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The Roman Inquisition was a system of tribunals developed by the Holy See during the second half of the 16th century, responsible for prosecuting individuals accused of a wide array of crimes related to heresy, including sorcery, immorality, blasphemy, Judaizing and witchcraft, as well for censorship of printed literature. The tribunals covered most of the Italian peninsula as well as Malta and also existed in isolated pockets of papal jurisdiction in other parts of Europe, including Avignon, in France. The Congregation of the Holy Office, one of the original 15 congregations of the Roman Curia created by Pope Sixtus V in 1588, presided over the activity of the local tribunals. While the Roman Inquisition was originally designed to combat the spread of Protestantism in Italy, the institution outlived its original purpose, and the system of tribunals lasted until the mid 18th century, when the Italian states began to suppress the local inquisitions, effectively eliminating the power of the church to prosecute heretical crimes.

The pope appointed one cardinal to preside over the meetings. There were usually ten other cardinals who were members of the Congregation, as well as a prelate and two assistants all chosen from the Dominican Order. The Holy Office also had an international group of consultants, experienced scholars of theology and canon law, who advised it on specific questions. In 1616 these consultants gave their assessment of the propositions that the Sun is immobile and at the center of the universe and that the Earth moves around it, judging both to be "foolish and absurd in philosophy," and the first to be "formally heretical" and the second "at least erroneous in faith" in theology. This assessment led to Copernicus's De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium to be placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, until revised and Galileo Galilei to be admonished about his Copernicanism. It was this same body in 1633 that tried Galileo, condemned him for a "grave suspicion of heresy", and banned all his works.

Among the subjects of this Inquisition were Francesco Patrizi, Giordano Bruno, Tommaso Campanella, Girolamo Cardano, Cesare Cremonini, and Galileo Galilei. Of these, only Bruno was executed; Galileo died under house arrest, and Campanella was imprisoned for twenty-seven years. The miller Domenico Scandella was also put to the stake on the orders of Pope Clement VIII in 1599.

The Inquisition also concerned itself with the Benandanti in the Friuli region, but considered them a lesser danger than the Reformation and only handed out light sentences.

The Inquisition in Malta (1561 to 1798) is generally considered to have been gentler than the Spanish Inquisition. [1]

Italian historian Andrea Del Col estimates that out of 62,000 cases judged by Inquisition in Italy after 1542 around 2% (ca. 1250) ended with death sentence.[2]

The last notable action of the Roman Inquisition occurred in 1858, in Bologna, when Inquisition agents kidnapped a 6-year-old Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, separating him from his family.[3] The local inquisitor had learned that the boy was secretly baptised by his nursemaid. Pope Pius IX raised the boy as a Catholic in Rome. The boy's father, Momolo Montara, spent years seeking help in all quarters, including internationally, to try to reclaim his son. The case received international attention and fueled the anti-papal sentiments that helped the Italian Nationalism movement.[4]


  3. Kertzer, David I. (1997). The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. Knopf. ISBN 0679450319. 
  4. "The End of the Inquisition". David Rabinovitch, producer, director. Secret Files of the Inquisition. PBS. May 2007.

See also

  • Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, current name of the former Inquisition
  • Medieval Inquisition
  • Hague tribunal
  • Inquisition
  • Counter-Reformation
  • Protestant Reformation
  • Pomponio Algerio, attracted attention of the Inquisition and finally executed by civil authorities
  • Sébastien Bourdon (1616-1671), a French Protestant painter forced to flee Italy
  • Diego de Enzinas, Protestant burnt to the stake in 1547
  • Francesco Barberini (1597-1679), secretary of the Inquisition 1633-79
  • Pietro, Cardinal Ottoboni (1667-1740), secretary of the Inquisition 1726-40
  • Tommaso Crudeli, freemason imprisoned by the Inquisition
  • Cornelio Da Montalcino, (a Franciscan friar who had embraced Judaism, and was burned alive on the Campo dei Fiori)
  • Ecclesia non novit sanguinem

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