A 17th Century battle of wits. Libertines v Jesuits

By Edward Muir, January 10, 2018

The Italian philosopher Cesare Cremonini

The Italian philosopher Cesare Cremonini

Gabriel Naudé, the French free-thinker and Cardinal Mazarin’s librarian, famously claimed that seventeenth-century Italy was “full of libertines, atheists, and people who believe in nothing.

 One of the forefathers of the French Enlightenment and an advocate of the open public library, Naudé could be considered a reliable source on Italian intellectual life.

He had studied at the University of Padua, where he was charmed by the charismatic Aristotelian philosopher Cesare Cremonini, who seemed to have denied the Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul if not exactly in print, then at least in the near universal opinion of his students, friends, and enemies. Cremonini was said to have composed his own epitaph: hic iacet totus Cremoninus (“here lies all of Cremonini”), a pithy way of saying his soul died with his body.

In his reading of Aristotle, divine creation, God’s providence, and the whole Christian scheme of salvation could not be proved philosophically, an argument that may or may not have expressed his personal views but conformed to the standard defense of the Renaissance Aristotelians: we are just philosophers not theologians.

Cremonini survived more than eighty investigations by the Roman Inquisition, which probably made his ideas the most thoroughly examined in Counter-Reformation Italy if not in all of Catholic Europe. He was probably more of a concern to Roman authorities than his good friend and colleague, Galileo Galilei, or even than the martyred philosopher Giordano Bruno, who Galileo had bested for the professorship in mathematics at Padua and who was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600.

Unlike Bruno who alienated his Venetian protectors, Cremonini died a natural death because, as a professor at the University of Padua he was under the protection of the Republic of Venice, and unlike Galileo he never made the mistake of leaving Padua or talking too openly when reticence was the wiser course.

Naudé described Cremonini as “a great man, with a lively mind which knew no inhibitions. He was free of illusions and stupid prejudices, and he knew the truth perfectly well, although in Italy no one dared spell it out. All the professors in that country, and especially those in Padua, are freethinkers… Cremonini skillfully kept his private opinions to himself, being in Italy… One of his maxims was: think what you like, but say what is expected of you (intus ut libet, forus ut moris est).”

On July 12, 1591, a group of Cremonini’s students from the University of Padua stripped naked, dressed themselves in sheets, and marched on the local Jesuit College, flashing their private parts to women and children along the way. Once in the College, they threw off the sheets and ran about in the nude shouting obscenities to the Jesuit fathers and the younger students.

The Paduan student attack on the Jesuits became the first salvo in what became the ideological wars between the Jesuit fathers and the so-called “libertines”, who thrived in the relatively free atmosphere of Padua and its university.

Cremonini was the patron and protector of the libertines and Galileo Galilei’s best friend and ally in the university’s war against the Jesuits. The alliance between Galileo and Cremonini was more than one of mutual antagonism to the Jesuits.

Whatever their intellectual differences – one a mathematics professor and the other an Aristotelian philosopher – they shared a profound skepticism about both received knowledge and the certainty of any claims to absolute Truth.

They sought open-ended methods of inquiry and practiced a style of intellectual interrogation that sometimes led them to mask their most unconventional views including Cremonini’s alleged rejection of the immortality of the soul and Galileo’s interest in atomism, which threatened the coherence of the doctrine of transubstantiation.

What pitted the Jesuits against Cremonini and Galileo was not the modernist breakthrough into scientific explanations for material phenomena, but what the Jesuits considered the orthodox relationship between theology and philosophy in intellectual inquiry. Many Jesuits, of course, had their own scientific interests, but in Padua they objected to Cremonini’s teaching philosophy without the corrective of theology.

To the Jesuits all education must be anchored in the ecclesiastical and pontifical authority and all students must serve the Catholic religion. Students were to learn the Truth, not the tools of doubt.

In 1630 one of Cremonini’s former students, Giovanni Francesco Loredan, founded the Accademia degli Incogniti in Venice , a gathering of intellectuals who openly espoused religious skepticism and libertine morality. Some of the books of the Incogniti, especially those by Loredan and Ferrante Pallavicino, criticized any form of religion.

More than any other figure Ferrante Pallavicino represented the extremes to which anti-papal rhetoric and religious skepticism could reach during the seventeenth century, at least in published form. Born in 1615 Pallavicino took ecclesiastical vows at age sixteen before he had the chance to taste, as one of his admirer’s put it, the carnal delights of liberty and the pleasures of the world.

His vows should have guided him along a more pious path, but on a pretense he obtained leave from his monastic superior and fled to Venice where he took up with a series of prostitutes and began his career as a writer.

Without money of his own he survived on the income from his extremely popular books and by working as Loredan’s private secretary. His novellas, histories, and essays were in such high demand in the late 1630s that they were sold at a high mark-up and were translated into English and French.

In Italy an eager public awaited each of his new books to see what outrageous things Pallavicino would write about the Barberini pope Urban VIII and his nephews or the Jesuits.

By his own account Pallavicino was a satirist, not a theologian or a philosopher, but satirists since Erasmus have probably altered public opinions more quickly and more broadly than the serious thinkers. The question that arises from Pallavicino’s satire is exactly what form of religious skepticism does it represent?

Books depicting the Roman Church as unredeemable included, La retorica delle puttane (The Whores Rethoric), which lampoons the Society of Jesus by having an older prostitute give lessons to a neophyte that paraphrases passages from the rhetorical manual read in Jesuit schools, and Divortio celeste (The Celestial Divorce)  in which Jesus asks God the Father for permission to rid himself of  his bride, the Roman Church, because of her intolerable adulteries.

