I think I prefer this book to Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, which is also a good book, but not quite as captivating.
Galileo’s oldest child, born of his illicit liaison with the beautiful Marina Gamba of Venice, was thirteen years old when he placed her at the Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri. He never married her mother, so he thought that the girl would be unmarriageable. Her given name was Virginia (after Galileo’s sister), but when she became a nun, she adopted the name Maria Celeste, a name inspired by her fathers work in astronomy (as in celestial).
She was part of the Order of St. Clare, a contemplative order of nuns known as the Clarrises, or the Poor Clares. The order was named for the first female follower of St. Francis of Assisi. She initiated the tradition of work in the convents, filling the hours between daily offices with spinning and embroidery. The rules of the order enforced a very ascetic existence even compared to other convents, as all Poor Clares were dependent on alms. Galileo frequently sent financial assistance to the convent, but it was still a very difficult way to live. The book includes many excerpts from Maria Celeste’s letters to her father, of which 124 letters survive. Although they wrote to each other frequently, Galileo’s side of the correspondence has not been preserved.
Galileo began his career as a professor of mathematics, but the work in astronomy for which he is best known began when, in 1609, he became the first person to point a telescope skyward. The telescope revealed previously unseen features on the moon, a closer view of the Milky Way than could be seen with the naked eye (revealing its dense clusters of stars), and the first four moons of Jupiter. For these discoveries, he won appointment as chief mathematician and philosopher at the court of Cosimo de Medici in 1610. He published a book, The Starry Messenger, describing his observations. It sold out within a week of publication.
In letters to his former student Benedetto Castelli and to the Duchess Christina (daughter of Charles III of Lorraine) Galileo explained why he thought that the heliocentric view of universe was not in conflict with scripture. The first letter became widely circulated and a Dominican friar who heard about it, Tommaso Caccini, arrived at the Inquisition’s offices in Rome to denounce Galileo for heresy. At the end of 1615, Galileo traveled to Rome hoping to clear his name of the suspicion of heresy.
In 1616, Galileo was warned to curtail his studies of the motions of heavenly bodies and told that the subject was best left to the fathers of the Church. For seven years he obeyed, turning his attention to other issues, such as using the moons of Jupiter to calculate longitude and developing a compound microscope with which he observed insects.
In 1623 a new pope, Pope Urban VIII, took office. Galileo knew him personally; he had demonstrated his telescope to him and discussed the physics of floating bodies with him at a banquet at the Florentine court. So Galileo hoped that under the new pope, he would be allowed to return to the study of astronomy, and he decided to proceed with his plans to write a book on the two rival theories of cosmology, the sun-centered and the earth-centered. This book was the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632.
The following year, Galileo was brought in for questioning by the Inquisition. He was tried and convicted of heresy, imprisoned, and eventually released under a revised sentence of house arrest. He then sold his home in Tuscany in order to move closer to the Convent of San Matteo and serve his time under house arrest there, but a few months later she fell ill and died of dysentery at the age of 34.
I really enjoyed this, mostly for the narrative itself, but also because of the author’s narration, which includes asides like this one on Galileo’s experiments:
Although this account reveals stunning experiments that promise to open a new window on philosophy, Salviati cannot be shaken from his recently acquired pedantic monotone, which threatens to establish an irreparable split, if not between science and religion, then between science and poetry.
I listened to most of this on audio, but I also had a library copy of the ebook, both checked out from OverDrive.