The Day the Earth Stood Still-Galileo and the secrets of Hermeticism

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Galileo and the secrets of Hermeticism

By Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince
July 2011



Galileo’s prosecution by the Church for promoting the heliocentric theory – that the Sun sits at the centre of the Solar System encircled by the Earth and other planets – is usually portrayed as a landmark battle in the war between religion and science, the moment when Galileo becomes science’s first great martyr. 

However, when revisiting the story during our research for our book The For­bidden Universe, we realised that the trad­itional explanations of the Church’s determin­ation to get Galileo just don’t add up. Applying the shameless CGI of hindsight, science historians transmuted him into a modern rationalist-materialist born out of time, persecuted by superstitious – in other words cretinous – men whose intell­ects, if one could dignify them with the term, were stuck in the Middle Ages. 

That’s the lazy sod’s version of history. The reality, as forteans would suspect, is that there’s much, much more to it than that. 

In fact, although the ‘science-versus-religion’ scenario is still often trotted out to a popular audience, academics have long recognised that it is too modern an explanation. They now see the affair rather as a collision between two obstinate egos, two pathologically ‘right men’: Galileo, who refused to be told what to do or say, and Pope Urban VIII, bitter about Galileo (in his Dialogue on the Two World Systems) having put his views in the mouth of a character named Simplicio. But something is still missing – something that neither side wanted to be seen in the harsh light of day… 

The answer, we believe, lies in the Hermetic tradition – the heart of the ‘occult philosophy’, a synthesis of magical, esoteric and philosophical systems – which had a profound effect on shaping Western culture during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, but which is today shamefully marginalised. 

But the fact is that the Renaissance is impossible to comprehend without the Hermetic tradition. It’s like trying to write a history of the 20th century while ignoring Communism, on the logic that because it failed as an ideology, it could never have been really important. 

The treatises collectively known as the Hermetica, on which the tradition is based, have had the greatest effect on Western civilisation of any texts apart from the Bible – and the greatest effect on modern Western civilisation of any texts including the Bible. Yet very few people have even heard of them. 

The name comes from the legendary Egyptian sage, Hermes Trismegistus (‘Thrice-Great Hermes’, left), traditionally believed to be the author of these texts. Their exact origins may be controversial, but they undoubtedly date from Egypt in the late centuries BC/early centuries AD, during the period of Greek and Roman domination – and there is a growing body of evidence that the ideas they contain are much, much older.

The Hermetic books were largely lost in Europe in the crackdown on pagan scholarship after Christianity became the Roman Empire’s state religion in the fourth century. But they survived in the Middle East, where they paved the way for mediæval Arab science. Europe rediscovered them in 1463, when an agent working for the great early Renaissance patron Còsimo de’ Medici returned to Florence with a set of 14 Hermetic treat­ises, written in Greek, known as the Corpus Hermeticum. Còsimo even ordered his top scholar, Marsilio Ficino, to drop his epic Latin translation of the complete works of Plato to concentrate on the Hermetic works, which in turn influenced everyone from Leonardo to Shakespeare. 

To scholars, philosophers and intellectuals, the Hermetica were a sensation, believed to preserve the wisdom of the most ancient Egyptian civilisation, the pyramid builders, predating even the Old Testament. But the image they presented of humankind could hardly be more different from that set out with pernicious clarity in Genesis. This was the Hermetica’s greatest allure. 

The Church had always taught that even the brightest men (and women, if they bothered to mention them at all) were miserable, sinful creatures, totally dependent on God’s mercy (and the guidance of the Church, of course) for salvation and even their very existence. But in the Hermetica, human beings enjoy unlimited potential, even being capable of becoming gods. The great Hermetic adage is Magnum miraculum est h*** (“Man is a great mir­acle”). Even more amazing for the day, the Hermetic tradition also included women in the ‘great miracle’. And it was this tsunami of new self-confidence that underpinned the sheer intellectual daring that defines the Renaissance. 

Although historians have acknowledged Hermeticism’s influence on Renaissance arts, they are being disingenuously select­ive. For, (as we show in The Forbidden Universe), it also powerfully impacted on every hero of the scientific revolution, from Copernicus to Isaac Newton. 

