by J. L. Heilbron
Oxford & New York: 2022. Pp.vi, 327+.
Illus., plates, notes, biblio., index. $27.95. ISBN: 0192856650
Religion, Science, and Covert Operations
The life of a now largely forgotten clergyman with a penchant for science and history would hardly make for stirring reading, but Prof. Heilbron (U.C. Berkely, Emeritus) gives us a hint of more with the words “court intrigue”. Little known today, the polymath Francesco Bianchini (1662-1729) had played an impressive role on many stages in his day, leading some historians to dub him “the greatest Italian of the times”.
As a clergyman, he rose high in the church as an advisor to several popes, including his friend Clement XI. And Bianchini was a notable astronomer, designing advanced instruments for the times, while treading a fine line between doctrine and science. But he was also an archaeologist, historian, and mathematician, and even dabbled in fortification design. A correspondent of the noted scientists of the age, he was elected to the Royal Academy on the nomination of Isaac Newton.
And there’s more. Bianchini was also an important player in papal diplomacy, particularly during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). He also had an active role in furthering the Jacobite candidacy to the English throne, helping organize “The Fifteen” and other events. Bianchini even found time to dabble in special operations, organizing a “band of crazy Irishmen”, plus a six foot countess and some others, to rescue Princess Maria Clementina Sobieska of Poland from imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor, so she could marry the prospective “King James III”, a wonderfully melodramatic episode.
The Incomparable Monsignor is an informative, entertaining biography of an extraordinary man, today only known in scholarly circles, which also throws some fresh light on European diplomacy, war, science, and scholarship, on the cusp of the eighteenth century.
Note: The Incomparable Monsignor is also available in e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium