Galileo Galilei is famous for many things: for his science (Einstein called him the “father of modern physics”); for his flamboyant style (he wrote in Italian not Latin, enlivened texts with rough humour, argued loudly in staged debates) and for his harsh treatment by the Catholic Church. What’s less well known are the details of his private life–a life that, as Dava Sobel points out in Galileo’s Daughter, was just as complex as the scientist’s public life. Galileo had three illegitimate children; the book’s title refers to the oldest, Virginia, later Suor Maria Celeste (she took the name in acknowledgement of her father’s fascination with the stars). Unable to marry because of her illegitimate status, Virginia entered a convent at 13 and maintained a lifelong correspondence with her father. Sobel has translated Virginia’s surviving letters for the first time and, combining those letters, commentary, and gorgeous illustrations, she sets out in Galileo’s Daughter to illuminate a different side of Galileo, the father deeply committed to his daughter and to her faith.
Virginia’s letters are tender, witty and intelligent. They are crammed with details of day-to-day life in Florence: “The broad beans are set out to dry and their stalks fed for breakfast to the little mule, who has become so haughty that she refuses to carry anyone.” Sobel’s commentaries brilliantly help to put the letters into context. “Most of Suor Maria Celeste’s letters travelled in the pocket of a messenger or in a basket laden with laundry, sweetmeats or herbal medicines.” But life in the convent was not idyllic. Virginia was surrounded by women in various states of mental collapse and her letters describing those collapses are vivid and at times terrifying. The bubonic plague, too, affected the nuns just as it did the outside world.
But what emerges most strikingly from these letters is the degree to which Virginia supported her father. Suor Maria Celeste may never have left the convent but in her letters she accompanies her father through physical and intellectual trials. We see her planning her brother’s wedding (which she can’t attend) and copying out her father’s manuscripts. The relationship between father and daughter “is not a tale of abuse or rejection or intentional stifling of abilities”, writes Sobel. “Rather, it is a love story, a tragedy and a mystery.” –Simon Ings
About the Book: ★★★★★★
This book is not what I was expecting it to be when I first picked it up. But it was a refreshingly enjoyable read all the same. I have picked up this book numerous times, and I just kept putting it back on the shelf. I didn’t realize that this was not historical fiction, and that it was in fact the historical account, primarily based on the surviving letters that were sent to Galileo by his oldest daughter.
This story is quite an amazing look into not only the religiously persecuted scientist — but it is also an intimate look into the person of Galileo, as seen through the eyes of his children. It presents the day to day life of Galileo, his struggles with health problems, and professional issues, as well as his intimate relations with his family — but it also looks at his development, and eventual adoption of the Copernican theory of the movement of planetary objects in the universe. Ultimately leading to the publishing of the dialogue that lead to its banning and eventually having Galileo branded a heretic by the Catholic church.
This story, though I have always known the background, and basics, was very enlightening. I came away both mad, and frustrated at the religious movement to suppress knowledge — and its very successful attempt to ban learning that they did not feel was in accordance with their teachings. This book is an interesting look at religious power, and the danger that ensues when religions seek to control more than the spiritual guidance of their members. I came away amazed that civilization was ever able to surpass the dark ages — when all knowledge was militaristically controlled by the “church,” and men were strong armed into believing only what the church directed — and there was nothing that could be considered that did not square with the beliefs of the “church.”
This is a great historical read. It not only coveres the trial of Galileo, but it also helps us to understand the events that ultimatly led up to this trial — and the harsh punishments that ensued. A fun read, from a more personal basis, this is a great history text that gives the reader a great look into the original division that developed between religion and science — from the very earliest days.
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If you stop to think about it, you’ll have to admit that all the stories in the world consist essentially of twenty-six letters. The letters are always the same, only the arrangement varies. From letters words are formed, from words sentences, from sentences chapters, and from chapters stories. — Michael Ende, The Neverending Story