It is, however, a major mistake to believe that the Hermetic movement appealed only to a few, albeit often giant, intellects. It also attracted the interest of kings and emperors, even certain popes. Some Catholics thought Hermetic philosophy so venerable it should be incorporated into Christian teaching. Some even argued it should be the other way round: that Christianity should be incorporated into Hermeticism. And if there was any one name associated with firing up the idea of this unlikely pairing, it is that of the Neapolitan Dominican-monk-turned-heretic Giordano Bruno (1548–1600). 

Although criminally ignored by the wider world, he is a favourite with us, and with other forteans, and received the well-deserved attention of Hunt Emerson and Kevin Jackson in their cracking four-part ‘Phenomenomix’ about his exploits (FT269–272). Now, Bruno is even starring in SJ Parris’s bestselling thrillers, Heresy and Prophecy

Bruno was an extraordinary man, coming up with scientific concepts way ahead of their time – such as an infinite universe and other inhabited worlds – which he largely derived from the Hermetic principles. But they also underpinned his campaign for a root-and-branch reform of society – which included religion and politics. 

Bruno believed that Hermeticism repre­sented the true religion, the wisdom of ancient Egypt that had been corrupted, first by the Jews and then the Christians. But the Hermetic books themselves prophesied that the world’s ‘true religion’ would be restored one day, and Bruno believed this applied to his own time. This would, he firmly believed, entail at least a radical reform of the Catholic Church – if not its total replacement. 

It’s at this point that we find ourselves shouting “they’re behind you!” at Bruno. Surely there was only one way his Hermetic zeal could end? Although his fate was only too predictable, Bruno had reason to believe he could escape the homicidal arsonists known as the Inquisition. After all, he was famous, enjoying the patronage or protection of the likes of Elizabeth I, Henri III of France and even the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. Under the circumstances, he might be forgiven for imagining himself to be safe(ish). 

But Bruno wasn’t just a wandering philosopher with a good line in buttering up monarchs and emperors. He was also a political firebrand (bad taste pun intended). 

During his European travels in the 1580s and early 1590s, he established a secret society, the Giordanisti – he was good at shameless self-promotion – to continue his work and campaign for religious reform. Rumours concerning this must have a similar effect to poking the Pope with a cattle prod. There was now no way the Vatican could ignore Giordano Bruno. 

Bruno’s belief in the imminence of the Hermetic age also centred on a special interpretation of heliocentricity, the theory proposed by the Polish canon Nicolaus Copernicus five years before Bruno’s birth and still ragingly controversial. 

Copernicus had theorised that the Earth circles the Sun in On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres in 1543 – but what was his inspiration? A clue can be found on the very page where his famous diagram sets out his radical new vision of the Solar System. Four lines below, while discussing the spiritual significance of the central Sun, he explicitly references a passage in the Hermetica in which Hermes Trismegistus describes the Sun as a “visible god”. 

In fact all Copernicus’s radical notions are spelt out in the Hermetic books. For example, one treatise talks explicitly about the “rotation” of the world. Even more tellingly, another states that “the Sun is situated at the centre of the Cosmos, wearing it like a crown” and “Around the Sun are the six spheres that depend from it: the sphere of the fixed stars, the six of the planets, and the one that surrounds the Earth”. (‘Spheres’ corresponds to ‘orbits’). 

By explicitly referencing the Hermetic works on the very page where he presents his new cosmic order, Copernicus was tacitly announcing he had found mathem­atical and physical proof for the books’ own ancient principles. 

Another academic myth is that Copernicus’s ideas so infuriated the Church that he delayed publication until he was on his deathbed to avoid its wrath. But the Vatican had no theological issues with it at all – the Pope’s secretary even encouraged Copernicus to go public. But by the time of the ecclesiastical action against Galileo some 70 years later, something had changed… 

Basically, it was all down to Giordano Bruno, who – based on the famous Hermetic principle of “as above, so below/as below, so above” – not only believed that changes in the heavens cause or reflect changes on Earth, but also that a change in humanity’s percept­ion of the heavenly order would precipitate change. He argued that if heliocentricity could be established beyond doubt then that would literally trigger the new age of Hermetic enlightenment, restoring the religion of ancient Egypt and overturning Christianity. No pressure on Galileo, then.

As for Bruno himself, in 1592 he blithely took himself off to Venice – as things turned out, a somewhat unwise move. The republic was a hotbed of oppos­ition to papal authority and there were even moves to forge a political and religious alliance with England. The key figures in this plan were all associated with Bruno, including Traiano Boccalini, author of News From Parnassus which, explicitly modelled on one of Bruno’s own works, called for a “general reformation of the whole wide world”.[1] Bruno also visited an old contact in Padua, in the Republic of Venice, Gian Vincenzo Pinelli, the distinguished scholar at the centre of a Europe-wide network of intellect­uals and radical thinkers. He is best remembered today as Galileo’s mentor. 

