Vatican recants with a statue of Galileo

Vatican - Four hundred years after it put Galileo on trial for heresy the Vatican is to complete its rehabilitation of the great scientist by erecting a statue of him inside the Vatican walls.

The planned statue is to stand in the Vatican gardens near the apartment in which Galileo was incarcerated while awaiting trial in 1633 for advocating heliocentrism, the Copernican doctrine that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Nicola Cabibbo, head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and a nuclear physicist, said: “The Church wants to close the Galileo affair and reach a definitive understanding not only of his great legacy but also of the relationship between science and faith.”

Professor Cabibbo said that the statue - paid for by private donations - was appropriate because Galileo had been one of the founders of the Lincei Academy, a forerunner of the papal body, in 1603. He had not been tortured or burned at the stake, as many believed, though he was forced to recant by the Inquisition.

The move coincides with a series of celebrations in Rome, Pisa, Florence and Padua in the run-up to next year's 400th anniversary of Galileo's development of the telescope. Events include a Vatican conference on Galileo to be attended by 40 international scientists and a re-examination of his trial at an institute in Florence run by the Jesuits, who were among Galileo's fiercest opponents in the Inquisition.

The celebrations begin today with the opening of an exhibition on Galileo's telescope entitled “The Instrument Which Changed the World” at the Museum of the History of Science in Florence. The museum, which is undergoing an 8 million (£6 million) renovation, contains many of Galileo's own scientific instruments.

Paolo Galluzzi, head of the Florence museum, said that “even if Galileo had been wrong, you cannot judge scientific errors in an ecclesisatical court”. Giorgio Ierano, a cultural historian, said: “The wrong done to Galileo is being put right on the territory of his historic enemies. Wherever Galileo is in the afterlife, he must be enjoying this moment.”

In January Pope Benedict XVI called off a visit to Sapienza University, Rome, after staff and students accused him of defending the Inquisition's condemnation of Galileo. They cited a speech he made at La Sapienza in 1990, while still a cardinal, in which he quoted a description of the trial of Galileo as fair. The Vatican said that the Pope had been misquoted.

The Vatican's repentance over its treatment of Galileo began in 1979, when John Paul II invited the Church to rethink the trial of Galileo.

Faith in science

— Born in Pisa in 1564, Galileo Galilei built his first telescope in 1609 after a Dutch optician invented a device that made distant objects seem near at hand (at first called the spyglass)

— Galileo used his telescopes to observe the Moon, which he found to be “uneven, rough, full of cavities and prominences”, and then in 1610 Jupiter and its satellites

— His subsequent Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, in which he asserted categorically that the Earth revolved round the Sun, was held to be offensive to Pope Urban VIII and he was ordered to stand trial for heresy in 1633

— His views were found to be “absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical because expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures”

— He recanted to save his life, and lived under house arrest until his death in 1642

Galileo's abjuration

“Wishing to remove from the minds of your Eminences and all faithful Christians this vehement suspicion reasonably conceived against me, I abjure with sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I curse and detest the said errors and heresies, and generally all and every error and sect contrary to the Holy Catholic Church. And I swear that for the future I will neither say nor assert in speaking or writing such things as may bring upon me similar suspicion; and if I know any heretic, or one suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor and Ordinary of the place in which I may be."

— Source: Solange Strong Hertz: Beyond Politics: A Meta-Political View of History.