Project Canterbury






Rev. J. Henry Watson


Italian Episcopal Magazine
236 East 111th Street


Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2010


This short sketch of a great man was not intended for publication. The compiler has, however, accorded with the request of friends who think it will be useful in stimulating others to study the story of Paolo Sarpi.

The period and work of Fra Paolo in Venice is important because it demonstrates the errors and vices of the Papacy, and shows how the Pope's usurpation of power transcended the rights of the Catholic Church. It also illustrates the sound position held by the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in this country, with relation to the primitive Catholic Church as it existed before the Papacy was developed.

New York, March 10, 1911.


[5] Few Americans know anything about Fra Paolo Sarpi; and perhaps not many Italians, outside of Venice, appreciate fully the wonderful wisdom and power that dwelt in the brain and heart of a little dried-up monk who is considered the "Greatest of the Venetians".

Paolo Sarpi deserved this title as a most learned scholar, a statesman of the first rank, a sincere and unselfish patriot, a bold reformer, an unshrinking champion of justice and liberty, a faithful and devoted Christian. As a statesman, he always held [5/6] the love and trust of the people. He was the only reformer remaining within the Roman Church who escaped a violent death. As a champion he is the only priest who beat the Pope down upon his knees and yet lived to a good old age.

There were many preachers of righteousness in medieval times who tried to lead in reforming the evils of Church and State, with the aim of producing religious and civil liberty, against the inconceivable corruption and tyranny of the Papacy. Arnold of Brescia, Savonarola and others strove to reform the Church from within--and they were burned alive.

Luther's great movement, early in the 16th century, proceeded in a different method. Despairing of reform within the Church, it detached large portions of nation from the Pope's control, giving a blow which made the papacy stagger but not beyond recovery.

The English reformation, beginning soon afterwards, was the first example of a national Church resuming its original autonomy, defying the Pope's usurped rule and taking its rightful place as a self-governing branch of the Holy Catholic Church.

These reforming movements, which broke away from the papacy, did not, however, destroy its power. Those monarchs who held aloof from these movements did not dare to oppose the Pope's claim of divine right to supremacy over them, for fear of unsettling their own thrones. They did not wish to encourage independence of religious thought among their subjects, for fear of promoting at the same time an independence of political thought and a tendency towards civil liberty. The Pope still retained his powerful weapons which gave him command of the situation as an ironclad among wooden ships. His claims to be the King of kings and ruler of rulers. His right of investiture and appointment of civil as well as ecclesiastical officials. His holding of benefices and grasping of property, to the extent sometimes of a third of the property of nations. His use of indulgences in such a way as to secure the submission as well as the wealth of the faithful. And above all, his terrible power of excommunication and interdict by which he could crush his opponents. These thunderbolts of Jove remained in his hands and he could use them to suppress any Ajax who defied him.

Besides these weapons, the popes were the most skillful political managers. They could play the kings and nobles against each other or in combination so as to effect their objects. They could manipulate the members of councils so that they would [6/7] carry out what was decreed at Rome. This was manifested in the Council of Trent, which was called in 1545 under the influence of all the movements for reform, with the professed purpose of satisfying and reconciling the discordant elements by some concessions to demands for purer theology, practice and morals. The result of it however was to cement the errors and superstitions upon the church's system and to bind its subjects more closely than ever under the heel of their inexorable master, making reconciliation with reformers utterly impossible.

During the session of this council, in the year 1552, two babies were born who were destined to fight a battle with each other which began the real disintegration of the Pope's authority over the nations and opened their hopeful progress towards civil and religious liberty.

One of these boys was named Camillo Borghese, the son of a lawyer of Siena who went to Rome and became prominent there. Camillo was educated as a lawyer of the Roman Curia, and held offices as magistrate, inquisitor, executor of the papal censures, and Papal Nuncio to the Court of Spain. He was made Cardinal by Clement VIII, and elected Pope in 1605 taking the name of Paul V. From his management came the aggrandizement of the Borghese family, by grasping all the property he could lay hands on; though, as regards personal morals, he and Clement VIII were evidences of some improvement wrought by the Council of Trent.

