Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love

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by Dava Sobel

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Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of Galileo's daughter, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has written a biography unlike any other of the man Albert Einstein called "the father of modern physics- indeed of modern science altogether." Galileo's Daughter also presents a stunning portrait of a person hitherto…  See more details below


Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of Galileo's daughter, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has written a biography unlike any other of the man Albert Einstein called "the father of modern physics- indeed of modern science altogether." Galileo's Daughter also presents a stunning portrait of a person hitherto lost to history, described by her father as "a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me."

Galileo's Daughter dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishment of a mythic figure whose seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion. Moving between Galileo's grand public life and Maria Celeste's sequestered world, Sobel illuminates the Florence of the Medicis and the papal court in Rome during the pivotal era when humanity's perception of its place in the cosmos was about to be overturned. In that same time, while the bubonic plague wreaked its terrible devastation and the Thirty Years' War tipped fortunes across Europe, one man sought to reconcile the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic with the heavens he revealed through his telescope.

With all the human drama and scientific adventure that distinguished Dava Sobel's previous book Longitude, Galileo's Daughter is an unforgettable story

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Editorial Reviews
The Barnes & Noble Review
Deemed by Albert Einstein to be "the father of modern physics...of modern science altogether," the man who dropped cannonballs from the Tower or Pisa, improved the telescope to discover the moons of Jupiter, and defended Nicolaus Copernicus's theory of the Earth's orbit was, in his day, considered a heretic.

Dava Sobel, the author of Longitude, the story of John Harrison's invention of the chronometer, returns with Galileo's Daughter, a fascinating biography that gives an intimate look at the life of Galileo through the 124 letters written by his eldest daughter, Virginia, published in translation for the first time from the Italian. Virginia was one of Galileo's three children born out of wedlock. Together with her depressive younger sister, she was placed in the Convent of San Matteo near Galileo's Florence home at the age of 13, where she took the name Suor Maria Celeste, in tribute to her father's work. Galileo recognized in Virginia an "exquisite mind," and she, in turn recognized the depth of her father's faith in Catholicism and proved to be an unwavering source of loyalty, support, comfort, and strength for him when he was brought to trial before the Holy Office of the Inquisition in 1633.

Born in Pisa on February 15, 1564, to a mathematician and the daughter of cloth merchants, Galileo betrayed his father's wishes to become a doctor and instead studied mathematics and philosophy, for he believed that "philosophy is written in this grand book the universe...but the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and to read the alphabet in which it is composed...mathematics." He began his career teaching at the University of Pisa and the University of Padua until he eventually procured the patronage of the Medici Grand Dukes.

Galileo's first commercial invention was the geometric and military compass in 1597, which functioned as an early pocket calculator. But the invention that would announce him to the world came ten years later, when he improved the Dutch spyglass, augmenting the power of the lens manifold times to focus the instrument on the moon and the stars. This reinvented telescope eventually enabled Galileo to discover four of Jupiter's moons, which he documented in his book, The Starry Messenger. His next book, Discourse on Bodies that Stay Atop Water or Move Within It, both challenged Aristotelian physics and announced the presence of sunspots, angering his colleagues and beginning his troubled future.

Of course, the real problems for Galileo began when he sought to publish Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, in which he began to establish proof of Copernicus's theory that the Earth revolves around the sun. While the bubonic plague was claiming lives throughout Europe and the Thirty Years' War was raging, Pope Urban VIII found Galileo's work most threatening. The pope believed that the motions of the heavenly bodies were the domain of the Holy Fathers of the Church and not of science or philosophy, and he found Galileo to be the greatest enemy of the Catholic Church since Martin Luther. The pope betrayed his former friend further when he forced a sickly Galileo to endure the grueling trials before the Inquisition, threatening him with torture and forcing him to live under house arrest for the remainder of his life.

