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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. Read the first page
In 1633, the astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was tried and convicted of heresy by the Holy Office of the Inquisition for the crime of having defended the idea that the sun is the centre of the universe around which the earth and planets revolve. Galileo was punished by being placed under house arrest and ordered to publicly affirm his belief in the earth-centred universe. Galileo’s story is the stuff of legend. And yet, there are few references to the support given to Galileo by Suor Maria Celeste, a member of the order of Poor Clares in the Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri. Born Virginia Galilei in 1600, she is the eldest of Galileo’s three illegitimate children and lived within the cloistered walls of San Matteo from 1613 until her death in 1634.
In Galileo’s Daughter, Ms Sobel interweaves the stories of father and daughter. Suor Maria Celeste’s letters to Galileo have survived; his to her have not. Ms Sobel writes that his letters were probably destroyed by the Convent after her death:
‘In this fashion, the correspondence between father and daughter was long ago reduced to a monologue.’
The lives of father and daughter could not be in more stark contrast: she lived within the confines of a convent; much of his life was lived very publicly through his teaching, research and invention. We know about Galileo’s public life, but in this book we learn of domestic concerns, of his daughter’s preparation of pills and potions for his illness, of her mending and sewing for him and of preparing food for him. We learn as well that Galileo was a generous benefactor of the Convent, and that Suor Maria Celeste served as an apothecary and was sought out by the abbesses to write important letters.
Although the title of the book is ’Galileo’s Daughter’ and the focus is on Suor Maria Celeste, it is Galileo’s life that occupies centre stage. Suor Maria Celeste’s letters provide another and different insight into Galileo’s life as well as raising quite a few questions about the treatment of daughters (especially illegitimate daughters in the 17th century). I admit that my primary focus was on Galileo, but I found myself liking Suor Maria Celeste and wanting to know more about her. This book brings them both to life.
‘Thus, to imagine an infinite universe was merely to grant almighty God his proper due.’
It has been one of the more enjoyable literary experiences I have had recently. The writing style is excellent. The narration done masterfully with the narrator distinctively creating the voices and personalities of the different characters. I found the experience riviting and entertaining.
As regards the book itself, I was familiar with the story of Galileo but this brought it to life and personalized it so that I now view this history with a much more passionate eye.
The brilliance of Galileo's intellect and the radical information that he brought into the darkness of his age cannot be underestimated. As viewed through the culture of our day, I don't believe we can appreciate the role of one who challenges the prevailing wisdom of the current age and shakes it to its core. Part of Galileo's legacy is that we have developed in a more scientific community and change is more or less expected and we are by and large more prepared to receive such change as a matter of course. Not all of us of course, but it is a part of our culture and expectations to a degree unheard of in the world, especially as it emerged from the Dark Ages.
I found that important to keep in mind as I absorbed the information of this book recounting the treatment of Galileo by the Catholic Church.
The depth of this treatment and the intransigence of religious thought is such that the most Brilliant mind of the 17th Century who evinced a strong devotion to his Church and faith to a degree that seems almost surreal given their treatment of him, did not have his "Heretical" body buried with the dignity it deserved until the 18th century, did not have his "Heretical" book removed from the Church's banned list until the 19th century and did not have an official expression of any remorse or regret from the instituation of the Roman Catholic Church until the end of the 20th century in the form of a lukewarm and self-justifying statement offered by Pope John-Paul II on the 350th anniversary of Galileo's death.
I found myself struggling greatly as I digested the words of Galileo, his daughter and various Church officials toward the end of the book as the travesty of Galileo's trial and subsequent imprisonment played out. You must understand, of course, the context of the days and grant a certain amount of deference. Even with that, the Church erred greatly in their judgement, and handling of this matter and did not just a person, but the entire scientific community extant and yet to come an "astronomical" dis-service of cosmic proportions. Small wonder that scientific greatness ceased to emerge in Italy for so many years following and that the protestant community outside the stifling ignorance and arrogance of the Catholic Church became a progenitor of scientific progress. (This is not to grant those a pass as that ignorance and arrogance is well represented currently in the form of "Young Earth" Creationists who carry that legacy well into our current days, to name just one example.)
As one trained in hermenuetics and apologetics and respectful of religious importance, I was amazed to hear the words of Galileo as regards the interpretation of Scripture. He was not only a more intelligent and disciplined thinker in the realm of science, he was a better Biblical Expositor. He recognized clearly that there was no conflict between creation and Scripture. Where perceived conflict existed, it existed because of faulty interpretation of scientific data AND/OR faulty interpretation of Scripture. The Scriptures were not written in a scientific age and never intended to deliver scientific teaching in a literal sense. The key to enlightenment lay in recognizing truth for what it was from either realm and reconciling the two and abandoning a literal hermanuetic where it could not be supported. Sadly, this lesson remains unlearned by many and the resultant split between the scientific community and communities of faith remains unnecessarily in existence.
It is one thing for the Church to have erred in the introduction of new thought and truth coming out of the Dark Ages. It is sadly another, for ignorance to be embraced and cherished when the light of truth shines brightly for any who would open their eyes and engage in the challenge of understanding and then reconciling the two.
I digress, but the book ignited my little explosion so I will let it stand.
Galileo emerges from this book in oh so human form. His brilliance, his pride and arrogance (probably justified more in him than most men but there none-the-less), and his tender relationship with his daughter, come out of this work in a superior manner. He becomes human and transends the mythological proportions he has achieved in History and Science.
Well worth the time to read or listen. An outstanding book!Read more ›
From the title of this book, I naturally expected it to be a biography of Galileo's daughter, which it is not exactly. I was a bit disappointed to begin with, as the first hundred pages or so are Galileo's early biography. Once his daughter, Virginia (later Suor Marie Celeste) came into the picture, the story became much more interesting. Virginia was one of Galileo's three illegitimate children by the mistress of his early years, Marina Gamba. She eventually married, with Galileo's blessings, and he never lost interest in his children. Due to their illegitimacy which he felt would eliminate any chance of a decent marriage, Galileo had his two daughters entered into a convent at a very early age. The both became nuns at the convent of San Matteo on turning sixteen, Virginia taking the name Suor Marie Celeste and Livia that of Suor Arcangela. The son, Vincenzio, lived with Galileo in his late teens and eventually (after an unpromising start) became a good son to him. This book recounts Galileo's personal and private life, using letters from Marie Celeste to give color to what would otherwise be a black and white, straight forward biography. Their shared love is beautiful to see in her letters--his to her having been lost--and the bits and pieces of every day life that she treats the reader to are thoroughly enjoyable. This is a very detailed and readable history of Galileo, and gave me a much greater understanding of the man, his work and his difficulty with the Church. The conflict he felt between himself and his discoveries comes through very clearly and poignantly in his own words through his other letters. Her faith in him, and in the fact that he was not being heretical, is very apparent. It was interesting to me to see how differently Sobel portrays Galileo's fight was the Church--if her sources are to be believed (and I see no reason to disbelieve) it was not at all what history textbooks would have us believe. As a history major and fanatic, I truly enjoyed reading this book. The alternate perspective of Galileo was refreshing and real--and made sense of a lot that had previously seemed murky to me about him and the Church. The addition of Marie Celeste's letters gave this book personality and took Galileo from a science god to a human being. My only regret is how few letters are in this book, and that the title is a bit misleading. Despite that, if you have any interest in Galileo, this is a must-read!Read more ›