New York: Walker & Company, 1999. 420pp. $14.00 (paper).
A popular belief is that Galileo was the lone protagonist of a rift between science and faith, between "freethinkers" and the Catholic hierarchy, that he was tortured and imprisoned by the Inquisition, then excommunicated from the Church. In Galileo's Daughter, Dava Sobel divests these misconceptions and presents a balanced view of changing realities in the seventeenth century. She reports that Galileo was not tortured or imprisoned, nor were the lines of debate clearly drawn between scientists and clergy. Sobel emphasizes that Galileo was never expelled from the Church. On the contrary, he remained a firm believer, one that was affectionately connected to his cloistered daughter, Sister Maria Celeste of the Convent of San Matteo, whose religious name reflects her father's preoccupation with the heavens.
Sobel has been a freelance writer for Omni and Science Digest, and a science reporter for the New York Times. She co-authored books on backaches and arthritis and was a contributor to Is Anyone Out There?, a book on the possibilities of extraterrestrial life. Literary recognition came for her with Longitude, a publishing success that started a trend of historical dramatizations about individuals who changed the world, specifically with technological ideas and inventions. These are books that want to inform and entertain, a genre that holds to what Frost said about poems: they should "begin in delight and end in wisdom."
After attending an academic symposium on longitude, navigation east and west, Sobel was eager to tell the story of John Harrison, the eighteenth-century British clock-maker. Up to his time, navigators could determine north and south of the equator by the sun and stars, but could not be certain where they were for lack of precise determinations of their positions east and west. Harrison's marine chronometer saved the day, but only after numerous mechanical setbacks and personal difficulties with political and scientific establishments of the day. Sobel's book was a popular and critical success; translated into a number of languages, it became a New York Times bestseller. With such a background, it is apparent why the scientific trials of Galileo Galilel would attract her.
While researching chronometers, Sobel studied Galileo's efforts to solve the problem of longitude and discovered a letter from his daughter, a cloistered nun of the Order of Poor Clares, asking him about repairing the convent clock. This led her to 124 of Sister Maria Celeste's letters to her father. Sobel embarked on her next book by translating from the Italian all of the nun's letters, including the full complement in her first version of the manuscript. Currently, the book contains material from about 20 of the letters (the entire collection of translated letters can be found on the Rice University website mariaceleste.rice.edu with other materials from The Galileo Project). Galileo's letters to his daughter are missing and, according to Sobel, most likely were destroyed.
Sobel's telling of Galileo's story is structured in six parts, each associated geographically with important periods of the scientist's life. In the first section, "To Florence," Sobel explores the backgrounds of Galileo and his family, his children with his Venetian mistress, Marina Gamba: Virginia--Sister Maria Celeste, sent to the convent in Arcetri, outside Florence, at an early age -- was born out of wedlock and not considered marriageable; Livia, a depressive hypochondriac who becomes Sister Arcangela in the same convent as her sister, but does not write letters and is seldom heard from; and Vincenzio, who, as the only male progeny, is formally legitimized and allowed to attend university, marry and prosper.
Sobel chronicles Galileo's early academic career and his movements from Padua to Venice to the court of Cosimo De Medici in Florence, where he was Chief Mathematician and philosopher to the Grand Duke. At this time, he wrote Siderius Nuncius (The Starry Messenger), Discourse on Bodies Thot Stay Atop Water or Move Within It, Sunspot Letters, and "Treatise on the Tides."
"On Bellosguardo" details Galileo's life between 1623 and 1629, primarily in a villa on this beautiful hillside along the Arno. Galileo's friend, and an admirer of his work, Maffeo Cardinal Barberini was at the time Pope Urban VIII. Galileo dedicated The Assayer to him.
In the next section, "In Rome," buoyed by the elevation of Barberini to Pontiff, the sixty-six-year-old Galileo arrives to deliver the manuscript of Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernicon for a printing license. During this time of plague, although his work is still supported by many in the Church, petty jealousies and the politics of religious factions begin the reversals of Galileo's good fortunes.
Part four of the book, "In Care of the Tuscan Embassy, Villa Medici, Rome," covers most of 1633, the pivotal year in Galileo's intellectual and spiritual struggle. The scientist resides with Ambassador Francesco Niccolini and his wife, having been summoned by the Holy Office of the Inquisition to defend Dialogue. The book was banned by the Congregation of the Index and remained on its list of prohibited books until 1835. Niccolini pleaded with Urban to pardon Galileo and send him back to Florence. There was no pardon, but Galileo was placed under the gentle custody of Archbishop Piccolomini of Siena at his Roman quarters.
In the next part, "At Siena," which takes place in the summer of 1633, Archbishop Piccolomini, who admired Galileo and endorsed the Dialogue, interceded for him. Galileo was allowed to reside at the archbishop's palazzo at the grand cathedral in Siena, where he was treated as an honored guest and not a prisoner.
"From Arcetri," the book's final section, finds Galileo at Il Gioiello (the jewel), the home he purchased a few years earlier to be near his daughters' convent. Ambassador Niccolini once again petitioned Pope Urban to allow Galileo to return to the hills outside Florence. Galileo, under house arrest, was allowed only to visit his daughters' convent, but soon after his return, Sister Maria Celeste became seriously ill. The old scientist traveled each day to visit and pray with her. She died at the age of thirty-three, and Galileo sorely grieved for months.
Despite the injunction that he was not to entertain visitors who might discuss scientific ideas, Galileo did so. Many of his supporters were religious as well as secular academicians, among them the Benedictine monk, Benedetto Castelli, and the inventor of the barometer, Evangelista Torricelli. Through the intercessions of such devotees, his work Two New Sciences was published in Holland. Castelli offered Mass each day for Galileo, but his petitions to remove the scientist's sentence of house arrest were futile. Galileo Galilel died on January 8, 1642, at the age of seventy-seven. Three hundred and fifty years later, after study by the Galileo Commission, the Church officially endorsed Galileo's thoughts.
An appealing and enlightening book, Galileo's Daughter is masterfully researched and narrated, but its title is misleading. As it stands, the book is primarily about the father's exploration and acceptance of the Copernican theory of the universe, his difficulties with Church politics, and only tangentially his relationship with his daughter. Reducing the number of letters from the nun to her father from 124 in the original manuscript to about 20 signals this shift. Using the word "Daughter" on the book's cover may be a clever marketing tool, but it is unsatisfying for readers who expect to be immersed in a biography about Sister Maria Celeste or who might want to learn about her life in a seventeenth-century convent and about the poignancy of her spiritual journey.
However, the book is warmed by the presence Sister Maria Celeste's letters, which juxtapose aspects of her daily life -- cloister-baked sweets, healing herbs, convent laundry, the mendicant's plea for funds, and hopes and prayers for her father-with the weighty and historic details of Galileo's trials and tribulations.
JOHN DARETTA is Professor Emeritus of Mass Communications at Iona College.