Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Galileo and his daughters: a case study

This post is taken from Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter: A Drama of Science, Faith and Love (London: Fourth Estate, 1999).

Galileo Galileo had three children, a boy and two girls, Virginia and Livia, the result of his long liaison with Marina Gamba of Venice. Virginia was born in August 1600, Livia a year later. Because the girls were illegitimate they were deemed unmarrigeable and soon after Virginia’s thirteenth birthday she was placed at the Poor Clare convent of San Matteo in Arcetri, where she lived out her life in poverty and seclusion.  She took the name of Suor Maria Celeste and Livia became Suor Arcangela.
Meanwhile the brother, Vincenzio, who had been legitmized by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, went to study law at the University of Pisa. 124 of Suor Maria Celeste’s letters to her ‘Most Illustrious Lord Father’ have survived, but none of his to her. Her letters show an intense love for her father, and some seem to be tear-stained. But if Suor Arcangela wrote to her father, her letters have not survived.
    It is possible that Suor Arcangela suffered from depression. Her sister described her as someone who
‘finds interaction with others unbearable … [her] nature being very different from mine, and rather eccentric’ (Sobel, 172-3).
When she was given charge of the convent’s wine cellar, Suor Maria Celeste feared her ‘abusing her authority as cellarer to overindulge in drink (Sobel. She died in 1659, silent to the end.
    Suor Maria Celeste died of dysentery in March 1634, the year after her father’s condemnation. From the day she took ill Galileo walked every day to the convent and on her death he sought his only solace in reading religious poems and dialogues. The archbishop of Siena wrote:
‘I have known for a long time that she was the greatest good your Lordship had in the world’.
Galileo wrote:
‘I feel immense sadness and melancholy together with extreme inappetite; I am hateful to myself, and continually hear my beloved daughter calling to me’ (quoted Sobel, 360-1).
    Did Galileo love his daughters? Can he be judged by modern standards?