Inquisition, Roman

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INQUISITION, ROMAN. The Roman Inquisition was a penal and judicial institution brought into being by the Catholic Church in mid-sixteenth century Italy as a response to the Protestant challenge in that country. Prior to this time, a loosely knit, decentralized network of individual clerics drawn from the early-thirteenth-century mendicant orders investigated specific instances of heresy. Neither the Roman Inquisition nor its medieval predecessor should be confused with the more famous Spanish Inquisition, which started in 1478, was controlled by the crown, had a separate history, and operated in virtual independence of the papacy.


The chief features the reorganization set in motion in Rome by Paul III (15341549) with his bull Licet ab Initio of July 1542 were as follows: a centralized authority for the pursuit of heresy in the form of a commission of cardinals, which appointed and closely supervised the work of the local inquisitors; the expansion of local tribunals throughout the peninsula, the seats of which were usually Dominican and Franciscan convents; and the repeal of privileges that exempted from prosecution regular clergy who previously had to answer only to their superiors in the religious orders, a measure that preceded the major reorganization by a few months.

The addition of new tribunals took place gradually over the course of the century, with new seats erected at intervals or elevated to full status only after existing for many years. Concurrently, the definition of what was heretical and proper for the Inquisition to prosecute was also expanded to include such offenses as apostasy from the religious orders, blasphemy, and bigamy, among others; this resulted in squabbles between the Inquisition and competing authorities, episcopal courts, and secular magistracies.

The customary provincial tribunal consisted of an inquisitor, his vicar, a notary, and such "familiars" as prison guards and messengers. A network of lesser officials called vicari foranei, 'external vicars', selected from the ranks of the regular clergy and parish priests, represented the parent tribunal in the small towns under its jurisdiction. The judicial role of the vicari foranei was generally limited to conducting preliminary inquiries and receiving depositions. The presence of a bishop or, usually, an episcopal vicar was required when the court wanted to proceed to such grave stages as judicial torture or final sentencing.

Every court was assisted in its deliberations by a body of "consultors" drawn from the ranks of prominent lawyers and theologians. Except in the most ordinary of cases, a local tribunal would not reach the point of final sentencing until the Supreme Congregation in Rome, which received and closely scrutinized copies or summaries of trials in progress, had expressed its binding opinion.


The jurisdiction of the reconstituted tribunal was limited to the Italian peninsula, excluding Sicily and Sardinia, where the Spanish Inquisition prevailed. It was also barred from working openly in Naples, part of the Spanish empire, where Rome had to act under the cover of the episcopal courts. The island of Malta and the city of Avignon in France fell under Roman purview. As for the rest of Italy, although inquisitors were able to proceed in their duties freely in the states of the church, their activities were curtailed to varying degrees in independent principalities and republics where arrests, incarceration, confiscations, and extraditions to Rome were dependent on the approval of the local ruler. Although they had no official roles, lay functionaries appointed by the secular government sat on the tribunals to guarantee the correctness of the proceedings. Venice, perhaps more than any other state, limited the Inquisition by a series of special dispositions.


Recent research has overturned many long-standing assumptions connected with the Roman Inquisition, framing its juridical theory and procedures in a new, more favorable light. For example, it has been determined that in trials conducted under the Inquisition's jurisdiction, accusers had to make their depositions under oath. Other findings include the following: the arraigned had the benefit of a defense attorney; transcripts of the proceedings were provided to prisoners in writing; and an appropriate interval allowed for the preparation of counterarguments and the summoning of friendly witnesses. Judicial torture (universally practiced by all courts in Europe) could be applied only after the defense had made its case and where the indicia (the evidence of heresy) were compelling. Appeals were also permitted and were made regularly to a higher court, namely the Supreme Congregation in Rome. First offenders were dealt with much more leniently than recidivists. A sentence to carcere perpetuo, 'life imprisonment', by the Holy Office meant parole after a few years (generally three) subject to good behavior; house arrest, which often included permission to work outside one's home, was frequently imposed, especially given the lack of secure prisons outside Rome. Sentences pronounced by provincial tribunals were scrutinized by the Supreme Congregation of the Inquisition in Rome, and implausible confessions that contradicted the defendant's testimony during the trial were unacceptable. There were many additional safeguards in witchcraft proceedings, not the least of which was the Supreme Congregation's 1588 decision that alleged participants at Sabbaths were not allowed to implicate supposed accomplices, a measure that spared Italy (and Spain) the panics that swept through northern Europe until well into the seventeenth century.


The stake, incarceration, and galley sentences are dramatic forms of penal procedure that are associated with inquisitorial practice. But a survey of the thousands of surviving sentences shows that milder forms of punishment actually prevailed, the most common being the wearing of the penitential garment (the sanbenito ), abjurations read on the cathedral steps on feast days, and such salutary penances as fines, communal service, and the recital of prayers and devotions.

