Ambitious Prophet?

Book cover
Morandi's Last Prophecy and the End of Renaissance Politicsby By Brendan DooleyPrinceton Univ. Press. 238p. $36.50

On Nov. 7, 1630, Orazio Morandi, abbot of the Roman monastery of Santa Prassede and former general of the Benedictine order of Vallombrosa, was found dead in his cell in the Eternal City’s Tor di Nona prison. Although the doctor on duty and a friar confessor insisted that he died a natural death, rumor soon spread throughout the city and beyond that the famous monk had been the victim of poisoning, “to protect the honor of the high officials in Rome.” But why had Morandi been in prison in the first place? And what did he know that would embarrass, if not disgrace, these high Roman officials?

Brendan Dooley—who taught history at Harvard University and is now chief of research at the Medici Archive Project—has written an engaging new book that examines a long-overlooked scandal of early 17th-century Rome, one that sent shudders down the collective spine of the Roman ecclesiastical establishment, from the pope downward, and one that, Dooley maintains, changed the course of Western history by predetermining the result of the Galileo heresy trial of the following year.

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Morandi, a prominent member of the Roman ecclesiastical-intellectual world, had been imprisoned for the crimes of astrology, political intrigue and possession of prohibited books. The “most honored astrologer in town,” the abbot had the temerity actually to predict the death of the reigning and very much alive pope, Urban VIII. Needless to say, a prediction of this sort and from such a reputable source quickly made the rounds at home and abroad, and in Spain cardinals began to prepare for a new conclave. The supreme pontiff, as one can imagine, was not amused and had the monk promptly thrown into prison. Subsequent investigation into his activities revealed that his sizeable personal library at Santa Prassede contained works that were on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books, and that the abbot regularly lent to readers outside the monastery. In fact, Morandi’s clients represented many prominent members of Roman society, such as artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, various prelates and other Vatican officials.

Further investigation revealed a fair amount of misbehavior also among the other monks at Santa Prassede, mostly in violation of the vow of chastity, all of this giving the impression that Santa Prassede was one big underground hotbed of decadence and lawlessness. The 2,800-page record of the subsequent trial has survived in Rome’s Archivio di Stato, and this supplies Dooley with abundant raw material for his book. But instead of focusing on the trial alone, Dooley is concerned more about recreating the person himself, Orazio Morandi, and his world, private and public. To accomplish the latter, Dooley takes as his principal point of departure specific books in Morandi’s library, each of which reveals a different aspect of the abbot’s “mentality” or worldview. In doing so, Dooley follows in the footsteps of Carlo Ginzburg, whose study of an earlier Italian heresy trial, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, was a landmark in the genre of “micro-history.”

The result is an extremely engaging book, one that will reveal to the general public hitherto unknown and perhaps unsuspected aspects of Baroque Rome and the Baroque papacy (for example, the widespread belief in and practice of astrology on all levels of society, including on the part of Urban himself). As for recreating the man Morandi, especially his inner self, the record is almost completely silent on the subject, as the author notes. What Dooley must do, instead, is to reconstruct the man through indirect means. But there’s the rub.

On the one hand, as Dooley correctly states, “What turns the meager materials at hand into a story is our knowledge of Morandi’s character....” But on the other, that knowledge can come only from precisely those “meager materials” and from the author’s own intuition. We are faced, in effect, with a vicious circle. Thus, no matter how reasonable a conjecture Dooley presents (his thesis is that Morandi’s primary and abiding compulsion was pure, unspiritual ambition) remains a tentative, although highly plausible, conjecture. What we know of the ecclesiastical establishment of Baroque Rome would strongly suggest that, despite the supposed reforms of Trent, personal ambition and the hunger for power rivaled altruism and the spiritual quest as dominating motivational forces in the Roman ecclesiastical world.

Another, more far-reaching conjecture made by Dooley concerns the fate of Galileo, who was brought to trial just one year after Morandi. Scholars have never fully explained Urban’s extreme rage against Galileo in 1632 when the latter’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—which had duly received the imprimatur from the Florentine inquisitor—was published. “Can we hypothesize, given the new information we now have, that Urban attacked Galileo with Morandi in the back of his mind?... Is it possible that Urban changed his mind about Galileo when the Morandi affair was added to all the other motives we have mentioned?” The conjecture—that astronomy became guilty by its traditional association with astrology—is intriguing, although, again, unprovable.

The debatable nature of its hypotheses notwithstanding, Morandi’s Last Prophecy is to be heartily recommended as a book that offers much enlightenment to scholars of the period, while also being accessible to the general public, or at least that part of the public with a taste for in-depth historical-philosophical investigation. Dooley knows 17th-century Italy extremely well. (A minor error: Antonio Possevino’s name is given incorrectly as Andrea in one citation.) Some readers encountering this Baroque spectacle of ecclesiastical ambition, clerical criminality and attempted coverup, hierarchical hypocrisy and papal intransigence, may be tempted in the end to remark: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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