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Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Pope and the Astrologer

What would the astrologer Tommaso Campanella have made of his own star chart, I wonder? The capricious stars must have looked down at his life and decided for their own inscrutable reasons that this was one mortal that they would take for a wild ride.

With his life straddling the 16th-17th-centuries, the Dominican friar from southern Italy began an enthusiastic career of heresy by writing a book which advocated the idea that all things were infused with a sensory awareness. This idea we now call animism – the belief that all things in nature are animated with a spirit. For its time and place, this progressive and un-scriptural idea inevitably put the Dominican on a collision course with the Inquisition, and he was confined to a monastery for several years.

Unbowed, the newly-released Campanella again busied himself with his astrological charts, and predicted the coming of the Age of the Spirit at the turn of the new century – a sort of 17th-century dawning of the Age of Aquarius. This, as he saw it, would usher in an era of equality, communal property, and – perhaps for good egalitarian measures – shared-around partners: more than enough reasons to send the Inquisitors’ officials once again scurrying to his door.  This time his incarceration involved torture. Stretched upon the rack, he made a full and formal confession of his heretical ways, and was duly sentenced to death.

But Fate was not yet done with the friar, and neither was the wayward friar done with life. Fuelled by fires of madness that perhaps were only half-feigned, he set his cell ablaze. Evidently the ruse worked, for his sentence was then commuted to life imprisonment. After twenty seven years of incarceration by the Inquisition, which included several further sessions of gruelling torture, Campanella was unexpectedly released. His astonishing benefactor was none other than the pope himself – Pope Urban VIII.

History often-enough contrives narratives and twists of plot that novelists would reject as too outrageously improbable to use – so what remarkable crossroads in the stars brought these two contrary characters together? Having already dragged the papal treasury into a sea of debt by redistributing the papal funds through nepotism on a near-industrial scale, apparently the pope would privately amuse himself by casting the horoscopes of his cardinals – and predicting their deaths in the stars.

Apparently hearing of these decidedly [1]un-Christian activities (which would have been enough to frog-march a lesser personage in front of the [2]Inquisition), other astrologers then cast their own horoscopes to predict the pope’s own death. Understandably rattled, the pope decided that he needed the aid of a big-gun astrologer – and Tommaso Campanella was the man for the job. From prison to the pope’s chambers – a reversal of fortune no novelist would dare invent. But there was the heretic friar, crippled with the injuries sustained by past torture, it’s true, but nevertheless now in favour with – and at the service of – the most powerful man in Christendom.

These two most unlikely of allies set to work with a will. Adverse stellar influences were held at bay by sealing off the pope’s chamber ‘from outside air’, and then sprinkling the room with ‘aromatic substances’. Laurel, myrtle, rosemary and cypress were burned. Purifying white silk cloths were draped over the walls, and seven candles and torches were lit to represent the seven astrological planets. The benign influences of the planets Jupiter and Venus were invoked with the aid of various stones, plants and colours, and the sessions would culminate in playing sweet music and imbibing ‘astrologically distilled liquors’. It sounds more to me like a good time was had by both parties concerned. And – at least to the pope’s satisfaction – these distinctly un-Christian rituals seemed to do the trick. He lived on for another sixteen years, until 1644, passing on the massive incurred debts to his successor, Innocent X.

And Tommaso Campanella? Out of favour once more, our friar fled to France, where he was taken under the wing of Cardinal Richelieu – who two centuries later would himself become a fictionalized (and villainized) character in Alexandre Dumas’ classic tale of adventure and intrigue The Three Musketeers. For the friar, real life had been all-too real enough, and he would quietly live out his remaining days in a French monastery, perhaps at night to gaze up and wink at the stars, as they would wink back at him.

[1] Deuteronomy 18:10 lists divination under ‘forbidden pagan practices’. Mosaic law prescribed the penalty of death by stoning for any fortune-telling activities, which therefore technically included Pope Urban VIII as a transgressor. Presumably His Holiness was familiar with this passage of scripture, but considered himself exempt from God’s Law.

[2] There was a whole subplot going on parallel to this story, which involved Galileo’s revolutionary idea at the time about the earth actually revolving around the sun, and with Campanella courageously writing a tract in defense of Galileo’s heretical theory. But I figured that the events related in this post would be enough excitement for you for one day.

Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh: The Elixir and the Stone.
D.P. Walker: Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella.
Frances A. Yates: Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Top image: Adapted from a 1643 medallion of Urban VIII (a year before the pope’s death) with an additional frame of zodiac horoscope signs (Creative Commons photo of medallion by Sailko) . Second image: Portrait of Tommaso Campanella by Francesco Cozza, featuring a 17th-century square horoscope. Third image: Portrait of Urban VIII by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, featuring astrological signs for the seals of the planets Jupiter (left) and Venus, from Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy.

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