I seem to have stumbled into something of a history turn of mind lately. Several historical novels, and now Galileo’s Daughter. This is not fiction. It is the story of Galileo… and one of his daughters.
Galileo, as of course you know, wasn’t some tinpot scientist. He was a well known mathematician, a man of infinite curiosity, a scholar, a scientist, an author. And a guy with a fascinating personal life. He never married the mother of his three children, and for that reason could not arrange any kind of marriage for his daughters, so as things were heating up for him, heresy-wise, he put them in a convent basically for their own safety at the ages of thirteen and fourteen. One of them was a little batty, frankly, but he had a close relationship with the elder which lasted all their lives.
This older daughter, who was named Virginia in honor of his sister, adopted the name Maria Celeste when she became a nun, in a gesture that acknowledged her father’s fascination with the stars. But life at the convent was not all skittles and beer. In fact, it was a terribly poor convent, and they were in danger several times of actually starving to death. It is certain that the sisters often suffered bouts of malnutrition. She lived out her life in poverty and seclusion. All his life, Galileo did quite a bit to support his daughters and the convent financially.
The younger brother, meanwhile, Vincenzio, had been legitimized in a fiat by the grand duke of Tuscany and went off to study law at the University of Pisa.
Galileo kept up a prolific correspondence with Maria Celeste all her life. Fortunately for us, he saved every letter, and that is how we come to learn of her life, as well as his. There are no letters extant that he wrote to her. There was a tricky time during the heresy trials when it seems the Mother of the convent burned them all in order to protect the girls and the convent.
This is a wonderful vehicle for a biography of Galileo, and for descriptions of daily life in the 1600s in Italy. They talk of selling some of the wine, how some harvests weren’t any good, how Maria Celeste was sewing garments for him. Just so fascinating. History can be so 8th grade textbook dry, but really, history is stories, and I love a good story.
Dava Sobel is the author of Longitude, another of her books that I just loved. I talk about it here.