VATICAN officials have scrapped plans for a statue of Galileo Galilei, the astronomer who was convicted of heresy 400 years ago.
Galileo – called the father of science by Albert Einstein – infuriated the Roman Catholic Church when he went against its teachings by arguing that the Earth orbited the Sun. The Church said the Earth was the centre of the universe, so Galileo was questioned as part of the Roman Inquisition in 1633.
He went on trial and was found guilty and initially sentenced to prison, though this was changed to house arrest. As he left court he is said to have famously shouted "Eppure si muove" ("But it does move").
More than 450 years later, in 1992, after a 13-year reconsideration of the case, Pope John Paul II admitted that the Church had made a "tragic mistake'' in rejecting Galileo's views and even apologised to him.
The statue, which was due to have been placed in the Vatican gardens, was intended as part of the 400th anniversary celebrations this year of Galileo's development of the telescope and astronomical findings.
Vatican observers had said the plans showed another step towards his rehabilitation, so the announcement yesterday at the Vatican that it had been scrapped came as a surprise.
Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican's culture chief, said: "The project has been shelved for the moment. A preparatory sketch for the statue had been made, but it has been decided not to go ahead."
Mgr Ravasi would not explain why the decision had been taken but added: "There was a sponsor who was then told to spend the money on a scientific project in Africa."
The statue to Galileo was to have stood outside the Pontifical Academy of Science, and Mgr Ravasi went on to say that the Church was ready to "further reconsider the Galileo case".
He said: "The time is now ripe for a fresh reconsideration of the whole Galileo case. Galileo deserves all our appreciation and gratitude."
Mgr Ravasi added that the Vatican would mark the 400th anniversary with conferences and books, including a new edition of the acts of his Inquisition trial and a critical look at its own 1992 apology.
One Vatican insider said: "It looks like the Church still has it in for Galileo even though this all happened almost five centuries ago."
Last year Pope Benedict XVI was forced to call off a visit to Rome University after staff and students accused him of defending the Inquisition's condemnation of Galileo.
They were angry at a speech the Pope had made in 1990, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in which he quoted a description of the trial of Galileo as "fair and reasonable" and accused him of "despising science".
Vatican officials will also participate in a conference in Florence on the affair in May, gathering all the key Church institutions for the first time since Galileo's condemnation.
Galileo, who died in 1642 aged 78, still under house arrest, created his first telescope in 1608 and discovered three of Jupiter's moons and the various phases of Venus.
The two sets of observations played a crucial role in his conclusion that the Sun, rather than the Earth, was at the centre of the universe, as was commonly believed at the time.
The Vatican said that 2009, being the UN-designated International Year of Astronomy, represented for the Holy See an "important occasion for deeper research and dialogue".
It added: "There is a binding connection between contemplating the starred skies and religion. In almost all cultures and civilisations observing the sky is impregnated with a profound sense of religion.
"By watching the movement of the planets, Man has sought to discover the answer to their deepest questions. Even the Bible conserves this ancient knowledge, underlined by the power of God's creativity."