The Baccinata (untranslatable neologism), however, becomes explicit in a direct attack on the Barberini papacy itself rather than Counter Reformation culture as a whole. It opens with an allusion to the three bees on the Barberini heraldic emblem.

Bees, Pallavicino writes, naturally hide in cadavers or in cattle droppings, and the Barberini bees have been sent from their filthy hive into the field of combat, swarming and stinging as they went. The Barberini have changed Christ’s promise, beati mites, (“blessed are the meek”) to beati milites (“blessed are the warriors”).

In an act of bravado Pallavicino dedicated the Baccinata to one of his most ardent enemies, Monsignor Francesco Vitelli, the papal nuntio in Venice. In his dedication he made a pun on Vitelli’s name, pointing out as a vitello (veal), the nuntio was nothing more than a calf.

Vitelli demanded that Venetian authorities place Pallavicino under arrest. After six months in Venetian prisons Loredan engineered his friend’s release, but Pallavicino now lived a precarious existence in Venice.

He kept busy writing scurrilous books, but in the end his own ambition lured him from the safety of the Republic. A secret agent for the pope convinced Pallavicino that no less a personage than Cardinal Richelieu wanted to hire him as an official historian.

Pallavicino followed his betrayer right to the gates of papal Avignon where he was imprisoned, tried for lèse majesté (crimes against the sovereign), convicted and executed by decapitation at age twenty eight.

His capital crime was not heresy but his refusal to acknowledge the pope’s universal power, the very claim that had enraged Pallavicino and his Venetian friends the most and a belief of which he was certainly guilty.

Soon after Pallavicino’s death someone, probably Loredan himself, staged a complicated disinformation campaign to advance the martyr’s case against the Church. At the center of this campaign was the book L’Anima di Ferrante Pallavicino (Soul of Ferrante Pallavicino), which was the most virulent attack on the Church to come from the circle of the Incogniti. The book was an imaginary dialogue between Loredan and his deceased young friend.

In their dialogue Ferrante and Loredan, who used the pseudonym Henrico, feed off one another’s skepticism, progressively making ever more radical attacks on Christianity, as might happen in a real conversation between two like-minded friends who egg each other on. They talk about how the scandals of the Curia have encouraged infidels and heretics to see the Christian religion as superstition.

It has become so bad that Pallavicino’s soul reports that not a single pope has been saved since Sixtus V, the reform-minded pope who loathed the Jesuits and limited the size of the College of Cardinals but died in 1590, more than a half century before. That placed the intervening eight popes in Hell.

L’Anima di Ferrante Pallavicino, however, sails beyond the usual satire of the Incogniti to enter theologically treacherous shoals. Pallavicino and Henrico discuss the Last Judgment. Pallavicino argues that to condemn many souls to eternal punishment would be to contradict God’s mercy.

They both agree that all souls in possession of reason should be saved; if only a few are saved then the God’s promise of salvation would be useless and without infinite value.

Infinite mercy would not leave room for anyone to be damned unless he or she lost humanity through the loss of reason. Men do not sin, they argue, with the intention of offending God but to satisfy their appetites; they are not made less guilty by punishment, which is incompatible with the infinite mercy of God.

Despite this evident truth, the Christian religion is a thing of fear, a fear so great as to produce madmen. The only solution, therefore, is to recognize that “gli Huomini abbiano facoltà di componere Leggi sopra Dio” (“men have the ability to create laws over God”).

That is a radical claim. If humans can impose laws on God, then what is God? Does he have any influence, let alone power over human events? Would there be any reason for there to be a God, except as the deists claim, as the Prime Mover of the Universe?

Pallavicino’s soul, speaking from the beyond in the conceit of the book, has taken the Christian promise of divine salvation and turned it on its head. The whole scheme, not just of Church imposed penalties but of the divine judgment itself, contradicts the Christian claims of God’s infinite mercy.

As a result Loredan has voiced in print the dangerous claim that morality does not require religion. Morality does not even require God. Human laws can guarantee society. Disbelief has become a higher ethical position than belief itself, an intolerable thought at the time perhaps but also the necessary first nod toward universal religious toleration.

Establishing universal religious toleration remains as vexatious today as ever, despite the more than three and a half centuries of additional martyrs since Pallavicino’s execution. Pallavicino’s answer to intolerance – and indeed the Enlightenment’s answer – of placing the state over the Church as the final arbiter of morality has begun to sink in the places in Europe and beyond where the state has failed to deliver on its own promise of guaranteeing the social good.

The absolutist gods of our day continue to demand more sacrifices, and it seems that the simple satire of the seventeenth century or the philosophy of the eighteenth can no longer turn the tide of intolerance in the West or Middle East. However, achieving Pallavicino’s vision was never an easy task, and the use of reason against the gods of fear must remain the only answer.

The alternative is setting up yet another vengeful god. The new Jesuit pope might even agree with that.


Edward Muir is the Clarence L. Ver Steeg Professor in the Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University and works in Italian social and cultural history, especially during the Renaissance. In 2010 he received the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award and is a member of the Academiae Europaeae and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among his publications: Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta in Renaissance Italy (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London 1998) which also won the Marraro Prize, Ritual in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge Univ. Press, New York 2005), and The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance: Skeptics, Libertines, and Opera (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge 2007).

 Article courtesy of Eutopia Magazine

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