by Michael Filas
I’m no narcissist, and I’m sorry if I sound like one. Awhile back I was put upon to join an academic conversation about Galileo with several distinguished Galileo scholars, but knew nothing about Galileo, so I fell back on what I knew—me. For that I apologize. I was trying to arrange a semester-long teaching gig at Florence University of the Arts, and I’d been working at my American university in Massachusetts to develop a faculty exchange at FUA because I wanted desperately to live abroad with my family for a semester, and nothing sounded so good as teaching writing, lecturing, and collaborating in Florence. When FUA announced they were holding a Galileo conference, I was encouraged to participate, and commenced a crash course in Galileo.
Learning about Galileo came at a cost, of course. My other projects suffered for lack of attention and my short conference trip to Florence cost a bit more than I got from my university to attend. My quest to teach in Florence, too, was ultimately gnawed down from a semester abroad to just a few weeks. I look forward to the short-term course, but it won’t be quite like living in Florence for three or four months with my family. How the plan changed, from a semester abroad into a few weeks, is a dull and aggravating story despite its bureaucratic twists and turns, occasional misdirection, and a whittling away of dreams. The good news is I did make it to Florence on academic terms. Whittled dreams notwithstanding, I went to Florence for four days and talked and listened to days of conversation about Galileo.
Bad form. Allow me to apologize both for starting off with complaints, and for talking about myself. I’m just getting the clumsy stuff out of the way first.
I submitted to the conference in Florence on the suggestion from a helpful vice president at my university who understood Westfield’s mission at FUA. He’d been to the conference before and recommended it highly. “The theme is Galileo,” he said, “you can write something about Galileo. It’s a great conference.” Just like that, as if Galileo expertise were mine for the asking.
“Maybe next year,” I said, having no knowledge of Galileo and no idea how I could fit him and his universe into my expertise. And there was another matter of how I could pay for international travel on top of my academic travel commitments in the states. To be honest, when he suggested it to me, I did not think I needed Galileo in order to get to Florence. I was wrong.
I covet my torments.
Mr. Galilei, if you want money and leisure, go to Florence.
[T]he rays of Your [Highness’] incredible clemency and kindness . . . Night and day [I reflected] on almost nothing else than how I, most desirous of your glory (since I am not only by desire but also by origin and nature under your dominion), might show how very grateful I am toward you.
By November, Livia was pregnant and his new brother-in-law, Taddeo Galletti, exigent. Galileo asked Michelangelo to oblige himself legally to pay his share. For himself, he wrote, he was tightly pinched. Michelangelo could not contribute and Galileo had to borrow another 600 scudi and obtain an advance on his salary to meet his running expenses and the obligations he had assumed to assist his siblings.
The young scientist’s work was held in great esteem by the professionals who assisted him in heading the mathematics department at the university of Pisa and then of Padua. Later Galileo would become famous as a great scientist, a broadly educated man, a good conversationalist, and a skillful debater. In addition he received fame as a writer and a musician. He brilliantly played string instruments and the clavichord. He also succeeded in drawing, painting, and writing sonnets.
For a mid-tier 21st century professor like me, scrambling to make a difference on my own modest scale, it is humbling, cripplingly so, to read about someone like Galileo, larger than life in every discipline he undertook. More apologizing seems in order.
When the VP at my school told me to write something about Galileo I struggled—my job is mostly about teaching, but I still make time to sustain a modest research career. I write about post-evolution, embodied technology, medical humanities—areas without abundant overlaps in astronomy, physics, or renaissance science. To make matters worse, I couldn’t really set aside the prose form I’d been working in for a few years—prose collage experiments, part fiction, part creative non-fiction. I apologize, then, for the jumps and non-sequiturs careening from my words to those of Galileo, his biographers, and his critics. My VP who recommended I do something about Galileo for the conference did not specifically recommend the collage style. To be honest he was probably unaware of my specialty, but alas, I had to do something I knew if I were to have any credibility at all. There are end notes for the non-memoir collage material, for credibility’s sake. And yet, for the reader disinterested in juxtaposition and cross referencing it may just seem like a disjointed jumble of language.
