Most frequently pictured in what some historians call "The Black Legend," as a lone crusader persecuted by a narrow and superstitious Church, Galileo (1564-1642) was, in fact, an impatient and conceited individual who insisted on the unquestioned acceptance of his unproven theories, which in fact were scientifically wrong in several particulars. The basis of his theory was in fact scientifically false since he based it on the tides of the sea, which he claimed were caused by the motion of the earth around the sun (his heliocentric hypothesis), whereas the tides do not depend primarily on the sun, but on the moon.
He promulgated his ideas in a flamboyant style, "sometimes in bawdy writings" (Sobel), which set many of his colleagues in the academic community of the time against him. He deliberately chose, against the standard of the time, to write his books in the vulgar tongue rather than in the Latin of academia, thereby playing, as it were, to the crowds rather than posing a scientific hypothesis to those who could seriously critique it. One of the papal representatives, Melchior Ingofer, expressed it thus: "He writes in Italian, certainly not to extend the hand to foreigners or other learned men, but rather to entice to that view common people, in whom errors very easily take root."
Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, later proclaimed a Saint of the Church, a brilliant Renaissance man who was a great friend and supporter of Galileo, attempted to temper Galileo's brashness by advising him through a mutual acquaintance. "It seems to me that your Reverence and Signor Galileo would act prudently were you to content yourselves with speaking hypothetically and not absolutely, as I have always believed that Copernicus spoke." Galileo, however, refused to qualify his assertions and arrogantly remarked: "You cannot help it ... that it was granted to me alone to discover all the new phenomena in the sky and nothing to anybody else." Galileo, however, refused to qualify his assertions and arrogantly remarked: "You cannot help it ... that it was granted to me alone to discover all the new phenomena in the sky and nothing to anybody else." Later, however, he recanted his prideful statement and admitted: "My error, then, has been, and I confess it, one of vainglorious ambition and of pure ignorance and inadvertence.... Indeed, those flaws that can be seen scattered in my book were introduced ... through the vain ambition and satisfaction of appearing clever above and beyond the average among popular writers" (1633).
Ironically, both Luther and Melanchthon had rejected Galileo's theory off-hand. Moreover, many in the academic would were hostile to Galileo and condemned his theories. On the contrary, it was the Roman Catholic Church, not the "enlightened reformers," that sponsored Galileo's lectures and supported his honest endeavors. Pope Urban VIII, Cardinal Bellarmine, and many other leaders of the Church publicly Galileo's scientific work, many of them owned telescopes made by him and conducted their own observations.
Galileo was not condemned. In only one trial, in 1633 (not the two that some erroneously allege, as in 1616 his friend Cardinal Bellarmine only advised him informally), he was given a moderate sentence (the recitation once a week for three years of the penitential psalms, which he had already been doing anyway and voluntarily continued to do afterwards, a practice that would take only fifteen minutes per week) for publishing as pure doctrine what he was told to publish as theory. The basis of his theory was in fact false since he based it on the tides of the sea, which depend not primarily on the sun, but on the moon.
Galileo spent not even one single day in prison, nor did he suffer any physical penalty. On the contrary, during his trial in Rome in 1633, he was housed in elegant apartments with a personal servant. Thereafter, he resided for a time in the palace (which his daughter described as "so delightful") of the Archbishop of Siena, a supporter. He was never prohibited from continuing his work and studies, and was never barred from receiving visitors. In other words, instead of holding Galileo prisoner as a confessed heretic, he was indulged as a guest of honor. Galileo died at the age of 78 in his own bed, with the plenary indulgence and blessing of the pope. (Vittorio Messori, Levandas Negras de la Iglesia)
Moreover, the pope of the time, Urban VIII, had brought to the Holy See an interest in scientific investigation not shared by his immediate predecessors. Galileo knew him personally -- had shown him his telescope, and had won him to his side one night, after a banquet at the Florentine court, in a debate about why ice floats. Urban had long admired Galileo so much that he had even written a poem for him, mentioning the sights revealed by "Galileo's glass."
Maria Celeste, Galileo's sister, delighted with her father at this turn of events: "The happiness I derived from the gift of the letters you sent me, Sire, written to you by that most distinguished Cardinal, now elevated to the exalted position of Supreme Pontiff, was ineffable, for his letters so clearly express the affection he has for you, and also shows how highly he values your abilities." (Dava Sobel)