The book’s title tells just one part of the story; its sub-title, “A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love,” fills the gaps. In essence, this work is as much an account of Galileo’s scientific (and often controversial) discoveries, his trial, and persecution by church authorities, as of the strength and comfort he drew during those difficult times from the letters written by his oldest daughter, Virginia.
Author Dava Sobel, an award-winning science writer, based this book on meticulous research, including more than 120 surviving letters that Virginia had written to her father from her convent.
In 1613, she and her sister Livia became nuns at the convent of San Matteo in Arcetri at Galileo’s request. Virginia took the religious name of Suor Maria Celeste, and Livia adopted the name of Suor Arcangela. Galileo also had a son, Vincenzio, who seemed to follow in his famous father’s footsteps and studied at the University of Pisa.
What emerges is a touching story of love and devotion between the great Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, and his sequestered daughter, who lived in the convent for 11 years until her death from dysentery at 34.
Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa to an established Tuscan family on February 15, 1564. The meaning of his name has a connection to the land of Galilee, although the scientist was not Jewish but Catholic. As a young lad at the University of Pisa, he studied mathematics and physics, even though his father worried that these fields might not be profitable and wanted his son to become a physician instead. However, as time went on, bright Galileo made the right connections and secured several well-paid positions—as the chair of Mathematics at the University of Padua, Chief Mathematician of the University of Pisa, and Philosopher and Mathematician to the Grand Duke Cosimo II, sovereign of Tuscany. His salary was one thousand Florentine scudi – at the time among the highest of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
Galileo’s famous contributions to science include perfecting the telescope, with which he was able to view the heavenly bodies. He also wrote and published several treatises on celestial bodies, namely the “Starry Messenger,” where Galileo talked about the moons of Jupiter, and which was dedicated to the young Prince Cosimo II of the Medicis; “Bodies that Stay Atop Water or Move Within It;” “Sunspot Letters,” which were published by Prince Cesi, Galileo’s friend and devotee who founded the Lyncean Academy in Rome; and “Theory of the Tides,” among others. During his early career, he also published treatises on the military and the geometric compass. All his life, Galileo defended the Copernican Sun-centric universe, based on his own knowledge and observations, a theory considered heretical by many of his opponents.
The book’s central theme, however, focuses on Virginia’s letters – some reprinted in their entirety throughout the book- in which she often professed her love and admiration for her father, shared her worries about his failing health (not much is known about the scientist’s various maladies, but the author suggests that he suffered from gout, among other conditions), or how excited she was about his most recent discoveries. She often asked for copies of Galileo’s latest published books or letters and requested the shipment of fabric and lace to make collars for him and her brother, Vincenzio. It is clear from her letters that Galileo, too, was very fond of his daughter, as he granted most, if not all, of her wishes.
According to the book, not much is known about the younger daughter, Livia / Suor Arcangela. Unlike her industrious older sister, she didn’t embrace the hard convent life and often suffered, according to the author, from moodiness, a condition that frequently confined her to the convent’s infirmary. The book states that Livia’s mental state probably resulted from being forced to become a nun by her father rather than exercising the free choice herself.
Backed by detailed historical research, “Galileo’s Daughter” is a compelling account of Galileo’s life not only as a famous scientist and visionary but also a devout Catholic, father, and a provider for his family. The book is thought-provoking and explores the relationship between religion, mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy, as understood by the learned men of the 16th and 17th centuries. It is a great book for lovers of history, science, explorations, and world-changing discoveries, and anyone in general with an interest in Galileo Galilei’s life, work, and challenges.
A freelance writer currently residing in Denton, TX