Death by burning at the stake was reserved for three categories of offenders: the obstinate and unrepentant who refused to be reconciled to the church; the relapsed, namely those who had suffered a previous sentence for formal heresy; and, following bulls promulgated by Paul IV (15551559) in July 1556 and February 1558, persons convicted of an attempt to overturn such central doctrines as the virgin birth and the full divinity of Christ.

Although there are serious lacunae in the documentation, the available numbers of those executed by the Roman Inquisition suggest that there were fewer than has generally been believed. For example, only four of the first thousand defendants who appeared before the Friulan tribunal of Aquileia-Concordia (15511647) were put to death, and only one, in 1567, for religious heresy in Modena, out of the hundreds of trials conducted in that city. And of the more than 200 sentences contained in the Trinity College manuscripts for parts of 15801582, only three called for condemnations to the stake.


Existing knowledge of the Roman Inquisition is based on a broad array of surviving sources. Even before the 1998 opening of the central archives of the old Roman Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) to the scholarly public, there was no shortage of original inquisitorial documents. Numerous printed legal manuals written between the early fourteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries are still in existence.

Large quantities of dispersed manuscript records are also available. The suppression of the Inquisition throughout the Italian peninsula in the eighteenth century, in addition to the closing of many of the religious establishments that had housed the local tribunals, brought about the transfer of long runs of inquisitorial records to public repositories and to episcopal archives. Thousands of trials have survived intact in Udine, Venice, Modena, Rovigo, Naples, and elsewhere; extensive series of correspondence between the Supreme Congregation of the Inquisition in Rome and its outlying outposts in Bologna, Modena, Naples, and Udine still exist; and a large body of sentences spanning a century and a half (c. 1556c. 1700) found their way in the nineteenth century to Trinity College, Dublin, as part of the considerable archival material that changed hands during the time of Napoleon.

An important new infusion of pertinent documents became available with the opening of the previously inaccessible Roman Archive of the Holy Office. Scholars now could consult the archive of the Congregation of the Index, which was transferred intact to the Holy Office in 1917; the complete, original, sixteenth-century trials of a few highly placed ecclesiastics, such as Cardinal Giovanni Morone, Bishop Vittore Soranzo, and the prothonotary Pietro Carnesecchi (thousands of "lesser" trials were consciously destroyed in Paris after the fall of Napoleon); the long runs of the Acta Sancti Officii, namely the decrees coming out of the weekly meetings of the Roman Congregation, at which the pope generally presided, ranging in date from 1548 to the twenty-first century (with lacunae); the correspondence from provincial inquisitors to Rome, numbering some 225 volumes (previously only the letters from Rome were available in local repositories); and the records of the Sienese Inquisition, which were transferred to the Supreme Congregation in 1911 from the episcopal archive in Siena.

See also Index of Prohibited Books ; Inquisition ; Papacy and Papal States ; Paul III (pope) ; Persecution .


Primary Source

Del Col, Andrea. Domenico Scandella Known as Menocchio: His Trials before the Inquisition (15831599). Translated by John and Anne C. Tedeschi. Binghamton, N.Y., 1996. The original Italian edition of the proceedings against the celebrated Friulan miller was published in 1991.

Secondary Sources

Borromeo, Agostino. "The Inquisition and Inquisitorial Censorship." In Catholicism in Early Modern History: A Guide to Research, edited by John W. O'Malley, pp. 253272. St. Louis, 1988. Historiographical survey.

Henningsen, Gustav, and John Tedeschi, eds., in association with Charles Amiel. Inquisition in Early Modern Europe: Studies on Sources and Methods. De Kalb, Ill., 1986. Volume based on several papers presented at a Danish symposium, September 1978.

Romeo, Giovanni. L'Inquisizione nell'Italia moderna. Bari, 2002. The best comprehensive treatment in brief compass.

Tedeschi, John. The Italian Reformation of the Sixteenth Century and the Diffusion of Renaissance Culture: A Bibliography of the Secondary Literature. Modena, 2000. Devotes ample attention to the role of the Inquisition in the suppression of the Reformation in Italy.

. The Prosecution of Heresy: Collected Studies on the Inquisition in Early Modern Italy. Binghamton, N.Y., 1991. Il giudice e l'eretico: Studi su l'Inquisizione romana. Revised and updated Italian translation. Milan, 1997. Pioneered the new perspective on the Roman Inquisition.

Vekene, Emil van der. Bibliotheca Bibliographica Historiae Sanctae Inquisitionis. Bibliographisches Verzeichnis des gedruckten Schrifttums zur Geschichte und Literatur der Inquisition. 3 vols. Vaduz, Liechtenstein, 19821992. The standard bibliography on the Inquisition in general, listing both the primary and secondary literature.

John Tedeschi