Throughout his life, and especially during the trials, Suor Maria Celeste served her infamous father, whom she addressed as Lord Father, as she would a patron saint. She cared for her him from the convent, whose grounds she never left, through her constant letters, which were sent along with baskets carrying shirts she cleaned and mended for him, confectioneries and health tonics she prepared, and legible, ornate transcriptions of his notes as she prepared his final manuscripts. As these letters reveal, though she was profoundly dedicated to her calling, her devotion to her father, and his love and appreciation for her, was steadfast. She never once doubted his faith or his controversial scientific discoveries. They worried for one another during their frequent illnesses, offered heartfelt condolences when colleagues or relatives passed away. His daughter remained Galileo's constant reader and companion until her death of dysentery at age 27. Though she kept all of his correspondence, his letters have disappeared, likely to have been destroyed by the Mother Abbess of the convent.

By turns a moving portrait of the loving relationship between a father and daughter, a riveting chronicle of one of the most intensive battles between scientific truth and religious belief, and a fresh, revelatory biography of one of the most magnificent minds the world has ever known, Galileo's Daughter is a masterful weaving of the lives of the mind, the body, and the soul.

—Kera Bolonik

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Chapter One

She who was so precious to you

Most Illustrious Lord Father

We are terribly saddened by the death of your cherished sister, our dear aunt; but our sorrow at losing her is as nothing compared to our concern for your sake, because your suffering will be all the greater, Sire, as truly you have no one else left in your world, now that she, who could not have been more precious to you, has departed, and therefore we can only imagine how you sustain the severity of such a sudden and completely unexpected blow. And while I tell you that we share deeply in your grief you would do well to draw even greater comfort from contemplating the general state of human misery, since we are all of us here on Earth like strangers and wayfarers, who soon will be bound for our true homeland in Heaven, where there is perfect happiness, and where we must hope that your sister's blessed soul has already gone. Thus, for the love of God, we pray you. Sire, to be consoled and to put yourself in His hands, for, as you know so well, that is what He wants of you; to do otherwise would be to injure yourself and hurt us, too, because we lament grievously when we hear that you are burdened and troubled, as we have no other source of goodness in this world but you.

I will say no more, except that with all our hearts we fervently pray the Lord to comfort you and be with you always, and we greet you dearly with our ardent love.
From San Matteo, the 10th day of May 1623.
Most affectionate daughter,
S. Maria Celeste

The day after his sister Virginia's funeral, the already world-renowned scientist Galileo Galilei received this,the first of 124 surviving letters from the once-voluminous correspondence he carried on with his elder daughter. She alone of Galileo's three children mirrored his own brilliance, industry, and sensibility, and by virtue of these qualities became his confidante.

Galileo's daughter, born of his long illicit liaison with the beautiful Marina Gamba of Venice, entered the world in the summer heat of a new century, on August 13, 1600-the same year the Dominican friar Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome for insisting, among his many heresies and blasphemies, that the Earth traveled around the Sun, instead of remaining motionless at the center of the universe. In a world that did not yet know its place, Galileo would engage this same cosmic conflict with the Church, treading a dangerous path between the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic and the heavens he revealed through his telescope.

Galileo christened his daughter Virginia, in honor of his "cherished sister." But because he never married Virginia's mother, he deemed the girl herself unmarriageable. Soon after her thirteenth birthday, he placed her at the Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri, where she lived out her life in poverty and seclusion.

Virginia adopted the name Maria Celeste when she became a nun, in a gesture that acknowledged her father's fascination with the stars. Even after she professed a life of prayer and penance, she remained devoted to Galileo as though to a patron saint. The doting concern evident in her condolence letter was only to intensify over the ensuing decade as her father grew old, fell more frequently ill, pursued his singular research nevertheless, and published a book that brought him to trial by the Holy Office of the Inquisition.

The "we" of Suer Maria Celeste's letter speaks for herself and her sister, Livia-Galileo's strange, silent second daughter, who also took the veil and vows at San Matteo to become Suor Arcangela. Meanwhile their brother, Vincenzio, the youngest child of Galileo and Marina's union, had been legitimized in a fiat by the grand duke of Tuscany and gone off to study law at the University of Pisa.

Thus Suor Maria Celeste consoled Galileo for being left alone in his world, with daughters cloistered in the separate world of nuns, his son not yet a man, his former mistress dead, his family of origin all deceased or dispersed.

Galileo, now fifty-nine, also stood boldly alone in his worldview, as Suor Maria Celeste knew from reading the books he wrote and the letters he shared with her from colleagues and critics all over Italy, as well as from across the continent beyond the Alps. Although her father had started his career as a professor of mathematics, teaching first at Pisa and then at Padua, every philosopher in Europe tied Galileo's name to the most startling series of astronomical discoveries ever claimed by a single individual.

In 1609, when Suor Maria Celeste was still a child in Padua, Galileo had set a telescope in the garden behind his house and turned it skyward. Never-before- seen stars leaped out of the darkness to enhance familiar constellations; the nebulous Milky Way resolved into a swath of densely packed stars, mountains and valleys pockmarked the storied perfection of the Moon; and a retinue of four attendant bodies traveled regularly around Jupiter like a planetary system in miniature.

"I render infinite thanks to God," Galileo intoned after those nights of wonder, "for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries."

The newfound worlds transformed Galileo's life. He won appointment as chief mathematician and philosopher to the grand duke in 1610, and moved to Florence to assume his position at the court of Cosimo de' Medici. He took along with him his two daughters, then ten and nine years old, but he left Vincenzio, who was only four when greatness descended on the family, to live a while longer in Padua with Marina.

Galileo found himself lionized as another Columbus for his conquests. Even as he attained the height of his glory, however, he attracted enmity and suspicion. For instead of opening a distant land dominated by heathens, Galileo trespassed on holy ground. Hardly had his first spate of findings stunned the populace of Europe before a new wave followed: He saw dark spots creeping continuously across the face of the Sun, and "the mother of loves," as he called the planet Venus, cycling through phases from full to crescent, just as the Moon did.

All his observations lent credence to the unpopular Sun-centered universe of Nicolaus Copernicus, which had been introduced over half a century previously, but foundered on lack of evidence. Galileo's efforts provided the beginning of a proof. And his flamboyant style of promulgating his ideas-sometimes in bawdy humorous writings, sometimes loudly at dinner parties and staged debates- transported the new astronomy from the Latin Quarters of the universities into the public arena. In 1616, a pope and a cardinal inquisitor reprimanded Galileo, warning him to curtail his forays into the supernal realms. The motions of the heavenly bodies, they said, having been touched upon in the Psalms, the Book of Joshua, and elsewhere in the Bible, were matters best left to the Holy Fathers of the Church.

Galileo obeyed their orders, silencing himself on the subject. For seven cautious years he turned his efforts to less perilous pursuits, such as harnessing his Jovian satellites in the service of navigation, to help sailors discover their longitude at sea. He studied poetry and wrote literary criticism. Modifying his telescope, he developed a compound microscope. "I have observed many tiny animals with great admiration," he reported, "among which the flea is quite horrible, the gnat and the moth very beautiful; and with great satisfaction I have seen how flies and other little animals can walk attached to mirrors, upside down."

Shortly after his sister's death in May of 1623, however, Galileo found reason to return to the Sun-centered universe like a moth to a flame. That summer a new pope ascended the throne of Saint Peter in Rome. The Supreme Pontiff Urban VIII brought to the Holy See an intellectualism and an interest in scientific investigation not shared by his immediate predecessors. Galileo knew the man personally-he had demonstrated his telescope to him and the two had taken the same side one night in a debate about floating bodies after a banquet at the Florentine court. Urban, for his part, had admired Galileo so long and well that he had even written a poem for him, mentioning the sights revealed by "Galileo's glass."

The presence of the poet pope encouraged Galileo to proceed with a long-planned popular dissertation on the two rival theories of cosmology: the Sun-centered and the Earth-centered, or, in his words, the "two chief systems of the world."

