Galileo Galilei (1564-1642): Science and Religion – Part II: Galileo’s Biographical Background

Giulia di Cosimo Ammannati, the maiden name of the wife of Vincenzio Galilei, gave birth to Galileo in Pisa in 1564, four hundred and one years earlier on the same day that my second son, my fourth child, was born, 15 February 1965. The year of birth is in accordance with the Gregorian calendar that came into being in 1582, but Galileo was born in 1563 according to the old Julian calendar at the time.

Galileo enrolled in the University of Pisa in 1581 at the age of 15, the same year his father published his book on musical theory in Florence, Dialogue of Ancient and Modern Music. Fifty years later, Galileo adopted the same format of a dialogue when trying to persuade a recalcitrant establishment of the verity of the Copernican universe. His father had taught him the theory of ratios for notes, when music was taught as a branch of mathematics. However, his father was a composer and believed that creativity – in mathematics, in science and in music – was not confined to logically deductive methods. Sensitivity to the sweetness of sound as well as accurate ratios was required in tuning an instrument. And Galileo was a very sweet as well as a very logical man, sweet in temperament and sweet in taste in the sense of his acute sensitivity to the world of his experience.

In his book on musical theory, Vincenzio wrote, “It appears to me that they who in proof of any assertion rely simply (my italics) on the weight of authority, without adducing any argument in support of it, act very absurdly. I, on the contrary, wish to be allowed freely to question and freely to answer you without any sort of adulation, as well becomes those who are in search of truth.” (Sobel 17) Galileo grew up to become his father’s heir in spirit.

Galileo entered university at the age of 15, not so much because he was a prodigy, which he was, but because students then went to university at a much younger age than they do now. By 1592, eleven years later, he was teaching at the same prestigious University of Padua and by then had significantly improved upon a rudimentary thermometer that had been invented in Holland a few years earlier. Galileo had begun to work on the motion of falling bodies, which would culminate with his final, and many would argue, his most important book, Two New Sciences (1637), that dealt with material science and with the laws of motion.

In Padua, his eldest daughter, Virginia Galilei, later Sister Maria Celeste, was born to his beautiful Venetian mistress, Marina Gamba, who never lived with Galileo. It was 1600, the same year Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake. Livia, his second daughter, was born a year later. Five years later, his son, Vincenzio, named after his father who died in 1591, was born, the same year that Galileo invented the military compass. In 1614, when Virginia was 14 and Livia only 12, they both assumed a religious habit. Vincenzio was 8 years old. Since Galileo had to earn a dowry for his daughters in the nunnery and then sufficient funds to spread around to get his son legitimized in 1619, the year his mistress, Marina Gamba died, Galileo was under enormous financial pressure that was eased as his fame led to a much higher salary and a greater sinecure. However, it is difficult to find a year in which he was not under financial pressure from a number of sources.

Vincenzio, though legitimized at great monetary expense and the goodwill of friends of Galileo, seemed to be destined to be a ne’er-do-well, squandering his money when he attended university. He was a rapscallion. But he later straightened himself up to earn a doctor of laws at the age of 22 and became an upstanding citizen. Galileo, though burdened financially by his three children and emotionally by his son’s youthful waywardness, in the 1620s became burdened by his extended family. In 1627, his brother, Michelangelo, who had followed in the footsteps of his father as a musician, asked if his wife and some of his eight children could live with Galileo while Michaelangelo traveled to Munich to seek greater acclaim. His brother also wanted his family to be safe from the turmoil of the Thirty Years War.

Without awaiting Galileo’s consent, his brother’s family arrived on his doorstep in 1627 and Galileo now found that, at the age of 63, he had a number of extra mouths to feed, his sister-in-law, Anna Chiaria, and six of her children for what turned out to be a stay of almost a year rather than a month or even a couple of months. Further, shortly after, Galileo lost his sinecure at the University of Pisa. The following year, his eldest daughter, Maria Celeste, pleaded for additional financial help because she needed a private room to escape the craziness of her roommate and the nunnery had entered a period of financial straits. It did not help that in 1630, the plague once again ravaged Tuscany.

