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Rinalda Russell, ed. Sister Maria Celeste's Letters to Her Father, Galileo.

Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Rinaldina Russell. Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2000.

Galileo's relation to his daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, has lately been moving centerstage. Thanks largely to scholars interested in women writers (e.g., Mia Cocco) or the spirituality of women (e.g., Elissa Weaver) or to historical revisions, such as the now famous biography of Galileo's daughter by Darva Sobel, we have come to know a lot about Sister Maria Celeste.

Born in Venice on August 13, 1600 to Galileo and to Marina Gamba, she was named Virginia after Galileo's older sister, and she was one of three children by Galileo, a younger sister named Livia and a younger brother, Vincenzo. When his tenure at the University of Padua expired, and Galileo returned to Florence to become chief mathematician and philosopher to the Grand Duke Cosimo II de' Medici, he took along his three children and placed them in a convent. In 1613, both Virginia and Livia were accepted as Franciscan novices in San Matteo at Arcetri, near Florence. Founded as an Augustinian monastery in 1233, San Matteo had been reorganized as a convent of "Clarisse" of followers of Saint Clare in 1391, and remained under the supervision of the local bishop rather than under the jurisdiction of the Franciscan order. The difference is remarkable. It meant that the novices were "hostages"--if necessary--to shifting political winds. On October 4, 1616, Virginia became a Franciscan nun with the name, which overtly alludes both to the Virgin but also to her father's astronomical activity, of Sister Maria Celeste.

Maria Celeste spent most of her short life within the enclosure of San Matteo, where she occasionally was allowed to receive visits from relatives. The letters she wrote her father from the convent give him and us a view of the daily life inside the convent, with its problems, pressures and hardships, as well as its comforts and atmosphere of sheltered intimacy. In the Introduction, the translator goes on to explain how the nuns of San Matteo were expected to bring in revenue by farming, needlework or by the sale of apothecary products, and how Sister Maria Celeste worked "as apothecary and confectioner, and we may infer that her medical preparations were sold to the public, together with those delicacies that she so lovingly prepared when destined for her father" (xv). From Sister Maria Celeste's letters we also learn that "the nuns in position of responsibility were personally liable for the budget they managed during their term of office" (xv). Although malnutrition might have been accountable for the frequent illnesses at San Matteo, the convent did not suffer the plague of 1630-1633. Sister Maria Celeste's report on the epidemic includes details on the clinical symptoms, patients quarantined in their homes, and casualties occurred in different social classes.

The picture we get of Galileo's nephew locked in his house with his two surviving sons may bring to our minds the later description of Cecilia's mother in Manzoni's I promessi sposi. More than that, the thematic monotony of Sister Maria Celeste's letters, the detailed attention to the harsh realities and minutiae of her daily life serve a clear, if never explicitly stated purpose. It is as if the dutiful, loving daughter meant to turn the father/astronomer's gaze away from the celestial horizon and contemplations back to the earth, back to the earthly passions of his daughter. The earth--for the Franciscan nun, whose theology hinges on this world's realities and the frailties of human creatures J stands at the center of the world. Spiritually, she--who longs for Heaven--is definitely geocentric. However, to these largely family matters the scientist, predictably enough, pays scant attention. His aim is directed at redesigning the fabric of the universe.

The contrast between these two perspectives finds other exemplifications. Several letters were written in the year 1633 while Maria Celeste was in Arcetri and Galileo in Rome. We know how momentuous that year was in his life. His Dialogues on the Two Chief Systems of the World had come out of the press the previous year (February 1632), and Galileo had sent a copy of the book to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, the pope's nephew. Few months later, to the apparent surprise of the author, an order was given to halt the printing of the book. Toward the end of that summer Galileo had been called to Rome before the Holy Office to stand trial on suspicion that his doctrines were heretical. Sister Maria Celeste's letters to her father during the drama of the Roman days (February to July 1633), provided Galileo with utmost emotional support.

Maria Celeste's messages are aglow with the quiet comfort of ordinary events. It is as if ordinary news of daily life (about the plague; the state of the orchard; the flowering of trees; the price of wine; gratitude for the cheese her father sent, etc) would offer her besieged father a sense of a life devoid of any tragic overtones. The earth, once again, and not heliocentric theories was supposed to be the center of life.

The translations--all in plain, and simple language--render effectively the Franciscan bent of Sister Maria Celeste's mind. So factual, so concrete is her world--and her style--that her letters constitute a remarkable chapter in Italian Literary history. Thanks to Rinaldina Russell's translation, it is now possible to think of including these letters in a possible course on late Renaissance women writers.
Central Connecticut State University
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Author:Passaro, Maria C. Pastore
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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