The detached belfry of Pisa Cathedral leant dangerously southwards. It looked peculiar, but the phenomenon attracted no attention outside the city itself. Tuscans were used to ostentatious towers on both private and public buildings, and it was accepted that, from time to time, one or other of them might come crashing to the ground.
This zealous tower building encapsulated two of the traits characteristic of the Tuscan: firstly, his intense need to draw attention to himself, quite literally to raise himself above others. Secondly, his almost miraculous combination of craftsmanship, technical expertise and artistic talent which had made Tuscany, and particularly its capital Florence, into the Western World's undisputed centre for architecture, sculpture and painting during an age that an admiring future was to christen the Renaissance.
This golden age was definitely on the wane by the year 1564.
Cosimo I de' Medici was Duke of Tuscany. The Medicis had originally been physicians, but had later turned to banking and business. For more than a century the family had dominated Florence with its power and wealth. But new times had arrived in Europe, an age of absolute monarchy, and power had to be legitimised by reference to a ruler's noble lineage and divine right. Cosimo had acquired a ducal title and established himself as absolute ruler. He had moved from the Palazzo Vecchio in the city's ancient, pulsating centre, across the river Arno to the huge and enclosed Palazzo Pitti. There, at a regal distance from the humdrum life of the city, the Duke and his court lived with a pomp that would have been the envy of many a European king.
The musician, Vincenzio Galilei, was the same age as Cosimo de' Medici. He too came from an old Florentine family with a medical ancestor. There, any similarity with the Medicis abruptly ceased. Wealth and power had notably eluded the Galilei family.
The Duke's court was a place of work for Vincenzio, an arena in which he could play the lute and viola da gamba. But he could not get enough commissions there or in Florence as a whole. Things got even more difficult when he married Giulia, a woman twenty years his junior. Her family came from Pisa, and Vincenzio felt forced to move there. This was no easy decision for a patriotic Florentine. But the cost of living was lower in Pisa, a musician had less competition there and, above all, his wife had family in the city, practical, hard-working folk in the woollen trade who could offer a poor relation a little work now and again.
The bond between Florence and Pisa had never been very cordial. In his Divine Comedy, Florence's greatest son, Dante Alighieri, depicts Pisa as the cradle of treachery, and places some very eminent Pisans in the deepest depths of Hell. But the two cities were no longer rivals of equal rank. From its position as one of Europe's richest and most powerful city states, Pisa had degenerated into a sleepy Tuscan provincial town, firmly ruled from Florence.
Vincenzio had married to keep the Galilei family going: his Giulia was pregnant. On 15 February 1564 the couple's eldest son was born in a rented house near the church of Sant' Andrea, half way between the university and the Medicis' local palace. Following a relatively common Tuscan tradition, the boy was given the singular form of the family name as a Christian name: Galileo. He was called after the original 15th century founder of the line, the doctor now buried in no less a place than the church of Santa Croce.
Vincenzio Galilei was not only a skilled musician and noted composer. He was a learned man. What interested him most was the theory of music. He had studied with well known humanists in Venice and Rome, and was engaged in writing a great thesis in which he was ambitiously attempting to revive contemporary music by returning to the principles of antiquity.
Young Galileo was not an only child. His mother Giulia gave birth to six more children in rapid succession, but only one brother and two sisters lived to adulthood. Vincenzio soon realised that his eldest son was uncommonly gifted and lavished special attention on him. He taught Galileo to play the lute, and the boy soon became a skilful player.
He also learnt two other things from his father's toil with his thesis. The first was that one should never be content with accepted wisdom, even if it came from the most authoritative sources, but combine theoretical deliberations with practical experiments and arrive at one's own conclusions.
The second was that such pioneering work was often, quite literally, undervalued. Vincenzio constantly struggled to provide for himself and his family. In 1572 he moved back to Florence alone. Cosimo had just been elevated to Grand Duke, and the celebrations offered an opportunity for a good musician to shine at court. But Giulia and the children had to remain with her family in Pisa, and it is tempting to imagine young Galileo overhearing his mother's relatives making remarks about who had to support him and his brother and sisters.
In 1574 Grand Duke Cosimo died. He was a temperamental tyrant who once killed a servant on the spot because he had told Cosimo's son that his father was considering re-marrying; but he was also a generous patron and enterprising ruler who had brought material prosperity to his central Italian Grand Duchy. The majority of Tuscans harboured no high expectations of his son, Francesco. Their worst fears were realised. Francesco's spouse died under mysterious circumstances, after which he held an extravagant wedding ceremony with his infamous lover, Bianca. Even worse was the fact that the new Grand Duke protected his younger brother Pietro, who had strangled his wife in a fit of jealousy.
It was at this court that Vincenzio was to earn most of his living. The change of grand dukes did not alarm him, for he brought Giulia and his children to live with him in Florence. The family settled close to one of the bridges over the Arno, Ponte delle Grazie. It was a practical place to live. The Grand Duke's Palazzo Pitti lay close by.
Ten-year old Galileo had come home. His family belonged in Florence. Ever after he considered himself to be a Florentine. But his father was not satisfied with the education the boy could receive in the city of his ancestors. The following year he sent Galileo to the remote monastery at Vallombrosa -the "shady valley" - north of Regello in Valdarno, some twenty miles southeast of Florence.
The contrast with a city like Florence could hardly have been greater. The monastery was beautifully situated, but was completely isolated and at an elevation of over 3,000 feet, surrounded by a forest of broad-leaved trees as well as heavy, dark spruces with ivy-clad trunks.
Vincenzio knew what he was doing. The monks of this monastery belonged to the intellectual Florentine tradition. It was an inspiring environment, far beyond the standard of monasteries generally. Here, the gifted young boy could learn Greek, Latin and logic.
Galileo was an assiduous student who thoroughly enjoyed life in these isolated, spartan surroundings. But the boy liked it even better than his father had hoped. After a couple of years he wanted to join the order, and offered himself as a novice.
Perhaps it was youthful religious passion that lay behind this decision, but Galileo also perceived that the strict life of a monk would provide him with opportunities for work and study, free from the material cares that the life of a citizen brought with it. Vincenzio, however, had no sympathy with his eldest son's decision. In 1579, he took the winding mountain road up to the monastery and brought the fifteen-year-old back home to Florence.
His father's motives may have been to prevent Galileo becoming stuck in a location and environment which, in the long run, would never be able to provide him with sufficient challenges. But it is more likely that cold financial calculations lay behind this "rescue expedition". Vincenzio would have to make contributions to the running costs of the monastery if his son were to become a monk. Daughters might feasibly be candidates for monastic life. They had to be subsidised as well, of course, but if they married instead, their father had to find a dowry, so daughters were costly in any event. But a son like Galileo ought to find himself paid work, so that he could help out with the family's expenses.
But what career was his son to choose?
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