Twenty-six years ago, in 1980, Finocchiaro published Galileo and the Art of Reasoning, a work on logic and scientific methodology. This book appeared at the same time as the Vatican announced that a papal commission was being appointed to look into the Galileo affair. This new look at Galileo by the Catholic Church prompted Finocchiaro to become more interested in the historical dimension of Galileo, and he turned from his more narrowly philosophical interests to study the history of the trial. First, Finocchiaro set out to learn about the trial and master the relevant primary documents. This preparatory work was published in 1989 as The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History. Next, to relate the Dialogue to the trial, he published a careful scholarly translation of it entitled Galileo on the World Systems: A New Abridged Translation and Guide (1997). The next step for Finocchiaro was to study what had already been written about the Galileo affair. He undertook this research in order to understanding the limitations and to grasp any insights of past approaches. Retrying Galileo is the result of this extensive ‘preparatory’ research. It is the latest part of Finocchiaro’s long-standing systematic research project into the Galileo affair that began in 1980. Looking back over the research project so far, one gets the impression that Finocchiaro is systematic, and patient. The next and final step of his ambitious research program will be to write a critical account of the trial.
In 1633, as is well known, the Inquisition condemned Galileo for holding that the earth moves and the Bible is not a scientific authority. Less well know are the long-standing controversies that the 1633 condemnation started. This second Galileo affair "about,” as Finocchiaro puts it, “the facts, causes, issues, and implications of the original trial" continues even today, and not just inside academic circles. Galileo is still a popular and polarizing figure. Retrying Galileo is the first systematic survey of this “subsequent Galileo affair." Finocchiaro describes the book as "a survey of the Galileo affair from the time of his condemnation by the Inquisition in 1633 to his alleged rehabilitation by Pope John Paul II in 1992.” Over three-hundred-and-fifty years is a long span of time, and Retrying Galileo covers an immense amount of material. But it is not intended to be comprehensive, and Finocchiaro has had to be selective—by his estimations, a comprehensive bibliography of primary sources would contain about 2,500 entries. To focus the massive amount of potential secondary material, Finocchiaro narrowly concentrates on the question of “whether, how, and why the condemnation was right or wrong.” This is the key issue running through the book in all its facets: "theological, scientific, philosophical, legal, moral, pastoral, practical, political." For a non-specialist, the range of documents, issues, and time-periods can be overwhelming. For the Galileo scholar, it will undoubtedly contain many new insights and should prove invaluable.
Retrying Galileo is an unusual book. It is not simply a historiography of the trial taken in the strict sense of a study of past historical scholarship. The aim of the book is to present the primary sources, historical facts, and controversial issues surrounding the aftermath of the Galileo affair. Numerous helpful documents are included, some published in English for the first time. These include Church documents, private letters, and interpretive and critical accounts. Each chapter stresses several primary texts and goes on to analyze the facts and issues that emerge from the sources. For instance, he reprints the lengthy 1757 “Consultant Report” of Jesuit Pietro Lazzari, professor of church history at the Roman College, and commends Lazzari for his “well argued, impressively nuanced, and often insightful” account. At the same time, he takes him to task for focusing merely on the principle of Scriptural accommodation and missing the key point that Galileo makes in the Letter to Christina that propositions capable of being conclusively demonstrated need not be interpreted literally. Throughout the entire book, Finocchiaro maintains a "threefold concern" with sources, facts, and issues; this distinguishes Retrying Galileo from a more traditional historiographical account of debates between professional historians. Finocchiaro also makes it clear that he is also interested in what philosophers, journalists, playwrights, and many others have written. By charting the impact of Galileo’s trial upon subsequent historical events it is also a work of history. For instance, after learning about what he called the “affair of Galileo,” Descartes withheld publication of his World. The history of the “reception and reaction to Galileo’s condemnation” continually expands as the affair is still far from settled.
