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Sarpi, Paolo

1. Dates
Born: Venice, 14 Aug. 1552
Died: Venice, 16 Jan. 1623
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 71 2. Father, Mer Francesco Sarpi was a small merchant who was a failure. The financial straits of the family, after the death of Sarpi's father, shifted the responsibility for his education to his uncle, Ambrogio Morelli, the head titular priest of San Marcuola in Venice. It is clear that the family was poor.
2. Father
3. Nationality
Birth: Italian
Career: Italian
Death: Italian
4. Education
Schooling: Padua, D.D.
He studied philosophy, theology and logic under the Servite friar Giammria Capella, and entered into the Servite Order at the age of fourteen. By 1574 he had become a bachelor in theology, and in 1578 was awarded the degree of doctor of theology by the University of Padua.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
He entered into the Servite Order in 1556.
In 1579 he was elected provincial of his order.
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, and in October 1607 he was the object of an attempted assassination, which he accused the Roman Curia of engineering.
Sarpi was the subject of frequent charges of heterodoxy. He was accused before the Inquisition no less than three times-- in c. 1575 for questioning the Trinity, again in 1594, and then in 1607. After a long discussion Getto concludes that Sarpi was never a man of inner religious experience, and that he was always indifferent to issues of dogma. Hence he appeared to many to be moving away from the Catholic Church, and his constant contacts with Protestants did nothing to lessen that appearance. Some judged him to be a closet Protestant, and some judged him to be a Deist. Getto thinks this is quite wrong. Sarpi was not a man of action and not a reformer. Though critical of many aspects of Catholicism, he remained a Catholic, and not merely in appearance. On the other hand, the entire argument of Wootton's book is to argue that Sarpi was at best an agnostic and what he calls a moral atheist (one who rejects a God with providence). I have decided to accept Getto's position.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Anatomy, Chemistry
Subordinate: Mathematics, Mechanics, Magnetism
He is chiefly remembered for his highly biased Istoria del Concilio Tridentino (1619). His Arte di ben pensare has been credited with anticipating Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
His letters and the notebooks, which touch upon every aspect of contemporary science, contain his original philosophical, physical, and mathematical thought.
He devoted himself to anatomy from 1582 to 1585, and has been credited with correctly interpreting the function of venous valves and the discovery of the circulation of blood (though this is clearly very excessive). During this time he also carried out extensive chemical experimentation. He followed magnetism. For all that, science was never Sarpi's central concern. He was a critical spirit, primarily a student of human affairs who became caught up in Venice's struggle with the Papacy. It was hard to know what to list, and I ended up listing all of the fields in which he manifested interest at one time or another. However, one should not be misled into thinking him an important scientist.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Church Life, Government
Secondary: Patronage
In 1570 he was appointed court theologian and professor of positive theology by the Duke of Mantua. He was there until 1574.
In 1574-5 he was at Milan in the service of Bishop Carlo Borromeo. He soon returned to Venice where he taught philosophy; I assume that this was within the Servite order. In 1578 he was named head of his monastery in Venice.
In 1579 he was elected provincial of his order for the province of Venice.
From 1585 to 1588, he was procurator general in Rome, the second highest position in the order. While in Rome he attracted the attention and favor of Gregory XIII.
Back in Venice, Sarpi lived quietly in study in his monastery.
In 1606 he was appointed state theologian and canon lawyer of Venice. This position carried a salary, and though the appointment undoubtedly came through the channels of patronage, it was a governmental position. In 1606 he also became adviser to the Venetian Senate, an office he held (with that of state theologian) until his death.
8. Patronage
Types: Aristrocrat, City Magistrate, Court Official
The Duke of Mantua appointed him court theologian and professor of positive theology in 1570.
The Venetian Senate appointed him state theologian and adviser to the Senate in 1606. I have not found any information that fully clarifies Sarpi's position with the Venetian patriciate. Obviously some of them appointed him to his official positions. Sarpi does not appear to have lived high; on the contrary he was very severe. I tend to think, from the lack of references, that he did not receive other monetary patronage from the patricians. In 1601 the Senate tried to obtain a bishopric for him. He became a major figure in Venice whose influence was felt in appointments in Padua.
James I of England offered Sarpi refuge and favor in England, and James was responsible for the publication of the History of the Council of Trent, which appeared originally in England in 1619.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Medical Practice, Pharmacology
There is evidence that Venetian patricians consulted Sarpi on matters medical, and that Sarpi was learned in medicines.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
In Padua he regularly attended colloquia sponsored by Giovanni Vincenzio Pinelli,
He arbitrated the dispute between Galilleo and B. Capra, who had claimed the invention of the proportional compass as his own. In 1609 he recommended that the Venetian Senate refuse the offer to purchase one of the earliest telescopes, confident that his fried Galileo could construct an instrument of comparable if not superior quality. This Galileo did, and presented to the government as a gift in August 1609; in return he (Galileo) received a lifetime appointment to the University of Padua.
  1. Giovanni Getto, Paolo Sarpi, (Florence, 1967). BR350.S3G3 A. Favaro, "Fra Paolo Sarpi, fisico e matematico, secondi i nuovi studi del Prof. P. Cassani," Atti del R. Istituto veneto di scienze, lettere ed arti, 6th ser., 1 (1882-3), 893-911.
  2. Gaetano Cozzi, "Note introductive" in Paolo Sarpi, Pensieri, Gaetano and Luisa Cozzi, eds. (Torino, 1976), pp. xi-cxxxiii.
  3. David Wootton, Paolo Sarpi: Between Renaissance and Enlightenment, (Cambridge, 1983).
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. A.G. Campbell, The Life of Fra Paolo Sarpi, (London, 1869).
  2. A.Robertson, Fra Paolo Sarpi the Greatest of the Venetians, (London, 1894).
  3. G. Abetti, Amici e nemici de Galileo, (Milan, 1945).
  4. Giovan Battista De Toni, "Fra Paolo Sarpi nelle scienze esatte e naturali," in Paolo Sarpi e i suoi tempi (L'Ateneo Veneto nel III centenario della morte di fra Paolo Sarpi), (Cittą di Castello, 1923).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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