MONTEREALE VALCELLINA, Italy -- An odd little shrine to this village's favorite son stands in the cobblestoned piazza outside the Domenico Scandella Social Center. It depicts a wheel of cheese, minus one slice. Water trickles through tiny holes in the cheese. The water is supposed to represent worms.
There is no inscription, but any villager can explain: Domenico Scandella was a verbose and stubborn 16th-century miller with dangerous ideas. In a showdown with his interrogators, he insisted that the universe evolved "just as cheese is made out of milk -- and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels and among [them] was God."
For this, Scandella was tortured and burned at the stake: One of tens of thousands accused of being heretics, blasphemers, witches, false mystics, devil worshipers, Protestants and lapsed converts from Judaism ferreted out and condemned for their beliefs by the Roman Catholic tribunals of the Inquisition.
With its call for an "examination of conscience" on the eve of Christianity's third millennium, the Vatican has opened most of its central archives on the Roman Inquisition to give scholars a clearer picture of these persecutions in medieval and early modern Europe.
The opening is a windfall for historians -- documents covering 3 1/2 centuries of heresy trials, theological controversies and book bannings -- as well as a test of the growing body of revisionist thinking that the Inquisition was not so bad after all. The Inquisition and the church's Index of Forbidden Books have been studied extensively from records in Italian provincial archives, but until now much has remained hidden in secret Vatican files in Rome.
The miller's tale, first disclosed from provincial records 22 years ago, is a sample of the discoveries that might be in store. People here were stunned by the sudden unearthing of a scandalous, forgotten past, but they eventually embraced the miller as a free-thinking hero.
"We have overcome the years of aversion to this person," says the Rev. Giacinto Biscontin, a Catholic priest with the unusual role of host to periodic church gatherings in a heretic's honor. "Now he is part of our history. We have no problem with that."
The reconciliation of this village with its past is, in a peculiar way, the kind of "purification" that Pope John Paul II is demanding of his entire flock. In the countdown to 2000, he has voiced regret over Catholics' role in the slave trade and their passivity during the Nazi slaughter of Jews. He has admitted that Galileo was censured wrongly by the Inquisition for asserting that the Earth was not the center of the universe.
"The church," the pope says repeatedly, "has no fear of historical truth."
And yet, how far can the church go in "regretting" its own #F thought police? The Inquisition, after all, was authorized and led by previous popes to suppress heresy. It operates today under a different name -- the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- occasionally excommunicating an outspoken priest or barring a rebel theologian from teaching.
An answer could come this fall when Pope John Paul addresses a congress of eminent scholars summoned to the Vatican to put the Inquisition itself on trial.
Debate over the Inquisition's methods is nearly as old as the institution itself, which dates to 1233. Holy inquisitors for centuries had the papal blessing to torture anyone accused of heresy into confessing, and their cruelty became a standard by which later atrocities were measured.
The Spanish Inquisition, set up in 1478 by that nation's monarchs with a nod from Pope Sixtus IV, grew so zealous that the Vatican often condemned its excesses. Yet the Roman Inquisition, founded in 1542 as a Vatican agency to counter the Protestant Reformation, also sent heretics to die by garroting or burning at the stake until 1727. Such horrors faded with the Enlightenment as popes and civil rulers grew more tolerant of religious dissent.
Many historians have softened toward the Inquisition in recent decades, arguing that uniformity of religious belief was needed to curb anarchy in medieval Europe. Their studies show that torture was used sparingly and that fewer than 2 percent of the Inquisition's known suspects were executed. Any defendant, they note, could have an attorney, a right not then available in secular courts.
"It was actually a very progressive tribunal and dispensed a very high level of law in 16th-century terms," says John Tedeschi, professor emeritus of church history at the University of Wisconsin.
The Vatican hopes that the Roman Inquisition's newly opened archives will bolster that view. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Inquisition's successor agency, says that the opening reflects that body's "confidence in the face of any critical and serious investigation."
But some scholars say they believe that the decision was forced by the pope on a reluctant Vatican bureaucracy and must be read as a rebuke of the past.
"The Inquisition remains shameful, no doubt about that," says Carlo Ginzburg, one of Italy's premier historians and professor of Italian Renaissance studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. "The opening of the archives is deeply symbolic because it implies the idea of rejecting, turning the page of a long chapter of the church's history and trying to clean its image."
The potential for discovery is wide open. Little is known, for example, about the workings of the Index, the Inquisition branch that until 1966 decreed which books were to be burned as heretical and which Catholics excommunicated for possessing them.
But it's the drama of the interrogation, the exchange between inquisitor and heretic, that holds the most fascination for students of that era and casual readers of history. The newly opened archives are said to offer complete transcripts of previously unreported trials.
And it's the mind of the lowly heretic that most fascinates Ginzburg. His research in provincial archives has revealed an insular world of pagan peasant beliefs that was every bit as subversive of Catholic authority as were the writings of Martin Luther that sparked the Reformation.
The trial of the heretic Scandella was disclosed in Ginzburg's 1976 book, "The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller."
Born here in 1532, in the early days of printing, the self-educated miller, nicknamed Menocchio, was a practicing Catholic who served as administrator of the local church. But he was influenced less by Sunday homilies than by the books he devoured and the oral culture of ancient folklore.
Unfortunately for Scandella, he was expanding his mind and loosening his tongue just as the Vatican was trying to stamp out the Reformation. The inquisitors refused to believe that this man, who insisted that all faiths were equal before God and who railed against clerical privilege, had not been brainwashed by some Protestant sect.
He was found guilty of voicing heretical opinions "not only with men of religion, but also with simple and ignorant people," undermining their loyalty to the church. Pope Clement VIII was alarmed by the case and sent the miller, then 67 and ailing, to the stake.
Pub Date: 4/25/98