Apr/May 2000 Book Reviews

Galileo's Daughter

Dava Sobel
Fourth Estate (November 1999) 429 pages
ISBN: 1 85702 861 9

reviewed by Ann Skea

"Most Illustrious and Beloved Lord Father," writes Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo Galilei. "I am returning the rest of your shirts that we have sewn and the leather apron, too, mended as best I could."

Such homely domestic details of the life of a famous historical figure are unusual and humanising.

Galileo's own letters to his daughter have apparently not survived. Hers, which he treasured, are rich with incidental details of daily life which tell us more about Galileo's character than any other historical record has yet done. He was, it seems, hard-working, frugal and not too proud to wear frayed collars. He loved to eat citron sweetmeats, which Suor Maria prepared especially for him. He like a good joke, and he was a generous and considerate father. He also needed to be reminded to return things: "...you, Sir, have a pillowcase of ours, which we put over the shirts in the basket with the lid."

Yet, all of Galileo's three children were illegitimate, even though he had a twelve-year relationship with their mother, Marina Gamba. His son, Vincenzio, he arranged to be legitimised shortly before his thirteenth birthday. But his daughters, Virginia and Livia, he placed in the convent of San Matteo in Arcetri, where Virginia (the eldest child) took the name of "Maria Celeste," and Livia that of "Arcangela."

Dava Sobel suggests various reasons for Galileo's decisions about Marina and his children. Marina may not have been from an appropriate family background for him to marry her; it was customary for scholars to remain single; Galileo's own sisters had been schooled in convents and, with his work arousing animosity against him in some quarters, the girls would be well protected in a convent. Whatever his reasons, Galileo did not abandon Marina or his children. He found good employment for Marina's new husband when she eventually married, and continued to support his children and treat them as "the heirs to his lineage."

Virginia, Suor Maria Celeste, became his confidante and his loving and loyal supporter throughout his trial by the Inquisition in Rome in 1663, his subsequent abjuration of any personal belief in a heliocentric universe, and the banning of his books. Her surviving letters discuss his confinement in Siena, hint at discussions of his work, and exhort him to take care in both his situation and his health. They are lively and intelligent and, although they say little about her own life in the convent, they hint at the mental and physical privations she endured there, and the selflessness with which she looked after the family's affairs in addition to her work as the convent's apothecary.

The life of a scholar in the political and religious climate of Italy between 1543 and 1642 was never easy, but for Galileo, whose work was based on radical new ideas which threatened the established order, it was positively dangerous. This, too, was a time of the Black Plague in Italy, which added to the difficulties and disruption of ordinary life. Suor Maria's letters, few as they are, convey the spirit of these times and also tell us a little of the problems which she and her fellow nuns encountered.

Sobel tells the story of Galileo succinctly and well. She covers the political and religious debates of the time, and Galileo's involvement in these, without going deeply into the many complexities. The information she gives is sufficient for her purposes and her focus remains on Galileo and his daughter and the people around them. She includes many of Suor Maria's letters, as well as shorter passages from her letters and those of others, to fill out and illustrate critical events. It is a formula which works well, and it gives a vivid impression of life in Italy at that time. The final chapter, about the burial and reburial of Galileo, and the unexpected discovery of a second body in his coffin, makes a curious and satisfying ending.

This is a well-written and absorbing book. It has an excellent index (almost a precis of the book), with chapter notes and a good bibliography. It is meant for general, rather than academic, readers and it is generously illustrated with portraits, paintings, photographs, facsimiles, maps and diagrams, all of which make it a good book to look at as well as good to read.


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