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Brendan Dooley. Morandi's Last Prophecy and the End of Renaissance Politics.

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. xii + 238 pp. + 16 b/w pls. index. $36.50. ISBN: 0-691-04864-9.

Brendan Dooley has an eye for a good story. He also knows how to tell one, a skill evident in his latest book, which has all the elements of a modern-day thriller. Dooley spins out the tale of Orazio Morandi, abbot of the monastery of San Pressede in Rome and "the most honored astrologer in town" (1), whose spectacular fall from grace is detailed in a 2,800-page trial record preserved in the Archivio di Stato in Rome. As the book opens, on 7 November 1630, Morandi lies dead in a Roman prison, ostensibly of a fever; the town rumor mill has it, however, that the abbot was poisoned in order to put a hasty end to a trial whose twists and turns were embarrassingly implicating more and more members of the high Roman elite.

Morandi stood accused of a serious crime: that of having predicted, by means of judicial astrology, the imminent death of Pope Urban VIII. Although there had hardly been a pope more disposed to, and dependent on, the science of the stars than Urban (it was widely known, for example, that Urban had called in Tomasso Campanella to preside over an astrological magical ritual designed to counteract the ill effects of an eclipse in 1628), Morandi's alleged prophecy had gone too far. As the news of the pope's sure demise circulated in the spring of 1630, cardinals from the corners of Europe rushed to Rome to be present at the anticipated conclave, and no less a personage than Cardinal Richelieu in France took notice. As Morandi's trial unfolded in the summer and early fall, however, it became apparent that his little astrological judgment was no more than the tip of the iceberg. Under Morandi's abbacy, San Pressede was the epicenter of a hubbub of illicit activity, including, besides the perhaps obvious sexual shenanigans of poorly supervised monks, the copying and circulation of prohibited books, astrological consultations, and magical operations. And--worst of all--these activities had involved many of the highest-placed men in Rome. Hence the necessity of stopping the testimony--and immediately.

Dooley's book focuses not so much on Morandi's trial, however, as on the circumstances that led the abbot to make his "last prophecy." Most of the book is devoted to Dooley's reconstruction of the abbot's life--and his sense of the motivations behind Morandi's behavior--based on "what Morandi read, who his friends were, how he spent much of his time" (3). Dooley conjectures, plausibly enough, that Morandi was driven by a desire for connections, status, and power and that he found the way to achieve that status through his knowledge of the occult sciences. Not that Morandi spent his hours casting spells to better his own situation, but rather, Dooley argues, Morandi acquired social capital by serving as a broker of occult knowledge. And the primary vehicle through which Morandi operated was the massive library he assembled at San Pressede, a library chock-full of forbidden books on occult topics and current politics, all of which he lent out, free, to grateful--and powerful--patrons. Over time, Dooley conjectures, Morandi offered an increasingly diverse array of magical services and astrological consultations alongside of the books, in an ongoing effort to secure and keep the friendship of the powerful in Rome.

Dooley often explores the contents of Morandi's books as a way to introduce his readers to the multifaceted cultural world of late-Renaissance Rome. Morandi's example serves--in a fashion that surely would have pleased one so steeped in occult ideas--as a microcosm of his own world. But Dooley also wishes to make more of Morandi's case. He insists, not entirely convincingly, that Morandi's 1630 trial was the deciding blow that led to Galileo's condemnation in 1633. (Rather confusingly, Dooley would have Urban VIII mad at Galileo both for being an astrologer and for his disdain of astrology in the 1632 Dialogue on the Two World Systems.) And he wants the trial to have been the moment when "business as usual" Renaissance politics died, when it was no longer possible to "keep up appearances" by day, all the while consulting astrologers, cabalists, and magicians by night. While both of these claims appear to stretch the evidence Dooley has before him, his book remains engaging and fascinating, one sure to delight scholars and students alike.


University of Arkansas at Little Rock
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Article Details
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Author:Smoller, Laura
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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