She who was
Most Illustrious Lord Father
WE ARE TERRIBLY SADDENED by the death of your cherishedsister, our dear aunt; but our sorrow at losing her is as nothingcompared to our concern for your sake, because your sufferingwill be all the greater, Sire, as truly you have no one else left inyour world, now that she, who could not have been more preciousto you, has departed, and therefore we can only imaginehow you sustain the severity of such a sudden and completelyunexpected blow. And while I tell you that we share deeply inyour grief you would do well to draw even greater comfort fromcontemplating the general state of human misery, since we areall of us here on Earth like strangers and wayfarers, who soonwill be bound for our true homeland in Heaven, where there isperfect happiness, and where we must hope that your sister'sblessed soul has already gone. Thus, for the love of God, wepray you. Sire, to be consoled and to put yourself in His hands,for, as you know so well, that is what He wants of you; to dootherwise would be to injure yourself and hurt us, too, becausewe lament grievously when we hear that you are burdened andtroubled, as we have no other source of goodness in this worldbut you.
I will say no more, except that with all our hearts we ferventlypray the Lord to comfort you and be with you always, and wegreet you dearly with our ardent love.
From San Matteo, the 10th day of May 1623.
Most affectionate daughter,
S. Maria Celeste
The day after his sister Virginia's funeral, the already world-renownedscientist Galileo Galilei received this, the first of 124surviving letters from the once-voluminous correspondence hecarried on with his elder daughter. She alone of Galileo's threechildren mirrored his own brilliance, industry, and sensibility, andby virtue of these qualities became his confidante.
Galileo's daughter, born of his long illicit liaison with the beautifulMarina Gamba of Venice, entered the world in the summerheat of a new century, on August 13, 1600the same year theDominican friar Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Romefor insisting, among his many heresies and blasphemies, that theEarth traveled around the Sun, instead of remaining motionless atthe center of the universe. In a world that did not yet know itsplace, Galileo would engage this same cosmic conflict with theChurch, treading a dangerous path between the Heaven he reveredas a good Catholic and the heavens he revealed through histelescope.
Galileo christened his daughter Virginia, in honor of his "cherishedsister." But because he never married Virginia's mother, hedeemed the girl herself unmarriageable. Soon after her thirteenthbirthday, he placed her at the Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri,where she lived out her life in poverty and seclusion.
Virginia adopted the name Maria Celeste when she became anun, in a gesture that acknowledged her father's fascination withthe stars. Even after she professed a life of prayer and penance, sheremained devoted to Galileo as though to a patron saint. The dotingconcern evident in her condolence letter was only to intensifyover the ensuing decade as her father grew old, fell more frequentlyill, pursued his singular research nevertheless, and publisheda book that brought him to trial by the Holy Office of theInquisition.
The "we" of Suer Maria Celeste's letter speaks for herself andher sister, LiviaGalileo's strange, silent second daughter, whoalso took the veil and vows at San Matteo to become Suor Arcangela.Meanwhile their brother, Vincenzio, the youngest childof Galileo and Marina's union, had been legitimized in a fiat bythe grand duke of Tuscany and gone off to study law at the Universityof Pisa.
Thus Suor Maria Celeste consoled Galileo for being left alonein his world, with daughters cloistered in the separate world ofnuns, his son not yet a man, his former mistress dead, his familyof origin all deceased or dispersed.
Galileo, now fifty-nine, also stood boldly alone in his worldview,as Suor Maria Celeste knew from reading the books hewrote and the letters he shared with her from colleagues and criticsall over Italy, as well as from across the continent beyond theAlps. Although her father had started his career as a professor ofmathematics, teaching first at Pisa and then at Padua, every philosopherin Europe tied Galileo's name to the most startling series ofastronomical discoveries ever claimed by a single individual.
In 1609, when Suor Maria Celeste was still a child in Padua,Galileo had set a telescope in the garden behind his house andturned it skyward. Never-before-seen stars leaped out of the darknessto enhance familiar constellations; the nebulous Milky Wayresolved into a swath of densely packed stars, mountains and valleyspockmarked the storied perfection of the Moon; and a retinueof four attendant bodies traveled regularly around Jupiter like aplanetary system in miniature.
"I render infinite thanks to God," Galileo intoned after thosenights of wonder, "for being so kind as to make me alone thefirst observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previouscenturies."