Galileo’s brother died in Munich, presumably of the plague, and once again Galileo had to resume support of his sister-in-law and her numerous children. The plague also ravaged through Tuscany. After it subsided, and once he was freed from house arrest, Galileo moved to the Martinelli villa in Arcetri to be much nearer his eldest daughter in the nunnery. But Galileo had the greatest burden to bear of his whole life. After he moved to Arcetri, his dearest eldest daughter, Maria Celeste (Virginia), died in 1634.

These are all personal background notes for our concern with Galileo’s contribution to the freedom of religion, freedom to take on any religion and within that religion subsume one or other set of beliefs, all against a very different intellectual biography of a scientific and mathematical genius who not only made critical contributions to the science of astronomy, the laws of motion and the strength of materials, but, most critically, to the scientific method which would also have a profound influence on how the Torah is read and interpreted. However, what entrances most people is Galileo’s political biography and his relationship with the Inquisition that pursued him in 1616 and then again in 1633 as a continuation of that prosecution and the sentence he had to endure for the rest of his life.

This biographical note also requires setting the above political/religious struggle against the background of the scientific one (which I will expand upon in subsequent blogs) by discussing Galileo’s close friends. For the sake of economy, I have selected three: the Benedictine monk, Benedetto Castelli, Frederico Cesi and Maffeo Cardinal Barberini, who became Pope Urban VIII; under his depiction I will also introduce his nephew, Francesco Barberini. There were many others:

  • Carlo Cardinal Conti
  • Roberto Cardinal Bellarmino
  • Grand Duke Ferdinando, both the Ist and, even more importantly, the IInd, as well as various other members of the all-important Medici family
  • The Dominican Father Niccolò Riccardi from Genoa who became the group’s inside man in the Holy Office (it was he who added the publication blurb that went beyond validating The Assayer as not contrary to established doctrine but praised its subtle and solid speculations about nature)
  • The jurist Giovanni Ciampoli who had been a student and proponent of Galileo’s ideas and joined the Academy of Lynceans in 1615 and who would become Pope Urban VIII’s “secret adviser and the guiding spirit in the new Curia” (Redondi 71) as well as Pope Urban VIII’s foremost and most successful diplomat
  • Giovanni Rondinelli, his personal physician as well as friend
  • Ascanio Picolomini, Archbishop of Siena who was such an important benefactor of Galileo in his final years
  • Most importantly for how Galileo’s memory has been preserved, his last student, Vincenzio Viviani.

Friends were important to Galileo. They were also critical to helping him survive the oppression of The Inquisition. Father Benedetto Castelli was a pupil of Galileo. In a letter to Castelli on 21 December 1613, Galileo insisted that profound religiosity required both “necessary demonstrations” and “sense experience,” That is how the bible of nature is revealed by unveiling the laws that govern that nature. Thus, the controversy with the Inquisition was not simply over the Copernican view of the universe, but also Galileo’s contentions that the divine can be understood through the study of nature and, further, that biblical hermeneutics can be enhanced by science in contrast to simply accepting the inherited interpretation by the Holy Fathers.

Castelli, for example, in 1612 took it upon himself to argue with the Pisan professor, Giorgio Corsio. Castelli favoured Galileo’s form of atomism versus the anti-atomistic nominalism of the Aristotelians. He would join with Father Cavalieri and Giovanni Ciampoli to expand upon and spread the new message of Galileo. In the controversies over applying scientific method to the Eucharist beginning in 1626, though the controversy dated back to the publication of The Assayer earlier, Castelli took on the role of both critically reviewing Galileo’s arguments and offering defences of his own. Further, Castelli was also the teacher of Evangelista Torricelli who became part of the second generation of Galileans, though tragically, both teacher and student died in the same year in1647.

