Galileo's Idol: Gianfrancesco Sagredo and the Politics of Knowledge

Galileo's Idol: Gianfrancesco Sagredo and the Politics of Knowledge

by Nick Wilding


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Galileo’s Idol offers a vivid depiction of Galileo’s friend, student, and patron, Gianfrancesco Sagredo (1571–1620). Sagredo’s life, which has never before been studied in depth, brings to light the inextricable relationship between the production, distribution, and reception of political information and scientific knowledge.

Nick Wilding uses as wide a variety of sources as possible—paintings, ornamental woodcuts, epistolary hoaxes, intercepted letters, murder case files, and others—to challenge the picture of early modern science as pious, serious, and ecumenical. Through his analysis of the figure of Sagredo, Wilding offers a fresh perspective on Galileo as well as new questions and techniques for the study of science. The result is a book that turns our attention from actors as individuals to shifting collective subjects, often operating under false identities; from a world made of sturdy print to one of frail instruments and mistranscribed manuscripts; from a complacent Europe to an emerging system of complex geopolitics and globalizing information systems; and from an epistemology based on the stolid problem of eternal truths to one generated through and in the service of playful, politically engaged, and cunning schemes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226166971
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/19/2014
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Nick Wilding is assistant professor in the Department of History at Georgia State University.

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Galileo's Idol

Gianfrancesco Sagredo and the Politics of Knowledge

By Nick Wilding

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-16702-2


The Generation and Dissolution of Images

To contemporary readers of Galileo's 1632 Dialogue upon the Two Main Systems of the World, one of its most stunning successes was the realism with which it depicted its protagonists, especially the Venetian patrician in whose palace the discussion took place, Gianfrancesco Sagredo. As Galileo and Sagredo's mutual friend Fulgenzio Micanzio put it, "My God, with what dignity you brought that worthy character Sagredo to life! God save me, but I think I hear him speaking!" Galileo claimed in the book's introduction that one reason for writing it was to memorialize his love for his dead friends: "May these two great souls [Sagredo and Salviati], always revered in my heart, accept with favor this public monument of my undying love, and with the memory of their eloquence may they help me explain to posterity the promised speculations." Sagredo and Salviati are not generic types, but manipulated memories deployed both to make the dialogues convincing and to rest as a cornucopian wreath on their graves.

Sagredo is now remembered because of Galileo; he lived posthumously. Sagredo left no published work, invented nothing, gave his name to no theory or law. The archival skeleton preserved by Venetian bureaucracy is unremarkable: born in 1571 to a noble family with its eyes on the Venetian dogate, he studied with Galileo at Padua in the late 1590s. In 1605 he was appointed treasurer at the desolate Friulian fortress of Palma, where he sat out the greatest ideological conflict of the century, the Venetian Interdict. From 1608 to 1611 he served as consul in Aleppo, Syria. After his return he worked for a while in the equivalent of the Venetian Ministry of Trade; aged forty-nine and studiously avoiding doctors, he died of an excess of catarrh. Why, then, bother with him?

Part of the answer was provided by Galileo: Sagredo was an interlocutor, a Socratic midwife, the charming embodiment of an ideal reader whose conversion to the new science might be witnessed and emulated. In the Dialogue Galileo narrates Sagredo's experiences and makes them stand in for experiments. The construction of Sagredo's identity and the credibility of his accounts underpin Galileo's arguments concerning motion on a ship and the speed of wind, for example. Galileo depicts Sagredo as the ideal proponent of both common sense and shared experience. In order to do this, he deploys a carefully constructed image of Sagredo as he might have been during the period 1608 to 1611, when he served the Venetian Republic as consul in Aleppo. Galileo's use of Sagredo's image suggests an intriguing idealized exchange between Venetian state power and systems of credit in establishing the new sciences.

