Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love. – Review – book reviews
Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love Dava Sobel WALKER & COMPANY, $27.
HISTORY HAS GIVEN US GALILEO THE astronomer, Galileo the mathematician, and Galileo the philosopher. But of Galileo the father, we know little. In fact, the i7th-century Italian scientist, whose full name was Galileo Galilei, had three children–Virginia, Livia, and Vincenzio–with Marina Gamba, a Venetian woman whom he never married. Vincenzio studied law and married an heiress, while Livia remains a shadowy figure. It is Virginia’s voice that powers this book. The eldest of the three, she was known for most of her life as the nun Suor Mafia Celeste. She was Galileo’s confidante, religious adviser, apothecary, and estate executor. Though deeply religious, she never wavered in her loyalty to her father, even when his ideas were under severe attack by the Catholic Church. Their meeting of minds forms the hub of this absorbing memoir.
That Maria Celeste has a voice in history is due to the survival of a packet of 124 letters she wrote to her father from the Convent of San Matteo, just south of Florence, where she lived from the age of 13. According to the parish register of Padua, her birthplace, she was “born of fornication”–out of wedlock–a condition that in her father’s opinion rendered her unmarriageable. Deeming convent life the best alternative, in 1613 he deposited his two daughters into the care of the Poor Clares, a cloistered order of nuns who embraced poverty. Livia became Suor Arcangela upon taking her vows; Virginia took her name from the heavens.
The nuns guarded Maria Celeste from the Outside world, and from physical contact with her father, who could speak to her on visits only through a grille. She reached out in her letters, which were carded to Galileo in laundry baskets, in the pockets of messengers, and sometimes on horseback through the often plague-ridden Italian countryside. That Galileo wrote back is clear from her words, but his replies do not survive, perhaps burned–as the perfidious screed of a heretic–after his daughter’s death in 1634.
Dava Sobel has translated Maria Celeste’s missives from the Italian. Published in English for the first time, they provide a fascinating insight into both Maria Celeste’s relationship with her father and the life of an educated, if isolated, 17th-century nun. Mixed in with her expressions of love for Galileo and prayers for his welfare are recipes for candied quince, prescriptions against the plague, an appeal to repair the convenes clock, numerous pleas for money and a request for a telescope–a hint that she, too, was scanning the skies. Domestic concerns feature prominently. “The lettuce that was sown according to your instructions never came up,” she writes on one occasion. “I am returning the tablecloth in which you wrapped the lamb you sent; and you, Sire, have a pillowcase of ours, which we put over the shirts in the basket with the lid,” she says on another.
But this is not just a collection of letters. It is also the story of Galileo’s life–his experiments in mechanics and motion, his study of the stars, and his trial by the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Sobel addresses this last event with a keen understanding of the science behind the quarrel. As she makes clear, Galileo presented his case for the theory that the Earth revolves around the sun not as an attack on the Church but in the form of a dialogue between competing views: “Ptolemaic” and “Copernican.” Alas, it was not until 1992–three and a half centuries after Galileo’s death–that Pope John Paul II publicly endorsed his philosophy Suor Maria Celeste’s letters tell us she was convinced of “the justice of the cause and your innocence in this instance,” long before. “Nemo Propheta acceptus in patria sua,” she wrote on October 15, 1633. “No one is accepted as a prophet in his own country”
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