The Italian prelate and statesman Paolo Sarpi (1552-1623) was one of the greatest historians of early modern Europe and a founder of the modern historical method.
Paolo Sarpi was born in Venice, the son of a merchant. His early education was supervised by a family friend, a member of the Servite order of friars. In 1565 Sarpi himself joined the Servites, and in 1574 he was ordained a priest. His intellectual gifts brought him into contact with some of the most important people and cities in Italy. He spent 3 years as court theologian in Mantua and then traveled to Milan. He returned to Venice, where he taught philosophy while studying at the nearby University of Padua, the intellectual center of Italy in this period. In 1579 he became provincial of the Venetian province of the Servites, and in 1584, at the age of 32, he moved to Rome as procurator general of the whole order.
Between 1588 and 1606 Sarpi lived in studious retirement in Venice, participating in the vigorous scientific life of Venice and Padua and making friends with such men as Galileo. In 1606 he was called out of retirement and made theologian and canon lawyer of the Republic of Venice. It was a critical moment in Venetian history: the republic had been laid under an interdict by Pope Paul V, and Sarpi's duties entailed the defense of the Venetian cause against the weight and authority of the Counter Reformation papacy. His role in the defense of Venice led him directly to the most important phase of his career, that of skilled and penetrating historian of the medieval and Renaissance Church.
Sarpi's first historical work was a long memorandum, intended for private circulation, of the events in Venice between 1605 and 1607. His second work was the great History of Benefices (1609), in which he relied upon his access to the secret archives of Venice and expressed his conviction that individuals and circumstances, political as well as economic, influenced this important chapter of ecclesiastical history. By 1616 Sarpi had completed his greatest work, History of the Council of Trent, which was published in Italian in London in 1619.
In these original historical works, Sarpi deals with limited topics, opens his analysis of causality to economic and political influences, and tries wherever possible to base his conclusions upon documentary evidence. His perception of complex human background made his History of the Council of Trent a landmark in the technique of ecclesiastical and institutional history.
During his lifetime Sarpi was honored and protected by the Republic of Venice, a popular and well-known figure. After his death, he became a revered civic hero, not only of the republic but of all Europe.
The introductory remarks that preface the selections from Sarpi's writings in translation by Peter Burke, Sarpi: History of Benefices and Selections from the History of the Council of Trent (1967), provide an excellent introduction to Sarpi's method. The best study of his life and ideas is William Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty (1968).
Wootton, David, Paolo Sarpi: between Renaissance and Enlightenment, Cambridge Cambridgeshire; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.