The Great Unmasker: Paolo Sarpi, 1552-1623

Described by Bossuet as “a Protestant in friar's clothing,” Sarpi was an historian who saw that religion might be a cloak for political designs and, as Peter Burke describes, organised his historical writings around this point.

Who is Paolo Sarpi? Today, many educated Englishmen would be hard put to it to answer this question. It was different in the nineteenth century, when Macaulay called him “my favourite modern historian,” Acton violently attacked him, and three biographies of him in English were published; in the eighteenth century, when Bolingbroke, Gibbon, Hallam and Robertson all praised him, and Dr. Johnson thought of translating him; and in the seventeenth century, when three of his books and some of his letters were translated, when his admirers included Burnet, his friends Wotton, and among his acquaintances and correspondents were probably Bacon, Gilbert, and possibly Donne.

Paolo Sarpi was born Pietro Sarpi in Venice in 1552, the son of an unsuccessful merchant. He was fourteen when he became a Servite friar and took the name “Paul”; twenty-two when he was ordained. He was at Mantua as court theologian; then passed to Milan, where he met the Archbishop, Cardinal Carlo Borromeo; then taught philosophy at the Servite convent in Venice while studying theology at the University of Padua. He was still only twenty-seven when he became Provincial of the Venetian province of his order; thirty-two when he went to Rome to spend three years as procurator-general of the whole order. At Rome he came to know the Jesuit Bellarmine.

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