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  • The Roman Inquisition. A Papal Bureaucracy and Its Laws in the Age of Galileo by Thomas F. Mayer
  • Federico Barbierato
The Roman Inquisition. A Papal Bureaucracy and Its Laws in the Age of Galileo. By Thomas F. Mayer. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2013. Pp. vi, 385. $79.95. ISBN 978-0-8122-4473-1.)

The opening of the Archives of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in 1998 allowed historians to cast new light on the structure and functioning of the court of the Holy Office. Paths of research intersected, and the outcome was often prolific, creating an in-depth debate among scholars and a wider—but less accurate—public discussion. Many things have changed since then in historiographical terms, but with this book Thomas Mayer provides what is probably the most complete in-depth overview of the institutional and bureaucratic workings of the Roman Congregation. Mayer demonstrates a huge working knowledge of the literature in question, partly thanks to his past studies on Pietro Carnesecchi and in particular the trial against Galileo Galilei. However, he carves out his own niche by focusing more attention on procedures and the nature of the Roman Congregation than on peripheral activities. The author’s privileged source is the Decreta, a series of registers that record events and discussions in the legal and administrative fields, thereby providing an overview of an operation that was ramified and multifarious. In this way, supported by other sources, Mayer has been able to reconstruct the nature and careers of prelates and functionaries in the Congregation, examining their role and variations in Inquisition procedure. The registers in the Decreta also [End Page 154] played a role of primary importance in legal terms as they constituted the historical memory of the court and were referred to in controversial cases or simply to underline the legitimacy of a decision.

After a summary of the structure of the reorganized Congregation in 1542 and a few timely observations on the ambiguity of the term Inquisition, Mayer demonstrates its close connection to the pope, who used the Holy Office as a sort of military branch against heresy and dissent. Indeed, although the bureaucratic department was extremely well structured, the pope remained at the head of the institution and even managed to confront attempts to question his leadership.

The time span covered in the book ranges from the reorganization in the 1540s to the 1640s, with in-depth analysis of the years in which the Galileo trial took place. The latter is seen as both an especially illuminating moment in the redistribution of the balance of power within the Roman Curia and a time when the role of the cardinals was particularly evident. Some of these figures are outlined in great detail by adopting a prosopographic approach, highlighting their origins, cultural conformation, and clientelistic networks. The resulting picture is a world of cardinals with a theological or legal background, many of whom had previously been involved in curial politics. These leading figures were supported by what Mayer calls the “backbone” of the Congregation—namely the bureaucratic department, consisting of “commissaries, assessors, fiscals, notaries, and other (at first glance) more minor officials” (p. 7). It is this careful and detailed reconstruction that is perhaps the most innovative aspect of the book, which ends by also attempting to account for Inquisition procedures and their role in relation to criminal and civil law procedures at the time.

In conclusion, this book is an essential point of reference for anyone who is serious about embarking on a study of the Roman Inquisition during its first century of existence, as it demonstrates its complexities, ongoing evolution, and close link to the power structures and clientelistic networks of the time.

Federico Barbierato
University of Verona


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pp. 154-155
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