Galileo files under Napoleon, I heartily recommend Maurice A. Finocchiaro's Retrying Galileo.


Front cover of the new translation of Riccioli's Almagestum Novum

New Book!

Michal is a Software Developer with over a decade of experience, the majority of which he has worked on complex Transport systems. In his spare time he translates Ancient Science texts - doesn't everyone?

If you learnt anything here, or enjoyed reading this, please support Michal by buying his new translation of Riccioli's Almagestum Novum.

Some of his other writing and interactive content on Science and Transport can also be found on his blog.

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