Frederic Cesi provided the most important intellectual and academic home for Galileo in the Accademia dei Lincei, the Academy of Lynceans (deliberately set up in opposition to the Collegio Romano) which Cesi founded and to which Galileo was nominated in 1612. It was one of the first modern networked research institutes as well as a professional home for academics working scientifically and an intellectual home for the anti-scholastics. The initial members were mostly jurists and literary men.

Prince Cesi’s home, at least his country home near Urbino, served as an intellectual retreat where the advocates of the new science could share their thoughts and writing and even develop defense strategies as well as intellectual attacks (Operation Sarsi in 1623 when The Assayer is finally printed), ensuring prudential and diplomatic editing of works that could avoid unnecessary confrontation with the religious authorities, and putting forth other publications to advance the positions of the new scientists.   

However, it was the advancement in science that could be said to have been its most important function. Because of the printing press, books were now more widely available, but they were still relatively expensive. Prince Cesi created a magnificent library at his country home that expressed the great outpouring of support for humanist and theological culture as an alternative to the largest library at the time, the Collegio Romano Jesuit Library. Cesi’s library offered freedom of access, but not formally freedom of acquisition, for all books were still subject to the suppression laws of the Inquisition, though part of the new creativity was finding ways around those limitations even though the Inquisitorial Court had dubbed the new positions as contrary and injurious to faith, as propagating atheism, moral pessimism, materialism, naturalism and libertinism. Nevertheless, as in all totalitarian systems, a thriving trade in samizdat literature emerged. The fulcrum of a broad collection covering many topics that could be consulted was critical.

Federico Cesi was Galileo’s publisher in Rome. His home there was also a museum for an accumulation of fossils as well as another location for his extensive collection of books. Cesi’s most ambitious project was an encyclopedia of nature in all its aspects, the Theatrum naturale which, nevertheless still excluded mathematics, mechanics and astronomy as still too risky. Besides, Cesi was not a mathematician. He was a humanist. And even then, he was only able to publish the volumes on botany and zoology; physics, chemistry and geology waited later publishers.

Possibly the most important of Galileo’s friends was Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, a brilliant and politically ambitious prelate. In 1612, he supported Galileo. The key events took place between 1616 when Galileo was first accused of heresy and 1632 when he was charged and there was an actual court case run by the Inquisition. On 6 August 1623, Maffeo Barberini was elected Pope Urban VIII. A refined intellect now had control of the highest office and it was widely known that he was friendly with Galileo. The counter-reformation was underway as countries such as Hungary and Bohemia reverted almost as one to Catholicism and the Jesuits gained control of monasteries allegedly in the hands of corrupt religious orders. Usually in league with Spain, the Jesuits were very suspicious of the new pontiff, who had served in Paris, and his outreach to Richelieu. The Lynceans saw their opening with their old rivals, the Collegio Romano.

The other Barberini, Francesco, a nephew of the new pope, was appointed by Cesi to the Academy of Lyceans and, a few days later, Pope Urban VIII, in the same year he became pope, bestowed on his nephew the robes of a cardinal. Francesco was only 26 years old. He had also been Galileo’s student. The publication of Galileo’s The Assayer quickly followed; it was dedicated to the new pope. In authoritarian regimes, it is very helpful to have friends in high places.

However, The Assayer was a satire, more specifically a satire of the Aristotelians who populated the Collegio Romano and their cult of tradition. If Galileo had enemies before, they were now determined on revenge for both their loss of power and their humiliation. Three years later, in 1626, they found an opening. As we will see, Galileo’s friends were important simply as friends, but also as developers and exponents of his views and as defenders in the face of the power of The Inquisition.

I will examine how that power was exercised in a subsequent blog that will take up the trial of Galileo in which Pope Urban VIII, Cardinal Matteo Barberini, played such a crucial role.


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