This book is more the story of Galileo than his daughter, but anchored for the most part around the correspondence between the two, or rather what has survived of it which is only her letters to him but not his to her (These I think were destroyed by her order because of the controversy surrounding his work).
Galileo had three children (all illegitimate) but while his son was ‘legitimized’, his daughters both spent their lives cloistered (more so as no grooms could be found for them), a sad reflection on the times. The daughter in question in this book is his older daughter Suor Maria Celeste (born Virginia) who not only corresponded with him regularly (he also used to visit her) but who also continued to be part of his life and work throughout—from doing small chores for him like making sweets from fruit to copying out his writings in a fair hand, to taking active interest in his life, looking after his house when he was away for his trial (all from within the convent) and pleading to him for kindness for her brother and sister and the sisters in her order. We learn a little about Galileo’s early life and work, and his initial appointments as a mathematician until his daughters are placed in the convent (most girls at the time were apparently sent to a convent until a suitable groom was found and they were married, or if none was found, took the veil; both courses involved dowries). Then of course, the story moves along telling us about Galileo’s life and work interspersed with what his daughter is experiencing (as expressed in her letters). Life for the sisters in the Covent of San Matteo was unforgiving, they often had little to eat, one or the other of them was ill and needing constant care, and even things like obtaining a cell to live in required money which they scarcely had. But Galileo helped as far as he could with money and other things needed, something he did for others in his family as well providing the dowry for his sister, supporting his brother and brother’s family, and later his son as well. Alongside these personal stories, Sobel also tells us of Galileo and his work, the different things that interested him from astronomy to motion, and his writings including his Dialogue discussing Copernican heliocentricism which led to his being tried and the work being banned for over two centuries (it was dropped from the prohibited list in 1835, prohibitted in 1633).
I’ve read two of Dava Sobel’s books before Longitude on John Harrisson and A More Perfect Heaven on Copernicus and enjoyed them very much, especially Longitude, and was really looking forward to this one. And it certainly did not disappoint. I thought Sobel did a wonderful job of giving us an idea not only of Galileo’s work, but also his life, his relationship with his older daughter, and a picture of life (and politics) in those times. Before I read this, I had a general idea of Galileo’s work with telescopes and with heliocentricism, but not much about his personal life or other work. The full range of subjects he worked with and his contributions on various subjects from motion to astronomy to tides, the controversy his works generated because he chose to follow a scientific method (experiment and observation), even opposing Aristotle’s findings, his struggle to balance his science and faith, all this when he was quite often suffering ill-health which incapacitated him for long periods, certainly fills one with awe. His relationship with his daughter was rather sweet—the two seemed to share their problems, lives and from the letters we see, I think Maria Celeste was the child he was closest to, his relationship with his son was difficult (although this seems to have improved a little later) and his other daughter seemed not too close to him. It was Maria Celeste who pleaded with him to show kindness to her brother even when he disappointed. Both actively supported each other, with things they needed or wanted (fruit or partridges or new collars) and emotionally stood by each other, especially Maria Celeste.
One of the things that stood out to me, reading this book during these times especially was how life had probably not changed as much as we think it has. Back in Italy in the late 16th, early-17th centuries, the plague often returned and we read of quarantines and masks (the plague doctors’, that is) and restrictions on leaving one’s home, and the difficulties Galileo faced when he needed to travel—pretty much things that we are facing today (except that he may have been able to email his manuscripts and attend his trial virtually).
I really enjoyed reading this book; it did take me a while to get into it, but that was probably my schedule more than the book for when I picked it up on my day off, I really zoomed through it, the book absorbing me completely. This was another great read from Sobel.
Have you read this one or any others by Sobel? Which ones and how did you find them? Any other bios of Galileo that you have read? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!
Find also on this blog, a post on the author, Dava Sobel.