In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Fra Paolo Sarpi

  • Introduction
  • Biographies
  • Collections of Papers
  • Interpretations
  • The Council of Trent
  • The Servite Order
  • The Jesuits
  • Sarpi and England
  • Censorship and Politics of Information
  • Scientific Interests and Relationship with Galileo
  • The Justifications of the Venetian Power on the Adriatic Sea
  • Reception

Renaissance and Reformation Fra Paolo Sarpi
Mario Infelise
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0297


Born in Venice on 14 August 1552, Fra Paolo Sarpi also died there on 15 January 1623. He entered into the Servite Order and spent the greater part of his life in the Santa Maria dei Servi convent of Venice, where he cultivated many intellectual interests. He was a theologian, historian, and jurist; at the same time, he expressed an intense curiosity in mathematics, physics, and medicine and passed his days in the most lively Venetian circles of the time. He was a friend of Galileo Galilei, with whom he entered into involved debates. He would have spent his life out of the public eye had it not been for January 1606—when the conflict between the Venetian clergy and the Catholic Church culminated in the proclamation of the Interdict against the Republic of Venice by Pope Paul V. During that time, he was called upon as a state theologian and adviser (consultore in iure) to endorse the Republic’s cause with a long series of writings defending the Venetian state. He therefore quickly gained fame as the most intransigent adversary of the papacy after Luther and Calvin and was excommunicated in January 1607. In October of the same year, he was the victim of a murder attempt by hired assassins sent from Rome. His works were all printed following his assignment to this political role. His major writings centered around the relationship between the church and the secular orders and firmly advocated for the necessity of containing or eliminating ecclesiastical interference altogether. For this reason, from that moment on, the reading of his works has been strongly linked to every conflict that has animated relations between church and state. This situation has shaped the interpretation of his thinking and his position regarding religion in specific ways. If, for the Catholic authorities, Sarpi was a Protestant in disguise; for Calvinists and Lutherans, it was he who made evident the secular pretensions of the papacy. At the same time, the Servite Order was ambiguous in their position toward him, while Venice’s ruling class was intent on portraying him as an authentic Catholic victim of Rome’s arrogance. Since the 1960s, the rediscovery and publication of his numerous unpublished writings (letters, consulti, reports commissioned by one of the Republic’s bodies, and the Pensieri, that is, personal written reflections) have shed light on the private philosophical aspect of his personality. These unpublished writings—substantially different from what emerges in his public writings—have contributed to providing a much more complex and nuanced picture of his deep convictions, within which we find a multitude of prominent suggestions that are both skeptical and libertine, if not in actual fact atheistic.


In the absence of an extensive complete modern biography, Micanzio 1974 still remains the principal point of reference as it contains an abundance of information—information that is not, however, always entirely credible. Fulgenzio Micanzio (b. 1570–d. 1654) was Sarpi’s friend and brother Servite who published his biography in 1646 with the purpose of fostering the memory of Sarpi during years in which the intention of the Catholic Church was to have any memory of him fade into oblivion. It was widely circulated in Europe and was translated into other languages; the English translation was published in 1651 (see Micanzio 1974). Griselini 1760 has similar objectives, but he also focuses more attention on his scientific profile and his relationships with some of the principal scientists of his time. Later biographies, as is often the case with studies on Sarpi, tend to glorify or condemn the anti-papal and anti-clerical facets. Bianchi Giovini 1836 highlights this aspect in particular, as does much of the Anglo-Saxon historiography, such as Campbell 1869 and Robertson 1893. After 1960, in the wake of research by Gaetano Cozzi and Luisa Cozzi, and following the rediscovery of his unpublished writings, the focus could be expanded beyond purely confessional controversy, which had been greatly shaped by Catholic aversion and protestant embrace. Scholars consequently turned their attention to aspects of his education and intellectual relationships, triggering a radical reconsideration of the complex implications of his profound way of thinking. Cozzi and Cozzi 1984 summarizes the numerous studies carried out in the decades earlier by the authors on various aspects of Sarpi’s activities. Cozzi 1996 dedicates substantial space to Sarpi’s cultural and scientific education, and Pin 2012 traces a concise but up-to-date and dense comprehensive profile, which considers the various elements that emerge from reading the Pensieri.

  • Bianchi Giovini, Aurelio. Biografia di Frà Paolo Sarpi teologo e consultore di stato della repubblica veneta. Zurich, Switzerland: Orell, Füssli & Comp., 1836.

    Widely received biography in Italian, which takes an anti-clerical position, and was republished several times until 1850.

  • Campbell, Arabella Georgina. The Life of Fra Paolo Sarpi, Theologian and Counsellor of State to the Most Serene Republic of Venice, and Author of the History of the Council of Trent. London: Molini & Green, 1869.

    Makes use of material advanced by Fulgenzio Micanzio and Francesco Griselini, as well as a primary survey of manuscripts conserved at the Venetian State Archives. Translated into Italian in 1875 (Florence: Loescher).

  • Cozzi, Luisa. “La formazione culturale e religiosa e la maturazione filosofica e politico-giuridica nei Pensieri di Paolo Sarpi.” In Pensieri naturali, metafisici e matematici. Edited by Luisa Cozzi and Libero Sosio, 25–88. Milan and Naples, Italy: Ricciardi, 1996.

    Important and dense intellectual biography in Italian that focuses attention on his cultural and religious education as deduced from the Pensieri.

  • Cozzi, Gaetano, and Luisa Cozzi. “Paolo Sarpi.” In Storia della cultura veneta. Vol. 4.2, Il Seicento. Edited by Girolamo Arnaldi and Manlio Pastore Stocchi, 1–36. Vicenza, Italy: Neri Pozza, 1984.

    The first modern biography on Sarpi to summarize the many previous studies by Gaetano Cozzi and Luisa Cozzi, published from 1956 on, mostly in the Rivista Storica Italiana. It can serve as the departure point for any study on the topic.

  • Griselini, Francesco. Memorie anecdote spettanti alla vita ed agli studi del sommo filosofo e giureconsulto F. Paolo Servita. Lausanne, Switzerland: Giovanni Nestenus, 1760.

    Griselini develops a sort of official Venetian interpretation of Sarpi’s actions, which denies ties he may have had with the Protestants. Griselini—who used the Sarpian manuscripts later lost in the fire in the Venetian Servite convent in 1769—for the first time addressed Sarpi’s scientific interests in the fields of mathematics, physics, and anatomy, as well as his relationships with some of the principal scientists of his time.

  • Micanzio, Fulgenzio. “Vita del padre Paolo (1552–1623).” In Istoria del Concilio Tridentino. Edited by Corrado Vivanti, 1173–1413. Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 1974.

    The first biography on Sarpi by the Servite Fulgenzio Micanzio, published anonymously in Leiden in 1646. It was reprinted numerous times and coevally translated in French (1661, 1663, 1665, 1666) and English (1651 and 1676). This modern edition of reference is based on the autograph conserved in the Archivio di Stato of Venice.

  • Pin, Corrado, “Paolo Sarpi.” In Il contributo italiano alla storia del pensiero: Filosofia. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 2012.

    Up-to-date and concise intellectual profile of Sarpi with much attention to a comparison of his private writings with his public character.

  • Robertson, Alexander. Fra Paolo Sarpi, the Greatest of the Venetians. London: Sampson Low, 1893.

    Widely received biography in English, including illustrations and a facsimile letter, with the purpose of being broadly circulated through its strongly anti-papal content. The volume follows the life of Sarpi based on both known sources and the attempts of the Roman Church to conceal his actions. It was published in connection with the unveiling of his statue in Venice. Reprinted in 1894 and in 1911.

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