Revisiting the Inquisition

Back in the Middle Ages, the Inquisition was a byword for fear and terror in Europe. Its tribunals, set up by the Vatican to ensure that "heretics" did not undermine the authority of the increasingly powerful Roman Catholic Church, burned and tortured witches, blasphemers and members of other faiths. Its judges condemned Galileo for saying that the Earth revolved around the Sun and executed thousands over the course of several centuries. Often, the best that the condemned could hope for was that they'd be strangled before being set alight at the stake.

Now, after centuries of secrecy on the subject, the Vatican has launched a new phase in its campaign to show that the Inquisition wasn't so bad after all. Church authorities have unveiled a temporary "Rare and Precious" exhibition at Rome's Vittoriano Museum to "expose some myths" about this dark chapter of its past. The exhibit is also intended as a modern-day object lesson for governments and armies—particularly those in the United States and Europe—who torture enemies and suspected terrorists, says curator Marco Pizzo. Not only does the church have an obligation to expose its own mistakes, he says, but the exhibit is also meant to help foster understanding of the complex nature of the church's history.

The "rare and precious" artifacts do not include notorious objects like racks or impaling tools. Rather, the 60 items on show for free to the public show just how much control the church exerted over the daily lives of medieval Europeans. The display includes documents about the church's restrictions on the movement of Jews, instructions for persecuting Protestants—including by hanging—and the "correction" of a Crucifixion drawing that removes blood spurting from the knees of Jesus. There are 18th-century maps outlining the ghettos of Rome, Ancona and Ferrara, depicting where Jews could live in pink or yellow and where they were allowed to keep businesses in blue. There are documents with handwritten regulations describing when Jewish women could be out of the gated areas and what they could wear. There are sketches of prisons and extensive lists of banned books and written edicts, like one from 1611 that outlines how inquisitors should comport themselves both on the job and off and an illustration showing what their children should wear to school and to the beach. The investigators are even told what pajamas are acceptable.

Other documents target game hunters and fishermen who were thought to be poaching from Vatican grounds. And then there's a gem-encrusted pastoral staff taken in the 19th-century from a man who was condemned to death for claiming he was a saint. "The Inquisitors had authority in areas ranging from iconography and the way images of saints and prelates could be portrayed," says Pizzo. "Everything had to be seen and controlled by the Holy Office, one way or another to defend the integrity of the faith, not just to repress."

This isn't the first time that the church has tried to show that the judges of the Inquisition were not as brutal as previously believed. In 2004, the Vatican published an 800-page report claiming that of those investigated as heretics by the notorious Spanish Inquisition—which became independent of Rome in the 15th century—only 1.8 percent were actually executed. Nonetheless, Pope John Paul II famously referred to the church's 700-year campaign against heresy as a "tormented phase" and the "greatest error in the church's history". Several years earlier, he had officially cleared Galileo and said that while the Inquisition acted in good
faith "they were wrong." (The original condemnation order against Galileo can be seen on the Web site featuring the Vatican's secret archives.)

The decision to finally display these intriguing elements of the church's darkest period to the general public arose from a joint effort between Vatican City and the city of Rome to reconcile Italy's complicated history and satisfy the desire for more transparency from the Catholic church. However, the artifacts on temporary display—the exhibition is being held for just a few weeks to limit damage to the delicate ancient parchments—represent only a small faction of the church's records of the period. Monsignor Alejandro Cifres of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who co-curated the show, won't say what else is still in the archives. The pieces on display, he says, "are the most representative of the church's motives and actions." For those seeking the ultimate truth about the Inquisition, that answer is unlikely to be enough.