The presence of the poet pope encouraged Galileo to proceed with a long-planned popular dissertation on the two rival theories of cosmology: the Sun-centered and the Earth-centered, or, in his words, the "two chief systems of the world."
It might have been difficult for Suor Maria Celeste to condone this course--to reconcile her role as a bride of Christ with her father's position as potentially the greatest enemy of the Catholic Church since Martin Luther. But instead she approved of his endeavors because she knew the depth of his faith. She accepted Galileo's conviction that God had dictated the Holy Scriptures to guide men's spirits but proffered the unraveling of the universe as a challenge to their intelligence. Understanding her father's prodigious capacity in this pursuit, she prayed for his health, for his longevity, for the fulfillment of his "every just desire." As the convent's apothecary, she concocted elixirs and pills to strengthen him for his studies and protect him from epidemic diseases. Her letters, animated by her belief in Galileo's innocence of any heretical depravity, carried him through the ordeal of his ultimate confrontation with Urban and the Inquisition in 1633.
No detectable strife ever disturbed the affectionate relationship between Galileo and his daughter. Theirs is not a tale of abuse or rejection or intentional stifling of abilities. Rather, it is a love story, a tragedy, and a mystery.
Most of Suor Maria Celeste's letters traveled in the pocket of a messenger, or in a basket laden with laundry, sweetmeats, or herbal medicines, across the short distance from the Convent of San Matteo, on a hillside just south of Florence, to Galileo in the city or at his suburban home. Following the angry papal summons to Rome in 1632, however, the letters rode on horseback some two hundred miles and were frequently delayed by quarantines imposed as the Black Plague spread death and dread across Italy.
Gaps of months' duration disrupt the continuity of the reportage in places, but every page is redolent of daily life, down to the pain of toothache and the smell of vinegar.
Galileo held on to his daughter's missives indiscriminately, collecting her requests for fruits or sewing supplies alongside her outbursts on ecclesiastical politics. Similarly, Suor Maria Celeste saved all of Galileo's letters, as rereading them, she often reminded him, gave her great pleasure. By the time she received the last rites, the letters she had gathered over her lifetime in the convent constituted the bulk of her earthly possessions. But then the mother abbess, who would have discovered Galileo's letters while emptying Suor Maria Celeste's cell, apparently buried or burned them out of fear. After the celebrated trial at Rome, a convent dared not harbor the writings of a "vehemently suspected" heretic. In this fashion, the correspondence between father and daughter was long ago reduced to a monologue.
Standing in now for all the thoughts he once expressed to her are only those he chanced to offer others about her. "A woman of exquisite mind," Galileo described her to a colleague in another country, "singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me."
On first learning of Suor Maria Celeste's letters, people generally assume that Galileo's replies must lie concealed somewhere in the recesses of the Vatican Library, and that if only an enterprising outsider could gain access, the missing half of the dialogue would be found. But, alas, the archives have been combed, several times, by religious authorities and authorized researchers all desperate to hear the paternal tone of Galileo's voice. These seekers have come to accept the account of the mother abbess's destruction of the documents as the most reasonable explanation for their disappearance. The historical importance of any paper signed by Galileo, not to mention the prices such articles have commanded for the past two centuries, leaves few conceivable places where whole packets of his letters could hide.
Copyright © 1999 Dava Sobel
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