The newfound worlds transformed Galileo's life. He won appointmentas chief mathematician and philosopher to the grandduke in 1610, and moved to Florence to assume his position atthe court of Cosimo de' Medici. He took along with him his twodaughters, then ten and nine years old, but he left Vincenzio, whowas only four when greatness descended on the family, to live awhile longer in Padua with Marina.
Galileo found himself lionized as another Columbus for his conquests.Even as he attained the height of his glory, however, heattracted enmity and suspicion. For instead of opening a distantland dominated by heathens, Galileo trespassed on holy ground.Hardly had his first spate of findings stunned the populace of Europebefore a new wave followed: He saw dark spots creepingcontinuously across the face of the Sun, and "the mother ofloves," as he called the planet Venus, cycling through phases fromfull to crescent, just as the Moon did.
All his observations lent credence to the unpopular Sun-centereduniverse of Nicolaus Copernicus, which had been introducedover half a century previously, but foundered on lack of evidence.Galileo's efforts provided the beginning of a proof. And his flamboyantstyle of promulgating his ideassometimes in bawdy humorouswritings, sometimes loudly at dinner parties and stageddebatestransported the new astronomy from the Latin Quartersof the universities into the public arena. In 1616, a pope and acardinal inquisitor reprimanded Galileo, warning him to curtail hisforays into the supernal realms. The motions of the heavenly bodies,they said, having been touched upon in the Psalms, the Bookof Joshua, and elsewhere in the Bible, were matters best left to theHoly Fathers of the Church.
Galileo obeyed their orders, silencing himself on the subject.For seven cautious years he turned his efforts to less perilous pursuits,such as harnessing his Jovian satellites in the service of navigation,to help sailors discover their longitude at sea. He studiedpoetry and wrote literary criticism. Modifying his telescope, hedeveloped a compound microscope. "I have observed many tinyanimals with great admiration," he reported, "among which theflea is quite horrible, the gnat and the moth very beautiful; andwith great satisfaction I have seen how flies and other little animalscan walk attached to mirrors, upside down."
Shortly after his sister's death in May of 1623, however, Galileofound reason to return to the Sun-centered universe like a mothto a flame. That summer a new pope ascended the throne of SaintPeter in Rome. The Supreme Pontiff Urban VIII brought to theHoly See an intellectualism and an interest in scientific investigationnot shared by his immediate predecessors. Galileo knew theman personallyhe had demonstrated his telescope to him andthe two had taken the same side one night in a debate about floatingbodies after a banquet at the Florentine court. Urban, for hispart, had admired Galileo so long and well that he had even writtena poem for him, mentioning the sights revealed by "Galileo'sglass."
The presence of the poet pope encouraged Galileo to proceedwith a long-planned popular dissertation on the two rival theoriesof cosmology: the Sun-centered and the Earth-centered, or, in hiswords, the "two chief systems of the world."
It might have been difficult for Suor Maria Celeste to condonethis courseto reconcile her role as a bride of Christ with herfather's position as potentially the greatest enemy of the CatholicChurch since Martin Luther. But instead she approved of his endeavorsbecause she knew the depth of his faith. She acceptedGalileo's conviction that God had dictated the Holy Scriptures toguide men's spirits but proffered the unraveling of the universe asa challenge to their intelligence. Understanding her father's prodigiouscapacity in this pursuit, she prayed for his health, for hislongevity, for the fulfillment of his "every just desire." As the convent'sapothecary, she concocted elixirs and pills to strengthen himfor his studies and protect him from epidemic diseases. Her letters,animated by her belief in Galileo's innocence of any heretical depravity,carried him through the ordeal of his ultimate confrontationwith Urban and the Inquisition in 1633.
No detectable strife ever disturbed the affectionate relationshipbetween Galileo and his daughter. Theirs is not a tale of abuse orrejection or intentional stifling of abilities. Rather, it is a love story,a tragedy, and a mystery.
Most of Suor Maria Celeste's letters traveled in the pocket of amessenger, or in a basket laden with laundry, sweetmeats, orherbal medicines, across the short distance from the Convent ofSan Matteo, on a hillside just south of Florence, to Galileo in thecity or at his suburban home. Following the angry papal summonsto Rome in 1632, however, the letters rode on horseback sometwo hundred miles and were frequently delayed by quarantinesimposed as the Black Plague spread death and dread across Italy.Gaps of months' duration disrupt the continuity of the reportagein places, but every page is redolent of daily life, down to the painof toothache and the smell of vinegar.
