SARPI, Paolo

A Venetian cleric and historian, Paolo Sarpi is best known for articulating the rights of the Venetian state against the universal claims of the papacy. Pre­cocious as a child, by age thirteen Sarpi had joined the Servite order, and by eighteen he was a reader in canon law and positive theology. He received his doctorate at Padua in 1576, and at age thirty-three he became procurator general of his order (1585-88). Despite several brushes with the authorities, Sarpi as­sumed no public role until the city of Venice appointed him as its theological and canonistic consultant.
In the spring of 1606 the papacy placed the Venetian state under interdict for its refusal to withdraw several measures restricting the economic and political power of the clergy in Venice. The clash between the papacy and Venice ex­posed two conflicting ideals of Christian life: papal supremacy and universal order, on the one hand, and service to God through involvement in an earthly community, on the other. Sarpi's considerable talents served to define and de­fend the general Venetian sense of independence and pride that had long char­acterized the republic.
Though in April 1607 the Venetians won on every point of substance with the lifting of the interdict, the strains it had created, together with general eco­nomic deterioration, served to tip the once-flourishing republic into a long, ir­reversible decline. Sarpi perceived the internal weakness of his republic and compared it to a patient who lacked visible symptoms but nonetheless still suf­fered from disease. Official status and recognition failed to protect Sarpi from his enemies. In October 1607 he was severely beaten and left for dead by uni­dentified assailants who took refuge in the Papal States; the Curia itself took less violent but still dramatic action in burning his writings. Though he remained in favor in Venice and wrote with great caution in his later years, the papal nuncio in Venice demanded (fruitlessly) after Sarpi's death in 1623 that his body be exhumed and tried for heresy.
Sarpi's longest-lived and most influential writings include his History of the Interdict and History of the Council of Trent, in which he argued that the council had failed to eliminate corrupt practices from the past, practices that existed not only because of ambitious worldly prelates, but because of general historical conditions. By using the form of a dialogue, Sarpi presented a variety of inter­pretations of ecclesiastical and human history, many of which emphasize human failings and limitations. He noted with displeasure the clerical bias of the coun­cil, and in his tract on benefices he gave full voice to his conviction that a healthy church required the active participation of the laity and of secular gov­ernments. On certain points clerical self-interest was certain to collide with gen­uine reform, and on these points only concerned lay powers could effectively perceive and resolve problems within the church. Many years later, Enlighten­ment writers from David Hume to Edward Gibbon would praise his insight and judicious reflections, as they would more broadly the republican traditions and liberty of Venice itself.
W. J. Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty: Renaissance Values in the Age ofthe Counter Reformation, 1968.
P. Sarpi, History of Benefices and Selections from History of the Council of Trent, trans. and ed. Peter Burke, 1967.
D. Wootton, Paolo Sarpi: Between Renaissance and Enlightenment, 1983.
Alison Williams Lewin

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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