It might have been difficult for Suor Maria Celeste to condone this course-to reconcile her role as a bride of Christ with her father's position as potentially the greatest enemy of the Catholic Church since Martin Luther. But instead she approved of his endeavors because she knew the depth of his faith. She accepted Galileo's conviction that God had dictated the Holy Scriptures to guide men's spirits but proffered the unraveling of the universe as a challenge to their intelligence. Understanding her father's prodigious capacity in this pursuit, she prayed for his health, for his longevity, for the fulfillment of his "every just desire." As the convent's apothecary, she concocted elixirs and pills to strengthen him for his studies and protect him from epidemic diseases. Her letters, animated by her belief in Galileo's innocence of any heretical depravity, carried him through the ordeal of his ultimate confrontation with Urban and the Inquisition in 1633.

No detectable strife ever disturbed the affectionate relationship between Galileo and his daughter. Theirs is not a tale of abuse or rejection or intentional stifling of abilities. Rather, it is a love story, a tragedy, and a mystery.

Most of Suor Maria Celeste's letters traveled in the pocket of a messenger, or in a basket laden with laundry, sweetmeats, or herbal medicines, across the short distance from the Convent of San Matteo, on a hillside just south of Florence, to Galileo in the city or at his suburban home. Following the angry papal summons to Rome in 1632, however, the letters rode on horseback some two hundred miles and were frequently delayed by quarantines imposed as the Black Plague spread death and dread across Italy. Gaps of months' duration disrupt the continuity of the reportage in places, but every page is redolent of daily life, down to the pain of toothache and the smell of vinegar.

Galileo held on to his daughter's missives indiscriminately, collecting her requests for fruits or sewing supplies alongside her outbursts on ecclesiastical politics. Similarly, Suor Maria Celeste saved all of Galileo's letters, as rereading them, she often reminded him, gave her great pleasure. By the time she received the last rites, the letters she had gathered over her lifetime in the convent constituted the bulk of her earthly possessions. But then the mother abbess, who would have discovered Galileo's letters while emptying Suor Maria Celeste's cell, apparently buried or burned them out of fear. After the celebrated trial at Rome, a convent dared not harbor the writings of a "vehemently suspected" heretic. In this fashion, the correspondence between father and daughter was long ago reduced to a monologue.

Standing in now for all the thoughts he once expressed to her are only those he chanced to offer others about her. "A woman of exquisite mind," Galileo described her to a colleague in another country, "singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me."

On first learning of Suor Maria Celeste's letters, people generally assume that Galileo's replies must lie concealed somewhere in the recesses of the Vatican Library, and that if only an enterprising outsider could gain access, the missing half of the dialogue would be found. But, alas, the archives have been combed, several times, by religious authorities and authorized researchers all desperate to hear the paternal tone of Galileo's voice. These seekers have come to accept the account of the mother abbess's destruction of the documents as the most reasonable explanation for their disappearance. The historical importance of any paper signed by Galileo, not to mention the prices such articles have commanded for the past two centuries, leaves few conceivable places where whole packets of his letters could hide.

Although numerous commentaries, plays, poems, early lectures, and manuscripts of Galileo's have also disappeared (known only by specific mentions in more than two thousand preserved letters from his contemporary correspondents), his enormous legacy includes his five most important books, two of his original handmade telescopes, various portraits and busts he sat for during his lifetime, even parts of his body preserved after death. (The middle finger of his right hand can be seen, encased in a gilded glass egg atop an inscribed marble pedestal at the Museum of the History of Science in Florence.)

Of Suor Maria Celeste, however, only her letters remain. Bound into a single volume with cardboard and leather covers, the frayed, deckle-edged pages now reside among the rare manuscripts at Florence's National Central Library. The handwriting throughout is still legible, though the once-black ink has turned brown. Some letters bear annotations in Galileo's own hand, for he occasionally jotted notes in the margins about the things she said and at other times made seemingly unrelated calculations or geometric diagrams in the blank spaces around his address on the verso. Several of the sheets are marred by tiny holes, torn, darkened by acid or mildew, smeared with spilled oil. Of those that are water-blurred, some obviously ventured through the rain, while others look more likely tear-stained, either during the writing or the reading of them. After nearly four hundred years, the red sealing wax still sticks to the folded corners of the paper.