But Sagredo was also an interlocutor in a deeper sense: he intervened in debates and intercepted information, he transcribed and diverted documents, he manipulated knowledge through power and insisted on the political nature of scientific practice. Sagredo's identity, as revealed in his one-sided extant correspondence with Galileo, was multiple and mutable. His contributions to natural philosophical matters were varied and complex: he negotiated with glassmakers to produce lenses for Galileo, he sent his own experimental results and descriptions of instrumental innovations to his erst-while teacher, he read Galileo's works in manuscript and print and, while his enthusiasm tended towards sycophancy, he often disagreed with him. But he performed stranger roles, too: his zealous loyalty to Venice led him to invent his own pseudonyms in his epistolary attacks on Jesuits after their expulsion from the Veneto. In the debate over the nature of sunspots between Galileo and a pseudonymous Jesuit, Sagredo not only copied and circulated Galileo's texts as they passed through Venice on their way from Florence to Augsburg and Ingolstadt, but also made his own vicious, independent attacks on Galileo's opponent "Apelles," accusing him of hypocrisy and stupidity. His letters to Galileo display the witty and informal tone punctuated with mordant acuity celebrated in the Dialogue. There are many other versions of Sagredo also revealed in his correspondence: his instinctive sense of political satire, his refreshingly explicit accounts of his libidinal economy, his self-conscious experimentation in finding out his tastes and desires. Of all the narratives celebrating Sagredo that Galileo might have chosen for the Dialogue, the corpulent diplomat seems the least real and the most formal, authoritative only because false.

The only mention made of Sagredo in early biographies of Galileo from the 1650s either reduce him to his fictionalized persona in the Dialogue or invent details upon no factual basis. Viviani's Vita di Galileo omits him from Galileo's circle of Venetian friends, and mentions him only within the context of Galileo's written works (presumably Viviani knew something of Sagredo's anti-Jesuit activities and feared censure); Gherardini's notice imagines him a seasoned ambassador, instrumental in Galileo's appointment at Padua, and, most improbably, first meeting him in Florence (where he never went) while returning from a nonexistent ambassadorial trip to Spain or Rome in 1592, five years before Sagredo would become legally eligible even for consideration for such a position. Sagredo's subsequent posthumous fortuna was summarized neatly by Foscarini in 1754: apart from Galileo's ventriloquism in the Dialogue, he said, "In Venetian books, one does not meet with a single person who even remembers that there had been in this world a Gianfrancesco Sagredo."

Sagredo, though, was deeply concerned with constructing and disseminating his own image. His interventions in the sunspot debate elicited a splendid, and much-quoted, declaration of identity and interest in a famous letter to the Augsburg antiquarian Marcus Welser that Sagredo copied out and sent also to Galileo:

I am a Venetian gentleman, nor have I ever used the name of a "man of letters"; I am fond of those that do and always look after them, and expect no advancement of my lot, nor purchase of praise or reputation from the fame of understanding philosophy and mathematics, but rather from the integrity and good administration of rulers and the government of the Republic, to which I applied myself in my youth, following the customs of my elders, all of whom have grown old and consumed themselves in this. My studies tend towards the knowledge of those things that as a Christian I owe to God, as a citizen to my country, as a noble to my house, as a member of society to my friends, and as an upstanding gentleman and true philosopher to myself. I spend my time serving God and country; being free from familial cares I devote a good part of my time to conversation, service and the satisfaction of my friends, and the rest I dedicate to comfort and to my tastes; if sometimes I give myself over to speculating on the knowledge of things, Your Lordship should not think that I would presume to compete with that subject's Professors, much less enter into a duel with them, for I do this only for the recreation of my spirit, freely investigating, unshackled from all obligations and interest, the truth of certain propositions which are to my taste.

In this performative story of the self, a hierarchy of loyalty is constructed. It should be read not as a timeless statement of what it means to be Venetian, but as part of a local campaign of vindication against Jesuit mathematicians in a polemic whose origin, for Sagredo, was the massive crisis of the Venetian Interdict (1606–7) less than a decade before, which had resulted in the excommunication of the Doge and the traumatic suspension of Catholic rites throughout the Veneto. Mario Biagioli has pointed out that Sagredo divided the world into the local, independent, Republic and then everywhere else, run by Jesuits; this paranoid polarization rendered Sagredo's identity-construction peculiarly visible. The loyalties that defined Sagredo (to God, to Venice, to the Sagredo family, to his friends, and to himself) were relationships that demanded constant work.

