Chapter 4 – Sarpi's Web



“Will you walk into my parlor?” said the spider to the fly; 
“Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you may spy. 
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
 
And I have many curious things to show when you are there.”
 

“Oh no, no,” said the little fly; 
“to ask me is in vain,
 
For who goes up your winding stair 
can ne'er come down again.”
 

                                               Mary Howitt 


    In 1598, Sir Edwin Sandys, then residing in Venice, wrote a book on the state of religion in Europe, titled Europae Speculum. Sandys' editor, and alleged co-author was Paolo Sarpi, who had befriended Sandys during the latter's extended stay in Venice. In 1605 Sandy's book was published, in Paris, by Sarpi's friend and confident, the Huguenot leader Giovanni Diodoti, complete with an introduction supplied by Sarpi himself.

    Nine years after leaving Venice, Sandys became one of the founders of the London Virginia Company, chartered by King James I, for the purpose of establishing English colonies in North America. In 1618, Sandys was made treasurer of the company and effectively ran it until 1623. In 1619, under Sandys leadership, two dozen African slaves, purchased from a Dutch man-of-war, were brought into Virginia, the first black slaves in an English-speaking North American colony. The economy of the colony was organized around a series of plantations, including “Captain Lawne's Plantation” and “Captain Warde's Plantation,” and it was Sandys who also introduced the cultivation of tobacco as the major cash crop of the colony. Thus was the tidewater slave-plantation system established, and the seedling of the later Confederate States of America planted on North American soil. Sandys later sat in Parliament for many years where he introduced a number bills supporting free trade, and was active in the affairs of the British East India Company until his death.

    The above snapshot of the Sarpi/Sandys relationship is given to illustrate the breadth of Sarpi's influence and reach in the years from 1582 to 1623. His contacts, correspondence, and networks (not including his personal coterie in the ridotti of Venice), was staggeringly widespread. His web of followers included intimates in most of the courts of Europe, leading scientific circles, and the major universities, including Geneva, Leyden, Oxford and Cambridge. His correspondence was voluminous. Despite the fact that most of Sarpi's personal papers were destroyed by fire in 1769, there are 430 letters from Sarpi still extant. During the period of the Interdict and later, Sarpi had unrestricted access to all of the dispatches sent from abroad by Venice's Ambassadors,1 placing him at the center of Venetian intelligence-gathering operations. His letters contain references to events as widespread as the Spanish gold trade, movements of the Dutch fleet, political changes in Egypt and Persia, and the issue of colonization of the Americas. And, of course, there is also the scientific and philosophical correspondence. 

    The effect of the personal acclaim which descended on Sarpi, as a result of his role during the Interdict, cannot be underestimated. Not only was his name on the tongues of the elite throughout Europe, many young aspiring aristocrats actually traveled to Venice to meet the great man himself, including the future British Prime Minister Robert Cecil, another founder of the London Virginia Company William Cavendish, and the “philosopher” Thomas Hobbes. 

    It is impossible to fully analyze the entire Sarpi network, but I will use the rest of this chapter to give thumbnail profiles of about a dozen of Sarpi's allies and disciples. The truth is there were hundreds of such Sarpi allies, but these few brief sketches will hopefully give some indication of the scope and nature of Sarpi's reach.

Henry Wotton The only man ever to serve three times as the British Ambassador to Venice (1604-1612, 1616-1619, 1621-1624), Wotton was Sarpi's staunchest political supporter within the British aristocracy. It is likely he met Sarpi as early as 1590, during a visit to Venice, and it is certain that in 1593 he was living at the home of Sarpi confident Isaac Casaubon in Geneva. From 1604 to 1608, Sarpi and Wotton met constantly with the Venetian Senate during the Interdict crisis, and during this period Wotton was under the personal protection of the Giovani Doge Leonardo Donato.
    Wotton also played an important role in recruiting and organizing the pro-Venetian circle at Oxford University, grouped around the Italian Protestant
Albericus Gentili. Among others, this group included Robert Cecil, Thomas Walsingham, John Donne, and James Florio. When Galileo's Sidereus Nuncias (Starry Messenger) was published in 1610, Wotton sent a copy to Robert Cecil on the very same day.

