Although her letters give such a human touch to the great man's life, this not really the story of Galileo's daughter. It is a book mainly about Galileo and some of the most important discoveries and events in his life. What makes it different from most biographies of Galileo, however, is that the book also reveals the close relationship between Galileo and his oldest daughter. It is especially interesting because the relationship was, for twenty years, conducted mostly through letters.
Worried that his illegitimate daughters were unmarriageable, Galileo placed Virginia and her younger sister in the convent of the Poor Clares when Virginia was thirteen. She took the name Suor Marie Celeste (to honor her father's interest in the heavens) and she remained sequestered there for the next twenty years, the entire rest of her life. Her life was so circumscribed by poverty and labor that it is amazing that she seemed to blossom quietly in spite of her situation.
The book opens with a letter from Marie Celeste to Galileo, but quickly moves into the story of Galileo-- his birth, education, relationship with the mother of his children, his theories and experiments. All of this information is presented in an interesting manner, so while I longed for more information about Marie Celeste, I was kept well occupied with Galileo himself.
In the first of Galileo's problems with the Inquisition (over Copernicus' theory of a sun centered universe), Galileo is exonerated. However, any individuals supporting the Copernican theory (and there were many others besides Galileo who found the sun centered universe more logical than a universe with the earth at the center) were warned that to treat it as anything other than a theory would be considered "heretical."
Galileo's first contretemps with the Inquisition occurs about the time that Virginia is old enough to take her vows and becomes Suor Marie Celeste. It is also about this time that the letters play a larger part in the book. Here is a portion of one of her letters to her father:
I am returning the rest of your shirts that we have sewn, and the leather apron, too, mended as best I could....Now I am tending to the work on the linens, so that I hope you will be able to send me the trim for borders at the ends, and I reminde you, Sire, that the trimmings needs to be wide, because the linens themselves are rather short.
Her letters are often in this domestic vein, but they are also in response to Galileo's letters and to the events in his life. The love and affection is obvious on both sides even though we don't have the benefits of Galileo's letters. Marie Celeste occasionally petitions her father for help (often for the convent or for other nuns), and in the follow-up letters thanks him for generosity.
The plague returns in 1630, and Sobel includes a good bit of interesting information about the deaths and various preventive measures undertaken. The Poor Clares, already confined to their convent, found themselves even further cut off, but it did not prevent Marie Celeste from sending medicines she prepared herself for her father and heart-felt prayers for his safety.
During this outbreak of the plague, Galileo once again finds himself in trouble with the Inquisition and the Pope, himself. At 68, old and ill, Galileo's latest book angers the pontiff and results in his being called to Rome. This time, Galileo does not fare so well. Throughout the trial, and his resulting frustrations and depressions, Marie Celeste offers support and prayers. All of her energy is expended on convent labor and worry for her father.
The final chapters are touching, and the reader grieves for both Galileo and Marie Celeste, but these chapters are also moving in the love and loyalty Galileo inspired in his daughter and among his friends and colleagues. Especially admirable are the efforts of Vicenzio Viviani, who at sixteen became his assistant, writing letters for the almost blind Galileo, reading aloud the replies, and aiding him in every way. Viviani continued his devotion after Galileo's death and is responsible for the tomb and its occupants.
A rewarding read!
Nonfiction. Biography. 1999. 368 pages.