These letters, which have never been published in translation, recast Galileo's story. They recolor the personality and conflict of a mythic figure, whose seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion. For although science has soared beyond his quaint instruments, it is still caught in his struggle, still burdened by an impression of Galileo as a renegade who scoffed at the Bible and drew fire from a Church blind to reason.

This pervasive, divisive power of the name Galileo is what Pope John Paul II tried to tame in 1992 by reinvoking his torment so long after the fact. "A tragic mutual incomprehension," His Holiness observed of the 350-year Galileo affair, "has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith."

Yet the Galileo of Suor Maria Celeste's letters recognized no such division during his lifetime. He remained a good Catholic who believed in the power of prayer and endeavored always to conform his duty as a scientist with the destiny of his soul. "Whatever the course of our lives," Galileo wrote, "we should receive them as the highest gift from the hand of God, in which equally reposed the power to do nothing whatever for us. Indeed, we should accept misfortune not only in thanks, but in infinite gratitude to Providence, which by such means detaches us from an excessive love for Earthly things and elevates our minds to the celestial and divine."

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Dava Sobel
From the Author

The seventeenth century draws me and holds me because it embraces the most stunning reversal in perception ever to have jarred intelligent thought: We are not the center of the universe. The immobility of our world is an illusion. We spin. We speed through space, circling the Sun on our own wandering star.

Although the Polish cleric Nicolaus Copernicus had suggested this notion in 1543, it remained the quiet conjecture of scholars for more than sixty years before Galileo brought the Sun-centered universe to the attention of the general public. Beginning in 1609, his telescopic discoveries afforded the first tentative evidence in support of overturning the world order. In no time, Galileo the man became identified with the unpopular new paradigm, so that he attracted not only followers who lauded his insights, but also jealous competitors who vied with him for fame, outraged philosophers who questioned his veracity, and angry churchmen who accused him of heresy. Because, in the seventeenth century, Galileo's new cosmos was not simply a matter of astronomy, but appeared to violate an article of faith.

The Bible spoke specifically to this issue. The Psalms, for example, noted how God had "fixed the Earth upon its foundation, not to be moved forever." And surely the Sun must have been moving through space when Joshua entreated it to stand still.

A devout Catholic all his life, Galileo entertained these objections seriously. He believed in the absolute truth of the Bible, but he also believed in the fallacy of human interpretation of Holy Writ. Even the simplest sounding passages might hold the most hidden meanings. Thus, wherever the findings of astronomy appeared to contradict the teachings of Scripture, Galileo maintained, someone must have misconstrued the Biblical text.

The Bible was a book about how to go to Heaven, Galileo believed, not how the heavens go. Why would anyone turn to the Word of God to study astronomy when the Works of God stood open to scrutiny for that very purpose?

As enlightened as his viewpoint was -- indeed it became the official position of the Catholic Church in 1893 -- Galileo argued as a layman in an era of religious upheaval. The Council of Trent, after deliberating for two decades in response to the Protestant Reformation, in 1546 had issued a formal profession of faith that ceded Biblical interpretation to the Holy Fathers of the Church.

Galileo's championing of the Copernican system backfired miserably. In 1616, a formal Edict issued by the Holy Congregation of the Index declared the Sun-centered universe "false and contrary to Holy Scripture." And in 1633, Galileo stood trial before the Roman Inquisition for his persistent defense of the banned ideas, earning his enduring reputation as an enemy of church.

The rift between science and religion that we trace to the seventeenth century -- and specifically to the figure of Galileo -- opened in spite of him, not at any urging of his own. As the long-neglected letters of his daughter, a cloistered nun, have enabled me to show in my new book, Galileo's Daughter, Galileo endeavored always to conform his duty as a scientist with the destiny of his soul. The shift in perception that eventually rocked the world from complacency was for him the natural consequence of God's true omnipotence.

"It seems to me that we take too much upon ourselves," Galileo wrote, "when we will have it that merely taking care of us is the adequate work of Divine wisdom and power, and the limit beyond which it creates and disposes of nothing. I should not like to have us tie its hand so."

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