Francis Bacon – Bacon was brought into contact with Sarpi by William Cavendish, shortly after Cavendish's protege Thomas Hobbes began to serve as Bacon's personal secretary. Cavendish was in regular contact with Sarpi, and there are indications that Hobbes’ appointment may have been arranged at the suggestion of Sarpi or his aide Micanzio. In 1616 Cavendish personally initiated the correspondence between Sarpi and Bacon, which then lasted for many years. In the course of their relationship, Bacon sent many of his works, including his Essays, to Sarpi for critique. Micanzio, in one of his letters to William Cavendish, said of Bacon, “that he is so full of knowledge, moral and divine, that the abundance of this breast is communicated to whatsoever he reads.”
    Micanzio actually became Bacon's official literary agent in Venice, helping to spread his fame there, and another Sarpi ally, Marco Antonio de Dominis, also aided Bacon by translating his Essays into Italian.
    Bacon's famous philosophical method of induction, where understanding proceeds from the senses to the intellect, is taken entirely from Sarpi, as is easily demonstrated by comparing it with Sarpi's Pensieri #146, written many years earlier.2 Bacon was, in fact the perfect agent for spreading Sarpi's method of empiricism into England, and his philosophical influence continued to grow in the years following his death in 1626, culminating in the founding of the Oxford Group (Invisible College) in the 1640s, the forerunner of the British Royal Society.

Phillippe du Plessis-Mornay – A major Calvinist leader, and the reputed author of the "monarchomach"3 Vindiciae contra Tyrannos, Mornay was sometimes referred to as the "Huguenot Pope." A graduate of the Venetian-controlled University of Padua, Mornay was an intimate associate of Paolo Sarpi. He made many visits to the ridotti of Venice, and he was at Sarpi's side throughout the Interdict crisis. Mornay was also a close friend of the English aristocrat Philip Sidney, and visited Sidney at his home in Penshurst. Sidney translated Mornay's A Work Concerning the Trueness of the Christian Religion into English, and after Sidney's death his wife Mary, published her own translation of another work by Mornay, A Discourse of Life and Death, as well as two original poems in praise of Mornay.
    Mornay was also a leading advisor to Henry of Navarre, and according to some sources rivaled even Sully in influence. After Henry's conversion to Catholicism in 1593, Mornay resigned from his service. He then established the most influential Huguenot school in Europe, the University of Saumur, which became his base of operations for the remainder of his life.

Francois Hotman - a French lawyer, Hotman lived in Geneva from 1547 to 1556, working as Jean Calvin's secretary, and accompanying Calvin to the Diet of Worms. In 1560, Hotman was one of the principal organizers of the failed Amboise conspiracy (a Huguenot plot to overthrow the Guise family, and put Louis I Bourbon, the Prince of Conde, on the French throne). From 1560 to 1572 Hotman was a principal leader of the Huguenots. In 1572 he published his major work Franco-Gallia, in which he attacked the power of the monarchy. Hotman was both a friend and years-long correspondent of Paolo Sarpi. He also maintained a lengthy correspondence with Alberico Gentili at Oxford.

Marcantun (Marco Antonio) de Dominis – a leading mathematics and Theology professor at the University of Padua, de Dominis was for many years on intimate terms with Sarpi. At Padua he conducted experiments on optics, physics, and mechanics, utilizing Sarpi's new empiricist methodology. A Roman Catholic Bishop, de Dominis sided with Venice during the Interdict. To escape the Inquisition, he fled to Geneva in 1615, and two years later Henry Wotton arranged for his departure for England. By 1617 he was lecturing in Cambridge, and in 1619 he was named Dean of Windsor College. Before leaving Venice, de Dominis was given a copy of the History of the Council of Trent by Sarpi, which with Wotton's help, de Dominis then had published in London.
    De Dominis was a key entry-point for Sarpi into British scientific circles. Based on earlier work by Sarpi, de Dominis developed a theory of the tides, that was later incorporated into Isaac Newton's theory of gravitation. In 1611 he published a book on optics which was also highly praised by Newton. De Dominis also played an important role in the “handling” of Francis Bacon, including translating Bacon's Essays into Italian, and arranging to have them published in Venice.

    Eventually, de Dominis met a very sad end. Under threats from the Vatican, he returned to Rome and attempted to rejoin the Catholic Church, but he was arrested for his previous heresy. He died in prison awaiting trial. By order of the Inquisition, his body was dragged through the streets of Rome, and then publicly burned.

