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An essay by Samuel Johnson

Father Paul Sarpi

Title:     Father Paul Sarpi
Author: Samuel Johnson [More Titles by Johnson]

Father Paul, whose name, before he entered into the monastick life, was Peter Sarpi, was born at Venice, August 14, 1552. His father followed merchandise, but with so little success, that, at his death, he left his family very ill provided for; but under the care of a mother, whose piety was likely to bring the blessings of providence upon them, and whose wise conduct supplied the want of fortune by advantages of greater value.

Happily for young Sarpi, she had a brother, master of a celebrated school, under whose direction he was placed by her. Here he lost no time; but cultivated his abilities, naturally of the first rate, with unwearied application. He was born for study, having a natural aversion to pleasure and gaiety, and a memory so tenacious, that he could repeat thirty verses upon once hearing them.

Proportionable to his capacity was his progress in literature: at thirteen, having made himself master of school-learning, he turned his studies to philosophy and the mathematicks; and entered upon logick, under Capella, of Cremona; who, though a celebrated master of that science, confessed himself, in a very little time, unable to give his pupil further instructions.

As Capella was of the order of the Servites, his scholar was induced, by his acquaintance with him, to engage in the same profession, though his uncle and his mother represented to him the hardships and austerities of that kind of life, and advised him, with great zeal, against it.

But he was steady in his resolutions, and, in 1566, took the habit of the order, being then only in his fourteenth year, a time of life, in most persons, very improper for such engagements; but, in him, attended with such maturity of thought, and such a settled temper, that he never seemed to regret the choice he then made, and which he confirmed by a solemn publick profession, in 1572.

At a general chapter of the Servites, held at Mantua, Paul, for so we shall now call him, being then only twenty years old, distinguished himself so much, in a publick disputation, by his genius and learning, that William, duke of Mantua, a great patron of letters, solicited the consent of his superiours to retain him at his court; and not only made him publick professor of divinity in the cathedral, but honoured him with many proofs of his esteem.

But father Paul, finding a court life not agreeable to his temper, quitted it two years afterwards, and retired to his beloved privacies, being then not only acquainted with the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Chaldee languages, but with philosophy, the mathematicks, canon and civil law, all parts of natural philosophy, and chymistry itself; for his application was unremitted, his head clear, his apprehension quick, and his memory retentive.

Being made a priest, at twenty-two, he was distinguished by the illustrious cardinal Borromeo with his confidence, and employed by him, on many occasions, not without the envy of persons of less merit, who were so far exasperated as to lay a charge against him, before the inquisition, for denying that the trinity could be proved from the first chapter of Genesis; but the accusation was too ridiculous to be taken notice of.

After this, he passed successively through the dignities of his order, and, in the intervals of his employment, applied himself to his studies with so extensive a capacity, as left no branch of knowledge untouched. By him Acquapendente, the great anatomist, confesses, that he was informed how vision is performed; and there are proofs, that he was not a stranger to the circulation of the blood.

He frequently conversed upon astronomy with mathematicians; upon anatomy with surgeons; upon medicine with physicians; and with chymists upon the analysis of metals, not as a superficial inquirer, but as a complete master.

But the hours of repose, that he employed so well, were interrupted by a new information in the inquisition, where a former acquaintance produced a letter, written by him, in ciphers, in which he said, "that he detested the court of Rome, and that no preferment was obtained there, but by dishonest means." This accusation, however dangerous, was passed over, on account of his great reputation, but made such impression on that court, that he was afterward denied a bishoprick by Clement the eighth. After these difficulties were surmounted, father Paul again retired to his solitude, where he appears, by some writings drawn up by him at that time, to have turned his attention more to improvements in piety than learning. Such was the care with which he read the scriptures, that, it being his custom to draw a line under any passage which he intended more nicely to consider, there was not a single word in his New Testament but was underlined; the same marks of attention appeared in his Old Testament, Psalter, and Breviary.

But the most active scene of his life began about the year 1615, when pope Paul the fifth, exasperated by some decrees of the senate of Venice, that interfered with the pretended rights of the church, laid the whole state under an interdict.

The senate, filled with indignation at this treatment, forbade the bishops to receive or publish the pope's bull; and, convening the rectors of the churches, commanded them to celebrate divine service in the accustomed manner, with which most of them readily complied; but the jesuits, and some others, refusing, were, by a solemn edict, expelled the state.

Both parties having proceeded to extremities, employed their ablest writers to defend their measures: on the pope's side, among others, cardinal Bellarmine entered the lists, and, with his confederate authors, defended the papal claims, with great scurrility of expression, and very sophistical reasonings, which were confuted by the Venetian apologists, in much more decent language, and with much greater solidity of argument.

On this occasion father Paul was most eminently distinguished, by his Defence of the Rights of the Supreme Magistrate; his treatise of Excommunications, translated from Gerson, with an Apology, and other writings, for which he was cited before the inquisition at Rome; but it may be easily imagined that he did not obey the summons.

The Venetian writers, whatever might be the abilities of their adversaries, were, at least, superiour to them in the justice of their cause. The propositions maintained on the side of Rome were these: that the pope is invested with all the authority of heaven and earth: that all princes are his vassals, and that he may annul their laws at pleasure: that kings may appeal to him, as he is temporal monarch of the whole earth: that he can discharge subjects from their oaths of allegiance, and make it their duty to take up arms against their sovereign: that he may depose kings without any fault committed by them, if the good of the church requires it: that the clergy are exempt from all tribute to kings, and are not accountable to them, even in cases of high treason: that the pope cannot err; that his decisions are to be received and obeyed on pain of sin, though all the world should judge them to be false; that the pope is God upon earth; that his sentence and that of God are the same; and that to call his power in question, is to call in question the power of God; maxims equally shocking, weak, pernicious, and absurd; which did not require the abilities or learning of father Paul, to demonstrate their falsehood, and destructive tendency.

It may be easily imagined, that such principles were quickly overthrown, and that no court, but that of Rome, thought it for its interest to favour them. The pope, therefore, finding his authors confuted, and his cause abandoned, was willing to conclude the affair by treaty, which, by the mediation of Henry the fourth of France, was accommodated upon terms very much to the honour of the Venetians.

But the defenders of the Venetian rights were, though comprehended in the treaty, excluded by the Romans from the benefit of it; some, upon different pretences, were imprisoned, some sent to the galleys, and all debarred from preferment. But their malice was chiefly aimed against father Paul, who soon found the effects of it; for, as he was going one night to his convent, about six months after the accommodation, he was attacked by five ruffians, armed with stilettoes, who gave him no less than fifteen stabs, three of which wounded him in such a manner, that he was left for dead. The murderers fled for refuge to the nuncio, and were afterwards received into the pope's dominions, but were pursued by divine justice, and all, except one man who died in prison, perished by violent deaths.

This and other attempts upon his life, obliged him to confine himself to his convent, where he engaged in writing the history of the council of Trent, a work unequalled for the judicious disposition of the matter, and artful texture of the narration, commended by Dr. Burnet, as the completest model of historical writing, and celebrated by Mr. Wotton, as equivalent to any production of antiquity; in which the reader finds "liberty without licentiousness, piety without hypocrisy, freedom of speech without neglect of decency, severity without rigour, and extensive learning without ostentation."

In this and other works of less consequence, he spent the remaining part of his life, to the beginning of the year 1622, when he was seized with a cold and fever, which he neglected, till it became incurable. He languished more than twelve months, which he spent almost wholly in a preparation for his passage into eternity; and, among his prayers and aspirations, was often heard to repeat, "Lord! now let thy servant depart in peace."

On Sunday, the eighth of January of the next year, he rose, weak as he was, to mass, and went to take his repast with the rest; but, on Monday, was seized with a weakness that threatened immediate death; and, on Thursday, prepared for his change, by receiving the viaticum with such marks of devotion, as equally melted and edified the beholders.

Through the whole course of his illness, to the last hour of his life, he was consulted by the senate in publick affairs, and returned answers, in his greatest weakness, with such presence of mind, as could only arise from the consciousness of innocence.

On Sunday, the day of his death, he had the passion of our blessed saviour read to him out of St. John's gospel, as on every other day of that week, and spoke of the mercy of his redeemer, and his confidence in his merits.

As his end evidently approached, the brethren of the convent came to pronounce the last prayers, with which he could only join in his thoughts, being able to pronounce no more than these words, "Esto perpetua," mayst thou last for ever; which was understood to be a prayer for the prosperity of his country.

Thus died father Paul, in the seventy-first year of his age; hated by the Romans, as their most formidable enemy, and honoured by all the learned for his abilities, and by the good for his integrity. His detestation of the corruption of the Roman church appears in all his writings, but particularly in this memorable passage of one of his letters: "There is nothing more essential than to ruin the reputation of the jesuits; by the ruin of the jesuits, Rome will be ruined; and if Rome is ruined, religion will reform of itself."

He appears, by many passages of his life, to have had a high esteem of the church of England; and his friend, father Fulgentio, who had adopted all his notions, made no scruple of administering to Dr. Duncomb, an English gentleman that fell sick at Venice, the communion in both kinds, according to the Common Prayer, which he had with him in Italian.

He was buried with great pomp, at the publick charge, and a magnificent monument was erected, to his memory.

[The end]
Samuel Johnson's essay: Father Paul Sarpi