The scientist’s daughter

Virginia Galilei and the bells of San Matteo

Melissa Rossi
June 1, 2011

Have you ever stopped to think that looking at the starry Florentine night is like looking back in time? Perhaps many of the stars we see were extinguished ages ago, but because of the time that light takes to travel the mindboggling distances between those stars and Earth, they still shine with incredible tenor. Although we tend to take for granted such obvious astronomical truths as the distances of stars and the heliocentric nature of our solar system, only a few centuries ago statements like these would have driven their writers, readers and sympathizers straight to the burning grip of the Holy Inquisition.


Understandably, very few people dared or even cared to question the natural order that surrounded them, unless of course you were Galileo and his devoted daughter. In the case of the former, life would reserve for you the heavy burden of setting into motion dangerous ideas that clashed directly with the religious convictions of the time. For the latter, the burden would come from watching the person you most admired and loved suffer from unjust persecution and defamation.


Virginia Galilei was born to Marina Gamba, Galileo's housekeeper, in Padua on August 12, 1600. She was the couple's oldest of three children (two daughters and one son) born out of wedlock. In practice, this meant that, at least for his two daughters, a respectable marriage was out of the question. Virginia's fate, like that of so many illegitimate children, was sealed at birth. The only way that Galileo could guarantee Virginia and her sister Livia an honorable existence was to entrust them to a convent, where they would lack nothing. In the meantime, Virginia's curiosity for science and religious faith could run side by side during her childhood and early adolescence. After all, not every seventeenth-century child could play with the very first telescope ever invented-in her backyard-or hear stories about science that stood not in contrast, but in harmony with the idea of a creator. Indeed, despite what many could have thought, Galileo was known for being an extremely pious man and a loving parent, so much so that he developed a strong connection to his likeminded daughter Virginia based on mutual respect, admiration and unconditional love.


Eventually, Galileo obtained special permission to send Virginia and her sister at a very young age to the Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri, Florence (above piazzale Michelangelo), from where she exchanged numerous letters with her father. Virginia took her vows when she was 16, changing her name to Suor Maria Celeste in honor of her beloved father and the cosmos. She lived to see Galileo condemned as a heretic by Pope Urban VIII because of his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632, wherein he defended his heliocentric observations against the Church's belief of a geocentric universe. Galileo was forced to recant his theories, and further health issues deeply preoccupied his devoted daughter. This would inflict a powerful psychological blow, since she knew how religiously devoted her father was and, like him, she did not see the contradiction between God's will and that of the human capacity to rationally unravel it.


Thanks to the 120 letters written by Suor Maria Celeste to her father, we can understand something about their relationship. Although Galileo's responses were never found (it is said that they were likely burned by the convent's mother superior after Suor Maria Celeste's death), a human picture of Galileo emerges from Virginia's remaining monologue, suggesting that they mutually confided their concerns.


Although Virginia's primary concern was her father's health, she also suffered from a unidentifiable chronic illness aggravated (or caused) by the austere living conditions of the convent and perhaps by the sadness surrounding the events that plagued her father's life. After his condemnation in 1633, Galileo returned to Florence and moved permanently to Villa Il Gioiello in Arcetri, from which he could see the San Matteo Convent and where he lived his remaining years under house arrest. Unfortunately, Virginia's health deteriorated quickly after his return, and she died four months later. Galileo continued to live for several years in Arcetri, where he made private scientific observations, consoled by the memories of Virginia's letters and by the sounds of the bells of San Matteo.



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