However, Bruno was betrayed to the Inquisition and packed off to Rome, where he languished in prison for eight years, before being burned at the stake in February 1600. His final trial and execution were presided over by the Cardinal Inquisitor Roberto Bellarmino, later a key player in the drama surrounding Galileo. 

Bruno’s exit left a space on centre stage, a major opportunity for one aspiring scholar. Bruno had applied for the chair of mathematics at Padua University, but owing to his untimely arrest the job went to another candidate – one Galileo Galilei.[2] Of more immediate significance, however, was the arrival, just a few months after Bruno’s departure, of his Hermetic heir. 

The striking similarities between the careers, philosophy and aims of Bruno and Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639) suggest a shared plan. Indeed, 23-year-old Campanella’s arrival on the scene so soon after Bruno’s arrest suggests he was picking up where the Neapolitan had been forced to leave off. 

Like Bruno, Campanella was a Neapol­itan and a Dominican who became a crusading Hermeticist. Arriving in Padua shortly after Bruno’s departure, Campanella met Pinelli and Galileo. It was also in Padua that in early 1594 he was arrested by the Inquisition and transferred to Rome – to the same prison as Bruno. Compared to Bruno, Campanella got off lightly: after his works had been abjured, he was released into a Dominican monastery and subsequently ordered back to Naples. 

Campanella shared Bruno’s vision of heliocentricity as the trigger for the new age – his major work, was La città del Sole (City of the Sun, written in the years before 1602; published 1623) in which he set out his vision of an ideal society ordered on Hermetic principles – which he believed would begin in 1600. The approach of the new century encouraged him to be much more politically proactive than Bruno. He then threw himself into organising the Calabrian revolt, aiming to chuck the Spanish rulers out of the Kingdom of Naples to pave the way for the establishment of a republic based on magical principles, one that would hold aloft the torch of the new age for the rest of the world to follow. 

Informants betrayed the uprising to the Spanish, and after the organisation was ruthlessly crushed in November 1599, Campanella and the other leaders were arrested. This almost certainly accounts for the Inquisition’s sudden desire to be rid of Bruno, who had also railed against Spanish rule and was the revolt’s spiritual inspir­ation; he went to the stake barely three months later. Stephen Mason of Cambridge University argues that he was executed as an example to the Calabrian rebels, because of the connection to Campanella.[3] Publicly executing the insurg­ents’ spiritual leader at the beginning of their special year of 1600 was undoubtedly a calculated move. 

Campanella escaped the death penalty by feigning madness, and was instead sentenced to life imprisonment. But not only was he supplied with books and writing materials, he also received scholarly visitors, who ensured his writings were published in Germany. Presumably bribes were involved from somebody, somewhere. 

Seen in the light of the Hermeticists’ political machin­ations – especially the threat of the shadowy Giordanisti – Copernicus’s original evocation of the name Hermes Trismegistus in On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres was hardly likely to have been missed by the guardians of the Church. 

The defenders of the Church – the Inquisition and the Jesuits – had every reason to be nervous. During the 16th century, the Roman Church had experienced its greatest trauma, the rise of Protestantism. Who was to say what might happen next? Perhaps the Inquisition and Jesuits were over-reacting, but the times engendered paranoia. 

As long as Copernicus’s idea remained simply a theory, however, the Hermetic implications could be contained. But when an individual claimed he had come up with proof, then the Church became seriously worried. And ecclesiastical anxiety ran even deeper with a threat from a direct associate of the mystical revolutionary Tommaso Campanella and other Giordanisti suspects – in other words, Galileo. 

Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de’ Galilei’s career began in 1592 at the age of 28 when – thanks to Bruno’s incarceration – he became professor of mathematics at the University of Padua. Here, as we have seen, he met Campanella, the beginning of a lifelong association. Another major influence was his mentor Pinelli, who introduced him to the emergent science of optics, which was to make Galileo’s reput­ation. Other heret­ical associates included Traiano Bocca­lini, author of the Bruno-inspired News from Parnassus. With friends like these, Galileo would surely have been on the Inquisition’s watch list from the beginning. 

