Everyone knows that Galileo Galilei dropped cannonballs off the leaning tower of Pisa, developed the first reliable telescope, and was convicted by the Inquisition for holding a heretical belief–that the earth revolved around the sun. But did you know he had a daughter? In Galileo’s Daughter, Dava Sobel (author of the bestselling Longitude) tells the story of the famous scientist and his illegitimate daughter, Sister Maria Celeste. Sobel bases her book on 124 surviving letters to the scientist from the nun, whom Galileo described as “a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and tenderly attached to me.” Their loving correspondence revealed much about their world: the agonies of the bubonic plague, the hardships of monastic life, even Galileo’s occasional forgetfulness (“The little basket, which I sent you recently with several pastries, is not mine, and therefore I wish you to return it to me”).
While Galileo tangled with the Church, Maria Celeste–whose adopted name was a tribute to her father’s fascination with the heavens–provided moral and emotional support with her frequent letters, approving of his work because she knew the depth of his faith. As Sobel notes, “It is difficult today … to see the Earth at the center of the Universe. Yet that is where Galileo found it.” With her fluid prose and graceful turn of phrase, Sobel breathes life into Galileo, his daughter, and the earth-centered world in which they lived. –Sunny Delaney
From Publishers Weekly
Despite its title, this impressive book proves to be less the story of Galileo’s elder daughter, the oldest of his three illegitimate children, and more the story of Galileo himself and his trial before the Inquisition for arguing that Earth moves around the Sun. That familiar tale is given a new slant by Sobel’s translationAfor the first time into EnglishAof the 124 surviving letters to Galileo by his daughter, Suor Maria Celeste, a Clarisse nun who died at age 33; his letters to her are lost, presumably destroyed by Maria Celeste’s convent after her death. Her letters may not in themselves justify a book; they are devout, full of pious love for the father she addresses as “Sire,” only rarely offering information or insight. But Sobel uses them as the accompaniment to, rather than the core of, her story, sounding the element of faith and piety so often missing in other retellings of Galileo’s story. For Sobel shows that, in renouncing his discoveries, Galileo acted not just to save his skin but also out of a genuine need to align himself with his church. With impressive skill and economy, she portrays the social and psychological forces at work in Galileo’s trial, particularly the political pressures of the Thirty Years’ War, and the passage of the plague through Italy, which cut off travel between Florence, where Galileo lived, and Rome, the seat of the Pope and the Inquisition, delaying Galileo’s appearance there and giving his enemies time to conspire. In a particularly memorable way, Sobel vivifies the hard life of the “Poor Clares,” who lived in such abject poverty and seclusion that many were driven mad by their confinement. It’s a wholly involving tale, a worthy follow-up (after four years) to Sobel’s surprise bestseller, Longitude. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Like Sobel’s best-selling Longtitude, this is a compelling and gracefully written science history, retelling the familiar story of Galileo’s battle with the Roman Catholic Church through the letters of his daughter, a cloistered nun. What results is a new view of the scientist. (LJ 10/1/99)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Scientific American
The daughter of the title was Virginia, eldest of Galileo’s three children. She spent her adult life in the Franciscan convent of San Matteo, near Florence, as Suor Maria Celeste, a name she chose (according to Sobel) “in a gesture that acknowledged her father’s fascination with the stars.” From there she carried on a lifelong correspondence with him–doting, supportive, stylish letters. (His side of the correspondence is not to be found; the mother abbess “apparently buried or burned” his letters out of fear of having the convent associated with a man “vehemently suspected” of heresy by the Inquisition.) Galileo greatly admired his daughter, describing her in a letter to a friend in Paris as “a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me.” Science writer Sobel, learning that 124 of Maria Celeste’s letters survive in the National Central Library of Florence, went there, translated them and made them the basis of this lucid review of Galileo’s life and scientific achievements. It is a humanizing approach to the great man and makes for fine reading. The letters, Sobel says, “recolor the personality and conflict of a mythic figure, whose seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion.”
