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Roman Inquisition

The Roman Inquisition, formally the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, was a system of tribunals developed by the Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church during the second half of the 16th century, responsible for prosecuting individuals accused of a wide array of crimes relating to religious doctrine or alternate religious doctrine or alternate religious beliefs. In the period after the Medieval Inquisition, it was one of three different manifestations of the wider Christian Inquisition along with the Spanish Inquisition and Portuguese Inquisition.


Like other iterations of the Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition was responsible for prosecuting individuals accused of committing offenses relating to heresy, including Protestantism, sorcery, immorality, blasphemy, Judaizing and witchcraft, as well as for censorship of printed literature.

The tribunals of the Roman Inquisition covered most of the Italian peninsula as well as Malta and also existed in isolated pockets of papal jurisdiction in other parts of Europe, including Avignon in France. The Roman Inquisition, though, was considerably more bureaucratic and focussed on pre-emptive control in addition to the reactive judicial prosecution experienced under other iterations.[1]


Typically, the pope appointed one cardinal to preside over meetings of the Congregation. Though often referred to in historical literature as Grand Inquisitors, the role was substantially different from the formally appointed Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition. There were usually ten other cardinals who were members of the Congregation, as well as a prelate and two assistants all chosen from the Dominican Order. The Holy Office also had an international group of consultants; experienced scholars of theology and canon law who advised on specific questions. The congregation, in turn, presided over the activity of local tribunals.


In 1588,[2] Pope Sixtus V established 15 congregations of the Roman Curia of which the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition was one. In 1908, the congregation was renamed the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office and in 1965 it was renamed again and is now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

While the Roman Inquisition was originally designed to combat the spread of Protestantism in Italy, the institution outlived that original purpose and the system of tribunals lasted until the mid 18th century, when pre-unification Italian states began to suppress the local inquisitions, effectively eliminating the power of the church to prosecute heretical crimes.


Main article: Nicolaus Copernicus

In 1616, the Roman Inquisition's consultants gave their assessment of the proposition that the sun is immobile and at the center of the universe and that the Earth moves around it, judging both to be "foolish and absurd in philosophy" and that the first was "formally heretical" while the second was "at least erroneous in faith". (The original assessment document from the Inquisition was made widely available in 2014.)[3]

This assessment led to Copernicus's De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium to be placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum - the Index of Forbidden Books.


Main article: Galileo Galilei

Galileo Galilei revised those same theories and was also admonished for his views on heliocentrism. In 1633, the Roman Inquisition tried Galileo and found him "vehemently suspected of heresy"[4] and banned Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.[4] Galileo died under house arrest, and Campanella was imprisoned for twenty-seven years.[5]


Among the subjects of this Inquisition were Franciscus Patricius, Giordano Bruno, Tommaso Campanella, Gerolamo Cardano, and Cesare Cremonini. Of these, only Bruno was executed, but Campanella was imprisoned for twenty-seven years. The miller Domenico Scandella was also burned at the stake on the orders of Pope Clement VIII in 1599 for his belief that God was created from chaos.[5]

The Inquisition also concerned itself with the Benandanti in the Friuli region, but considered them a lesser danger than the Reformation and only handed out light sentences.

17th century traveler and author, John Bargrave, gave an account of his interactions with the Roman Inquisition.[1] Arriving in the city of Reggio (having travelled from Modena), Bargrave was stopped by the city guard who inspected his books on suspicion some may have been on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Bargrave was brought before the city's chief inquisitor who suggested they converse in Latin rather than Italian so that the guards might be prevented from understanding them. The inquisitor told him that the inquisition were not accustomed to stopping visitors or travellers unless someone had suggested they do so (Bargrave suspected that Jesuits in Rome had made accusations against him). Nonetheless, Bargrave was told he was required to hold a license from the inquisition. Even with a license, Bargrave was prohibited from carrying any books, "printed at any heretical city, as Geneva, Amsterdam, Leyden, London, or the like".[1] Bargrave provided a catalogue of his books to the inquisition and was provided with a license to carry them for the rest of his journey.

The Inquisition in Malta (1561 to 1798) is generally considered to have been gentler.[6]

Italian historian Andrea Del Col estimates that out of 51,000 — 75,000 cases judged by Inquisition in Italy after 1542 around 1,250 resulted in a death sentence.[7]

Later history

The last notable action of the Roman Inquisition occurred in 1858, in Bologna, when Inquisition agents legally removed a 6-year-old Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, from his family.[8] The local inquisitor had learned that the boy had been secretly baptized by his nursemaid when he was in danger of death. It was illegal for a Catholic child in the Papal States to be raised by Jews. Pope Pius IX raised the boy as a Catholic in Rome and he went on to become a priest. The boy's father, Momolo Mortara, spent years seeking help in all quarters, including internationally, to try to reclaim his son. These efforts availed him none at all. The case received international attention and fueled the anti-papal sentiments that helped the Italian nationalism movement and culminated in the 1870 Capture of Rome.[9]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Pope Alexander the Seventh and the College of Cardinals by John Bargrave, edited by James Craigie Robertson (reprint; 2009)
  2. [1] Dissertation C. Beaudet, The Catholic University of America, 2010
  3. Domínguez, Nuño (28 Feb 2014). "Una errata reproducida durante siglos cambia la censura de la Iglesia a Galileo".; also arXiv:1402.6168
  4. 4.0 4.1 Finnocchiaro, Maurice (1989). The Galileo Affair. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. p. 291. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Ginzburg, Carlo (1980) The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller, (translated by John and Anne Tedeschi) Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, ISBN 0-8018-4387-1
  6. The Archives of the Roman Inquisition in Malta
  7. Andrea Del Col: L'Inquisizione in Italia. Milano: Oscar Mondadori, 2010, pp. 779-780. ISBN 978-88-04-53433-4.
  8. Kertzer, David I. (1997). The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. Knopf. ISBN 0-679-45031-9. 
  9. David Rabinovitch, producer, director (May 2007). "The End of the Inquisition". Secret Files of the Inquisition. PBS. 

Short bibliography

  • Christopher Black, The Italian Inquisition, Yale University Press, New Haven–London 2009
  • Andrea Del Col, L’Inquisizione in Italia. Dall’XI al XXI secolo, Mondadori, Milan 2006
  • Dizionario storico dell’Inquisizione, edited by V. Lavenia, A. Prosperi, J. Tedeschi, 4 vol., Edizioni della Normale, Pisa 2010
  • Massimo Firpo, Inquisizione romana e Controriforma. Studi sul cardinal Giovanni Morone (1509–1580) e il suo processo d’eresia, 2nd edition, Morcelliana, Brescia 2005
  • Massimo Firpo, Vittore Soranzo vescovo ed eretico. Riforma della Chiesa e Inquisizione nell’Italia del Cinquecento, Laterza, Rome–Bari 2006
  • Giovanni Romeo, Inquisitori, esorcisti e streghe nell’Italia della Controriforma, Sansoni, Florence, 1990
  • Giovanni Romeo, Ricerche su confessione dei peccati e Inquisizione nell’Italia del Cinquecento, La Città del Sole, Naples, 1997
  • Giovanni Romeo, L’Inquisizione nell’Italia moderna, Laterza, Rome-Bari, 2002
  • Giovanni Romeo, Amori proibiti. I concubini tra Chiesa e Inquisizione, Laterza, Rome-Bari, 2008
  • John Tedeschi, The prosecution of heresy: collected studies on the Inquisition in early modern Italy, Medieval & Renaissance texts & studies, Binghamton, New York 1991