December 21st, 2009 Headsman
On this date in 1624, the recently-deceased body of unscrupulous Croatian prelate Marco Antonio de Dominis was burned at Rome’s Campo dei Fiori, along with all his manuscripts.
As a precocious young man Dominis taught mathematics, rhetoric and philosophy; in 1611, he produced a scientific treatise on the formation of rainbows through light refraction, De radiis visus et lucis. A century later, Isaac Newton would write* in Opticks that
it is now agreed upon, that this Bow is made by Refraction of the Sun’s Light in drops of falling rain. This was understood by some of the Antients, and of late more fully discover’d and explain’d by the famous ANTONIUS DE DOMINIS Archbishop of Spalato.**
More opportune was his advocacy of a moon-induced tide, which idea his contemporary Galileo erroneously scorned.†
Though he makes a “great men of Croatian science” list, the scientific dabblings are not what the man was chiefly known for.
A caricature of Dominis made an appearance, around the time of the man’s bodily demise, in Thomas Middleton’s play A Game at Chess, as the “fat bishop” who switches sides from black to white and back.
And that’s the man’s legacy, in a nutshell.
Elevated to Bishop of Senj, and then Spalato, he got the Inquisition after him and raised dust for England and the Anglican church in 1616.
They called you great-bellied-Doctour, made fat under Antichrist; and some there were also that sayd, that before you ranne away from the Pope, you got your owne Neece with child, and that feare to be punished for it, made you trudge away with your great load of flesh in such hast.
In Albion the absconded archbishop settled into a fine tenured appointment on the king’s dole to denounce the papists like only a convert can do. As A Game at Chess would indicate, he also earned fame for his avarice and gluttony, and who knows how many other deadly sins.
The rep for opportunism grew when Dominis defected back to Holy Mother Church upon the election of an old intimate as Pope Gregory XV. His well-worn welcome in England as anti-papal vituperator had, too, become complicated by the progress of the proposed Spanish Match to wed Prince Charles to Europe’s leading Catholic monarchy — an ultimately abortive project, but nearing the acme of its fortunes at the time Dominis returned to Italy.
(The Spanish Match is the protracted political and diplomatic dance whose progress A Game at Chess allegorically tells. Dominis arranged his return to the Catholic fold through the Spanish ambassador in England, making the former a fit character for the playwright to project the double-dealing and skullduggery of the rivals’ negotiations.)
Unfortunately for our unprincipled Renaissance man, Gregory himself yielded up the ghost almost immediately and left the Church in the hands of the aggressive Urban VIII. (Urban is the guy who forced Dominis’s old tidal rival Galileo to retract heliocentrism.)
Dominis — who seems to have been an ecumenical guy, maybe just a fancy way of saying he could accommodate any doctrine amenable to his ambition‡ — was evidently still trafficking with the unorthodox even after he returned, recanted, and renounced. (Renunciation in English | Latin).§
One contemporary reportedly said of Dominis
he was a malecontent knave when he fled from us, a railing knave while he lived with you, and a motley parti-coloured knave now he is come back.
The Inquisition imprisoned Dominis, and his death in Castel Sant’Angelo was not sufficient to end heresy proceedings against such as he left behind.
[H]is body was put into a well-pitched coffin, and that into another greater than it … until such time as the cause of the said Archbishop, still depending, should be determined by the Sacred Congregation; that according to their sentence, whatever justice did require, might be done upon him.
The sentence being framed and ready to be put in execution, the said body was … taken the twentieth of this present month of December, forth from the convent where it was left, and carried to the church of Minerva, and there laid upon a table in an eminent place, together with his picture and a little sack of books which he had printed; and where it stood all the night.
The next morning … the most illustrious and most reverend lods cardinals, supreme inquisitors, with many others … proceeded unto a definitive sentence, which was, to declare him unworthy of the favour of the Holy See apostolic, to deprive him of all his honour, benefit, or dignity, confiscate his goods, and give him over to the secular powers, as de facto they then gave him over, that he and his picture, together with the books he had written, should be burned …
MARCUS ANTONIUS DE DOMINIS,
LATE ARCHBISHOP OF SPALATRO,
Most impiously bent his style against the Church of God, which had extraordinarily well deserved of him; having wounded her and stabbed her through, he so left her without cure, and wretchedly betook himself to the English altars, that thence the swine might the more securely gruntle against the Pope and Catholics. Returning home again, but no convert, his apostatic spirit he forsook not. He died (and the voice of a penitent man would he had not uttered) impenitent. (Source)
* Dominis is still today sometimes credited as the first to explain both primary and secondary rainbows, in preference to Descartes, who nailed them 20 years later. According to The Rainbow Bridge: Rainbows in Art, Myth, and Science, that gave fair too much credit to Dominis for either originality or accuracy, and may have been written intentionally to undercut Descartes. (R.E. Ockenden made the same claim about Newton’s exaggeration in “Marco Antonio de Dominis and His Explanation of the Rainbow” in the not-exactly-current Dec. 1936 Isis).
** Spalato, i.e., Split, the scenic Dalmatian city where the great Roman Emperor Diocletian famously retired to tend his cabbages.
† “Lately,” Galileo sniffed, “a certain prelate has published a little tract wherein he says that the Moon, wandering through the sky, attracts and draws up toward itself a heap of water which goes along following it.” As cited in Understanding the Heavens: Thirty Centuries of Astronomical Ideas from Ancient Thinking to Modern Cosmology.
There’s an interesting treatment of Galileo’s stubborn adherence to a wrong idea about the tides in a history-of-ideas context in “Galileo’s Claim to Fame: The Proof That the Earth Moves from the Evidence of the Tides,” by W. R. J. Shea in The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Dec., 1970)
‡ Though he’s frequently read as a mere trimmer, it’s possible to give Dominis a much more sympathetic take. King James VI and I and the Reunion of Christendom argues that
it is difficult to explain his movements on this basis alone. Both in his journey to England and in his journey to Rome he took great risks, and in both cases gave up a reasonably secure position for one much less certain. Hacket, in the late seventeenth century, saw him not only as a place-seeker but as a man obsessed with an idea: “He lived and died with General Councils in his Pate, with Wind-Mills of Union to concord Rome and England, England and Rome, Germany with them both, and all other Sister-Churches with the rest, without asking leave of the Tridentine Council.” … [he] died for an ecumenical ideal which is only now, perhaps, beginning to be understood and appreciated … [and his] move [back to Rome] was the desperate attempt of a lonely, egotistical, and gifted man to find personal and spiritual fulfillment and, at the same time, to help to restore unity and coherence to a Europe being torn apart by religious conflict and war.
§ The Catholic Encyclopedia has Dominis re-relapsing when his pension expired along with Pope Gregory.
Also on this date
- 1692: A batch at Tyburn, escorted by the Ordinary of Newgate
- 1838: The first hangings of the Lower Canada Rebellion
- 1936: Aberra Kassa and Asfawossen Kassa, Ethiopian royalty
- 1855: The slave Celia, who had no right to resist
- 1995: Kimura Shujish
Entry Filed under: 17th Century,20th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Murder,Papal States,Posthumous Executions,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures
Tags: 1620s, 1624, a game at chess, campo dei fiori, december 21, galileo, gregory xv, isaac newton, john floyd, marco antonio de dominis, optics, rainbows, rome, science, theater, thomas middleton, tides, urban viii