Galileo was also familiar with Bruno’s writings. Indeed, after the publication of Galileo’s first book touching on the controversy, the German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler criticised Galileo for not honestly acknowledging the intellectual debt he owed to Bruno. 

It was around 1610, with the new techno­logy of the telescope, that he made observ­ations – the Moon’s rugged surface reminiscent of our own world, the moons of Jupiter and particularly Venus’s lunar-like phases – that strongly supported Copernicus. Galileo realised their sensational potential, rushing into print with his first wave of discoveries in The Starry Messenger (Sidereus nuncius) in 1610. The intelligentsia were indeed excited: he duly became court mathematic­ian and philosopher to Còsimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. 

However, Galileo did not use his discoveries to bolster the Copernican theory, even though he was an ardent supporter, writing to Kepler as early as 1597 that he had “become convinced by Copernicus many years ago”. In The Starry Messenger, and a follow-up book on his discovery of the phases of Venus, he merely presented the observations. Perhaps he thought it best to play down their Copernican implications. 

Of course, Bruno’s fate would have been etched in Galileo’s mind as a cautionary tale. But there is no doubt whatsoever that he was fully aware of the significance the Hermeticists read into heliocentricity. 

One of his staunchest supporters during the controversy, Campanella composed the Defence of Galileo(Apologia pro Galileo) from his prison cell in 1622. And – by then a free man living in Rome under the protection of the Pope himself – Campanella was still corresponding with Galileo 10 years later, during his most difficult period, urging him to stand firm because of the spiritual import­ance of his work. As the British historian Frances Yates notes: “Both in the apology and in letters to Galileo, Campanella speaks of heliocentricity as a return to ancient truth and as portending a new age, using language strongly reminiscent of Bruno in the Cena de le ceneri [The Ash Wednesday Supper, in which he advocated Copernicus and declared that establishing heliocentricity would free the human spirit]… And in other letters he assures Galileo that he is constructing a new theo­logy which will vindicate him.”[4] 

Matters came to a head in 1615 when Galileo finally went public, writing: “I hold that the Sun is located at the centre of the revolution of the heavenly orbs and does not change place, and that the Earth rotates on itself and moves around it.” His fame changed into notoriety overnight. 

When, as a result, Paul V ordered an investi­gation into heliocentricity on theological grounds, and it was declared contrary to scripture, Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres was finally banned, along with all other pro-heliocentric works. Galileo was summoned to Rome to be warned off and put right. The Sun moved round the Earth and not vice versa. It was true because the Vatican said so. 

But there was an unspoken subtext: the cardinal given the task of warning Galileo was Roberto Bellarmino, the same man who had interrogated Bruno and was respons­ible for his condemnation and execution. This was not a coincidence; Bellarmino had been Archbishop of Capua since 1602, but was recalled to Rome specifically to deal with Galileo. 

Bellarmino, of course, understood from his experience of Bruno the significance that heliocentricity possessed for the Hermetic revolution. Bruno was dead and Campanella incarcerated in Naples, but they had followers – nobody knew how many. And now here was Galileo, associated with the likes of Campanella, edging ever closer to the proof that Bruno declared would trigger the new Hermetic age. Galileo was handed a statement written by Bellarmino stating that the Pope had decreed that Copernicus’s views could not be “defended or upheld”. Galileo hastily agreed. 

Even more telling is Galileo’s immediate reaction: he sought permission from his patron, Duke Còsimo, to travel to Naples – but was refused. Why Naples? A crucial piece of the jigsaw fell into place when we read in a paper by Olaf Pedersen, a specialist in the religious aspects of the Galileo affair, that the reason for Galileo’s request and the otherwise odd refusal was that he wanted to visit Tommaso Campanella in his prison cell.[5] The Church brings in the man who had condemned Bruno to warn Galileo off, and Galileo’s first reaction is to try to consult Bruno’s successor Campanella… 

Although Galileo was denied his meeting, Campanella penned the Defence of Galileo, which his followers published in Frankfurt. However, given Campanella’s reputation – convicted for heresy and subversion – it would hardly enhance Galileo’s reputation. Which is probably why, back in Florence, Galileo kept his head down. Nothing in the Pope’s decree prevented the discussion of heliocentricity as a hypothesis, and many scholars were avidly doing just that. Galileo himself dropped the whole subject for many years, although he was clearly waiting for an appropriate time to re-emerge as its iconic figurehead. 

