The Case of Vanini
January 2009By Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.
Lucilio Vanini seems to have been the precursor of those homosexual and infidel priests who have in recent years caused great suffering to the Catholic Church. When a priest falls from faith and morality, he falls from an incalculable height. To borrow a phrase from the poet Traherne, he plummets "Not from, but from above, the sky . Into a fathomless descent / Unto the nether sky." Vanini was just such a priest one who fell from angelic heights into the netherworld of sodomy and atheist proselytizing.
Sixty years after Vanini was executed for atheism in 1619, Pierre Bayle honored him in his Pensées diverses (1682) as a model of perfect virtue and an atheist-martyr. One of the first to respond to this false image of Vanini was David Durand, a Huguenot pastor of Bayle's acquaintance in Holland. Durand noted that Bayle had minimized the "crimes of the atheists" and maximized the "failings" of those who had "zeal for religion." In conversations with Bayle, and later in his biographical Life of Lucilio Vanini (1717), Durand pointed out that Vanini was a "notorious hypocrite" and the "Grand Patriarch of Atheists" the trunk from which a multitude of branches sprouted in the 17th and 18th centuries. Atheism did not originate in the pretended Enlightenment, but was launched much earlier by Vanini.
Born in 1586 near Naples, Vanini took full advantage of the Church to obtain an education. He learned physics, astronomy, law, philosophy, and theology, and in the course of his studies was ordained a priest. It was during these years that he became an atheist, for he revealed later that Pietro Pomponazzi, a philosopher of the previous century, had been the "divine Master" who taught him to revere atheists as models of the "most perfect virtue." Bayle popularized this myth, that the atheist is a man of superior virtue, and offered Vanini as an example. This myth is still very much alive today, and on display in the recent book god Is Not Great by the atheist Christopher Hitchens.
As soon as Vanini finished his studies, he showed the extent of his vanity by abandoning his baptismal name of Lucilio for that of "Julius Caesar." He then started on his travels across Europe, arriving in Paris in 1610, at age 25. It is reported that he was tall, slender, with a long nose, sparkling eyes, and light brown hair. Wherever he went, he gave the impression of being a well-educated man, "very ambitious, subtle, of an easy address, jovial in conversation, and full of spirit and activity," according to Durand.
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