Galileo’s Daughter

GalileosDaughterSuggested by John Lennox • Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of his daughter Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has crafted a biography that dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishments of a mythic figure.
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8 Responses to Galileo’s Daughter

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m 72% into “Galileo’s Daughter.” It tells what is probably a more even-handed and detailed account of Galileo’s conflict with the Catholic Church over his Dialogue. Long story short, the Pope had turned from the touchy-feely fellow (and friend of Galileo) to an embattled and somewhat embittered man who was caught in the 30 Years War. What should have been a relatively minor administrative affair was inflated by Church officials into a cause célèbre. Galileo was a convenient and tangible scapegoat for the Pope’s pent-up frustrations.

    Although the author, strangely, said that this event has been inflated into “science vs. religion,” that would seem to me to be the best appellation, although there were other factors involved.

    This is a somewhat strange and wonderful book. It’s strange because there are no surviving letters from Galileo to his daughter, but plenty of the reverse. And his eldest daughter, who took the name “Maria Celeste” upon entering a convent, is a dutiful, obedient, and complimentary daughter…almost to a fault. Her letters (interspersed with the author’s text) are inspiring from a certain point of view. The language and tone she uses having fallen completely out of favor.

    But I found the letters to become extremely repetitive. But through them you can see how Maria Celeste was of great importance to Galileo, both practically and emotionally. And obviously Maria Celeste inherited much of her father’s brains. She was able to run his estate from behind cloistered walls. She was quite capable at a good many things. Here’s a brief bio of Suor Maria Celeste:

    Realistically appraising his daughters’ future prospects, Galileo placed them at the Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri, a mile from Florence, shortly after Virginia’s thirteenth birthday. As each girl reached the canonical age of 16, she professed her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the Franciscan order of the Poor Clares. Virginia took the name Maria Celeste, in a gesture that acknowledged her father’s fascination with the stars. She remained devoted to Galileo for the rest of her life, and he grew emotionally dependent upon this “woman of exquisite mind,” as he called her, “singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me.”

    Many convents demanded dowries be paid for entry. But the Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri did not, which is probably why, the author speculates, it was popular with the middle class and why Galileo deposited his daughters there…he didn’t have money for a proper dowry.

    Here’s a link to a view of Galileo’s house in Arcetri. It’s the u-shaped compound in the top left. The Convent of San Metteo can be seen here.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    I believe we have this around here somewhere (Elizabeth got it years ago). As I recall, what angered Church officials is that Galileo used his Dialogue not to present the 2 theories (ignoring Kepler’s modification of Copernicus, which is actually what we use today) fairly, but to mock the Ptolemaic theory and its Church supporters (who happened to be very influential and humor-deficient).

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      If you go by the information in this book, what happened is that someone was whispering bad things into the Pope’s ear. And for a variety of reasons, the Pope was attuned to hearing and believing these bad things. The man appeared to have very much changed while in office.

      Going by this book, Galileo and others were told in 1616 not to treat the Copernican theory as anything more than a hypothesis. They could discuss it but not as “fact.” The Inquisition asserts that Galileo was told that he could not even teach the Copernican theory, no matter how the question was framed (hypothesis or otherwise).

      Galileo offered written documentation at the Inquisition in regards to his personal and official requirements on the issue as given to him by Church officials, and it said only to make sure that it was not discussed or taught as fact, but only as a hypothesis. There was no clear resolution of this at his trial. What makes the Church all the more culpable for its bully insanity is that Galileo had submitted the Dialogue to the correct authorities beforehand. And those authorities told him that other than a new introduction and summary (which a Church official would soon furnish, and did furnish), it was okay to print.

      Galileo was about as transparent about the process as he could be. What the Church did was try to use him as a scapegoat. They wanted to make an example out of him. They claimed that he withheld information from current officials about the 1616 prohibitions. But that is, at best, complete bullshit. He submitted the work. If they didn’t want it published then they had ample opportunity in 1632 to do this behind the scenes, no muss, no fuss.

      And it took the Church another 200 years before they took his Dialogue of the banned book list. This was an atrocious act by the Church.

      What was interesting to read was Galileo’s philosophical and religious arguments regarding why, to put it succinctly, Church officials and others shouldn’t get their panties in a bunch over the Copernican theory. He presents some very good arguments that are not question-begging, disingenuous, or duplicitous. He made the Church officials look shallow and stupid (which, I think, was a large part of the problem).

      And if this book gives a good and accurate account, Galileo couldn’t have been humbler. Yes, he gives the old Ptolemaic theory a good pummeling in his Dialogue. But however one stood on the issue, apparently the way he presented the case was very interesting. This book noted that many Cardinals very much enjoyed the book…including quite a few Jesuits. I think there was some pleasure there in showing the rest of Christendom that Catholics were not the knuckle-dragging running jokes that their rejection of the Copernican theory made them out to be. The very appeal of the Dialogue to the Church (at least to some in the Church) was that it said to the world, “We understand the Copernican theory. We do not reject it in terms of scientific evidence but in terms of theology.”

