Deaths and Omens

Galileo's position had certainly been weakened, but not his self-confidence. He knew he was right and that the Holy Office, the Congregation of the Index and the Pope himself were wrong. Things could change. Society and Church politics in Rome shifted constantly, especially in conjunction with a change of popes. New men must necessarily one day come to the most important positions. Banned books could then be rehabilitated: it had happened before - even Bellarmine's first book was put on the Index because it was not sufficiently pope-friendly! At that time, though, Pope Sixtus V had died before the decision had been made public, and his successor had reversed it without delay.

Galileo's tactics can be seen in a carefully crafted letter he wrote to Grand Duchess Maria Maddalena's brother, Archduke Leopold of Austria. The letter accompanied a gift of two telescopes, his little book Letters on Sunspots and a handwritten copy of his reflections on the tides which he had sent to the young Cardinal Orsini. Of his analysis of the tides he writes:

"With this I send you a treatise on the causes of the tides which I wrote at a time when the theologians were thinking of prohibiting Copernicus' book and the doctrine announced therein, which I then held to be true, until it pleased those gentlemen to prohibit the work and to declare the opinion to be false and contrary to Scripture. Now, knowing as I do that it behooves us to obey the decisions of the authorities and to believe them, since they are guided by a higher insight than any to which my humble mind can of itself attain, I consider this treatise which I send to you to be merely a poetical conceit, or a dream, and desire that Your Highness may take it as such (...). But even poets sometime attach a value to one or other of their fantasies, and I likewise attach a value to this fancy of mine. (...) I have also let a few exalted personages have copies, in order that in case anyone not belonging to the Church should try to appropriate my curious fancy, as has happened to me with many of my discoveries, these personages, being above all suspicion, may be able to bear witness that it was I who first dreamt of this chimera."45

Behind this letter lies not only Galileo's self-confident claim on priority as originator - of a "poetic fantasy"! - but also his deep and real fear that the lead in natural sciences would go to the Protestant and reformed countries of the north, where there were scientists "not belonging to the Church" and therefore not bound by the Inquisition and the Index.

At the same time he went on with his tireless work of turning his purely scientific discoveries into devices with practical applications - and thus, of course, into money. Galileo now had a brilliant solution to one of the greatest practical problems of his day: the fixing of longitude.

More and more international trade, not to mention international war, was conducted on the high seas. After the discovery of America and the sea route to India, great fleets of merchantmen and warships regularly sailed huge distances between continents - without ever knowing for certain where they were until they made land at some spot.

Latitude is a naturally determined phenomenon, defined by the poles and the equator. It can be fixed by the skilled observer by measuring the height of the sun or the angle between the horizon and a known star. Longitude, on the other hand, refers to a randomly selected starting point - the zero meridian - and has to be worked out with reference to that. The only practical method of doing this is to compare the local time at the ship's position with the time at the zero meridian. All one needs therefore is a totally accurate timepiece to take along on the voyage, giving standard time. Local time can be calculated from the sun's noonday height.

The problem was that clocks of this accuracy simply did not exist. The technology was not good enough, and furthermore, changes in temperature during the journey would affect the metal in all known alloys and cause inaccuracies in the clockwork. So, ships continued to run aground, seamen died of starvation and scurvy, precious cargoes were ruined, simply because it was impossible for the captain to know where on the map he had taken his crew.

Galileo was a landlubber who never stepped off the Italian peninsula. But he knew only too well that the great seafaring nations had promised a princely reward to anyone who could solve the problem of accurately fixing longitude. All that was needed was a precise clock. And he had one, a celestial one at that, visible to everybody: the satellites of Jupiter, or more accurately the eclipses of the four small moons. This lunar eclipse occurred roughly a thousand times a year - enough to enable the time to be taken, almost to the second, about three times a day.

Two things were required: extremely accurate tables for the thousand eclipses, and a piece of equipment that would enable a navigator on the ocean to observe the phenomenon with equal accuracy. Galileo set energetically to work producing both of these. He observed the satellites at every possible moment, and he constructed a huge instrument like a diving helmet with a telescope in front of one eye. He travelled in person to the Grand Duchy's principal port, Livorno, to test the equipment aboard a safely anchored ship.

But in practice the system was impracticable for shipping. In the first place Jupiter was not visible all year and never during the day - nor at night if the weather was overcast. Secondly, it was far too difficult to make such observations from a rolling ship's deck, even if the planet and its satellites were visible. It was to be more than a century before the English clockmaker, John Harrison, solved the longitude problem by constructing a clock that was accurate under all conditions.