The other of these boys was named Pietro Sarpi, the son of a Venetian trader who in early life gave evidence of the prodigious scholarship to which he afterwards attained. At the age of 13 he eminently excelled in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, philosophy, mathematics, theology in all its branches, and many of the sciences. At about this age he joined the order of Servite friars and changed his name to Paolo. He became professor in the Cathedral of Bp. Boldrino in Mantua and the private theologian of Duke Gonzaga. Here his fame spread extensively. No lecturer had ever equalled him. He was entirely familiar with the Scriptures in their original languages, and had the Apostolic traditions, the Fathers and the Church Councils at his tongue's end.

At 23 years of age he went back to the Servites in Venice as professor of philosophy and afterwards of mathematics, in which study he was the acknowledged head of all Italy. He was [7/8] made provincial and procurator of his order and became an intimate friend of Pope Sixtus V, and Urban VII.

It would occupy too much space to tell of Fra Paolo's wonderful acquirements in all kinds of learning. He was an intellectual giant, the miracle of the age; able to converse with any civilized man in his own language, and as master in every subject. In Anatomy and Astronomy he is said to have preceded the discoveries of Harvey and Galileo. In Chemistry, and every branch of science he knew whatever was known by any man of that day.

We will pass on to that part of his life which specially concerns his influence for civil and religious liberty. In the year 1606 he was appointed by the Venetian Senate a Theological Counsellor, a new office created in addition to three Counsellors of Law, whose duty was that of instructing the Doge and Senate in regard to the law on any question that came up. Sarpi accepted this with the precaution of securing the consent of the General of his order, who represented the authority of the Pope. This was a most important provision, for it enabled him to remain in Venice instead of obeying the Pope's summons to bring the friar into his power. After the other Counsellors died, the Senate left their whole duties to Sarpi, so that he held entire control of the legal and theological principles of Venice, and was practically dictator of all its affairs; and he held this office for 17 years until his death. He was revered by Doges, Senators and people throughout his whole life as no other citizen had been in that republic which was often ungrateful to its best citizens.

Pope Paul V, soon after his accession, determined to humiliate Venice as his predecessor had done. Seven times before, within 300 years, the reigning Popes had compelled the proud republic to yield to their will after terrible suffering and loss under the effects of their interdicts, which were in every case laid in punishment for alleged offences against the worldly designs of the Pope; not in any wise for sins against Almighty God. The last interdict had been a century before, and Venice occupied most of the century in recuperating from its injuries.

There was indeed good reason for the Pope's desire to humiliate Venice, because that republic, with all its troubles had preserved such a measure of independence as threatened the Pope's peace of mind. "Venice, alone among the nations of Europe, never admitted priests and ecclesiastics to interfere with [8/9] its government. No order of men owing allegiance to a foreign sovereign was allowed the smallest share of real power and influence in the state. It was also the only state which kept no member of the Apostolic court in her pay." Venice also had ancient laws forbidding the church to own property or to erect new buildings without the consent of the government. These laws were not enforced for a time and the Church acquired a fourth of the property of the city; but they were re-enacted in 1603.

Moreover the State claimed the appointment of its patriarch without confirmation by the Pope. It was exceedingly indignant [9/10] when its Patriarch Matteo Zane was invited by Clement VIII to visit him in a friendly way, and then the Pope declared that he gave him the investiture. The State would not allow his successor even to visit Rome. To this day the Kingdom of Italy adheres to this right. Venice also insisted upon taxing the clergy as well as the laity for public purposes.

The final offence was when two priests, charged with cruelty, wholesale poisoning, murder and licentiousness, were arrested by the Senate and put in dungeons for trial. The Pope demanded their liberation as not being amenable to the secular law. When this was refused, the Pope threatened an interdict on account of the property laws and the imprisonment of ecclesiastics, which threat was presented to the Senate on Christmas 1605.

The Senate did not shrink from the contest and called upon Fra Paolo for advice. The Friar strongly advised them to refuse to receive the Pope's interdict, and to reason with him while opposing force by force. The senate willingly accepted this advice and Fra Paolo presented the case to Paul V, urging from history that the Pope's claim to intermeddle in civil matters was a usurpation; and that in these matters the Republic of Venice recognized no authority but that of God. He said "God has instituted two kingdoms in the world, one spiritual and the other temporal; each in its own sphere is supreme and independent. The Kingdom of Christ is not of this world but in heaven, therefore religion walks by a heavenly way, the government of the State by an earthly way, and the one ought never to interfere with the other. God wishes to be served in such a way as to preserve this harmony between the two powers which He has instituted; maintaining them balanced so that one may not usurp the place that belongs to the other." The Friar also quoted from bulls of Popes which expressly admitted to the Republic the right of punishing all offenders clerical or lay.

