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2012 Seminar on the History of the Book: Mario Infelise, “Masters of books: ecclesiastic and state censorship in Venice during the Counter-Reformation”

by on February 28, 2012
from Martha Repp

The sixth in the 2012 series of the Oxford Seminars on the History of the Book, convened by Professor I.W.F. Maclean, was held at All Souls College, Oxford, on 24 February, 2012. Professor Mario Infelise of the Università Ca’ Foscari in Venice, spoke on “Masters of books: ecclesiastic and state censorship in Venice during the Counter-Reformation”.

Professor Infelise’s paper focused on state and ecclesiastical censorship of the printed word, and the not infrequent tensions between the two, during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and particularly on the situation in Venice. The question of censorship, and who should be primarily responsible for it, can be seen as part of a much wider debate during this period about the nature and role of secular princes, and the balance of power between church and state.

Some scholars from within the Church, notably Robert Bellarmine, asserted the theory of the Church’s “potestas indirecta”, the idea that the ecclesiastical authorities had the right to intervene in the affairs of individual states when they judged it opportune to do so. This was justified on the basis that the Church had a wider responsibility to protect society as a whole from error, and therefore had a duty to keep watch over sovereigns, both in spiritual and political matters, in order to safeguard orthodoxy and morality.

During the sixteenth century, however, this position increasingly came into conflict with the emerging concept of the secular prince as absolute and divinely-ordained ruler within his own domain. If, however, the secular prince was to be absolute, it was essential to develop some form of control over the written word, in order to control the opinions of his subjects, and therefore the need for a coherent cultural policy that advanced the secular authorities’ wider political aims came decisively to the fore. Secular rulers were well aware that the Church’s assertion of its “potestas indirecta” was a potential threat to their own authority, but were equally conscious of the Church’s importance as a force for maintaining social order and encouraging obedience to the secular authorities.

It was this general debate that formed the background to the disagreement in 1596 between the Republic of Venice and the Papacy over the publication of Clement VIII’s new version of the Index of Forbidden Books. A Papal decree of May 1596 rendered the new version of the Index definitively enforceable; however, the Venetian authorities refused to accept it as it stood. The Papacy was determined to get the new version of the Index published as quickly as possible, and was well aware that a refusal to publish it on the part of one state could only have the effect of encouraging other potentially recalcitrant states. A summer of intense negotiations ensued, during which the Papal Nuncio attempted to present the new version of the Index as a useful tool for civil as well as religious control. Eventually, a compromise was reached, by which the Venetian authorities agreed to publish the Index, with an additional page setting out the limitations of its applicability to Venice. Although this Concordat resolved the specific issue of the publication of the Index, the whole affair left a legacy of strained relations between Venice and the Papacy, which would eventually culminate in the whole of Venice being place under a Papal interdict in 1606.

If this disagreement can be seen as an attempt on the part of the Venetian authorities to assert the primacy of their own state censorship over any external ecclesiastical censorship, what form did this state censorship take? From the very beginning of printing in Venice, in 1469, Venetian patricians had taken an interest in books, sometimes for political and sometimes for financial reasons, and by 1527 the Council of Ten had established an early form of state censorship. Another significant event was the establishment, in 1517, of the Riformatori dello Studio di Padova, a committee of three prestigious Venetian patricians with responsibility not only for university appointments, but for vetting and approving printed books. By 1603, the mechanisms of censorship were in place. Every manuscript had to be read and approved by two censors, the Inquisitor of the Holy Office (for religious questions) and the Ducal Secretary (for political questions), both of whom had to produce a written opinion. If both opinions were favourable, the book would then be granted the Licence of the Riformatori dello Studio di Padova, and finally it would be registered by the Council of Ten.

It might be assumed that the events of 1596 led to a relaxation of state censorship in Venice, but in fact this was not the case. The Venetian authorities were extremely wary of Venice being seen as a potential safe haven for heretical books. The view taken by some scholars, that Venice during this period was a centre of resistance to censorship, is therefore perhaps a little simplistic. Nor was the day to day practice of censorship always and entirely informed by opposition between secular and ecclesiastical authorities; in fact, compromise and collaboration were much more common.

Professor Infelise concluded by looking at two case studies from the early seventeenth century. The first of these was the publication of the Italian edition of Francis Bacon’s Essays. The Venetian patrician Fulgenzio Micanzio had taken a very early interest in Bacon’s writings, which he had translated into Italian. In 1617, he came up with the idea of publishing an Italian edition of the Essays, but, despite the support of important Venetian figures, the idea of publishing this edition in Venice failed because of the opposition of the ecclesiastical authorities. Micanzio then wanted to get round this by having an Italian edition of the Essays printed in London, and importing it back to Venice. However, before this could be done, the Italian translation of the Essays by the English Catholic Sir Tobie Matthews was published in Florence. This Florentine edition suppressed two of the more inflammatory essays, as well as an approving reference to Machiavelli, and omitted all reference to Bacon on the title page. Despite Micanzio’s avowed intention to restore both the attribution to Bacon and the two suppressed essays when his edition did eventually appear in 1619, it did mention Bacon on the title page, but did not include the two essays suppressed from the Florentine edition. The second case considered was that of Andrea Morosini’s Historia Veneta, a political history of Venice from 1521 to 1615, published in Venice in 1615. Despite Morosini’s impeccable academic credentials and close links to powerful Venetian figures, and the book’s stressing of the need for a complete accord between Venice and the Papacy, the ecclesiastical authorities opposed its publication because of the way it narrated the events of the period of the interdict. The Venetian authorities decided to have it published anyway, without ecclesiastical approval, by special decree of the Senate. The ecclesiastical authorities responded by placing the book on the Index until it had been corrected; the Venetian authorities refused to publish the ban.

The final discussion explored a number of other issues, such as whether the Church’s ready access to a pool of educated men, already trained in this kind of work, made it easier for them to establish mechanisms for censorship than it was for the secular authorities, where censorship would inevitably end up in the hands of a literate and educated elite, who might have their own agenda and be more concerned to promote than to prevent publication. Another issue considered was whether the availability of books printed in other countries meant that secular censorship tended to be more concerned with production rather than circulation.

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