The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 778-779
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Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love. By Dava Sobel. (New York: Penguin Books. 2000. Pp. xii, 420. $14.00 paperback.)
On a cold December morning in 1613, the young Grand Duke, Cosimo II, hosted a breakfast at the Medici palace in Florence. Among those present were his formidable mother, the Dowager Grand Duchess Christina, and the Benedictine monk Benedetto Castelli, former student and correspondent of Galileo. Not surprisingly, the conversation soon turned to the Copernican controversy when the Grand Duchess asked Father Castelli how he would resolve the apparent contradiction between the heliocentric claims of Copernicus with biblical passages such as that from the Book of Joshua where God commanded the sun to stand still. Later, in a letter to Galileo, Castelli indicated that he had defended the new cosmology "like a champion" in the face of the criticisms of an Aristotelian philosopher who was present. In his response, Galileo was more cautious and noted the need to carefully examine the whole question of using the scriptures in disputes about physical questions. Indeed, he proceeded to do just that in his continued correspondence with Castelli and others.
Such are the issues discussed in Galileo's letters that have drawn the attention of later students of that contentious age. The Letter to Castelli, which landed Galileo in so much trouble in Rome, as well as his correspondence with Grand Duchess Christina give the impression that Galileo was largely taken up with the Copernican question. A somewhat different impression is provided by Dava Sobel's book, which is built around Galileo's correspondence with his daughter, a Franciscan nun of the Convent of San Matteo in Florence. Here we find Galileo concerned with the welfare of his children, the affairs of his daughter's convent, and other even less philosophical matters. Herein lie both the interest and weakness of this contribution to the life and times of Galileo. In producing a narrative interspersed with examples of the correspondence, Sobel has managed to capture something of the flavor of the period and certain lesser-known elements of Galileo's life. At the same time, her attempt to use this material to throw light on the public and controversial side of Galileo is of limited merit.
The eldest of Galileo's three illegitimate children with Marina Gamba of Venice, Virginia took the name Maria Celeste on assuming the habit of the Poor Clares in 1614. Until her death in 1634, she kept up a correspondence with her father, and 124 of her letters are preserved in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence. Sobel has here translated a number of these and integrated them into a narrative account of Galileo's life, work, and disputes with church authorities. Chapters are generally arranged according to the chronology of Galileo's career [End Page 778] and focus on his academic period in Padua, his later tenure at the Medici court in Florence, and his time in Rome. Each chapter contains at least one of Maria Celeste's letters placed in the context of Galileo's contemporary activities and, occasionally, some general historical background.
While Galileo's side of the correspondence has not been preserved, the letters provide enough information to give a picture of his relationship with his daughter. It is clear that there is affection between them and that she admired her father's learning and reputation. Some of Sister Maria's letters encourage her father in his work, but more often her concern is for his health and other personal matters. Indeed, she has little to say about the Copernican debate or other intellectual issues. Most of the letters are confined to more mundane matters concerning the family and life at the convent. Occasionally, her letters ask Galileo for money, advice, or intervention with authorities on behalf of the convent. The letters dating from the period of Galileo's famous trial of 1633 express little support for his position, but are focused instead on concerns for his...