Although numerous commentaries, plays, poems, early lectures, and manuscripts of Galileo's have also disappeared (known only by specific mentions in more than two thousand preserved letters from his contemporary correspondents), his enormous legacy includes his five most important books, two of his original handmade telescopes, various portraits and busts he sat for during his lifetime, even parts of his body preserved after death. (The middle finger of his right hand can be seen, encased in a gilded glass egg atop an inscribed marble pedestal at the Museum of the History of Science in Florence.)
Of Suor Maria Celeste, however, only her letters remain. Bound into a single volume with cardboard and leather covers, the frayed, deckle-edged pages now reside among the rare manuscripts at Florence's National Central Library. The handwriting throughout is still legible, though the once-black ink has turned brown. Some letters bear annotations in Galileo's own hand, for he occasionally jotted notes in the margins about the things she said and at other times made seemingly unrelated calculations or geometric diagrams in the blank spaces around his address on the verso. Several of the sheets are marred by tiny holes, torn, darkened by acid or mildew, smeared with spilled oil. Of those that are water-blurred, some obviously ventured through the rain, while others look more likely tear-stained, either during the writing or the reading of them. After nearly four hundred years, the red sealing wax still sticks to the folded corners of the paper.
These letters, which have never been published in translation, recast Galileo's story. They 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. For although science has soared beyond his quaint instruments, it is still caught in his struggle, still burdened by an impression of Galileo as a renegade who scoffed at the Bible and drew fire from a Church blind to reason.
This pervasive, divisive power of the name Galileo is what Pope John Paul II tried to tame in 1992 by reinvoking his torment so long after the fact. "A tragic mutual incomprehension," His Holiness observed of the 350-year Galileo affair, "has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith."
Yet the Galileo of Suor Maria Celeste's letters recognized no such division during his lifetime. He remained a good Catholic who believed in the power of prayer and endeavored always to conform his duty as a scientist with the destiny of his soul. "Whatever the course of our lives," Galileo wrote, "we should receive them as the highest gift from the hand of God, in which equally reposed the power to do nothing whatever for us. Indeed, we should accept misfortune not only in thanks, but in infinite gratitude to Providence, which by such means detaches us from an excessive love for Earthly things and elevates our minds to the celestial and divine."
Copyright © 1999 Dava Sobel
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