Galileo Galilei was the foremost scientist of his day. Though he never left Italy, his inventions and discoveries were heralded around the world. His telescopes allowed him to reveal the heavens and enforce the astounding argument that the earth moves around the sun. For this belief, he was brought before the Holy Office of the Inquisition, accused of heresy, and forced to spend his last years under house arrest. Galileo's oldest child was 13 when he placed her in a convent near him in Florence, where she took the most appropriate name of Suor Maria Celeste. Her support was her father's greatest source of strength. Her presence, through letters which Sobel has translated from Italian and masterfully woven into the narrative, graces her father's life now as it did then.
GALILEO'S DAUGHTER dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishment of a mythic figure whose seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion. Moving between Galileo's public life and Maria Celeste's sequestered world, Sobel illuminates the Florence of the Medicis and the papal court in Rome during an era when humanity's perception of its place in the cosmos was overturned. With all the human drama and scientific adventure that distinguished Latitude, Galileo's Daughter is an unforgettable story.
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It's Not About The Daughter - Much!
We only have the letters from the Daughter, a nun- his side of the frequent correspondence got destroyed by paranoid nuns after her death, probably (don't blame them). I am waiting for the Dan Brown that finds them somewhere!!
The book is less about filling in the blanks from Dad's side (it's not a work of fiction, after all), and more the case of the daughter's letters being used as a guide wire that is personal and up close to the man himself, for the biography of Galileo. But do they then proffer us any new facts about his life?
I would love to say sister Marie Celeste, the daughter, but we don't get to hear from her that much.
Large portions are dedicated to the climate around Galileo and the intellectual responses to his discoveries. As to be expected, eventually we will read (repeatedly) how harrangued Galileo was at inquisitions into confessing his grave error (sin) at proposing a non-geocentric model for our universe. It can only sound deplorable to our ears how the autocratic bullies forced him to return to the Ptolemeic system with an embarassing degree of arrogance and ego. It would have been more interesting for me to explore what motivated such "disbelief" and outraged accusations of heresy. Clearly there were others who were looking to expand their world view (without wishing to do away with religion). An amazing hub of control defied this however. We do not really get a sense of the panic those at this hub must have felt when they, too, studied the persuasive evidence with careful attention.
At times, the Sorella/daughter writes in marvellously exalted language, which is trying to egg her own piety on with stubborn resignation. It also seems to serve to butter up her father before plonking a new request for money or materials (for sewing) before him. Let us never forget, though, to ask how volunatarily, after all, she ended up at the nunnery? Despite the restrictions for visits the contact remains close and the dependency on a mundane father heavy.
In that sense she often sounds modern, but on the other hand she remains completely removed from the real and masculine world. It means her subjects tend to dry up and become repetitive and ordinary. She complains a lot about being too busy, this makes her letters seem to function more urgently as a life-line for a sense of a personal identity. I was amazed to discover how this might have been permitted.
On the up-side of the cloister, the closed off premises may have saved her life, with conditions of this particular Order too stark and the kitchen too bare to invite the rats, preserving them from infestations of their plague riddled fleas.
Sister Marie Celeste may humble herself with great decorum as a mere Poor Clare, but I cannot help but hear an undertone of frustration with the abject poverty they condemn themselves to.. She is often challenged by the lack of privacy and the massive amount of chores dumped upon her young, able shoulders. Her health, needless to say, is quick to weaken under the penurious circumstances. But she battles on valiantly and optimistically! (Albeit not for nearly half the length of her father’s life!)
So she is not just spewing high-flown spiritual ecstasy (we never discover what she believes, really), and this makes the inserted exerpts of the letters a joy to listen to. They reveal a practical woman of flesh and blood, a devoted daughter and sometimes give us a peek of something more than could be said out loud by a lady of the cloth - or so Sobel embeds the letters into contexts that may inform their meaning best. However none of the contents share something fascinatingly new about Galileo or herself.
We already know Galileo has no choice but to submit to whatever badgering the Church does from both sides (depleting him financially and eventually taking away his work). I can hear Galileo thinking, when beseeched for yet another donation by his daughter that it would have worked out cheaper to marry her off! Only, alas, he did not have this option with his two girls (her sister joins her), who are technically illegitimate if,obviously, not unrecognised. This illegitimate status is a definite put-off for a prospective husband, so off to a nunnery with them it had to be! Reading this,one may appreciate how far we HAVE come in a relatively short period of time over the course of 2000 years…
I had a personal problem with the narration, especially when it came to the direct speech of Galileo: I had already heard Guildall in Don Quixote, and whenever I had momentarily drifted off I was called back by the outcries of what I thought was the Spanish hidalgo to find myself somewhere in La Mancha, wondering which fine mess he had got himself into, now. This befuddlement unfortunately betrays how I got a touch bored from time to time by the drone, and how Guildall’s voice is not so easy to reset back to neutral for the listener, once attached to a marked character previously.
It would be great if some people in need of reminding, read this book to realise how dogma, doctrine and doxa compromises lives and above all stunts the art of knowing (science). Some of the attitudes, methods and beliefs in Galileo’s time may seem far removed from the 21st century, but think again, about how tradition and old school institutions still rule modes of thinking and areas of research (even in the Western World). May we be remined to remain curious and open to new observations. Above all, leave people free - or even encourage them - to discover and share their bewonderment!
Needless to say, women's rights was a non-concept 17th Century Europe. Frustrating!
There is something not quite satisfying about the set-up of the book for me. Is is a biography? Is it a sketch of the threshold barring the onset of the revolution of formal science in the 17th century? Is it a study of theological impediments and the fear of the clergy of losing power to secular learning ? It’s a mix of everything, but it’s not really ever really about a father-daughter relationship beyond a superficial level. In all honesty, we have only circumstantial evidence of how Galileo felt (very warmly) towards his daughter (he paid her attention and kept supporting her financially).
The daughter seemed to share some interest in her father’s work, but was careful not to dig too deep, realising that any controversial material would compromise her position. Or was she and did she? How much she understood his work never becomes clear to me, though Sobel speculates she was fond of peering through a telescope herself.
I was hoping to look on the bright side for a woman of her day but I don’t find that a career with the Church actually provides her with much of an opportunity for relative independence, or learning, nor does it gain her much respect as a woman. The ladies are still desperately dependent on a father confessor, which prooves hard to find (no man sticks it out long enough in service to the convent - eventhough, they don't even have to stay on the premises!).
Parts of her life at the Order, when it comes to the conditions she has to live in, read like an incarceration. Some of the medical descriptions (commonplace viruses and bacterial diseases, for which there were some pathetic herbal cures - and I'm into naturopathy!) remind us how anyone's life hung by a thread each day anew. Likewise Galileo's life was a continuous battle against a long list of nasty ailments, much criticism and a stint of actual prison (with early release owing to that poor health - and very advanced age). In short, life was tough and he died with officially nothing to show for it. A case of celebrated more in death than life... is it worth it? What else can you do?...
Stimulated to think such thoughts, the book, if somewhat dull, still, made a worthwhile read.
- Aquilina Christophorus