Why study the second Galileo affair? Finocchiaro claims that it has acquired an autonomous existence of its own, and as an object of study the second Galileo affair gives us insights into the interaction between science and religion; the history of a cultural myth. The second Galileo affair raises many of the same issues as the ‘first’ Galileo affair. It is in itself an interesting case study of religion vs. science, individual freedom vs. institutional authority, myth vs. reality. Many scholars have argued over nearly every aspect of the trial. Even the facts themselves have engendered controversy, and today historians still have not achieved consensus about the causes, issues, and implications of the Galileo affair. The original impetus behind the project and the most important reason for a systematic study of the literature on the Galileo affair for Finocchiaro, however, is to provide the basis for a new, better critical history of the affair, avoiding the weaknesses and incorporating the insights of previous accounts. He has undertaken this labor in preparation for his own forthcoming account of the trial, and undoubtedly Retrying Galileo will be immensely helpful for anyone writing about the original Galileo affair. While modern professional Galileo historians are generally aware of what their colleagues have written and, of course, anchor their research in the original documents surrounding Galileo’s trial, the wider “reflective commentary” studied by Finocchiaro has never been systematically examined for what it can tell historians about how to approach the trial.
The book itself also provides some interesting lessons in historical methodology. Finocchiaro’s general approach is to carefully examine a document and resolve ambiguities in the text that have misled previous interpreters. For instance, he clarifies the question of torture by examining the meaning of the term 'rigorous examination' used by the Inquisition. To resolve its doubts after Galileo's denial of malicious intent, the inquisition conducted what it called a 'rigorous examination.' Subsequent interpreters have claimed this means he was physically tortured, others that he was simply threatened. Finocchiaro builds up a careful, logical argument that conclusively shows 'rigorous examination' means minimally that he underwent an examination under the verbal threat of torture, but does not necessarily imply he was actually tortured. Finocchiaro repeatedly brings analytic clarity and logical rigor to resolve ambiguities in the primary texts, and his careful commentary should prevent many future misinterpretations. In addition to this kind of linguistic clarification, Finocchiaro provides a service to scholars by pointing out areas that have been previously overlooked. For instance, while most attention has focused exclusively on the inquisition condemning Galileo for insisting on the heliocentric and geokinetic doctrines that were declared contrary to Scripture, he was actually convicted of two errors. He was also condemned for believing that it is permissible to defend a doctrine contrary to Scripture. A careful reading of his Abjuration (1633) also shows a commonly overlooked element. Beyond retracting his earlier beliefs and behavior, he was made to “plead guilty to the verdict already announced by the judges and to confess to a transgression not confessed earlier." The conflation of 'heretical' and 'contrary to Scripture' early on is another good example of how easy it was for the general public and historians to become confused. The notion that Galileo’s works were considered heretical was to become one of the most persistent myths in the subsequent controversy. Finocchiaro tackles two other important mistakes in subsequent interpretation: one, almost everyone thought Galileo was condemned for defending Copernicanism and ignored the role that discussing the prescription not to discuss the earth's motion in any way whatever; "Secondly, there was a common tendency to interpret the sentence incorrectly as containing an official declaration that the Copernican doctrine was heretical, not merely contrary to Scripture." The myth of the Copernican heresy is due to this lack of ability to make a fine but important distinction. Drawing upon his philosophical training, Finocchiaro brings an analytic clarity to his judgments uncommon among historians, and he repeatedly points out the variations and inaccuracies that spread along each step, especially with oral information.
The second Galileo affair began almost immediately after the end of the trial. Officials of the Catholic Church promulgated the news on printed posters and flyers and meetings were held where information about the trial was given to professors of philosophy and mathematics. News also spread privately and in books and newspapers. “By 1651 the educated public of Europe had available the full text of the sentence and adjuration in three languages: French, Italian, and Latin. The material basis had thus been laid for what was to become a key cause célèbre in Western culture." Historians of the book and print culture will be interested in Finocchiaro’s meticulous reconstruction of the spread and diffusion of news about the trial and the often dramatic stories about the
history of church records. It makes an interesting case study, and at times the detective work is entertaining reading.
One of the most interesting chapters of the book concerns the Napoleonic Wars and Trials. In 1798 a French army occupied Rome, abolished papal government, and established a Roman Republic. In 1810 Napoleon transferred to Paris all Church archives in Rome and started the process of publishing the documents; this brought some new documents to light. In 1814 Napoleon "freed the pope, restored the papal state, and began returning Church records and archives to Rome."
The best historians generally make a systematic study of the historiography on their topic. Finocchiaro has gone one step further. The book should be interesting to specialists and non-specialists alike. Studying the second Galileo affair to rewrite the first Galileo affair is an fascinating project. Among other things, is makes an interesting case study in historical methodology. However, only the next and final part of Finocchiaro’s research project, his account of the trial, will conclusively prove that he has truly avoided the pitfalls and built upon the solid ground of past commentators.