The Pope did not attempt to combat this reasoning effectively, but insisted upon his rights, and, though the sympathies of other nations except Spain were with Venice, and their ambassadors endeavored to restrain the Pope, he sent out his interdict and excommunication April 17, 1606.

The Doge, Leonardo Donato, and the Senate, with Sarpi's direction, were fully prepared to meet this emergency. They took measures to stop any messenger at the frontier so that the Pope's Bulls should not get through; and they commanded the clergy to go on with their ministrations as though nothing had [10/11] happened. The clergy were mostly loyal to the Government and others were threatened with hanging. The Jesuits, who craftily wished to compromise by hearing confessions but not saying mass, were summarily expelled.

The nations watched this struggle with interest. England, Holland and Germany wanted Venice to follow their course and break away entirely from the Papacy. Spain and France advised a reconciliation. The others were pleased to have the battle fought out for the defense of their own rights. Sarpi and [11/12] Venice were firm in this determination, so that the Pope might be humiliated and his usurped power destroyed forever.

Sarpi was, in many respects, in sympathy with the doctrines of the reformers. Besides his denunciation of usurped Papal claims, he showed the evil history of the benefices and traced the growth of the error of Mariolatry. Sir Henry Wotton and Dr. Bedell, the English delegates, considered him as holding pure Catholic doctrines, free from Roman errors, like those of their own English Church. Still Sarpi did not involve himself with those who were called Protestants; although that might have been the logical conclusion if he had failed to bring the Pope down upon his knees.

The result was however that Paul V failed entirely in his efforts to maintain his usurpations. After a year in which he had striven to get some concessions, even the least, "to save his credit in the eyes of Europe", he was obliged to give in completely. "Point after point was yielded to Venice. The ecclesiastical property laws were to remain in full force. The right of the Republic to punish priests was conceded. The Jesuits were not to be allowed to return to Venice, although the Pope begged for this as a personal favor. The protest of the Republic against the Pope's censures were not to be revoked, but, on the Pope's removing the censures, it was declared thereby to fall to the ground. The Cardinal was to take off the censures in the Doge's palace and not in the Cathedral. Venice was to accept no papal blessing, to allow no popular rejoicings, and to send no intimation of the removal of the censures to any foreign court; for, asserting that she had done no wrong, and denying the validity of the censures, she would acknowledge no sense of their deliverance on their being raised."

These conditions being carried out, Venice was restored to its place in the Roman Church, reconciled to the Pope. But Paul V, who had suffered this irremediable blow to his power and prestige, was by means reconciled to Fra Paolo whom he recognized as the head and front of all the offence. He made every effort to induce the friar to come to Rome, giving liberal knew the papal methods too well to put himself in the hands of those who would not rest until he was burned. He pleaded that he could not leave his duties in the Republic; and indeed the Senate would not allow him to go into any such danger. He was too valuable to them, trusted and loved by all the citizens and greatly respected by foreign courts.

[13] Failing in these efforts, the Pope tried to have him assassinated; and the attempt made upon his life, in October, 1607, by assassins clearly connected with Paul V, very nearly succeeded. He was stabbed fifteen times and left for dead; but being cared for with the best skill the Senate could provide, he recovered and resumed his place at the head of the affairs of the Republic, with increased reverence from all the citizens.

Fra Paolo lived for many years after this, attending to his duties in the state and also putting forth much literary work. He wrote a treatise on the interdict which showed that it was not legal nor obligatory; and enforced the teaching of his conflict with the Pope by other works upon the subject. His action and teaching gave force and direction, which Count Cavour gratefully acknowledged, to the Kingdom of Italy in destroying the Temporal Power of the Pope and establishing a free Church in a free State.

His History of Ecclesiastical Benefices traced the growth of the Mammon power in the Church and the vast change from the spirituality of the Apostles to the grasping worldliness of the Borghese Pope. The teaching of this was carried out in the modern Italy, so that the church and charity funds are administered by the officials, and the Pope has no right to lay any taxes in Italy. He wrote also a History of the Council of Trent, in which are unveiled all the artifices of the Court of Rome to prevent the truth of dogmas from being made plain, and the reform of the Papacy and of the Church from being dealt with. He had worked at this most of his life, and had received much information from delegates to the Council and from the reports in the Archives of Venice.