Various techniques were used to keep long-distance friendships alive during the early modern period: letter writing was an important instrument for papering over the troublesome absences in the metaphysical plenitude of the ideal Renaissance friendship. The blank (or occasionally printed) book of an Album (or Liber) amicorum would be filled with the devices and aphorisms of visiting acquaintances, who would read through the growing list they were joining. Books and medals disseminated the image and motto of some intellectuals: these might be displayed in a cabinet, where again the singular friendship was contextualized in a web of relations. The exchange of portraits was another way to become present permanently in the work space and heart of a friend. The Renaissance museum frequently created visual narratives, genealogies, or networks of friends, donors, or patrons. Giving a portrait as a gift not only established a virtual presence; it fulfilled the contract of a picture by granting it its ideal viewer, making explicit the implied gaze. This kind of portrait, then, does not just represent the sitter: it extends a third, social dimension through the perpetual motion of friendship. The presence of the recipient is required for the work to become whole.

We know, both generally from Sagredo's correspondence with Galileo and specifically from a poem written for Sagredo, that the viewing of paintings was preferably a sociable act for him. In his 1601 Odes, the poet Guido Casoni describes Sagredo contemplating a Narcissus with his close friend Sebastiano Venier: the painting set them off on a discourse concerning the nature of love and the pitfalls of modern narcissism. Genuine love, Casoni's comments imply, should reach out and embrace another, not destroy itself gazing in the mirror. Similarly, connoisseurship should be not a solitary vice but a social bond: Narcissus's self-destructive spell could be broken by fertile conversation. This would restore productivity to the gaze.

From about 1599, Galileo frequently stayed with Sagredo in Venice when he visited from Padua. The last time the two friends saw each other was in 1608, before Galileo's rise to astronomical fame and infamy, but he wrote to Fulgenzio Micanzio in 1636, nearly thirty years after he had last seen his friend, that he regarded him as his "Idol." This is more than a figure of speech: in the summer of 1619, less than a year before Sagredo died, he and Galileo exchanged portraits. Sagredo's letters from 1618 and 1619 are full of references to the initial composition of his portrait by Leandro Bassano, its slow and troubled execution by his brother Gerolamo, and its eventual dispatch by Sagredo. The painting hung in Galileo's living room while he wrote his two great final works, the 1632 Dialogue and the 1638 Discourses, both of which featured Sagredo. Upon Galileo's death, "six portraits of his friends" were listed among his possessions, the only works of art he owned apart from two landscapes in the salotto. Despite the best efforts of the great nineteenth-century Galileo scholar Antonio Favaro to locate the portrait of Sagredo, it proved impossible to trace. The aura of this singular friendship seemed to have dissipated forever. The trail of this Galileian "Rosebud" did not die with its owner, however; its disappearance is a slow affair, lasting over a century.

All we knew of the subsequent history of the portrait is contained within a footnote to Marco Foscarini's eighteenth-century guide to Venetian literary culture:

Galileo kept two portraits, just as he desired—one, of his student Viviani, the other of Sagredo. These are still in the possession of his heirs, and we have a copy of the Sagredo via [Dr.] Antonio Cocchi, in whom gentility of manners competes with solid science and choice erudition. The copy of the portrait was made from a life-size painting in the house of the Pansavini [sic, Panzanini], nephews and heirs of Vincenzo Viviani, who was Galileo's last student, who bought from his heirs all his books, writings, pictures, instruments and learned things. After the death of Viviani, Galileo's belongings (along with a lot of other things) passed into the hands of the Abbott Jacopo Pansavini [sic, Panzanini], whom Dr. Cocchi heard say a thousand times that the portrait was of Sagredo, introduced into the Dialogues of Galileo. The portrait was next to one of Galileo himself of the same dimensions. This tradition was kept alive after the death of the Abbott, and is still going. And while there is no inscription in the painting itself, the costume is of our [i.e., Venetian] gentlemen.

The only other trace of (perhaps) this painting in Florence is an undated inventory, probably from the eighteenth century, describing the portraits of famous men in the Capponi collection. In the company of Copernicus, Tycho, and Kepler (but also Savanorola, Erasmus, and Sarpi) are several portraits of Galileo at various ages, one of Salviati, and one of Sagredo. It is far from clear whether this series consists of later copies or originals, or when it was dispersed.

