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Freedom of Expression
1633 AD, Rome:
“Steady there”, exclaimed the driver, pulling at his reins as the carriage screeched to a halt. I jumped out impatiently, and ran up the steps. Kaeso, my manservant hurriedly picked up my belongings and shuffled out after me. I say man-servant, but in truth Kaeso was only two years older than my twelve years of age. I rushed past the manservant who opened the doors and went straight to the hall. My mother was there, instructing the maidservants who were dashing around holding precarious piles of cutlery or sheets. I dodged past everyone and ran to her side.
“Where’s father?” I asked anxiously, tugging at her voluminous skirts. “Is he back?”
My mother glanced down at me in surprise.
“Benito!”, she exclaimed, “When did you return? Il Rossi didn’t bring you back?”
“No, he couldn’t come” I said shortly. I had more pressing things to discuss than my tutor. “So is father back?” I asked again looking up at her.
“Yes of course he is back. He is in his office. He has got important guests with him so don’t go barging in…” but I was already off, tearing up the stairs before she could complete her admonitions.
I ran through the spacious rooms and corridors until I came to a room right towards the end. Its heavy oak door was slightly ajar and I could hear voices coming from inside. The voices were all raised. They seemed to be having an argument. I paused outside, suddenly uncertain. One of the people speaking was my father, I recognized his deep baritone voice without difficulty. However, I could not place the other voices. They were not my father’s usual friends or any of my uncles. Someone inside with a high pitched voice suddenly started shouting, but I couldn’t make out the words. Keen to know what the argument was about, I pressed my ear closer to the crack.
“…the fact that it has been published” the man was saying agitatedly, “ and is being read by hundreds as we speak is itself alarming. Who knows what ideas it shall put into people’s minds! He is making a mockery of the church!”
“And so you proposed the trial?” asked my father in his grave voice.
“Yes”. It was the other man who replied. His voice was low and hoarse, as though he was not used to speaking much. “It’s the best way”
“What’s your opinion” asked the first man, his voice sounding anxious.
“Naturally, I disagree with Galilei’s views. My loyalties lie with the church” said my father calmly.
“Excellent! Then you shall come to the trial?” asked the first man. My father must have nodded, for there was no reply. Instead the sounds of chairs scraping on the floor came from inside. The guests were no doubt getting ready to leave.
Panicking, I pushed open the door. The two men, who were in the act of reaching for the door looked at me standing there in surprise. “Father”, I exclaimed turning to him where he stood behind his chair, and covering the distance between us in quick strides. “You’re back! How was Florence” I asked, giving him a quick hug. “Much as usual” he replied bemusedly, “Why suddenly?” and before I could answer his question he turned me around to face the two men and said “This is my son, Benito. Benito this is Cardinal Barbieri and Cardinal Marcello” he swept his hand first to the man with the high pitched voice and then to the other one. I made a polite greeting. If the two men were surprised at my impertinent entrance or at being introduced to a twelve year old, they hid it well.
Cardinal Barbieri beamed down at me. “So Benito, what are your views on this whole controversy issue?” he asked jokingly, obviously not expecting a reply.
“Oh I agree with father. I believe the Earth is the centre of the universe and that it is the sun which moves around the Earth, just as the bible says. The Dialogue is wrong because it makes fun of the church”, I said glibly. I held in my laughter at the stunned expressions of the two cardinals. Father had already explained to me about the whole controversy surrounding this scientist called Galileo Galilei and his book The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. With the help of the telescope he had invented, he had proclaimed that the Earth was not stationary like the bible said, but moved on its own axis as well as around the Sun, which was the real centre of the Universe. The sun on the other hand, which we saw move across the skies everyday, didn’t move at all. Even to a child such as me it was evident that these theories were absurd. If the Earth moved would we not feel it? And we clearly saw the sun move everyday, causing day and night. Father, being a devout catholic, naturally brushed his theories away, and if father, the wisest person I knew, chose to discredit what Galileo said, there could be no room for doubt in my mind.
“That’s right”, said Cardinal Barbieri, recovering himself. “Galilei is indeed wrong to dispute the church. He has no right to say something that suggests the bible is a falsehood!” He turned to my father with an amused expression, “What an informed son you have” he said. My father smiled but made no reply.
“Perhaps he would be interested in attending the trial as well?” Barbieri continued, looking first at me than at my father.
I looked up at my father hopefully, but Cardinal Marcello interrupted.
“He is just a child, you can’t bring him to a trial hall”, he exclaimed, frowning heavily.
“You forget who you are speaking to”, said Cardinal Barbieri, turning to him and smiling.
“This is Marco Beccaria, he can do anything he wants, and no one would dare stop him”
I looked up at my father. For some reason he did not seem pleased by the flattery. He felt my gaze and looked down. “Would you like to go, Benito?” he asked softly. Unsure as to what reply was expected of me, I stayed silent. However my eagerness must have showed in my face for after looking at me for a moment he sighed and said “Very well”.
I squirmed in my seat which was wedged between that of my father and my uncle. Our chairs were right at the back of the room. The trial had been going on for hours and my attention had drifted immediately after the people had begun speaking. I could not follow most of what everyone said, and if I asked my father about something I didn’t understand the people around us would glare at me. I looked up at my father. He was listening with a rapt expression on his face. I sighed and turned again to look at the person on trial. I had been surprised when he had first entered to see how old and shriveled he looked. I had been expecting the creator of such controversies to have a more dynamic personality. Instead this man had a defeated air about him, as though he had ceased caring what happened to him. Right now his eyes were half closed, and he seemed oblivious to the procedure going on around him. I yawned and settled back into my place.
At long last the trial seemed to be drawing to a close. The Inquisition officers had finished presenting their case to the Pope, who sat in state behind his desk in the centre of the hall, and had finished reeling out their accusations against Galileo. Now, one of the officers approached Galileo and halted before him.
“You have already heard the accusations against you. You have only one option open before you, and that is to admit you were wrong in all that you have stated in your book as well as the beliefs you have harboured till date. If you admit your error, your sentence shall be lenient. However if you stick with your erroneous beliefs, you shall undergo severe punishment”
After a few seconds of tense silence, Galileo bowed. He then started speaking. I only understood fragments of what he said, but it was evident that he had relented and was admitting his mistake.
â€˜I held, as I still hold”, he said, “As most true and indisputable, the opinion of Ptolemy, that is to say, the stability of the earth, and the motion of the sun... I affirm, therefore, on my conscience, that I do not now hold the condemned opinion and have not held it since the decision of authorities… I am here in your handsâ€”do with me what you please”.
Applause broke out in the room and the cardinals congratulated each other, triumphant smiles lighting their face. Everyone around me was cheering and clapping. Laughing with joy myself, I looked up at my father, expecting to see him as happy and relieved as the rest. Instead, his face was furrowed with sadness.
“Father, what’s wrong?” I asked worriedly, “Its alright, the church has won!”
“Yes’ replied my father, his gaze upon the shrunken form of Galileo, “but it has been the defeat of something much greater”
I stared up at him uncomprehendingly. “You mean Galilei? Or…” I remembered what Galileo called his own theories “science?”
“No”, said my father. He looked down at me, a sad smile upon his face “Freedom of expression”.
Suffern, New York
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