From Pisa to Padua

Musician, composer and theoretician, Vincenzio Galilei, had married when he was more than forty years old. In 1591, that family-proud Florentine died at home in Florence. He had a permanent place in musical history, as well as a wife and four children, all of whom except Galileo and his sister Virginia, had no means of support.

The death meant that the young professor took over the responsibility for the entire family - a mother who was sometimes difficult and who was to live for another thirty years, a brother who was a minor and two sisters. His sister Virginia may have just got married, but a most important part of the marriage settlement had not been concluded: Vincenzio had not had the means to pay more than a fraction of the agreed dowry. The balance fell to Galileo - in regular instalments.

His younger sister, Livia, was just thirteen and was sent to a convent for the time being, but the convent cost money too. And his sixteen-year-old brother Michelangelo had, naturally, to continue the musical education he had begun.

As a newly appointed professor of mathematics Galileo earned 60 scudi per annum. It was almost a starvation wage. His colleagues in more prestigious fields were considerably better paid; professors of philosophy might earn up to 300-400 scudi. A really well-known painter could get 50 scudi for a single picture, or even 75 or one hundred in really favourable circumstances. A good doctor also brought in his 300 per annum.

These new responsibilities meant that he had to earn more money. The prospects for an imminent salary increase at Pisa were slender. Nor was the intellectual climate of his toga-clad colleagues especially inspiring with their stagnant Aristotelian dogmatics. Consequently, Galileo was most interested when a position at the University of Padua became vacant in the autumn of 1592.

Padua is not far inland from Venice, on the Po plain. The university was one of the oldest and most renowned in Italy, and was known as "Il Bo" -"The Bull", probably after an inn that reputedly stood close by. It was housed in an old palace and its banqueting hall was the scene of disputations and academic ceremonial. And, like Pisa, it had an internal quadrangle, which was surrounded by two storeys of colonnades above which the proud tower of the palace reared over staff and students alike.

From a scientific perspective the fact that Padua possessed Europe's oldest botanical gardens was of greater importance. Botany (like zoology) was a "progressive" science. The contact with America was a factor that contributed to the undermining of traditional natural history - it proved that there were many animal and plant species which neither Aristotle nor the other ancient authorities had known anything about. When Galileo arrived in the city, the botanical gardens at Padua had just taken delivery of an entirely new American species, which was being grown and observed with great interest. This was soleanum tuberosum, as it would later be called - also known as the potato.

The University of Padua was an intellectual powerhouse. This was partly because, as a seat of learning it had not been established by papal or imperial privilege, like most others. It had grown up out of the civic culture of the city and had what can only be called a "liberal profile". In 1564, Pope Pius IV had decreed that everyone who gained a degree from an Italian university, had to swear an oath of allegiance to Catholic doctrine. However, at Padua the university authorities managed to create loopholes in the provision that enabled northern European - Protestant - students to continue applying for places there.

It was at Padua that Vesalius had laid the foundations of modern anatomy with his controversial dissections, half a century before Galileo came to the city. During Galileo's time The Bull got its famous "anatomical theatre", complete with tribunes where students and other interested spectators could follow the dissections in detail. No less impressive is the fact that as early as 1678 Padua gave a degree to the world's first female university undergraduate, the philosopher Elena Lucrezia Cornaro.

Mathematics were another strong point. There was a number of applicants for the chair in mathematics, including the same Magini who a few years earlier had wrested Bologna from Galileo. Once again, Galileo had to count on his Roman contacts, the del Monte brothers. They originally came from Venice, and had influential friends both there and in Padua. In a concerted effort they managed to secure the post for Galileo - with a salary of 180 scudi, three times the rate at Pisa.

Padua belonged to the Venetian Republic. For centuries that powerful canal city had been laying claim to large areas of the hinterland. Galileo had to move away from his homeland in Tuscany, and as a servant of the state he required the permission of Grand Duke Ferdinando. This was graciously forthcoming.

In one sense Venice was quite similar to Florence: there, too, the golden age of architecture and art was drawing to a close. The city's greatest painter of all, Titian, was dead, after a career that spanned most of the 16th century. But Venice was still a republic, and its style was considerably more sober and civic than the Grand Duke's court. The authorities did not spend money on the ostentatious celebrations that Ferdinando in Florence had gradually become addicted to - preferably with a stage full of "volcanoes" and fire-spitting dragons. The Venetian Senate was more interested in sensible, public projects: the Rialto Bridge - as beautiful as it was practical - across the Canal Grande had just been completed in 1592.

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