Huig de Groot (Hugo Grotius) – Arguably, one of the most influential writers on the subject of international law in the last 400 years, Grotius was very much ensnared in Sarpi's web. Much of Grotius' theories on law and trade are actually taken wholesale from the theorists of the Spanish School of Salamanca,4 and it was the Salamancans’ pluralist free-market views on international law which were incorporated, almost in toto, in Grotius’ work De Jure Praedae, which, in turn, served as the philosophical justification for the new Amsterdam-based system of Empire.
    Grotius was for many years in correspondence with Sarpi, and his attitude can only be described as groveling. He referred to Sarpi as “Paolo the Great,” and looked to Sarpi for approval of his works. Unfortunately for Grotius, from Sarpi's standpoint, both he and Oldenbarneveldt were on the wrong side of the political fight in the Netherlands, which reached a climax in 1618. Sarpi supported Grotius' enemies in the House of Orange, not for ideological reasons, but because they were the “war party,” committed to a military alliance with Venice, and into bringing the Dutch into the hostilities against the Hapsburgs. When Grotius and Oldenbarneveldt were arrested, Sarpi shed no tears.
    Later, in exile in Paris, Grotius would become an active member of the empiricist Mersenne Circle, which included Thomas Hobbes and members of the Cavendish family, and was run directly out of Venice by Sarpi's secretary Micanzio.

Giovanni Diodati - Born in Geneva, Diodati became the third head of the Geneva Church, succeeding Theodore Beza, who was the successor to Jean Calvin. In 1618, he was one of the leaders of the Synod of Dort, which helped bring Venice's ally, Maurice of Nassau, into power in the Netherlands. In 1607, Diodoti was brought to Venice by du Plessis-Mornay, and some reports of the period suggest that, during the Interdict, it was a triumvirate of Sarpi, Diodoti, and William Bedell (Henry Wotton's chaplain), which effectively ran the Venetian government. Diodoti was eventually frustrated in his goal to bring Venice into the Calvinist fold. He failed to see that this was not Sarpi's aim. Sarpi was no Protestant.5 Sarpi's relations with the Calvinists, were in fact, like those of the spider to the fly. They may be inhabiting the same web, but their purposes for being there are quite different.
    Diodati also translated into French, and had published in Paris, both Sarpi's History of the Council of Trent, and Edwin Sandys' Europae Speculum.

Isaac Casaubon - Born in Geneva to French Huguenot parents Casaubon became a professor of Greek studies at Calvin's Geneva Academy in 1581. He maintained extensive contacts with leading academic circles throughout Europe, and it was through him that Sarpi frequently passed letters, particularly to his networks at the University of Leyden in the Netherlands. Casaubon's Geneva home functioned as a way-station for many travelers on their way to Venice. Casaubon was also a close collaborator of Joseph Scaliger, the patron of Grotius in Leyden. He later moved to France, but in 1610, after the assassination of Henry IV, he fled to England in the company of Lord Wotton of Marley (the brother of Henry Wotton, and a member of James I's Privy Council). In England he entered into the personal service of King James I. Throughout his life he maintained a regular correspondence with Sarpi.

Thomas Hobbes and William Cavendish – the story of Thomas Hobbes and the Cavendish family will be told later in this work.6 For now I will just say that the Cavendish family were unquestionably the closest personal allies that Sarpi had in England. William Cavendish, the Second Earl of Devonshire, accompanied Thomas Hobbes on a trip to Venice in 1614, where they both met with Paolo Sarpi and his associates.7 Following this trip Cavendish maintained a 13 year correspondence with Sarpi and his secretary Micanzio, from 1615 to 1628. Seventy-seven of Sarpi's letters from this correspondence still exist, all translated from the Italian into English by Thomas Hobbes. It was thought for many years that Micanzio wrote the letters, but it is now proven that, until the time of his death in 1623, Sarpi himself was the author.8
    It was also this same Cavendish who was a founding Director of the Virginia Company, and a member of the group which seized control of the Company in 1619. His allies at the Company, and in Parliament, included Southampton, Edwin Sandys, John Danvers, and several others. During his tenure as a Director of the Virginia Company, Cavendish gave one of his shares to Hobbes, allowing Hobbes to attend Directors’ meetings.
    Thomas Hobbes later became active in the Micanzio-run Paris-based Mersenne Circle, which was to become a center for the propagation of Galileo's works, and a hotbed for empiricist science. It was during the Mersenne Circle period that Hobbes would write The Leviathan and De Cive,
his recipes for oligarchical rule.


1 News Networks in 17th Century Britain and Europe, by Joan Raymond, Routledge Press, 2006

2 See Appendix 1

3 See Chapter 6

4 See Chapter 7

5 Paolo Sarpi: Between Renaissance and Enlightenment, by David Wooten, Cambridge, 1983

6 See Chapter 6

7 This is confirmed in a letter written by the then British Ambassador to Venice, Dudly Carleton.

8 News Networks in 17th Century Britain and Europe, by Joan Raymond, Routledge Press, 2006