The astronomical discoveries made by Galileo Galilei in the 17th century have secured his place in scientific lore, but a lesser known aspect of the Italian astronomer's life is his role as a father.
Galileo had three children out of wedlock with Marina Gamba—two daughters and a son. The two young girls, whether by their illegitimate birth or Galileo's inability to provide a suitable dowry, were deemed unfit for marriage and placed in a convent together for life.
The eldest of Galileo's children was his daughter Virginia, who took the name Suor Maria Celeste in the convent. With Maria Celeste, apparently his most gifted child, Galileo carried on a long correspondence, from which 124 of her letters survive. Author Dava Sobel translated the correspondence from Italian into English, weaving the letters and other historical accounts into the unique portrait Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love (Walker, 1999).
On the occasion of the International Year of Astronomy, convened to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first telescopic observations of 1609, we spoke to Sobel about Galileo's complex and overlapping relationships with his family and with the Catholic Church, the latter of which would ultimately lead to his condemnation by the Holy Office of the Inquisition.
[An edited transcript of the conversation follows.]
How did Galileo's Daughter come about?
While I was doing the research for Longitude, I read a book about Galileo's work on timekeeping and longitude. It's a wonderful book called The Pulse of Time by Silvio Bedini. And Bedini had read the daughter's letters and included one of them in that book because she specifically mentioned having to fix the clock in the convent.
So that was my first introduction to the fact that Galileo had children at all and to the fact that both daughters were nuns. And that astounded me, because I had always just thought he was the enemy of the Church. But the letters bespoke an intimate correspondence, which made me think: What if he did everything he did as a believing Catholic?
I suddenly had a sense that I could look at his story from another perspective, not a strict Church-versus-science angle as it's always pitched, but a look at the full complexity of his situation. And of hers, because if she was really a devout nun, what would she make of his work and his dialogue with the Church?
One Galileo scholar, Albert Van Helden of Rice University, was very encouraging, and he said the great thing, which was, "When you read her letters, they'll break your heart."
And did you find the letters to be heartbreaking?
Yes. The first thing that struck me was that she has an extraordinary writing ability, a tremendously complex style with long sentences and transitions from the most mundane things—the laundry, the cooking—to some vision of the afterlife.
But why did they break your heart?
Her situation in the convent was so difficult. She writes about pulling her own teeth. She was living in poverty and poor health and had a great number of responsibilities. She teaches the novices to sing the Gregorian chants, she leads the choir, she negotiates for the convent for all sorts of things.
In one of the most poignant letters she writes about the priest who comes for confession. They had a series of these unscrupulous characters who had no experience with convent life, and she refers to the way they take advantage of the sisters. It sounds like she's talking about rape. And so her request to Galileo is that when he goes to Rome to meet his friend who is now the pope, would he please intercede for them and make sure that they get a father confessor who is a truly religious individual.
Then there is a letter where she reports the violent suicide attempt of the nun who was in charge of the novices. So things in the convent were really tough. She and her sister might have had an easier life if Galileo had put them in a different order. But it was against the law for natural sisters to be admitted to the same convent and he had an in with the mother abbess at that place. A friend of his who was a cardinal finessed the whole thing, and the two girls were allowed to be together in the same convent—and nearby, so he could visit, because they were only 12 and 13.