Paolo Sarpi

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SARPI, PAOLO (PIETRO) (15521623)

SARPI, PAOLO (PIETRO) (15521623), Italian theologian, scientist, and historian. Paolo Sarpi became notorious as the defender of Venice against the papacy during the Venetian Interdict of 1606 and as the author of a controversial history of the Council of Trent. Before 1606 he was an obscure ecclesiastic, a member of the Servite order; after 1606 he was known throughout Europe. Before this turning point, Sarpi was free to cultivate a range of intellectual interests, as his Pensieri, a collection of aphoristic notes on scientific and philosophical topics, demonstrate. The ones on religion are written from a notably detached and strictly philosophical point of view. The Pensieri, which only began to be studied thoroughly in the twentieth century (the complete corpus was only published in 1996), have had great influence on the scholarly interpretation of the "private" Sarpi. He was certainly abreast of the most advanced scientific and philosophical ideas of the time and was a leading member of the milieu of Galileo Galilei (15641642). He was also, to say the least, indifferent to formal religion except as an instrument of social and political organization, and many see him as a libertine and a virtual atheist.

In the 1590s and the early 1600s the level of jurisdictional and political conflict between Venice and Rome was rising. Venice claimed to control navigation in the Adriatic, Rome (backed by the Habsburgs of Spain and Austria) claimed freedom of navigation there; Venice had friendly contacts with non-Catholic states; in 1604 Venice forbade the construction of any new churches or shrines without permission from the state; in 1605 Venice forbade any further transfers of real property to ecclesiastical institutions without permission from the state; and in the summer and autumn of 1605 Venetian authorities arrested two delinquent clerics in mainland cities. In the late spring of 1606 Pope Paul V (reigned 16051621) excommunicated the Venetian leadership and interdicted all clergy in the Venetian dominion from performing their functions. Venice defied the interdict and ordered all clergy to continue in their duties, and the affair rapidly escalated into a European crisis. Sarpi was recruited by the Venetian government to act as adviser and publicist, and he wrote many effective memoranda and works for publication in defense of Venetian jurisdiction. After much hard negotiation, in which Sarpi was closely involved, the interdict was lifted in April 1607. Sarpi was excommunicated in early 1607 and, targeted for assassination, was almost killed in October. But he retained his post and his influence on government policy for the rest of his life and became a prolific writer on church-state relations. He also maintained a network of epistolary and personal contacts with many influential individuals throughout Europe, Catholic and Protestant, as a way of acquiring support for Venice and reinforcing opposition to Rome and the Habsburgs.

As a young man Sarpi obtained firsthand information from a number of ecclesiastics who had participated in the Council of Trent (15451563) and had access to some of the private correspondence between Rome and the papal legates who had steered the sessions of the council, as well as other unpublished sources. Long before beginning his history of the council in the 1610s, Sarpi was convinced that the papacy had manipulated it to thwart Catholic sovereigns like Charles V (15001558), defeat the movement for internal reform, and reinforce its own preponderance in the Catholic world. Some historical narratives of the general history of the sixteenth century were in print, as were the decrees on doctrine and ecclesiology passed by the council. But the normal process by which these decrees would have been subjected to open debate and interpretation by competent specialists had been explicitly forbidden by Rome in 1564, as had the publication, which would also have taken place in the normal course of events, of the acta, or "acts," of the council (the record of the deliberations and proceedings; publication of them began only in the late nineteenth century). In result the history of the Council of Trent was more or less an arcanum until the publication of Sarpi's celebrated Istoria del concilio tridentino (History of the Council of Trent) in London in 1619. This work was considered poisonous and scandalous at Rome and has been challenged consistently by Catholic historiography. It is indeed moderately tendentious, as Sarpi fully intended it to be, but overall its veracity and its classic status are not in doubt. The influence it had on the perception of the papacy in Europe throughout the early modern period is incalculable.

See also Papacy and Papal States ; Paul V (pope) ; Trent, Council of ; Venice .


Primary Sources

Sarpi, Paolo. Opere. Edited by Gaetano Cozzi and Luisa Cozzi. Milan, 1969. Contains selections from Sarpi's works and the fullest modern interpretive biography.

. Paolo Sarpi. Edited by Corrado Vivanti. Rome, 2000. The complete annotated text of Istoria del concilio tridentino and a selection of shorter pieces. Vivanti's earlier edition of Istoria del concilio tridentino (Turin, 1974) is also of value.

. Pensieri naturali, metafisici e matematici. Edited by Luisa Cozzi and Libero Sosio. Milan, 1996.

Secondary Sources

Frajese, Vittorio. Sarpi Scettico: Stato e Chiesa a Venezia tra Cinque e Seicento. Bologna, 1994.

Wootton, David. Paolo Sarpi: Between Renaissance and Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K., 1983.

William McCuaig

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(b. Venice, Italy, 14 August 1552; d. Venice, 16 January 1623)

natural philosophy, theology.

Sarpi was the son of Francesco Sarpi and Isabella Morelli. The financial straits of the family, after the death of his father, shifted the responsibility for Sarpi’s education to his uncle, Ambrogio Morelli, the head titular priest of St. Hermangora. Impressed with the boy’s precocity, Don Ambrogio placed him under the tutelage of the Servite friar Giammaria Capella, who instructed him in philosophy, theology, and logic, and was influential in his entry into the Servite Order at the age of fourteen. At the end of his novitiate, in 1570, Sarpi displayed such argumentative skill in publicly defending 318 philosophical and theological theses that the duke of Mantua, Guglielmo Gonzaga, appointed him court theologian and professor of positive theology.

In 1574, as a bachelor in theology, Sarpi worked with Cardinal Carlo Borromeo in Milan and, later that year, returned to Venice to teach philosophy in the Servite monastery. In 1578 he was awarded the degree of doctor of theology by the University of Padua and the following year was elected provincial of his order. As procurator general from 1585 to 1588, Sarpi resided in Rome, where he enjoyed the friendship of Pope Sixtus V, the Jesuit theologian Robert Bellarmine, and Giambattista Della Porta. He was appointed state theologian by the Venetian Senate in 1606 and counseled defiance of the bull of interdict and excommunication launched against Venice by Paul V. Having failed to appear before the Roman Inquisition to answer charges of heresy, he was excommunicated in January 1607. The reconciliation between the papacy and the Republic of Venice did not lessen the hostility harbored in Rome against Sarpi, and on 5 October 1607 he was the object of an attempted assassination that he accused the Roman Curia of engineering.

As adviser to the Venetian Senate, an office he continued to hold until his death sixteen years later, Sarpi arbitrated the dispute between Galileo and Baldassar Capra, who had claimed the invention of the proportional compass as his own. In July 1609, when offered the opportunity to purchase one of the earliest telescopes, the Senate referred the matter to Sarpi for his opinion. Sarpi, who as early as November 1608 had been the first in Italy to learn of the invention of the Flemish spectacle-maker Hans Lippershey, recommended that the offer be refused, confident that his friend Galileo could construct an instrument of comparable if not superior quality. This Galileo did, and presented it to the government as a gift in August 1609, in return for which he received a lifetime, appointment to the University of Padua.

Chiefly remembered now for his highly biased Istoria del Concilio Tridentino (1619). Sarpi was well versed in the works of all the Scholastic philosophers, especially Ockham, whom he held in great esteem. His Arte di ben pensare, in which he distinguishes between sensation and reflection, and examines the relationship of the senses to cognition, has been credited with anticipating Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Although Sarpi was highly praised for his mathematical and speculative abilities by such contemporaries as Galileo, Della Porta, and Acquapendente, all that remains by which one can judge the originality of his scientific thought are some letters and the notebooks containing his philosophical, physical, and mathematical thoughts. Extant are reliable copies of the originals that perished in a fire in 1769. They consist of more than 600 numbered paragraphs, which were written over a period of three decades but date chiefly from 1578 to 1597. Rather than forming a consistent philosophical system, the notebooks are a collage of disparate thoughts about the nature of the physical world–a chronicle of the intellectual evolution of a man in the mainstream of the scientific developments of his age. In Venice, Sarpi religiously frequented the ridotto at the home of the historian Andrea Morosini: while in Padua he regularly attended colloquiums sponsored by Giovanni Vincenzio Pinelli and, in Rome, at the Accademia dei Lincei. There he met and exchanged views with some of the most celebrated scientists of the day and, it appears, recorded in his notebooks their ideas in addition to his own.

The entries, chronologically annotated, touch upon every aspect of contemporary science, from a discussion of the corpuscular nature of light and a refutation of the Peripatetic denial of its passage through a vacuum, to an enumeration of the properties of conic sections. Of particular interest are Sarpi’s ideas on optical relativity, his negation of the concept of absolute rest, and his refutation of the Aristotelian doctrine of an essential difference between natural and violent motion together with its corollary–that the two types of motion cannot be simultaneously operative in the same body. In anatomy, to which he devoted himself from 1582 to 1585, Sarpi has been credited with correctly interpreting the function of the venous valves and the discovery of the circulation of the blood, for which Harvey later provided experimental proof. The subject of magnetism is one in which the notebooks reflect a constant interest. Several entries suggest (as, a decade later, did William Gilbert, whom Sarpi knew) that all bodies fall to earth not because it is their nature to do so but because they are drawn to it “as iron is to a magnet”. Other entries deal with the reflection of light by curved mirrors, centers of gravity, the relative weights of bodies immersed in water, speeds of descent of freely falling bodies, the motion of projectiles, cause and effect, and a short discussion of the inconclusiveness of the arguments marshaled by opponents of the Copernican system.


I. Original Works. See F. Griselini, ed., Opere di F. Paolo Sarpi Servita, 8 vols. (Verona, 1761–1768), R. Amerio, Pensieri naturali, metafisici e matematici del Padre Maestro Paolo Sarpi Servita (Bari, 1951), consists of excerpts from the notebooks, including the Arte di ben pensare. Copies of the notebooks made by Configlio Capra in 1740 are in the Marcina Library in Venice, MSS Ital, CI.II, no. 129 (Provenienza Giacomo Morelli), Collocazione 1914: “Opuscoli e frammenti del Padre Paola Servita, in varie materie filosofiche, volume primo, an. 1740, Pensieri naturali, metafisici e matematici, opusc, I”, 1–142; Arte di ben pensare, 275–292. G. Gambarin edited Istoria del Concilio Tridentino, 3 vols. (Bari, 1935: repr. Florence, 1966).

II. Secondary Literature See G. Abetti, Amici e nemici di Galileo (Milan, 1945): D. Bertolini, ed., Enciclopedia italiana, XXX (1949), 877–879: A. G. Campbell, The Life of Fra Paolo Surpi (London, 1869); P. Cassani, Paolo Surpi e le scienze matematiche e naturali (venice, 1882); A. Favaro, “Fra Paolo Sarpi, fisico e matematico, secondo i nuovi studi del prof. P. Cassani”, in Atti del R. Istituto veneto di scienze, lettere ed arti. 6th ser., 1 (1882–1883), 893–911; G. Getto, Paolo Sarpi (Florence, 1967); Fulgenzio Micanzio, Vita del Padre Paolo del Ordine dei Servi (Leiden, 1646), also in English (London, 1651); A. Robertson, Fra Paolo Sarpi the Greatest of the Venetians (London, 1894); and T. A. Trollope, Paul the Pope and Paul the Friar (London, 1861).

Umberto Maria D’Antini

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Paolo Sarpi

The Italian prelate and statesman Paolo Sarpi (1552-1623) was one of the greatest historians of early modern Europe and a founder of the modern historical method.

Paolo Sarpi was born in Venice, the son of a merchant. His early education was supervised by a family friend, a member of the Servite order of friars. In 1565 Sarpi himself joined the Servites, and in 1574 he was ordained a priest. His intellectual gifts brought him into contact with some of the most important people and cities in Italy. He spent 3 years as court theologian in Mantua and then traveled to Milan. He returned to Venice, where he taught philosophy while studying at the nearby University of Padua, the intellectual center of Italy in this period. In 1579 he became provincial of the Venetian province of the Servites, and in 1584, at the age of 32, he moved to Rome as procurator general of the whole order.

Between 1588 and 1606 Sarpi lived in studious retirement in Venice, participating in the vigorous scientific life of Venice and Padua and making friends with such men as Galileo. In 1606 he was called out of retirement and made theologian and canon lawyer of the Republic of Venice. It was a critical moment in Venetian history: the republic had been laid under an interdict by Pope Paul V, and Sarpi's duties entailed the defense of the Venetian cause against the weight and authority of the Counter Reformation papacy. His role in the defense of Venice led him directly to the most important phase of his career, that of skilled and penetrating historian of the medieval and Renaissance Church.

