Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Paolo Sarpi

Paolo Sarpi (August 14, 1552 - January 15, 1623) was a Venetian patriot, scholar and church reformer.

He was born at Venice, the son of a tradesman, but was orphaned at an early age. Ignoring the opposition of his remaining family, he entered the order of the Servi di Maria, a minor Augustinian order of Florentine origin, at the age of thirteen. He assumed the name of Paolo, by which, with the epithet Servita, he was always known to his contemporaries. In 1570 he sustained no fewer than three hundred and eighteen theses at a disputation in Mantua, and was so applauded that the Duke of Mantua made him court theologian. Sarpi spent four years at Mantua, studying mathematics and the Oriental languages. He then went to Milan, where he enjoyed the protection of Cardinal Borromeo, but was soon transferred by his superiors to Venice, as professor of philosophy at the Servite convent. In 1579 he was sent to Rome on business connected with the reform of his order, which brought him into close contact with three successive popes, as well as the grand inquisitor and other influential people.

Having completed the task entrusted to him, he returned to Venice in 1588, and passed the next seventeen years in study, occasionally interrupted by the need to intervene in the internal disputes of his community. In 1601 he was recommended by the Venetian senate for the small bishopric of Caorle, but the papal nuncio, who wished to obtain it for a protégé of his own, accused Sarpi of having denied the immortality of the soul and controverted the authority of Aristotle. An attempt to obtain another small bishopric in the following year also failed, Pope Clement VIII having taken offence at Sarpi's habit of corresponding with learned heretics. The pope was probably also eager to thwart the desires of the liberal rulers of Venice. Sarpi's feelings towards Rome became less friendly. For the time, however, he tranquilly pursued his studies, writing notes on François Vieta which established his proficiency in mathematics, and a metaphysical treatise now lost, which is said to have anticipated the ideas of John Locke. His anatomical pursuits probably date from an earlier period. They illustrate his versatility and thirst for knowledge, but are otherwise not significant. His claim to have anticipated William Harvey's discovery rests on no better authority than a memorandum, probably copied from Andreas Caesalpinus or Harvey himself, with whom, as well as with Francis Bacon and William Gilbert, Sarpi corresponded. The only physiological discovery which can be safely attributed to him is that of the contractility of the iris.

Clement died in March 1605; and Pope Paul V's attitude was designed to strain papal prerogative to the uttermost. Venice was simultaneously adopting measures to restrict it; the right of the secular tribunals to take cognizance of the offences of ecclesiastics had been asserted in two remarkable cases, and the scope of two ancient laws of the city, forbidding the foundation of churches or ecclesiastical congregations without the consent of the state, and the acquisition of property by priests or religious bodies, had been extended over the entire territory of the republic. In January 1606 the papal nuncio delivered a brief demanding the unconditional submission of the Venetians. The senate having promised protection to all ecclesiastics who should in this emergency aid the republic by their counsel, Sarpi presented a memoir, pointing out that the threatened censures might be met in two ways--de facto, by prohibiting their publication, and de jure, by an appeal to a general council. The document was received with universal applause, and Sarpi was immediately made canonist and theological counsellor to the republic.

The following April the last hopes of compromise were dispelled by Paul's excommunication of the Venetians and his attempt to lay their dominions under an interdict. Sarpi entered energetically into the controversy. He began by republishing the anti-papal opinions of the famous canonist John Gerson. In an anonymous tract published shortly afterwards (Risposta di un Dott ore in Teologia), he laid down principles which struck at the very root of the pope's authority in secular things. This book was promptly included in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and Gerson's work was attacked by Bellarmine with a severity which obliged Sarpi to reply in an Apologia. The Considerazioni sulle censure and the Trattato deli' interdetto, the latter partly prepared under his direction by other theologians, soon followed. Numerous other pamphlets appeared, inspired or controlled by Sarpi, who had received the further appointment of censor of everything written at Venice in defence of the republic.

Never before in a religious controversy had the appeal been made so exclusively to reason and history; it was unprecedented for an ecclesiastic of his eminence to argue the subjection of the clergy to the state. The Venetian clergy, a few religious orders excepted, disregarded the interdict, and discharged their functions as usual. The Catholic powers refused to be drawn into the quarrel. At length (April 1607) a compromise was arranged through the mediation of the king of France, which salvaged the pope's dignity but conceded the points at issue. The victory was not so much the defeat of the papal pretensions as the recognition that interdicts and excommunication had lost their force. Sarpi longed for the toleration of Protestant worship in Venice, and had hoped for a separation from Rome and the establishment of a Venetian free church by which the decrees of the council of Trent would have been rejected. The republic rewarded him with the distinction of state counsellor in jurisprudence, and the liberty of access to the state archives. These honours exasperated his adversaries. On October 5 he was attacked by aassassins and left for dead, but recovered. His attackers found a refuge in the papal territories. Their chief, Poma, declared that he had attempted the murder for religious reasons. "Agnosco stylum Curiae Romanae," Sarpi himself said, when his surgeon commented on the ragged and inartistic character of the wounds. The only question is the degree of complicity of Pope Paul V.

The remainder of Sarpi's life was spent peacefully in his cloister, though plots against him continued to be formed, and he occasionally spoke of taking refuge in England. When not engaged in preparing state papers, he devoted himself to scientific studies, and composed several works. A Machiavellianan tract on the fundamental maxims of Venetian policy (Opinione come debba governarsi la repubblica di Venezia), used by his adversaries to blacken his memory, is undoubtedly not his. It has been attributed to a certain Gradenigo. Nor did he complete a reply which he had been ordered to prepare tothe Squitinio delia libertà veneta, which he perhaps found unanswerable. In folio appeared his History of Ecclesiastical Benefices, in which, says Matteo Ricci, "he purged the church of the defilement introduced by spurious decretals." In 1611 he assailed another abuse byhis treatise on the right of asylum claimed for churches, which was immediately placed on the Index.

In 1615 a dispute between the Venetian government and the Inquisition over the prohibition of a book led him to write about the history and procedure of the Venetian Inquisition; and in 1619 his chief literary work, the History of the Council of Trent, was printed at London under the name of Pietro Soave Polano, an anagram of Paolo Sarpi Veneto. Theeditor, Marco Antonio de Dominis, has been accused of falsifying thetext, but a comparison with a manuscript corrected by Sarpi himself showsthat the alterations are both unnecessary and unimportant. This memorable book, together with the rival and apologetic history by Cardinal Pallavicini, was minutely criticized by Leopold von Ranke (History of the Popes), who tests the veracity of both writers by examining the use they have respectively made of their manuscript materials.The result is not highly favourable to either; neither can be taxed with deliberate falsification, but both have coloured and suppressed.They write as advocates rather than historians. Ranke rates the literary qualities of Sarpi's work very highly. Sarpi never acknowledged his authorship, and baffled all the efforts of Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé to extract the secret from him. He survived the publication four years, serving the Venetian state to the last. The day before his death he had dictated three replies to questions on affairs of state, and his last words were "Esto perpetua." His posthumous History of the Interdict was printed at Venice the year after his death, with the disguised imprint of Lyons. Great light has been thrown upon Sarpi's real belief and the motives of his conduct by the letters of Christoph von Dohna, envoy of Christian, prince of Anhalt, to Venice, published by Moritz Ritter in the Briefe und Acten zur Geschichte des dreissigjährigen Krieges, vol. ii. (Munich, 1874). Sarpi told Dohna that he greatly disliked saying mass, and celebrated it as seldom as possible, but that he was compelled to do so, as he would otherwise seem to admit the validity of the papal prohibition, and thus betray the cause of Venice. This supplies the key to his whole behaviour; he was a patriot first and a religious reformer afterwards. He was "rooted" in what Diodati described to Dohna as "the most dangerous maxim, that God doesnot regard externals so long as the mind and heart are right before Him." Sarpi had another maxim, which he thus formulated to Dohna: Le falsith non dico mai mai, ma la yenta non aognuno. It must further be considered that, though Sarpi admired the English prayer-book, he was neither Anglican, Lutheran nor Calvinist, and might have found it difficult to accommodate himself to any Protestant church. On the whole, the opinion of Le Courayer, "qu'il était Catholique en gros et quelque fois Protestant en detail," seems not altogether groundless, though it can no longer be acceptedas a satisfactory summing up of the question. His scientific attain- ments must have been great.

Galileo would not have wasted his time in corresponding with a man from whom he could learn nothing; and, though Sarpi did not, as has been asserted, invent thetelescope, he immediately turned it to practical account by constructing a map of the moon. Sarpi's life was written by his enthusiastic disciple, Father Fulgenzio Micanzio, whose work is meagre and uncritical. Bianchi-Giovini's biography (1836) is greatly marred by digressions, and is inferior in some respects to that by Arabella Georgina Campbell (1869), which is enriched by numerous references to manuscripts unknown to Bianchi-Giovini. TA Trollope's Paul the Pope and Paul the Friar (1861) is in the main a mere abstract of Bianchi-Giovini, but adds a spirited account of the conclave of Paul V.

The incidents of the Venetian dispute from day to day are related in the contemporary diaries published by Enrico Cornet (Vienna, 1859). Giusto Fontanini's Storia arcana della vita di Pietro Sarpi (1863), a bitter libel, is nevertheless important for the letters of Sarpi it contains, as Griselini's Memonie e aneddote (1760) is from the author's access to Sarpi's unpublished writings, afterwards unfortunately destroyed by fire. Foscarini's History of Venetian Literature is important on the same account. Sarpi's memoirs on state affairs remain in the Venetian archives. Portions of his correspondencehave been printed at various times, and inedited letters from himare of frequent occurrence in public libraries. The King's library in the British Museum has a valuable collection of tracts in the Interdict controversy, formed by Consul Smith. In addition to the above works see Balan, Fra Paolo Sarpi (Venice, 1887) and Pascolato, Fra Paolo Sarpi (Milan, 5893). Some hitherto unpublished letters of Sarpi were edited by Karl Benrath and published, under the title Paolo Sarpi. Neue Briefe, 1608-1610 (at Leipzig in 1909).