Less than one hundred and fifty years later, Antonio Favaro could find no trace of this painting or its copy, and supposed them destroyed or, almost worse, misattributed. The lack of inscription on the original noted by Foscarini situated the identity of the sitter in a fragile oral tradition; with this tradition lost, a firm identification would seem unlikely. But there was a small clue that Favaro seems to have overlooked: Sagredo's letters to Galileo describe in detail not only the painting of his portrait in 1619 by Gerolamo Bassano—based on a sketch by his brother, the more famous Leandro—but also, in a single reference, another portrait also by Gerolamo, executed in 1612. While the trail to the 1619 portrait seemed corpse-cold, there was still a chance that the 1612 painting might yield further clues. A combination of scholarship, serendipity, and developments in the digital humanities helped me solve the mystery of the missing portraits and identify not one but three portraits of Sagredo, including that belonging to Galileo.

Sagredo in Zhytomyr

The gradual digitization of back numbers of journals has strange effects on scholarship. Unless they are well indexed, many publications in journals swiftly become invisible; book reviews, especially, used to be hard to locate and impossible to skim. One of the most important changes wrought by projects such as JSTOR is that we can know again what has been forgotten, not only within the field in which we are specialized, but across fields. Here is a typical example: The Burlington Magazine, one of the world's leading journals for art history news, digitized its archive, back to the first volume in 1903, in the early 2000s. Suddenly, every word of every article became searchable, including book reviews. Since reading Sagredo's description of his portrait gift to Galileo and Favaro's frustrated accounts of his failure to locate the painting, I had wondered whether some trace might not become visible in the flotsam of the digital wave. In 2000 Sagredo's portraits were invisible to search engines, but in 2005 a peculiar notice appeared. A 1991 review in The Burlington Magazine of a 1986 catalogue of Italian paintings in Soviet museums included some unexpected finds: "Jitomir yields three remarkable attributions: a Portrait of Michelangelo by Jacopino del Conte, a Portrait of Giovanni Francesco Sagredo by Leandro Bassano and a portrait possibly by Annibale Carracci." I rushed to locate the Soviet catalogue, which contained a description of the alleged Sagredo portrait by Viktoria Markova, as well as a decent reproduction. The entry referred, in turn, to an earlier description from a Ukrainian catalogue printed in 1981. It had taken twenty cold years for news of the painting to reach the West, and another ten for the announcement to be noticed.

The portrait (see plate 1) is in the Zhytomyr Regional Museum, Ukraine. It entered the museum in 1919, from the collection of the Shoduar family, along with the two other pieces mentioned in the review. Baron Stanislav Shoduar (1792–1858) was a corresponding member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, and published a prize-winning account of foreign coins in Russia based partially on his own collection in 1837. The portrait of Sagredo was previously catalogued in the museum as by, or from the school of, Moretto da Brescia (Alessandro Bonvicino, c. 1498–1554) or Giovanni Battista Moroni (c. 1520–78). Since Sagredo was only born in 1570, neither of these is possible. The painting seems to have been unstudied by connoisseurs before the 1981 Ukrainian catalogue; neither was it mentioned in any discussion of Moretto or Moroni's oeuvre. Markova's new attribution to Leandro Bassano was extremely good and almost, as we shall see, right. It was made on stylistic rather than documentary evidence. On the back it has the inscription, in a seventeenth-century hand, "Giovanni Francesco Sagredo / Veneziano." It is not a particularly good or interesting portrait, but its importance for this story is that I knew I had seen the sitter's face before.

Sagredo in Oxford

Before seeing the Zhytomyr portrait, I had looked carefully through the extant catalogues of Bassano paintings in the hope that some iconographic detail might jump out and identify the sitter as Sagredo. None did, but I had compiled a mental short list of possible contenders of unknown or unconvincingly identified subjects, and one of these bore a startling similarity to the Zhytomyr portrait of Sagredo. The portrait had never been displayed, but was reproduced in a catalogue: it was in storage in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (see plate 2).


Excerpted from Galileo's Idol by Nick Wilding. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


1 The Generation and Dissolution of Images
2 Becoming a “Great Magneticall Man”
3 Drawing Weapons
4 Interceptions
5 Interconnections
6 Transalpine Messengers
7 Masks

Conclusion: Science, Intercepted

List of Abbreviations

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