Drawing Close to a Court

No jubilees were celebrated in Florence, but even there the year 1600 was an eventful one. Grand Duke Ferdinando had plenty of excuse to create the kind of lavish entertainments that he loved. The greatest of these occurred on one of the most glorious occasions in his family's history: Ferdinando's niece, Maria de' Medici, was marrying the French King Henri IV of Navarre. True, the ceremony in Florence's Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral was conducted with his proxy, but this in no way dampened the festivities. There were horse races, jousts, processions and fireworks - and great musical performances. Galileo's close friend, the painter Cigoli, had links to the inner clique La Camerata as a lutenist, and there is strong evidence to suggest that he also designed what we would nowadays call the scenery for Eurydice. It was the world's first operatic performance and it was produced at the court that year.

Cigoli had other important commissions in his home city, both as an architect and a painter, where he was a key figure in the break with Bronzino's cold "Mannerist" style. Cigoli's was the ultimate court style, the baroque, which grew up within music and pictorial art during the years around 1600.

From his professorial chair in Padua, Galileo kept a close eye on events in Florence, and not just on the arts. Cigoli and others kept him informed on matters large and small. The court clearly needed expertise of many types, and time would show that certain "performances" were so grand that they required people with a knowledge of practical engineering and physics.

But it is likely that, through his various channels, he followed the fortunes of Grand Duke Ferdinando's eldest son, Prince Cosimo, of whom he harboured great hopes. In 1601 Galileo received a letter from a friend and colleague in Pisa, Professor Mercuriale, who was also physician to the Medici family. As a friendly hint to a talented son of the city living in exile, Mercuriale mentioned the Prince's future to Galileo: the boy was to succeed to the grand ducal seat one day - and in the meantime, might he not be wanting a good mathematics teacher?

Galileo's social position prevented him from applying to the court directly with any such enquiry. He had to let intermediaries look into the matter, and not until 1605 did he feel secure enough to approach the then 15-year old Prince directly in a particularly obsequious letter:

"I have, until now, made certain to send the necessary marks of my esteem through my most trusted friends and benefactors, because I did not deem it seemly - in leaving the obscurity of night - to show myself directly before you and to look into eyes that have the clearest light from the rising sun in them, without first having prepared and fortified myself with that light's reflection."14

The letter brought results. The summer of 1605 was spent by Galileo as private tutor to Cosimo in the villa in Pratolino outside Florence, where once the Grand Duke Francesco had retired to nefarious studies with his Bianca.

Grand ducal family life was idyllic now, compared to conditions under Francesco. Christina of Lorraine was a pious and deeply religious woman who eventually had nine children with her Grand Duke, eight of whom survived: four daughters and four sons. The latter Galileo would later exploit in a particularly propitious and elegant manner.

Galileo did well with young Cosimo, who was far from untalented at mathematics. After his job was done, Galileo managed to use this first direct contact with the Medicis to obtain a much-needed wage increase at Padua. (It was true that his salary had been raised from 180 to 320 scudi in 1597.) Through his emissary in Venice, Grand Duke Ferdinando hinted that his eminent countryman, Professor Galilei, might possibly be slightly underpaid in his post. The Venetian Senate was normally sceptical about attempts to influence them by foreign potentates, but clearly this one was not taken amiss as Galileo's salary was increased to 520 scudi.

After this successful summer, Galileo planned the next push towards the princely court in Florence. This was in connection with his invention, the geometric and military compass. Such an instrument - naturally in a specially constructed version made out of precious metals - ought to prove a timely gift to an up-and-coming potential military commander like young Cosimo, especially now that the boy had learnt enough maths to use a few of its functions. And Galileo could kill two birds with one well-aimed stone: he would print a small book that gave an introduction to the use of the compass, and thereby relieve himself of the private tuition, while still being able to earn money through the sale of the compass and the book. The book could be fittingly dedicated to Prince Cosimo, with assurances of his humble esteem:

"If, mighty Prince, I were to attempt to record on these pages all the praise accruing to Your Highness' own merits and those of your incomparable family, I would be forced into so voluminous an account that this preface would far exceed the length of the remainder of the text."

It is against this background we must view Galileo's excessive fury towards Baldassare Capra, the author of a pirate edition (in Latin) of The Workings of the Geometric and Military Compass. Galileo's biographers have often been somewhat alarmed at the temperament Galileo displayed in this inconsequential matter. Galileo was unusually proud and had an excitable disposition to match. And certainly, such a pirate edition might have financial consequences. He took the matter to law and the court found fully in his favour: Capra's book was impounded. But Galileo was not satisfied. He had a pamphlet printed in which his adversary was told in no uncertain terms that he was "a malicious enemy of mine and of all mankind" and his writings are called "the poison from this evil lizard"15, to mention but two of the epithets that bombarded the unfortunate mathematician and petty swindler.

As far as Galileo was concerned it was not simply his abstract "honour" that was at stake, although that was important enough. Capra had sullied his gift to the future Grand Duke, meddled with the well considered strategy that would carry him towards the Florentine court.

The Grand Duchess herself made sure that Galileo was invited when young Cosimo was married in 1608. The marriage was yet another dynastic triumph for the Medici family. The bride, the Austrian Archduchess Maria Maddalena, was the sister of Ferdinand of Habsburg, later to become Emperor Ferdinand II. The celebrations for this wedding exceeded anything that even Florence had become accustomed to. The river Arno was turned into a "stage", with tribunes along its banks. On it was performed a piece about Jason and the hunt for the golden fleece, complete with giant dolphins, menacing lobsters and a fire-spewing Hydra.

It was to be Grand Duke Ferdinando's final glittering show. In January 1609 Galileo got a letter in Padua from the Grand Duchess Christina requesting him to cast a horoscope for Ferdinando, as he had become seriously ill. Obediently, Galileo gazed into the stars but without his usual perspicacity for, despite predicting many years' of happy life for the great man, Ferdinando died a mere three weeks later.

With Ferdinando's passing, the last Medici of any consequence had gone. The 19-year-old Grand Duke Cosimo II had certainly inherited his father's feeling for magnificent processions, but - despite Galileo's words and all the praise lavished on his merits - very little of Ferdinando's calculating intelligence and political sagacity.

But for Galileo the succession represented a wonderful chance. Ferdinando's accession to the title had opened the door to the academic world back in 1587. Now the Grand Duke's death just happened to provide a golden opportunity to get out of that world and into another, even more promising one.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment