1902 Encyclopedia > Pietro Sarpi ( Paolo Sarpi)

Pietro Sarpi
(also known as: Paolo Sarpi)
Venetian patriot, scholar, scientist and church reformer
(1552-1623)




PIETRO SARPI (1552-1623), was born at Venice, August 14, 1552, and was the son of a small trader, who left him an orphan at an early age. Quiet, serious, devoted to study, endowed with great tenacity of applica-tion and a prodigious memory, the boy seemed born for a monastic life, and, notwithstanding the opposition of his relatives, entered the order of the Servi di Maria, a minor Augustinian congregation 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 con-temporaries. In 1570 he sustained no fewer than three hundred and eighteen theses at a disputation in Mantua, with such applause that the duke attached the youthful divine to his service by making him court theologian. Sarpi spent four years at Mantua, applying himself with the utmost zeal to mathematics and the Oriental languages. He there made the acquaintance of Olivo, formerly secretary to a papal legate at the council of Trent, from whom he learned much that he subsequently introduced into his History. After leaving Mantua for some unexplained reason, he repaired to Milan, where he enjoyed the pro-tection of Cardinal Borromeo, another authority in the council, 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 occupied him several years, and brought him into intimate relations with three successive popes, as well as the grand inquisitor and other persons of influence. The impression which the papal court made upon him may be collected from his sub-sequent history. Having successfully terminated the affairs entrusted to him, he returned to Venice in 1588, and passed the next seventeen years in quiet study, occasionally interrupted by the part he was compelled to take 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 protege of his own, informed the pope*, that Sarpi denied the immortality of the soul, and had controverted the authority of Aristotle. An attempt to procure another small bishopric in the following year also failed, Clement VIII. professing to have taken umbrage at Sarpi's extensive correspondence with learned heretics, but more probably determined to thwart the desires of the liberal rulers of Venice. The sense of injury, no doubt, contributed to exasperate Sarpi's feelings towards the court of Rome, but a man whose master passions were freedom of thought and love of country could not have played any other part than he did in the great contest which was impending. For the time, however, he tranquilly pursued his studies, writing those notes on Vieta which establish his proficiency in mathematics, and a metaphysical treatise now lost, which, if Foscarini's account of it may be relied upon, anticipated the sensa-tionalism of Locke. His anatomical pursuits probably date from a somewhat earlier period. They illustrate his versatility and thirst for knowledge, but are far from possessing the importance ascribed to them by the affection of his disciples. His claim to have anticipated Harvey's discovery rests on no better authority than a memorandum, probably copied from Caesalpinusl or Harvey himself, with whom, as well as with Bacon and Gilbert, he maintained a correspondence. The only physiological discovery which can be safely attributed to him is that of the contractility of the iris. It must be remembered, however, that his treatises on scientific subjects are lost, and only known from imperfect abstracts.

The prudent Clement died in March 1605; and after one ephemeral succession and two very long conclaves Paul V. assumed the tiara with the resolution to strain papal prerogative to the uttermost. At the same time Venice was adopting measures to restrict it still further. 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 of Venice, 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 dejure, 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. When in the following April the last hopes of accommodation were dispelled by Paul's excommunication of the Venetians and his attempt to lay their dominions under an interdict, Sarpi entered with the utmost energy into the controversy. He prudently began by republishing the anti-papal opinions of the famous canonist Gerson. In an anonymous tract published shortly afterwards (Bisposta di un Dottore in Teologid) he laid down principles which struck at the very root of the pope's authority in secular things. This book was promptly put upon the Index, and the republication of Gerson was attacked by Bellarmine with a severity which obliged Sarpi to reply in an Apologia. The Considerazioni sulle Censure and the Trattato dell' Interdetto, the latter partly prepared under his direction by other theologians, speedily followed. Numerous other pamphlets appeared, inspired or controlled by Sarpi, who had received the further appointment of censor over all that should be written at Venice in defence of the republic. His activity registers the progress of mankind, and forms an epoch in the history of free discussion. Never before in a religious controversy had the appeal been made so exclusively to reason and history; never before had an ecclesiastic of his eminence maintained the subjection of the clergy to the state, and disputed the pope's right to employ spiritual censures, except under restrictions which virtually abrogated it. In so doing he merely gave expression to the convictions which had long been silently forming in the breasts of enlightened men, and this, even more than his learning and acuteness as a disputant, insured him a moral victory. Material arguments were no longer at the pope's disposal. 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, while salving over the pope's dignity, conceded the points at issue. The great victory, however, was not so much the defeat of the papal pretensions as the demonstration that interdicts and excommunications had lost their force. Even this was not wholly satisfactory to Sarpi, who longed for the toleration of Protestant worship in Venice, and had hoped for a separa-tion from Rome and the establishment of a Venetian free church by which the decrees of the council of Trent would have been rejected, and in which the Bible would have been an open book. But the controversy had not lasted long enough to prepare men's minds for so bold a measure. The republic rewarded her champion with the further distinction of state counsellor in jurisprudence, and, a unique mark of confidence, the liberty of access to the state archives. These honours exasperated his adversaries to the uttermost; and after citations and blandishments had equally failed to bring him to Rome he began to receive intimations that a stroke against him was preparing in that quarter. On October 5 he was attacked by a band of assassins and left for dead, but the wounds were not mortal. The bravos found a refuge in the papal territories. Their chief, Poma, declared that he had been moved to attempt the murder by his zeal for religion, a degree of piety and self-sacrifice which seems incredible in a bankrupt oil-merchant. "Agnosco stylum Curiae Romanae," Sarpi himself pleasantly said, when his surgeon commented upon the ragged and inartistic character of the wounds, and the justice of the observation is as incontestable as its wit. The only question can be as to the degree of complicity of Pope Paul V., a good man according to his light, but who must have looked upon Sarpi as a revolted subject, and who would find casuists enough to assure him that a prince is justified in punishing rebels by assassins when they are beyond the reach of executioners.