Did I mention that I went to Florence to deliver this paper? I apologized then too.
Although Galileo’s “Capitolo contro il portar la toga” has its zing from his annoyance over the rule of the robe and the stock association of academic dress with pedantry, it was a piece with his duller sonnets in that it was an exercise to master a literary form.
The ways of invention are varied, very
To seize on the good there’s but one that has worked
Look about for an evident contrary.
That means search out evil, it’s easily found
You’ve then Summum bonum [the greatest good], no trouble at all
Bad and good are as like as pence in a pound.
Your friends were baffled when you bowed to the Prince of Florence: science gained a wider audience. You always laughed at heroics. “People who suffer bore me,” you said. “Misfortunes are due mainly to miscalculations.” And: “If there are obstacles, the shortest line between two points may be the crooked line.”
Anyone will then understand with the certainty of the senses that the Moon is by no mean endowed with a smooth and polished surface, but is rough and uneven and, just as the face of the Earth itself, crowded everywhere with vast prominences, deep chasms, and convolutions.
With monuments destroyed and temples burned
Proclaims my greatness in fierce examples.
When I try and relate to Galileo as a man, as a person, I come up feeling like a flea staring down an elephant. I am so awed by his accomplishments that I feel under qualified to have even stood in the same city where he once wrote couplets and hashed out the architecture of heaven, of purgatory, and of hell. His crispy middle finger stands, centuries dead under glass in Florence, pointing towards heaven, towards mountains on the moon, but I feel like he’s pointing at me, shaming me for having gone to Florence only to talk about myself.
Galileo would surely have no patience with my star struck self deprecation. Though he understood flattery intimately, a man of his wit and serious purpose would eventually move the conversation to something more interesting than my fawning. When Galileo was faced with a giant that had come before him did he cower or apologize? No. He openly ridiculed Aristotle, whose vision of the earth-centered universe was the law of the land handed down from God.
We have it on Viciani’s authority that Galileo dropped different weights of the same material from Pisa’s Leaning Tower to show, “to the dismay of the philosophers,” that, contrary to Aristotle, they fell at the same speed. And he did it not once, or secretly, but “with repeated trials . . . in the presence of other teachers and philosophers, and the whole assembly of students.”
One of Berni’s [Galileo’s influence for his burlesque writing] favorite techniques was to treat a common subject in an elevated manner, “in praising [as Galileo characterized the method] the meanest things, urinals, plague, debt, Aristotle, etc.”
Circular motion has the property of casting off, scattering, and driving away from its center the parts of the moving body, whenever the motion is not sufficiently slow or the parts not too solidly attached together.
He never takes his adversary by abrupt frontal attack, but after a courteous greeting stands back to await the first blow. Going on the defense, he entices his opponent to advance. Suddenly he strikes where least expected, and profiting from the surprise, presses in, pushes back, knocks out his adversary, and withdraws without taking any further notice of the combat.
You greater ones, if it shall please the Good Lord and Your Serene Highness that he, according to his desire, will pass the rest of his life in Your service. For which he bows down humbly, and from His Divine Majesty he prays for the utmost of all happiness for You.
Let me attempt to drag Galileo down to my level for a minute. I have no sisters or daughters in nunneries, but I do have four sons, each born legally under wedlock and inheritors of my name. I’m twice married as compared to Galileo’s none. I’m probably a better Dad, too. There’s no evidence of Galileo having coached Vincenzo’s soccer team, or volunteering at the kids’ school. I’m probably better at committee work too, I’m guessing. No, while I’ve muscled through program building and mentoring young writers, Galileo was off with the lynxes, having intellectual seminar discussions and discovering, on his own, laws of gravity and earthly motion.
I have to reach for his period of house arrest, his blind years, in order to feel good about myself: happily married, fond of family life, and well employed in the comfortable middle of American academe. But like Galileo I have my own challenges, like scrapping for funds to help my projects along, pinching time from every corner to keep up with grading, meetings, orthodontia bills, and soccer practices. It takes a lot of work to be a husband and a father, a brother, especially in the middle-class where family connections are tight and frequent. Is the main difference between Galileo and me one of class? Was a hearty and healthy family life a casualty of his high-end career and unfettered thinking? I don’t think so. I can’t believe Galileo was meant to do anything differently than he did.