Galileo held on to his daughter's missives indiscriminately, collectingher requests for fruits or sewing supplies alongside her outburstson ecclesiastical politics. Similarly, Suor Maria Celeste savedall of Galileo's letters, as rereading them, she often reminded him,gave her great pleasure. By the time she received the last rites, theletters she had gathered over her lifetime in the convent constitutedthe bulk of her earthly possessions. But then the motherabbess, who would have discovered Galileo's letters while emptyingSuor Maria Celeste's cell, apparently buried or burned themout of fear. After the celebrated trial at Rome, a convent dared notharbor the writings of a "vehemently suspected" heretic. In thisfashion, the correspondence between father and daughter waslong ago reduced to a monologue.
Standing in now for all the thoughts he once expressed to herare only those he chanced to offer others about her. "A woman ofexquisite mind," Galileo described her to a colleague in anothercountry, "singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me."
On first learning of Suor Maria Celeste's letters, people generallyassume that Galileo's replies must lie concealed somewhere inthe recesses of the Vatican Library, and that if only an enterprisingoutsider could gain access, the missing half of the dialogue wouldbe found. But, alas, the archives have been combed, several times,by religious authorities and authorized researchers all desperate tohear the paternal tone of Galileo's voice. These seekers have cometo accept the account of the mother abbess's destruction of thedocuments as the most reasonable explanation for their disappearance.The historical importance of any paper signed by Galileo,not to mention the prices such articles have commanded for thepast two centuries, leaves few conceivable places where wholepackets of his letters could hide.
Although numerous commentaries, plays, poems, early lectures,and manuscripts of Galileo's have also disappeared (knownonly by specific mentions in more than two thousand preservedletters from his contemporary correspondents), his enormous legacyincludes his five most important books, two of his originalhandmade telescopes, various portraits and busts he sat for duringhis lifetime, even parts of his body preserved after death. (Themiddle finger of his right hand can be seen, encased in a gildedglass egg atop an inscribed marble pedestal at the Museum of theHistory of Science in Florence.)
Of Suor Maria Celeste, however, only her letters remain. Boundinto a single volume with cardboard and leather covers, the frayed,deckle-edged pages now reside among the rare manuscripts atFlorence's National Central Library. The handwriting throughoutis still legible, though the once-black ink has turned brown. Someletters bear annotations in Galileo's own hand, for he occasionallyjotted notes in the margins about the things she said and at othertimes made seemingly unrelated calculations or geometric diagramsin the blank spaces around his address on the verso. Severalof the sheets are marred by tiny holes, torn, darkened by acid ormildew, smeared with spilled oil. Of those that are water-blurred,some obviously ventured through the rain, while others lookmore likely tear-stained, either during the writing or the readingof them. After nearly four hundred years, the red sealing wax stillsticks to the folded corners of the paper.
These letters, which have never been published in translation,recast Galileo's story. They recolor the personality and conflict ofa mythic figure, whose seventeenth-century clash with Catholicdoctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion.For although science has soared beyond his quaint instruments,it is still caught in his struggle, still burdened by animpression of Galileo as a renegade who scoffed at the Bible anddrew fire from a Church blind to reason.
This pervasive, divisive power of the name Galileo is what PopeJohn Paul II tried to tame in 1992 by reinvoking his torment solong after the fact. "A tragic mutual incomprehension," His Holinessobserved of the 350-year Galileo affair, "has been interpretedas the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science andfaith."
Yet the Galileo of Suor Maria Celeste's letters recognized nosuch division during his lifetime. He remained a good Catholicwho believed in the power of prayer and endeavored always toconform his duty as a scientist with the destiny of his soul. "Whateverthe course of our lives," Galileo wrote, "we should receivethem as the highest gift from the hand of God, in which equallyreposed the power to do nothing whatever for us. Indeed, weshould accept misfortune not only in thanks, but in infinite gratitudeto Providence, which by such means detaches us from anexcessive love for Earthly things and elevates our minds to thecelestial and divine."
Copyright © 1999 Dava Sobel. All rights reserved.