Wednesday, March 15, 2017

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

Arguably the greatest scientific mind of the early modern era, Galileo Galilei challenged the Catholic Church’s stance that the Copernican theory that the Earth was not the stable center of the Universe, while attempting to stay true to his faith, and Dava Sobel relies on the letters of his eldest daughter Suor Maria Celeste Galilei to show the depth of the conflict between the two imperatives.  These letters provide Sobel with the title for her work, although after reading the text, the subtitle, “A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love”, seems more apt than the main title, “Galileo’s Daughter,” because the text focuses far more on Galileo and his life than Marie Celeste.
Indeed the title of Sobel’s work, in conjunction with the opening pages, imply that Galileo’s tale will be told through the eyes of Marie Celeste via her surviving letters to her father.  The reality of Galileo’s Daughter is quite different, with Marie Celeste’s letters not truly coming to the forefront until Galileo’s confrontation with Pope Urban VIII and the Office of the Holy Inquisition over his espousal of Copernicus’ work in his book Dialogue of Galileo Galilei…Concerning the two Chief Systems of the World, Ptolemaic and Copernican, Propounding inconclusively the philosophical and physical reasons as much for one side as for the other.  The extensive bibliography and notes show that the vast majority of the material in Galileo’s Daughter comes from sources other than Marie Celeste’s letters to her illustrious father.  As a result, readers who expect to gather great insights into Galileo though the eyes of his daughter may find themselves looking for more.

In truth, a biography that focused entirely on Suor Maria Celeste Galilei’s life and her interactions with Galileo would be only marginally interesting to any but the most dedicated Galileo scholars.  These dedicated individuals are the ones who seek out, as Sobel did, Marie Celeste’s letters are decipher them on their own, or seek out direct translations of the type that appear scattered throughout the text as supporting material.  Rather than taking that tack, Sobel seamlessly intertwines existing Galileo scholarship with English translations of the letters to provide an emotional and familial context for Galileo’s ordeal.

Sobel places Galileo’s work and life in historical perspective by focusing on four key events: the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, Copernicus’ promulgation of the Pythagorean theory of the sun-centered solar system, the election of Galileo’s friend as Pope Urban VIII, and Galileo’s refinement of the telescope as an astronomical instrument.  The first three factors combined to negatively color the Church’s official response to the publication of Galileo’s controversial Dialogue, while the third placed Galileo in the position to confirm Copernicus’ theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun through empirical observation.  Galileo’s confirmation of this theory is what placed him in conflict with the Church in Rome and the Office of the Holy Inquisition.  This conflict did not develop immediately, and Sobel uses Marie Celeste’s letters to trace its course and impact on Galileo’s psyche.

Galileo was first drawn into conflict with the Church as a result of his popularity in Rome and elsewhere, which was derived from his assault on the Aristotelian system of physics in his astronomical works The Starry Messenger and History and Demonstrations Concerning Sunspots and Their PhenomenaThe Starry Messenger described the surface of the moon and its phases, four moons orbiting Jupiter, and movement of Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter across the heavens.  History and Demonstrations Concerning Sunspots and Their Phenomena described and traced the paths of sunspots during the Sun’s revolution on its axis.  These two works combined with Galileo’s public debates with critics regarding the behavior of masses in water to attack the basis of Aristotelian and Biblical dictum that the heavens were forever unchanging.  Galileo’s success debating his opponents and advocates of traditional views of physics was exacerbated by the humiliation he dealt opponents through physical demonstrations, as well as his popularity in the Roman and Florentine social scenes.

According to Sobel, the first indication that he might experience problems with the church due to his scientific discoveries came from a friend in Rome, who wrote to him, “that a certain crowd of ill-disposed men envious of your virtue and merits met at the house of the archbishop there [in Florence] and put their heads together in a mad quest for any means by which they could damage you, either with regard to the motion of the earth or otherwise.” This warning came during his work on Bodies in Water, which disputed Aristotelian theories regarding the behavior of objects floating in water and inflamed his enemies, may have provided the final impetus Galileo needed to send his daughters into the convent for their protection.  The publication of History and Demonstrations Concerning Sunspots and Their Phenomena caused his critics to take things to a more dangerous level by involving the Church hierarchy, and according to Sobel, Galileo gave them a perfect opening to attack him.

