galileosdaughter

I think it is pretty safe to assume that everyone has heard of Galileo Galilei. Not as well known is his eldest daughter.

Galileo was born on February 15, 1564, in Pisa, Italy. A mathematics professor, he made observations with implications for the future study of physics. He constructed a telescope (did not invent it) and made significant improvements to it. He supported the Copernican theory of a sun-centered solar system and so was accused twice of heresy by the Catholic church.

He had three children, but was closest to his eldest, Virginia. He saw her as much like himself in intellect, sensibility, and with an always-seeking spirit.

Virginia was born of his illicit affair with Marina Gamba of Venice. Her birth was in the summer of a new century – August 13, 1600.

That year was also when a Dominican friar, Giordano Bruno, who believed the Earth traveled around the Sun, was burned at the stake.

On her thirteenth birthday, Virginia entered a convent and remained there for the rest of her short life. She was devout but loved her father and remained in constant correspondence with him.

I learned about her when I read back in 1999 Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel which used whatever surviving letters (never published in translation) between them as a major source. It is a good tale of that divide and connections between science and spiritual belief that still exists.

Virginia became Maria Celeste as a nun. We can surmise that Celeste might be a celestial nod to her father. In the convent, she was the apothecary – a kind of science of that time. She sent her father herbal treatments. She asked her father for financial help for the convent. She may have helped him prepare some manuscripts.

It is not really clear how father and daughter reconciled his heresy and her devotion. But they did. Love conquers all?

Galileo was not an atheist. He remained a Catholic and believed in the power of prayer.

Unfortunately, though letters from Maria Celeste were discovered among Galileo’s papers, his responses to her have been lost. Maria Celeste’s letters are published as Letters to fathertranslated and edited by Dava Sobel.

We remember Galileo mostly for the telescope, which he found out about in 1609. It was a Dutch gadget and initially known as a spyglass or eyeglass. It was curiosity that made faraway objects appear closer and they were being sold in Paris. Galileo saw it as a device of use in the military and promoted it as that to the Italian government.

He improved the design, as others were also doing in other countries, grinding and polishing lenses himself. The Venetian senate was so amazed and obsessed with using it to look for distant ships from bell towers of the city, they renewed his contract at the University of Padua for life, and Professor Galilei’s salary jumped to 1000 florins per year (a 500% raise from his starting pay).

That telescope cause a huge shift in the way we perceive the world we live in and the universe beyond or world.

Galileo used his improved telescope to make detailed drawings of the Moon’s phases, and he discovered 4 of Jupiter’s 67 moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto), though he considered them to be planets. In a 1610 letter, Galileo commented on them and said “I render infinite thanks to God for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries.”

He reminds me of Charles Darwin in that both had a hard time with their discoveries knowing that this new knowledge would clash with existing religious beliefs. Galileo wrote a famous letter about science and religion and that conflict obviously concerned him – and his daughter, and probably some of you reading this today.

Galileo at age 42.
Galileo at age 42, when Virginia was 6, in a portrait by Domenico Robusti.

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