Galileo Galilei was an impoverished young man with big ambitions and many talents. He was to prove a brilliant writer. He was musical like his father. He could draw and paint, and he seriously considered making his livelihood in art - a career that traditionally was very prestigious in Florence, where training opportunities were second to none.
Galileo well knew what an artist's life was like. It was at about this time that he struck up a close friendship with Lodovico Cardi, known by the name Cigoli, who was barely five years his senior. At an early age this gifted painter was commissioned by the Medici family and was rated as the finest among his contemporaries in Florence.
His father's work and his own environment inclined Galileo more towards art than to science. But in the wake of the Renaissance, the line between these two areas was not very clearly defined. Vincenzio's musical theory made use of mathematics and physics - indeed, music as a taught subject was reckoned as one of the quadrivium subjects, together with arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. (The linguistic disciplines - trivium - were grammar, rhetoric and logic.) Painting was seen as closely related to geometry, principally because of the theory of perspective. It was taken as read that painters had to study anatomy. The young Cigoli was so keen on dissection that he contracted a serious and long-lasting illness through over-exposure to cadavers!
Vincenzio, however, was not enthusiastic about his son's artistic pretensions. He knew only too well what kind of existence such a life had to offer. And painting was at least as insecure as music. His father had a better idea. Galileo was to study medicine and become a prosperous doctor, like their ancestor. Good son that he was, Galileo laid his painting ambitions aside and obeyed his father's wishes.
Medicine was far from being a poor career choice for a young man with ambitions. The discipline was particularly prestigious in Italy, whereas in most other European countries theology still dominated the universities. It was a comprehensive education. In those days subject boundaries were not clear cut - it is questionable if "disciplines" in the modern sense existed at all. Natural philosophy, logic and mathematics were "medical subjects", as well as the very recently developed anatomy, with its spectacular dissections. Mathematics and astronomy were important for doctors principally because they had to be able to cast accurate horoscopes for their patients. They had little more in their armoury with which to fight serious disease.
Galileo returned to his native city, Pisa, in 1581 as a 17-year old student. He had come to the provinces. The city's hub, Piazza dei Cavalieri, could not compare either in size or liveliness with the Piazza Signoria in Florence, even though its beautiful palace boasted fine external frescos by Cosimo's court painter, Vasari. Similarly, the intellectual life of the University of Pisa was nothing like that of centres like Bologna or Padua. It was an educational establishment without international cachet, where the average professor was as interested in his social status as in academic achievement.
Galileo began to attend the lectures that were relevant to medicine, and it was not long before it became apparent that he was no ordinary student. He was not content to repeat his teachers' dogmatic interpretation of accepted truths.
It is said that Galileo's first scientific discovery was made in Pisa Cathedral during Mass. From his pew in the church he noticed a chandelier that was swinging to and fro, and he noted that the time these small oscillations took was constant and unrelated to how far the lamp swung.
This observation would, many years later, lead to the construction of the pendulum clock and a hitherto unknown accuracy in the measurement of time. But in the first instance the young medical student and some friends made a simpler contrivance, a so-called pulsilogium. The measurement of pulse was an important diagnostic tool for the doctors of that period. Galileo constructed a pendulum, the length of which could be adjusted so that it swung in time with the patient's pulse. Now the doctor could read a diagnosis directly from the length of the pendulum!
In 1583 Grand Duke Francesco came to Pisa as usual, where his court spent their time between Christmas and Easter. The Medici family had owned a palace there for many years, and Francesco began the building of a newer and larger one, in the best district, down by the Arno. In this way he could add lustre to the city and remind the Pisans of who held power in Tuscany
Grand Duke Francesco's retinue contained a mathematician and military engineer by the name of Ostilio Ricci. He came into contact with Galileo and discovered that the young student was interested in mathematics.
The teaching of mathematics at the university was extremely poor. The subject had a low status compared to general natural philosophy. Ricci opened anewworldtothe youngstudent, the worldofalgebraandgeometry. He made Galileo acquainted with the works of a Venetian named Niccolo Tartaglia, who had probablybeen Ricci's own teacher, and who was regarded as the greatest Italian mathematician of the 16th century.
Tartaglia left his mark on the history of mathematics. He was the first to find a general method of solving cubic equations. Galileo, however, skimmed rather quickly through this new arithmetic, even though it clearly had practical applications. He did precisely as his father had done in the musical sphere, he turned to the inheritance from antiquity. As far as mathematics was concerned this meant the rediscovery of Euclid and Archimedes . It was this traditional, classical mathematics with its strong emphasis on geometry, that fascinated him. And it was Ricci who opened his eyes to this aspect of Tartaglia's work as well: Tartaglia had in fact translated, annotated and published Euclid and Archimedes in new editions and had thus made them accessible.
Galileo was a impecunious student, who sorely needed a lucrative profession. But the revelation that mathematics had opened up to him was more important then either his father's exhortations, or a possible future as a physician. It may also have helped that Ricci indicated a possible career path that would satisfy even the most ambitious: with the right contacts and the necessary skill one might end up as mathematician to a grand duke -a position that provided social rank and means beyond anything a doctor, or for that matter a professor, could aspire to.
Such an association with a court did of course also mean that any fall from grace would be a long one.
Vincenzio probably understood his son. He was working hard on his musical theory, and had finally completed his great thesis in dialogue form (Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music). He argued polemically with his professional adversaries, while at the same time developing his theory in new directions with the aid of pure acoustic experiments.
But musical theory brought no money in. Vincenzio was simply unable to support his wife, three children and a student. In 1585 he had to ask Galileo to interrupt his studies at Pisa and return home to the Ponte delle Grazie, without a degree.
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