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Banning and burning of books: A peep into the Roman Inquisition
When we visit other places on business or as a tourist, we may get an outsider's view of monuments of historical or cultural relevance. Seldom do we get an insider's view of the making of history of a country or a locality.

During my extended business trips to Italy, I did get such a rare chance: 

On reaching our office in Milan, I was introduced to an engineer who was to be my counterpart for about 3 years. Alberto Visconti and I were to work together on a petrochemical project coming up in India. During the course of the day, Alberto invited me home for the evening. En route to his home after office, he pointed out some historical landmarks, including the grand cathedral, the famous opera house La Scala and the nearby 19th century iconic Galleria (world's first covered shopping mall). 

During the drive I realised, that the person showing me around was no ordinary proud citizen, but seemed to have a sense of possessiveness towards history of Milan. By the time we approached his home, my sixth sense was confirmed. We entered a medieval edifice, which was a state protected historical monument. Alberto Visconti and his family occupied a few rooms of the Visconti family's palace. The state maintained the property and Alberto did not have to pay any wealth tax on it. 

To meet his parents over the weekend, we took the train to Stresa on the shores of Lago Maggiore, Italy's largest alpine lake. While Alberto lived in Milan in the family palace, his parents stayed in one of the family's medieval fortresses, by the lake (See inset)! From the station, we walked up the cobbled road to the fort, which flew the Visconti crest. We pulled a long chain, which rang a huge brass bell. Hearing the bell, his parents came down and pushed the heavy wooden doors and welcomed us in. The fort was full of ancient weapons, knight's helmets, armour and pennants. During that weekend, Alberto gave me snatches of information about his 13th century clan, which had dominated the political and religious life of Milan and the neighbouring provinces of North Italy. He mentioned that I could read the entire history of the 'Viscontis of Milan', by referring to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which I eventually did.

The Visconti clan came into prominence in the 13th century. It has produced a Pope Gregory X (Teobaldo Visconti), a Cardinal and three Archbishops of Milan and many prominent personalities of Milan and Italy. The Viscontis shaped Milan until World War II. Famous film director Luchino Visconti also was a member of this family. 

Knowing of my interest in history, Alberto proposed that one weekend we go to Bologna. The city boasts of having one of the oldest universities in the world and its library apart from rare books, also houses numerous art works. But it was not this library that Alberto was taking me to! Curiously, we were heading towards a monastery, where one of his cousins was a monk. 

When we entered the monastery, we were welcomed into a very austerely furnished hall. It had rough wooden dining tables and benches. After introductions, the monk cousin served us coffee in simple enamel mugs. In the meanwhile, I was casting my eyes around in the dimly lit arched interiors of this medieval building. Dan Brown and his readers would have felt very much at home in these mysterious settings. 

Niceties over, the plump monk got up and returned with a huge bunch of large keys. Holding a candlestick, he beckoned us to follow him into a dark passage, which had hefty locked doors, on either side. All this had an eerie feeling about it. Finally, he stopped at a door and it creaked open after he had found the right key. What stood before me was a hall stacked with books in shelves, all along the walls. But these were no ordinary books! These were books condemned and banned by the Roman Catholic Church. Possessing or propagating 'heretical' literature invited brutal punishments and worse. This brings us to the Inquisitions - an infamous chapter in the history of the Church. 

As summarised by my friend Alberto and his cousin monk: Alarmed by the spread of Protestantism and other practices and schools of thought, the Pope instituted the Roman Inquisition staffed with six cardinals, which among other things was charged 'to draw up a list of books which he felt offended faith or morals. This resulted in the first 'Index of Forbidden Books' in mid 16th century. The list was updated from time to time and from region to region.

While gawking at the captions of the books, I was both amused and shocked, that today what the world recognises as literary and philosophical masterpieces and scientific breakthroughs of far reaching consequences were taken to be heretical, and deserved to be banned and the offenders punished. Apart from the works of Galileo and Copernicus, as a lay reader I could recognise the works of Daniel Defoe, Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Flaubert, etc. 

Jon Miltimore commenting on the list wrote: 'Unsurprisingly, 'heretical' scientific works written by Kepler, Galileo, and Copernicus all made the list. More surprising is that many philosophical tracts penned by luminaries such as Locke, Hobbes, Kant, Descartes, Montesquieu, and Mill also made the list. Perhaps most surprising is the number of novels flagged by Church censors, including some seemingly benign literary classics.' 

Copernicus in his path breaking book 'On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres', postulated the model of the Solar system, in which it was the Earth which went around the Sun and not the other way round! The Inquisition found the book to be heretical and 'absurd in philosophy', though that is the only accepted model of our Solar system today! 

Death saved Copernicus the retribution, but Galileo was severely criticised for supporting Copernicus in his own writings. To cut a long story short, an Inquisition trial found him 'vehemently suspect of heresy'. He was forced to retract and lived the rest of his life under house arrest! 

For its horrors, the Roman Inquisition pales in comparison to the Spanish Inquisition, when not only books were burnt, but those condemned as heretics were publicly executed or burnt at the stake! 

Standing in that dark damp hall, I realised the power of books. They are the carriers of ideas. And ideas have the potential to change the world. No wonder, despots throughout history have persecuted dissent.  For the aura of power and certainty around them, masks their insecurities! 

 "You find as you look around the world, that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the coloured races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world.' – Bertrand Russell

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