The effect of these publications stirred up his enemies to renewed attempts upon his life and reputations; but, in spite of them, he outlived Paul V and died peacefully Jan. 15, 1623, in the 71st. year of his age. He was lamented by rich and poor, and his burial was conducted by the State on a magnificent scale, his body being laid at the foot of the altar in the Servite church. The announcement of his death was sent to all the Courts as if he had been a sovereign, and a public monument was ordered for his memory.

It would occupy too much space here to repeat the amazing tale of how the successors of Paul V tried, during the next 300 years, to vent their anger upon the body of the "terrible friar". They sought by every means to possess the remains [13/14] and scatter them abroad. Ten times, during that period, his body was removed by his friends to places of greater safety and sometimes secretly hidden. The devotion of the citizens in each age served to frustrate the malice of the Popes. It is only during the last half-century that his bones have been allowed to rest in peace where they were buried in the cemetery of San Michele, Nov. 19, 1846.

The Popes did succeed in preventing the erection of his monument when it was decreed in 1623, and it was only in 1892 that the bronze figure of the Friar was placed in the Campo di Santa Fosca.

The eloquent words of the Mayor of Venice, Signor Riccardo Selvatico, at the unveiling of the monument, before a distinguished assembly, sum up admirably the influence of Paolo Sarpi towards civil religious liberty. He said: "Half a century has not passed since a Pope, marked in history by his blind aversion to every idea of progress, maligning one day in the presence of Venetians the name of Sarpi, wished that his memory might perish forever", then, pointing to the statue, he added "To that evil augury of Gregory XVI we answer with this monument. Fra Paolo has for us a double value--an actual one, measurable by what he personally thought, wrought and suffered; and a symbolic one because he incarnated the spirit of a great people and government, devoted indeed to the Gospel of Christ, but not subservient to the ambition of His Vicars. He fondly dreamt, for the Catholic Church, such a reform in government in end and object, and in manners and customs, as would take it back to the spiritual purity of its origins. An austere love of truth is what characterized him in every department of action. As State Counsellor, he broke down juridical sophisms; as a Christian he condemned the dissimulations of hypocrisy; as a Scientist, he scrutinized with a fearless eye all the aspects of truth; as a Historian, he laid bare the human motives that cloaked themselves with religious pretensions; as a Writer, he disdained every artifice and used his words as a chisel that cuts, and not as a flower that decorates. And all his intellectual qualities were sustained and consolidated by his moral force, which bore witness in favor of his ideas and contributed to their triumph. How happy would his adversaries be if they could set the man Sarpi against the thinker Sarpi! But no matter how rabid their hatred and how dexterous their malignity, the life of the friar shines forth immaculate before our eyes. The enemies of Fra Paolo affirm that today we vilify Christianity. No; we [14/15] respect the religious sentiment, in all the forms in which it may clothe itself, in the conscience and upon the altar. We combat only those who drag it in the dust, who deform it, who belittle it among the conflicts of mundane passions; and the bronze that stands before us means not a provocation to any, but a homage to a great soul, who knew how both to adore his God and to serve his country."

Verily the influence of the "Greatest of the Venetians" muse, go on still in this age. We who belong to the Anglican branch of the Catholic Church, are satisfied that England's method in resuming the autonomy of the nation and church was the more direct and effective way of promoting civil and religious liberty. Sarpi himself recognized this, for he said of England's reformation, approvingly and almost enviously, "Henry VIII has once for all redeemed the nation from his bondage and restored both himself and his subjects to the possession of their ancient, natural rights." (Maxims for the Government of Venice).

But for those nations who were so tied by antiquated bonds that they could not use England's method, and could only hope to gain the liberty of the church and nation by working within the Roman church, we may see that Fra Paolo shattered the idol from its pedestal, destroyed the false claims of the Papacy, and blazed the way for the slower advance of the European nations which is now progressing even in France, Spain and Portugal.

The future course of change in the Roman Church ought to proceed on the lines and principles which Sarpi declared so clearly. There might be great assistance provided for any such movements by publishing the writings of the humble monk, Paul the Friar, who brought the proud Paul the Pope to his own terms.

(l) References to books:
Robertson's "Paolo Sarpi".
Trollope's "Paul the Pope and Paul the Friar"


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