Then in 1623 an old friend, Maffeo Barberini, became Pope Urban VIII. Taking this as a sign that his luck had changed, Galileo went to visit him in Rome shortly afterwards. Urban’s election was also good news for Campanella. In 1626, Urban requested that the Spanish king release him from prison to perform protective magic for him. After 27 years, Campanella was not only free but also adviser to the Pope! Urban even granted him permiss­ion to found a college in Rome to train mission­aries who espoused his religious and philosophical ideas. Such papal favour being bestowed on his greatest and most controversial supporter was another good sign for Galileo. 

Galileo decided it was safe to write Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, a discussion of the new Copernican and the old Ptolemaic systems. With the formal approval of the Inquisition, it was published in Florence in 1632. The Pope merely asked Galileo that his own anti-heliocentric views be included. 

Significantly, however, there are close parallels between Galileo’s Dialogue and Bruno’s 1584 work The Ash Wednesday Supper. It might not be a coincidence that this was Campanella’s favourite of Bruno’s works. 

Despite the myth of the ‘clash of egos’, it’s clear that Urban had to be prodded into action. His many opponents among the Cardinal Inquisitors were making much of his endorsement of the Dialogue’s publication as another sign of his rumoured softness on heresy. There was no clash of egos. Urban was just running scared. 

A reluctant Urban instructed the Inquis­ition to summon a shocked Galileo to Rome, where he appeared before the Inquisition in April 1633. He declared his book had merely discussed Copernican theory, and that until the decree of 1616 he had regarded neither the Copernican nor Ptolem­aic hypothesis as beyond dispute (contra­dicting his statements to Kepler 36 years before), but since then he had held the Ptolemaic view “to be true and indisputable”. While few would blame Galileo for trying to weasel out – after all, this was the Vatican Gestapo – they are hardly the words of a noble defender of intellectual freedom or willing would-be martyr. And yet neither does he seem an arrogant old man who refused to admit he was wrong. 
Galileo lost. The inquisitors ruled that the Dialogue was a disingenuous attempt to promote helio­centricity – which it probably was – and that his excuses were totally unconvincing. He was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” – just one degree below actually being a heretic. The only way out was to “abjure, curse and detest” the heretical ideas. 

Galileo did so, kneeling before the altar of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, from where Bruno had been taken to his horrendous death 33 years earlier. Public­ation of anything by Galileo was forbidden and he was sentenced to life imprisonment, but as he was over 70 this was commuted to house arrest. One of his first visitors was – Tomasso Campanella. 

Although Galileo’s trial is always cited as the moment when forces of reason and dogma collided head-on, the Hermetic factor is, we argue, more important. The reverence heliocentricity was accorded by Hermeticists was the major reason the Church sought to damn the theory, and therefore Galileo himself. The Hermetic factor was there, but in the background, which is why there is a distinct sense of something missing from the conventional story of the trial. 

However, Galileo was by no means as innocent as he appeared. There are valid questions about his relationship to the underground Hermetic reform movement. There is his continued association and correspondence with Campanella, espec­ially his wish to see him in the wake of his ‘yellow card’ in 1616. Campanella was hardly the kind of company he should have wanted to keep. 

And there is Galileo’s apparent use of Bruno’s Ash Wednesday Supper – the first mention of the Copernican Sun as trigger for a new Hermetic age – as a model for his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Was this to show the Giordanisti he was a sympathiser? Was the great Galileo even an active member of Bruno’s revol­utionary organisation? 

The Forbidden Universe by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince is published by Constable & Robinson, priced £18.99. 

1 This is the description of Boccalini’s work given in the first of the famed Rosicrucian manifestos of 1614, which included an extract from News from Parnassus, one of several examples of the close connection between the Italian Hermetic reform movement and the German circles from which Rosicrucianism emerged. 
2 Timothy Ferris: Coming of Age in the Milky Way, The Bodley Head, 1989, pp85–86. 
3 Stephen Mason: “Religious Reformation and the Pulmonary Transit of the Blood”, History of Science, vol. 41, part 4, no. 134, Dec 2003, p468. 
4 Frances Yates: Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964, p383. 
5 Olaf Pedersen: “Galileo’s Religion”, in CV Coyne (ed.): The Galileo Affair: A Meeting of Science and Faith – Proceedings of the Cracow Conference, May 24–27, 1984, Specola Vaticana, Vatican City, 1985, p97.




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