The ammunition that Galileo’s critics used against him were a letter he sent to his former student and friend Benedetto Castelli, who had earned the displeasure of Pisa’s Grand Duchess Mother Madama Cristina with his discussion of the moons of Jupiter and the motion of the planets around the Sun, and a letter sent by Galileo to the Grand Duchess in an attempt to explain how Copernican theory did not dispute the contents of the Bible. Galileo’s argument, which Sobel quotes extensively, was that not only did Copernican theory explain Joshua’s stopping of the Sun’s course across the sky better than Aristotelian theory, but that the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit in such a way as to explain events and the path to salvation to those who would not understand the more complex workings of the universe.   Galileo also contended that Scripture could not be interpreted literally, but must be accepted allegorically in order to avoid heresy at all turns.  Unfortunately for Galileo his letter to Castelli was copied and distributed repeatedly, only to fall into the hands of his enemies.  After altered copies of his letters to Castelli were presented to the Office of the Holy Inquisition, Galileo went to Rome to defend his theories before the Princes of the Church.

At this juncture, Sobel uses the letters of those around Galileo to describe his mental state.  The Tuscan ambassador, Piero Guicciardini, noted that “He is passionately involved in this fight of his and he does not see or sense what it involves, with the result that he will be tripped up and will get himself into trouble, together with anyone who supports his views.  For he is vehement and stubborn and very worked up in this matter and it is impossible, when he is around, to escape from his hands.” However, she still has not introduced much in the way of letters or personality of Marie Celeste.  Granted her age at this point, thirteen years, in Galileo’s career was such that the any letters may not have produced significant insight into his life or character.

Galileo used his time in Rome to develop a new theory concerning the Earth’s tides to support the theories of Copernicus without using his observation of the heavens.  However, this new evidence would not assist him in his interviews with the representatives of the Office of the Holy Inquisition.  Based in part of the Council of Trent’s dictum reserving to the church the sole ability of interpreting Scripture, Copernican theory was declared heretical, and Galileo was formally instructed to cease discussing or teaching the theories of Copernicus with anyone.  While leaving Galileo free to research other scientific and philosophical issues, this particular instruction would play a large part in his formal trial for heresy after the publication of Dialogues. It is that trial and his subsequent imprisonment that allows Sobel to use Marie Celeste’s letters as the foundation into her revelation of Galileo the man.

The second half of Galileo’s Daughter, telling the tale of Galileo’s trial before the Inquisition and imprisonment, provides Sobel with the material to pain her picture of Galileo as a dedicated scientist, Catholic, and father.  It also allows her to introduce Marie Celeste as a dutiful daughter both to Galileo and the Church.  Galileo’s second and most serious misadventure with the Church was caused by his misplaced belief that the election of his friend and fellow philosopher as Pope Urban VIII would allow him more freedom to explore Copernican theories.

            Marie Celeste’s letters, as presented by Sobel, present an interesting mix of emotional support, need, descriptions of daily life in the abbey, and the domestic affairs of running Galileo’s household.  At least while Galileo was in Rome and during his imprisonment, Marie Celeste ran his household from her home in the abbey.  One example of her concern for Galileo is evident in a letter to him at Rome, “on the one hand, this gives me great distress, convinced as I am that you find yourself with scant peace of mind, and perhaps also deprived of all bodily comforts.” She later wrote to him to offer solace after Dialogue was banned, saying, “My dearest lord father, now is the time to avail yourself of that prudence which the Lord God has granted you, bearing these blows with that strength of spirit which your religion, your profession, and your age require.  And since you, by virtue of your vast experience, can lay claim to full cognizance of the fallacy and instability of everything in this miserable world, you must not make too much of these storms, but rather take hope that they will soon subside and transform themselves from troubles into as many satisfactions.” Many of the letters devote large sections to the management of Galileo’s home and its grounds, such as the disposition of wine, lemons, and beans, or maintenance of the structures.  This part of Galileo’s Daughter is the most compelling as it most clearly illustrates the relationship between Galileo and Marie Celeste, and provides a clear picture of Italian life during the 17th century.

What Dava Sobel has achieved with Galileo’s Daughter is definitely not a biography of Suor Marie Celeste Galilei, or even a work that focuses on her relationship with her father, but a fully textured look at the life of her father Galileo in which Marie Celeste’s letters play a decisive part in adding much of the color and emotion to the story.  Sobel’s achievement with Galileo’s Daughter is not limited to her portrayal of Galileo, his work, and relationship with his children, but extends into international politics, Church politics, and competition among Europe’s foremost thinkers for notoriety.  She is also able to entwine all of the above with a subtle examination of 17th century Italian life, at least for those with a modicum of success, influence, and privilege.  The overall effect is to immerse the reader while expounding on the trials and tribulations of one of Europe’s most influential thinkers.

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