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 framing state papers, he devoted himself to scientific studies, and found time for the composition of several works. A Machiavellian tract on the fundamental maxims of Venetian policy (Opinione come debba governarsi la repubblica di Venezia), used by his adversaries to blacken his memory, though a contemporary production, 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 to the Squitinio della Liberia Veneta, which he perhaps found unanswerable, In 1610 appeared his History of Ecclesiastical Benefices, " in which," says Ricci, " he purged the church of the defilement introduced by spurious decretals." In the following year he assailed another abuse by his 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 respecting the prohibition of a book led him to write on 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. The editor, Marco Antonio de Dominis, has been accused of falsifying the text, but a comparison with a MS. corrected by Sarpi himself shows that the alterations are both unnecessary and unimportant. This memorable book, together with the rival and apologetic history by Cardinal Pallavicini, is minutely criticized by Ranke (History of the Popes, appendix No. 3), who tests the veracity of both writers by examining the use they have respectively made of their MS. materials. The result is not highly favourable to either, nor wholly unfavourable; neither can be taxed with deliberate falsification, but both have coloured and sup-pressed. They write as advocates rather than historians. Each had access to sources of information denied to the other; so that, although it may be true in a sense that the truth lies between them, it cannot be attained by taking the middle way between their statements. Ranke rates the literary qualities of Sarpi's work very highly. "
Sarpi is acute, penetrating, and sarcastic; his arrangement is exceedingly skilful, his style pure and unaffected. In power of description he is without doubt entitled to the second place among the modern historians of Italy. I rank him immediately after Machiavelli." Sarpi never acknowledged his authorship, and baffled all the efforts of the Prince de Conde to extract the secret from him. He survived the publication four years, dying on January 15, 1623, labouring for his country 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.

Sarpi's services to mankind are now acknowledged by all except the most extreme Ultramontane partisans ; and of his general character it is enough to say that even theological hatred has been unable to fix the least personal imputation upon him. To the highest qualities of the scholar, the statesman, and the patriot he added charity, magnanimity, and disinterestedness. The only point on which his conduct may be thought to require apology is the reserve in which he shrouded his religious opinions. Great light has been thrown upon his 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 most anxious to obtain liberty of Protestant worship at Venice, but scarcely proceeded beyond good wishes, partly from prudence, partly from being " rooted" in what Diodati described to Dohna as "the most dangerous maxim, that God does not regard externals so long as the mind and heart are right before Him." "it is of little avail," adds Diodati, "to dispute with him, for all blows fall ineffectually upon the sweetness and maturity of affections and spirit which raise him above well nigh every emotion." Sarpi had another maxim, which he thus formulated to Dolina : "Le falsità non dico mai mai, ma la verità non a ognuno." 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 détail, " seems not altogether groundless, though it can no longer be accepted as a satisfactory summing up of the question. His discoveries in natural science have been overrated, but his scientific attainments 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 the telescope, 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 does honour to his heart, but is both meagre and uncritical. Bianchi-Giovini's modem biography (1836) is greatly marred by digressions, but is on the whole the most satisfactory extant, though inferior in some respects to that by Miss Arabella Georgina Campbell (1869), a labour of love, enriched by numerous references to MSS. unknown to Bianchi-Giovini. The numerous misprints which disfigure the English edition of this work have been corrected in an Italian translation. T. A. 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 Memorie Anedote (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 correspondence have been printed at various times, and inedited letters from him are 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. (R. G.)






The above article was written by: Richard Garnett, LL.D.



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