As often is the case with religious landmarks in history–in this instance, Galileo’s prostration before the Inquisition–a deeper searching reveals more textures than simple science-versus-religion symbolism. But it takes a talented storyteller to bring them forth, and Sobel meets our high expectations with this work, the legacy of her account of the inventor of the seagoing chronometer in Longitude (1995). Sobel is aided by a unique resource: more than 100 letters to Galileo from his eldest daughter that have never before been published in translation. They appear here largely verbatim and have been skillfully integrated into the contextual events of early 1600s Italy–no mean narrative feat, considering that this daughter, who took the veil and the name Maria Celeste, never in her short adult life ventured beyond her order’s walls. The letters’ somewhat trepidant salutation, “Most Illustrious and Beloved Lord Father,” belies what was apparently a profoundly fond relationship on a filial level (a conclusion supported by the surprise Sobel springs at the end), but it was respectful on an intellectual one: there are allusions to Maria Celeste copying over Galileo’s Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems, the work that attracted the ire of the inquisitors. Their lives are set in motion against a background that includes family finances, Florentine and papal politics, the bubonic plague, and the Copernican revolution, which Galileo was championing as discreetly as was safe to do. Succinct in describing where, and where not, Galileo was heading in correct scientific direction (he didn’t understand tides, for example), Sobel connects the tempests of his world to the cares and anxieties of Maria Celeste’s. “A woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me,” eulogized the father when she suddenly died amidst his persecutions, an aptly allusive summing up of the subject of Sobel’s singularly affecting story. Gilbert Taylor
From Kirkus Reviews
Sobel, author of the bestselling Longitude (1995), has elegantly translated the letters Galileo’s eldest child, Virginia, wrote to him and uses them as a leitmotif to illuminate their deep mutual love, religious faith, and dedication to science. Yes, Galileo had a daughter, in fact two daughters and a son, the illegitimate offspring of a liaison with a Venetian beauty. Both daughters, considered unmarriageable because of their illegitimacy, became nuns in a convent south of Florence, not far from where Galileo had homes. But Virginia, as Suor Maria Celeste, was deeply involved in her father’s life work, even transcribing his writings, while managing convent affairs and serving as baker, nurse, seamstress, and apothecary. Thus, we learn that Galileo was often confined to bed with incapacitating illnesses and that he treasured the medicines as well as the sweets and cakes his daughter provided. He was also something of a bon vivant, enjoying the wines produced by his vineyards, writing ribald and humorous verse as well as literary criticism. Indeed, his celebrated Dialogues were conceived as dramas involving three persons, with one playing the role of simpleton as foil for the two. In the end, it was the Dialogues that argued for the Copernican view that the Earth moved around the Sun, which invoked the wrath of Pope Urban VIII, who had earlier been a loyal friend and supporter of Galileo. The subsequent trial in Rome ended with Galileo’s recantation and his banishment first to Siena, and then to house arrest in Florence. Sobel provides a few correctives to tradition and fills out the cast of personae who were Galileo’s chief defenders and enemies. But its the deft apposition of the devoted and pious letters of Suor Maria Celeste that add not only verisimilitude, but depth to the character of the writer and her fatherrevealed as a man of great intellect as well as religious faith and lovingkindness. Alas, his letters to her are lost. (First printing of 75,000) — Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
Sobel is a master storyteller…. What she has done, with her choice of excerpts and her strong sense of story, is bring a great scientist to life. — The New York Times Book Review, Alan Lightman
Sobel returns to the 17th century in Galileo’s Daughter, a fascinating history lesson disguised as family drama…The book’s beauty grows out of Maria Celeste’s letters, so revealing of everyday life in 17th century Italy…Sobel is a most original writer, with a reverence for history and storytelling. — USA Today, October 21, 1999
Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of Galileo’s daughter, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has written a biography unlike any other of the man Albert Einstein called “the father of modern physics- indeed of modern science altogether.” Galileo’s Daughter also presents a stunning portrait of a person hitherto lost to history, described by her father as “a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me.”
Galileo’s Daughter dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishment of a mythic figure whose seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion. Moving between Galileo’s grand public life and Maria Celeste’s sequestered world, Sobel illuminates the Florence of the Medicis and the papal court in Rome during the pivotal era when humanity’s perception of its place in the cosmos was about to be overturned. In that same time, while the bubonic plague wreaked its terrible devastation and the Thirty Years’ War tipped fortunes across Europe, one man sought to reconcile the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic with the heavens he revealed through his telescope.
With all the human drama and scientific adventure that distinguished Dava Sobel’s previous book Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter is an unforgettable story
From the Inside Flap
Read by George Guidall
Seven Cassettes, 11 Hours
Galileo’s Daughter introduces us to the man whose belief that the Earth moved around the sun caused him to be brought before the Holy Office of the Inquisition, accused of heresy, and threatened with torture. In contrast, his daughter Virginia chose the quiet life of a cloistered nun. Sobel takes us through the trials and triumphs of Galileo’s career and his familial relationships, and simultaneously illuminates an entire era of flamboyant Medici Grand Dukes, the bubonic plague, and history’s most dramatic collusion between science and religion.
About the Author
Dava Sobel is an award-winning science writer and the internationally bestselling author of Longitude and The Planets. Longitude has sold more than 2.5 million copies worldwide. She is co-author of The Illustrated Longitude. She lives in East Hampton, New York.