      To a modern ear, that would still seem laughable. But there were many who didn’t like the rest of Christendom laughing at the dumb, blinkered Catholic Church. And yet with the banning of Galileo’s Dialogue, that laughter hasn’t quite abated even to this day.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Another remarkable thing about Galileo’s Daughter is that you get an insight into how it was to live in a convent under the order of St. Clare at that time. Their vow of poverty, at least at San Matteo, was for real…too real. One would think that taking a vow of poverty was a voluntary thing. But the poor sisters in the Convent of San Matteo were poor beyond choice. In fact, often they were on the verge of starving and were constantly writing letters asking for charitable support. Galileo himself was a large benefit in this regard.

    Near the end of the life of Maria Celeste, the convent was bequeathed a rich and large plot of land which could be used to secure their basic needs, and then some. But before this, it was surprising to me that they lived such day-to-day lives of relative material want.

    And the health of most, inside or outside the convent, was an iffy thing. Galileo himself suffered from poor health most of his life. The recurring bubonic plagues contributed greatly to the problem. But it just seemed that the state of nutrition combined with nearly useless (if not counterproductive) medical care left people fragile. Eat your veggies….and don’t let anyone bleed you.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Those vows of poverty were often very real. I read an article in the 1960s (I think in Reader’s Digest) on the poverty of many Catholic parish priests even here in America.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Someone was interested in reading one of Maria Celeste’s letters, so I’ve posted a couple of them here:



    We are terribly saddened by the death of your cherished sister, our dear aunt; but our sorrow at losing her is as nothing compared to our concern for your sake, because your suffering will be all the greater, Sire, as truly you have no one else left in your world, now that she, who could not have been more precious to you, has departed, and therefore we can only imagine how you sustain the severity of such a sudden and completely unexpected blow. And while I tell you that we share deeply in your grief, you would do well to draw even greater comfort from contemplating the general state of human misery, since we are all of us here on Earth like strangers and wayfarers, who soon will be bound for our true homeland in Heaven, where there is perfect happiness, and where we must hope that your sister’s blessed soul has already gone. Thus, for the love of God, we pray you, Sire, to be consoled and to put yourself in His hands, for, as you know so well, that is what He wants of you; to do otherwise would be to injure yourself and hurt us, too, because we lament grievously when we hear that you are burdened and troubled, as we have no other source of goodness in this world but you.

    I will say no more, except that with all our hearts we fervently pray the Lord to comfort you and be with you always, and we greet you dearly with our ardent love.

    From San Matteo, the 10th Day of May, 1623.
    Most affectionate daughter,

    Maria Celeste



    The happiness I derived from the gift of the letters you sent me, Sire, written to you by that most distinguished Cardinal, now elevated to the exalted position of Supreme Pontiff, was ineffable, for his letters so clearly express the affection this great man has for you, and also show how highly he values your abilities. I have read and reread them, savoring them in private, and I return them to you, as you insist, without having shown them to anyone else except Suor Arcangela [Maria’s younger sister, also in the same convent], who has joined me in drawing the utmost joy from seeing how much our father is favored by persons of such caliber. May it please the Lord to grant you the robust health you will need to fulfill your desire to visit His Holiness, so that you can be even more greatly esteemed by him; and, seeing how many promises he makes you in his letters, we can entertain the hope that the Pope will readily grant you some sort of assistance for our brother.

    In the meantime, we shall not fail to pray the Lord, from whom all grace descends, to bless you by letting you achieve all that you desire, so long as that be for the best.

    I can only imagine, Sire, what a magnificent letter you must have written to His Holiness, to congratulate him on the occasion of his reaching this exalted rank, and, because I am more than a little bit curious, I yearn to see a copy of that letter, if it would please you to show it, and I thank you so much for the ones you have already sent, as well as for the melons which we enjoyed most gratefully. I have dashed off this note in considerable haste, so I beg your pardon if I have for that reason been sloppy or spoken amiss. I send you loving greetings along with the others here who always ask to be remembered to you.


    Most affectionate daughter,



    • Timothy Lane says:

      The language is interesting, considering that she presumably wrote in either Italian or Latin. I wonder if some of the wording says more about her or the translator.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        The translator may have been accurate or not, generous or ungenerous, but it seems clear that Maria Celeste had inherited some of her father’s abilities. She learned Latin (probably via her father, but no doubt some self-teaching as well). She became so good at language (perhaps including Latin, especially if that was used in any formal communications) that the author notes that she typically would pen the official letters of the convent.

        Everyone was required to work inside the convent, but it seems that SMS’s abilities did not go unnoticed. Here’s a short section of one of her letters:

        I am writing at the seventh hour: I shall insist that you excuse me if I make mistakes, Sire, because the day does not contain one hour of time that is mine, since in addition to my other duties I have now been assigned to teach Gregorian chant to four young girls, and by Madonna’s orders I am responsible for the day-to-day conducting of the choir: which last creates considerable labor for me, with my poor grasp of the Latin language. It is certainly true that these exercises are very much to my liking, if only I did not also have to work; yet from all this I do derive one very good thing, which is that I never ever sit idle for even one quarter of an hour. Except that I require sufficient sleep to clear my head. If you would teach me the secret you yourself employ, Sire, for getting by on so little sleep, I would be most grateful, because in the end the seven hours that I waste sleeping seem far too many to me.

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