The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 24 April 2001

Galileo's Daughter

A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love

by Dava Sobel

Historically, we look upon the story of Galileo Galilei as the tragic collision of a brilliant scientist with authoritarian religious repression. It wasn't, after all, until the 1990's that Galileo was finally given some reprieve from the church he had offended over 350 years earlier. This book, despite its concise title, is more about Galileo's own trials than those of his daughter, Suor Maria Celeste Galilei. Galileo's three children were born out of wedlock, his son was later "legitimized" by Tuscan royalty, but, in the double standards of his day, the daughters were destined for a sequestered life in the convent of San Matteo in Arcetri, near Florence. A collection of letters from Maria Celeste to her father survives. His own letters to her did not. Given this remarkable historical document, Dava Sobel fills out the story of Galileo's life during the short life of his daughter. In a sense, she has filled out the story of these letters within the context of Galileo's discoveries and later trials. Maria Celeste is quoted at length, and beyond conventional devotion of daughter to father, there is a strong intellectual and familial dependence evident here. She clearly loved her father, and shared the pain of his eventual prosecution for putting forth the Copernican view of the universe. Galileo was also clearly devoted to Maria Celeste. Her sister, too, was placed in the convent, but no letters from her survive. Indeed, the book implies that Suor Arcangela was, herself, perhaps bitter about the fate out of her control. Anyway, it is evident that Galileo, who might have fled Italy for the intellectual freedom of other countries, stayed in his homeland, perhaps due to devotion to his family, many of whom (including Maria Celeste) he outlived. This is history as adventure. The book is very engagingly written, without succumbing to novelization. The people are alive here, and we get to see how Galileo very liberally interpreted the proscription against Copernican thought, and how Pope Urban VIII felt betrayed by Galileo's brilliant delineation of the universe in his infamous Dialogue. The book is fun to read and it is fun to try to place oneself in the time when the spinning Earth was a radical idea. Given the title, though, one might have expected a lot more on the life Maria Celeste led in her sequestered convent under the rule of Saint Clare. Sobel does illuminate some of this, and, I suspect, limited that story through lack of documentation and through avoiding writing a more detailed treatise on 17th century convent life (though more can be found in its bibliography). In the end, I found the relationship between Galileo and his daughter touching and tragic. Galileo's own trials are well described and lively, so this is a good introduction to his story, frustrating as it may seem to modern readers. And I was left fascinated by pondering how Galileo would feel knowing a spacecraft bearing his name would one day explore the Medician stars he discovered.

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Also by Sobel: [Longitude]

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[Other Women Authors]

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