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.
Today, the grassy hill is part of the American Academy in Rome, which celebrated its connection to Galileo earlier this year with a number of events that included a discussion of faith and science with Brother Consolmagno.
The Renaissance men gathered on the Janiculum hill included Jesuit scholars, such as Jesuit Father Christopher Clavius, who helped devise the Gregorian calendar 40 years earlier.
Brother Consolmagno told CNS that 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 then wanted to look for themselves and see if they were seeing the same things Galileo was seeing,” he said.
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,” he said.
Brother Consolmagno said the real reason that Galileo was eventually brought before the Inquisition and found guilty of suspected heresy is still a mystery. Numerous authors have proposed different findings and the trial is still “a great puzzle for historians,” he said.
Thanks to having many friends in high places, Galileo for years managed to evade any problems for maintaining that the earth revolves around the sun, the Jesuit said.
Galileo received permission, including from the pope’s personal censor, to publish his book, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” he said.
“He’s done everything right, he’s followed all the rules and suddenly out of nowhere he’s called to trial,” he said.
Galileo was willing and eager to make any corrections to the text, he said, 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.
Whatever the political reasons were behind the trial and its verdict, he said the “terrible mistake” was that the church had used its religious authority for political ends.
Galileo’s reputation was restored in 1992 by a special Vatican commission established by Pope John Paul II.