- The Roman Inquisition on the Stage of Italy, c. 1590–1640 by Thomas F. Mayer
Thomas Mayer’s penultimate book, issued posthumously, opens with a phrase identifying a fundamental question in the institutional history of the Roman Inquisition: “Heresy-hunting probably always had a political dimension” (p. 1). This sentence synthesizes the content of the volume, which treats a half-century of relations among popes, the Holy Office, and civil authorities in Spanish Naples, [End Page 659] Venice, and Florence, three of the most important Italian states. In time and subject, the book follows closely on his previous one, The Roman Inquisition: A Papal Bureaucracy and Its Laws in the Age of Galileo (Philadelphia, 2013). The Roman Inquisition: Trying Galileo (Philadelphia, 2015) completes the series. The author used an impressive number of documents from regional and central archives (particularly the Decreta Sancti Officii from the latter) to show the frequency of disagreement between inquisitorial and state authorities and the extent to which the state attained its desired aims. It becomes clear that political authorities in general, not only those of the Venetian Republic, could influence inquisitorial activity (supporting or limiting it according to the necessities of the moment), the importance of the accused, and the rigidity or pliancy of the judges of the faith.
One might say that there were as many versions of the Roman Inquisition as there were Italian polities. Before this book, that was a logical assumption, made in many studies; now it is a documented reality, with all imaginable gradations and distinctions. Mayer examined many important, well-known cases (Tommaso Campanella in Naples; Giordano Bruno, Cesare Cremonini, Marcantonio De Dominis, and the theologians who opposed the Interdict in Venice; Rodrigo and Mariano Alidosi in Florence), as well as various more modest ones. He stressed that in this study he had deliberately concentrated on political factors, according others little attention. Another crucial point that emerges here is that when the pope failed to achieve satisfactory results through the Holy Office, he employed diplomatic channels—that is, nuncios, responsible to the Secretariat of State—to overcome obstacles posed by political authorities. Thus, during the 1630s, the nuncios in the three polities examined here came more or less to dominate Inquisition tribunals. The author concludes: “the Inquisition, perhaps inevitably, came to serve the popes as a legal and political institution” (p. 224).
The merit of this book is that, for the first time, it examines the decisions of the Congregation of the Holy Office regarding cases in three tribunals over a relatively long period of time. Whether Mayer used all the congregation’s decisions on matters in those three tribunals is uncertain. Among trial documents preserved on the local level, one finds many pertaining to suspects and accused on a much more modest sort, in whose cases it is difficult to identify a political dimension except in the very general sense that all control of religious ideas and behavior reflects the will of the society. This reviewer also disagrees with Mayer on two points: in the Serenissima, the nuncio “dominated” Inquisition proceedings from the beginning, not only in the 1630s; and it is quite untrue that “the metropolitan Venetian tribunal contained three lay members, who in effect directed its business” (p. 65).
The book, furthermore, gives the impression that the center’s control over the periphery was of fundamental importance and that centralization was a pervasive phenomenon. It is doubtful that this was the case. As Giuliana Ancona and Dario Visintin show in “Centro e periferia. Correlazione fra lettere e processi del Sant’Ufficio in Friuli tra il 1557 e il 1653” (in The Roman Inquisition in Malta and Elsewhere, forthcoming), a systematic comparison between the trial records of a peripheral [End Page 660] tribunal and letters from the congregation reveals that the local inquisitors informed the cardinals in 5 percent of the cases and decided on their own in the remaining 95 percent.