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Christianity's top 11 most controversial figures | Pope Urban VIII

Urban’s soured relationship with Galileo drew the battle line between faith and science that remains

Urban, formerly Maffeo the ruthlessly ambitious scion of the powerful Florentine Barberini family, was elected pontiff in 1623. Described by a contemporary as "exceptionally elegant and refined [...] graceful and aristocratic [he] patronises poets and men of letters," Urban was the embodiment of the hot flux of religious piety, territorial power, scientific ingenuity and new politics from which 17th century Europe was forged.

Urban may have taken his fellow Florentine's The Prince as a literal manual. Nepotism in the Vatican was rife. Urban wrested monopoly on missionary activity from the Jesuits and expanded this activity in lucrative new markets. Urban had Roman antiquities melted down for cannon, giving rise to the quip "what the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did." The pontiff also had a prudish streak - not by any means the given ecumenical proclivity of that time - curbing the sexual adventures of his priesthood and making the smoking of tobacco punishable by excommunication.

In an edict echoic of the creationism 'debate', Urban initially granted Galileo leave to publish work on Copernican planetary motion on the basis that it were treated as merely a mathematical proposition among others, with fair weight given to the orthodoxy that the earth was the hub of the universe.

Galileo, however, had no time for a proposition that must have seemed as nonsensical to him as 'intelligent design' is to Richard Dawkins today. In 1632 he published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World, in which he defied Urban by making the risible character Simplicio the apologist for church doctrine on God's omnipotence and pre-Copernican astronomy.

Galileo's stridency was his downfall: the pope recalled him to Rome, where Galileo was convicted of heresy by the Inquisition. Urban, unwilling to order the torture and death of his one-time friend in letters, had Galileo placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. We at least have Urban to thank for not extinguishing Galileo's Dialogue and further work entirely.

Urban refused to pardon the astronomer even at his deathbed, denying the revolutionary cartographer of the heavens his rightful place there.


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