Sarpi's first historical work was a long memorandum, intended for private circulation, of the events in Venice between 1605 and 1607. His second work was the great History of Benefices (1609), in which he relied upon his access to the secret archives of Venice and expressed his conviction that individuals and circumstances, political as well as economic, influenced this important chapter of ecclesiastical history. By 1616 Sarpi had completed his greatest work, History of the Council of Trent, which was published in Italian in London in 1619.

In these original historical works, Sarpi deals with limited topics, opens his analysis of causality to economic and political influences, and tries wherever possible to base his conclusions upon documentary evidence. His perception of complex human background made his History of the Council of Trent a landmark in the technique of ecclesiastical and institutional history.

During his lifetime Sarpi was honored and protected by the Republic of Venice, a popular and well-known figure. After his death, he became a revered civic hero, not only of the republic but of all Europe.

Further Reading

The introductory remarks that preface the selections from Sarpi's writings in translation by Peter Burke, Sarpi: History of Benefices and Selections from the History of the Council of Trent (1967), provide an excellent introduction to Sarpi's method. The best study of his life and ideas is William Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty (1968).

Additional Sources

Wootton, David, Paolo Sarpi: between Renaissance and Enlightenment, Cambridge Cambridgeshire; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. □

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Brilliant and controversial scholar; b. Venice, Aug. 14, 1552; d. Venice, Jan. 14, 1623. Expert in theology, philosophy, law, politics, and natural sciences, the author of many works, he had a mortal enmity for the Roman Curia and the Jesuits. He had Protestant leanings and associations and probably died outside the Church. In his early life he was a close friend of St. Charles borromeo and St. Robert bellarmine. Although he was a Servite in 1565, priest in 1574, and rose to provincial (of Venice) in 1579, procurator general in 1585, and vicar-general 1599 to 1604, he failed to secure Rome's confirmation as bishop on several occasions. In 1606, as official theologian, jurist, and canonist of Venice, he maintained resolutely that the interdict of Paul V against that city was invalid. Summoned to Rome, he refused to leave the protection of Venice and was excommunicated. He blamed an attack on his life in 1607 on the Roman Curia. Until 1622 he served the Republic of Venice with his vast learning. Almost all of his writings, including many letters, were published posthumously (1st ed. of complete works 1677). His Istoria del concilio Tridentino, however, was published in London in 1619 by the apostate archbishop De Dominis (perhaps) without Sarpi's consent, and under an anagram of his name. The work, based chiefly on the Archives of Venice, was placed on the Index immediately but went through several editions and five translations in ten years. In replying, S. Pallavicino wrote his own history of the council (165657) using the Vatican archives.

Sarpi's champions make him a learned saint who knew the hypocrisy and corruption of many persons in the Church. For his enemies, he may have been learned but he was not a saint. In almost 1,000 decisions, as official theologian of Venice, he exhibited a Machiavellian understanding of political affairs, and championed the state and councils at the expense of the papacy. He was anti-Aristotelian, and was influenced by Scotus and Ockham, and by Renaissance Stoicism and naturalism. Galileo thought no one in Europe could surpass Sarpi in mathematics, and he has been credited with the discovery of the circulation of the blood before W. Harvey.

Bibliography: g. abetti, Amicie nemici di Galileo (Milan 1945). h. jedin, History of the Council of Trent. a. mercati and d. pelzer, Dizionario ecclesiastico 3:721723. h. wolter, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 3 5:137172.

[g. abetti]

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Paolo Sarpi (pä´ōlō sär´pē), 1552–1623, Venetian councillor, theologian, and historian. In 1565 he became a Servite friar and later theologian and adviser to the republic. In the conflict that developed in 1606 between Venice and Pope Paul V he staunchly defended in his writings the right of the state to control ecclesiastic matters. In 1607 his prestige was increased when he was wounded in an attempt, said to be sponsored by the pope, to seize him by force. His most important work is his history of the Council of Trent (published in London in 1719), in which he viewed the council as the triumph of papal absolutism and centralization.