If however, one was safely ashore and had time to wait a night or two for a good sighting, Galileo's method was excellent, and it assumed great importance for cartography in the second half of the 17th century.

Illness continued to plague the mathematician. In 1618 he tried a strange and uncharacteristic remedy: he set out on a pilgrimage.

There is no reason to doubt that Galileo, rationalist and sceptic though he was, reckoned himself anything other than a true Catholic believer. But this one, concrete manifestation of religious piety in him is still odd.

The object he chose for his journey lay in the small town of Loreto, on the Adriatic, scarcely 125 miles south-east of Florence. The way there was difficult, his route would cross the Apennines. Loreto boasted a reasonably sized church, a pilgrims' basilica that was built around a small wooden house ten metres by four. The house was the miraculous shrine that drew the pilgrims in.

The strangeness here lies in the fact that the miracle is connected with motion. Galileo chose to visit a relic that broke all the imaginable rules for the relocation of heavy bodies. The house in Loreto was supposed to be the Santa casa (the holy house), the Virgin Mary's home in Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. It had been borne through the air from the Holy Land by angels and set carefully down in Loreto in 1291.

It is extremely hard to conceive that Galileo believed in this miracle literally. In all the hundreds of pages he was to write on movement, there is not a single hint that natural laws can be suspended in this manner. As we know, he found the biblical miracles trying enough, without having to deal with all the ones supposed to have taken place in more recent times.

The trip to Loreto was no doubt partially occasioned by the house and its location being famed for miraculous cures. But it looks more like an attempt by Galileo to convince those around him - and perhaps himself as well - that his scientific work was occurring within the ecclesiastical framework that had been so strictly forced on him.

It mightalsohavebeensensibletotrust to religion at atimewhensudden death was a constant and unexpected visitor. In the summer of 1613 Galileo received a letter from Prince Cesi: his friend Cigoli was dead, barely 54 years old.46 The considerate Cesi immediately visited his family to see if there was anything he could do for the bereaved on his own behalf, and on that of Galileo. The painter died suddenly, at the height of his career, shortly after Pope Paul had honoured him with the title of "Knight of Malta". He was in the middle of decorating the choir in one of Christendom's most important shrines, San Paolo fuori le mura, the church built over St. Paul's grave.

Cigoli would certainly have wanted to emulate Galileo and return home to Florence, but he never made it. Such reports of death were an everyday occurrence: rich Salviati with his retreat at Villa delle Selve died in 1614, Marina Gamba in 1611 or a little later, the wise and well-to-do Venetian Sagredo, arguably Galileo's best friend during the Padua years, in 1620.

These deaths affected Galileo's life in various ways. Now that he could no longer visit Salviati, he needed his own, spacious house in the hills, where the air was healthier and he could make his observations unhindered by lights or disturbance. In addition, he had to bring the last of his children to live with him, his eleven-year-old son, Vincenzio.

He rentedan extensivehouse on thewoodedridgeofBellosguardosouth-west of central Florence, not that far from the highest point of the enormous Boboli Gardens that Cosimo I had begun to construct above Palazzo Pitti. The villa was expensive - it cost a hundred scudi a year to rent - but Galileo reckoned that some of the expenses could be offset by the corn, beans, lentils and peas which he could produce on the large property.

He now also had the opportunity to grow grapes and make his own wine - a perfect combination of practical work and theoretical speculation. How did the juice of the sun-drenched grapes turn into alcoholic wine? His answer, which later generations of Florentine scientists pondered at length, was that "wine is a fusion of umore and light"47. Umore can mean juice, liquids generally, but is also the word for the four bodily fluids linked to different humours. (The role of yeast in the process was not discovered until the 19th century.)

He brought his son Vincenzio to the villa. And as if that were not enough, Galileo did what he had not done for his two girls: he ensured that his paternity was regularised by means of an official leggitimazione. His motivation was the same as his own father's had been when he had taken him away from the monks at Vallombrosa: Vincenzio was certainly not bound for a monastery, he was to be educated, earn money - and preferably get a decent dowry in marriage.

But Vincenzio was nothing like his loveable sibling Virginia, who had by now become Sister Maria Celeste in the nearby convent of San Matteo. Galileo soon discovered that it was no joke trying to be a father again at an age of well over fifty. He got little help from his own mother. A glimpse into relations with the aged widow Giulia is given by a remark in a letter to Galileo from his brother, the musician Michelangelo:

"I hear, not with a little surprise, that Mother is again behaving so dreadfully. But she is very old now, so that will soon put an end to all this quarrelling."48

The quarrelling ended in 1620. His mother died in September at the age of eighty-two, after living for almost thirty years as a widow.

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