On February 13, 1833, Galileo Galilei arrived in Rome to face the Inquisition for his radical theories which appeared to contradict the Bible. Nearly every lover of history and/or science has heard of the famous astronomer and physicist, but have you heard of his daughter?
On August 12, 1600, conceived out of wedlock to a housekeeper, Galileo’s daughter Virginia was born. Thirteen years later, Galileo sent his daughters, both Virginia and Livia to a convent. A close association with God was a commendable act for women of the time period. According to author Dava Sobel, because Virginia was an illegitimate child, the likelihood of her getting married was almost impossible, so a pure life dedicated to God was her only choice.
When Virginia arrived at the convent, located right outside of Florence, the thirteen year old’s life would change forever. She had to give up almost every connection to the outside world and keep her family at a distance. However, for over twenty years, Virginia kept a correspondence with her father. The letters were exchanged by Galileo’s servants. In the letters, she discussed her life in the convent and her admiration for God and her father. In 1615, a few months after Cardinal Robert Bellarmine banned the teaching of the Copernicus sun-centered model, Virginia officially changed her name to Sister Maria Celeste. She chose that name because, as traditions of the time stated, it was whispered to her by God. Sobel suggested that she chose the name in tribute of her father, who was so enamored by the stars.
Although Sister Maria Celeste was physically separated from her father, she was still involved in his scientific endeavors and she was aware of the controversy they created. While Galileo was writing his famous Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Sister Maria was supportive of the work. In a letter dated January 4, 1629, she wrote:
“It suits me to believe, Sire, that you must be extremely occupied these days, or else you would have come to see us; wherefore, wanting to learn more, I have resolved to write to you again, telling you that I need not know the date of the betrothal visit until it pleases you, Sire, being content with hearing only a few days in advance, and also I will take advantage of your loving offer to help me, since, with discretion, and considering my circumstances, you can easily judge that my own powers fall far short of expressing my true feelings or giving my proper due.”
It is clear from the letters that Sister Maria had a deep love for her father. Living in a convent gave her time to think, write, and learn as much as she could. She was able to be understanding of her father’s work, while also living a life that claimed obedience to God.
Three years later, in October 1632, Galileo received word from Rome that he was to face the Inquisition for his book. Galileo tried to delay his trip, but he was finally forced to leave near the beginning of 1633. He arrived in Rome on February 13, 1633. Sister Maria, clearly concerned about her father’s trip and its significance, wrote him on February 24th:
“Sire, along with one from our Father Confessor, and through these you will have learned some of the details you wanted to know; and seeing that still no letters have come giving us definite news of your arrival in Rome (and you can imagine, Sire, with what eagerness I in particular anticipate those letters), I return to write to you again, so that you may know how anxiously I live, while awaiting word from you…”
Galileo did not face the Roman Inquisition until April 1633. The seventy-year old was tried and convicted of heresy for proposing the sun centered Copernican model. He was placed on house arrest for the rest of his life and his book was banned; the ban lasted for over 200 years. Sister Maria was emotionally and physically upset by her father’s fate. In 1633, the number of letters she wrote to her father nearly equaled the total number of known letters in the years prior. The last known letter Sister Maria sent to her father was on December 10, 1633. She wrote:
10 December 1633
Most Beloved Lord Father
Only a moment before the news of your dispatch reached me, Sire, I had taken my pen in hand to write to Her Ladyship the Ambassadress to beg her once more to intercede in this affair; for having watched it wear on so long, I feared that it might not be resolved even by the end of this year, and thus my sudden joy was as great as it was unexpected: nor are your daughters alone in our rejoicing, but all these nuns, by their grace, give signs of true happiness, just as so many of them have sympathized with me in my suffering.
We are awaiting your arrival with great longing, and we cheer ourselves to see how the weather has cleared for your journey.
Signor Geri was leaving this morning with the Court [for the annual December session at Pisa], and I made sure to have him notified before daybreak of your return, Sire; seeing as he had already learned something of the decision, and came here last evening to tell me what he knew. I also explained to him the reason you have not written to him, Sire, and I bemoaned the fact that he will not be here when you arrive to share in our celebration, since he is truly a perfect gentleman, honest and loyal. I set aside the container of verdea wine, which Signor Francesco could not bring along because his litter was too overloaded. You will be able to send it to the Archbishop later, when the litter makes a return trip: the citron candy morsels I have already consigned to him. The casks for the white wine are all in order.
More I cannot say for the dearth of time, except that all of us send you our loving regards.
From San Matteo, the 10th day of December 1633.
Your most affectionate daughter,
S. M. Celeste
In late March 1634, Sister Maria Celeste’s health took a turn for the worst. She contracted dysentery and developed a fever. Galileo, old, crippled and on house arrest, received permission to visit Sister Maria. Galileo would walk everyday for over week to go and see his sick daughter. On April 2, 1634, Sister Maria Celeste Galilei died from severe intestinal blooding in the convents sickroom- she was only 33. Her death took a heavy toll on the aging Galileo. He died eight years later in 1642.
Sadly, only Sister Maria’s side of the correspondence still exists. It is assumed that the abbess of the convent burned all of the letters from Galileo after her death because of his bad reputation with the church. Unfortunately, the only way historians can understand Galileo’s feelings towards his daughter is by reading what she wrote to him. Sister Maria Celeste’s story is significant and intriguing because it is a rare anecdote that highlights the life of women during the Protestant Reformation in Italy. Furthermore, it shows how Galileo, and his family, attempted to reconcile the discrepancies between science and religion. Perhaps equally as important, their relationship reveals the human side of both Sister Maria and Galileo.
Louie P. Gallo
Sobel, Dava, Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love (Walker Publishing, 1999).
Galileo’s Battle for the Heavens- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lr_bQs4oXgU
Galilei,Galileo, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.
MacLachlan, James, Galileo Galilei: First Physicist (New York: Oxford University Press,1997).
The Galileo Project- http://galileo.rice.edu/index.html