Galileo did not shirk the financial, only the emotional, responsibility of maintaining his children.
He began to suffer severe rheumatic attacks at the age of forty in 1604/5. He shivered in the summer of 1608 with a persistent fever. He was bed-ridden during most of the winter of 1610/11 with severe miscellaneous pains, sleeplessness, discharges of blood, and depression (melancholy).
I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei of Florence, aged 70 years, tried personally by this court, and kneeling before You, the most Eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinals, Inquisitors-General throughout the Christian Republic against heretical depravity, having before my eyes the Most Holy Gospels, and laying on them my own hands; I swear that I have always believed, I believe now, and with God’s help I will in future believe all which the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church doth hold, preach, and teach.
MONK: Hey! Hey! We’re slipping off! Help!
SECOND SCHOLAR: Look! There’s Venus! Hold me, lads. Whee!
SECOND MONK: Don’t, don’t hurl us off onto the moon. There are nasty sharp mountain peaks on the moon, brethren!
VARIOUSLY: Hold tight! Hold tight! Don’t look down! Hold tight! It’ll make you giddy!
Knights-errant travel light. Galileo divested himself of his daughters as soon as they became nubile. In 1613 he placed them in a nunnery of the Poor Clares in Arcetri just outside Florence, where they would spend the rest of their lives.
A small flame moves in us as from the glow of a dim torch.
Alas, the catch all comparison between Galileo and me has produced only this—that his contributions to our understanding of the universe and physics were astounding then and relevant still. My writing and teaching, under the American first-amendment protections of freedom of speech, are respectable contributions to society. Mine is not a shameful career, but neither is it close to greatness, or to impact beyond my generation. Is mediocrity in my professional accomplishments the cost of relative domestic beatitude and reliable good health? Even Galileo’s abjuration, rejecting his beliefs and discoveries to save his own life, even this conflicted act elevates his grandeur, and provides Galileo his heroic hamartia. My comparison is a fool’s errand because Galileo lived as a tragic hero and thrives in our shared consciousness as a hero still. If I am to be hero of any story it will be a comedy, I hope, with a happy ending and feasting, preferably in Florence, with a statue of Galileo overseeing the festivities. I don’t want the burdens of greatness, and as it turns out, I’m not worthy of them anyway. Galileo lived as he had to, juggling family matters and underground manuscripts in service to knowledge that would resonate through the ages.
Galileo’s behavior was not irrational but carefully calculated. He responded not as a philosopher, world builder, or frustrated prophet, but as a “competent courtier.”
His hair hung down; his skin, in its tiniest folds, is covered with marks of the mal français; his skull is affected, delirium fills his mind; his optic nerves are destroyed because he has scrutinized minutes and seconds around Jupiter with too much curiosity and presumption; his vision, hearing, taste and touch are shot; his hands have the nodules of the gout because he has stolen physical and mathematical treasure; his heart palpitates.
Strozzi and Ricasoli were leading lights of a serious literary club, the Accademia degli Alterati composed, etymologically, of altered, twisted, false, angry, and befuddled poets. There is good reason to believe that Galileo was a member.
Before he contracted this advanced form of melancholy around 1610, Galileo exhibited only the mild melancholic symptoms of uncertainty, protectiveness, circumspection, ironic humor, and scholarly arrogance.
[Galileo’s] poem tells something about his pursuits and attainments at the age of 25. Many sacred cows came to slaughter by his sharp wit: university officials, ecclesiastics, academics, philosophers, idiots. And many youthful preoccupations leave their marks: sex, wine, clothes, money.
Galileo’s exercise in the Bernesue manner did not raise his standing at the university.
But a broken spirit drieth the bones.
As a good gambler Galileo occasionally bluffed by raising the stakes on a losing hand—a technique he later identified with the propensity of his philosophical opponents to add reckless worthless arguments to bad ones. This criticism applied better to him. His later claims about experimental results and theoretical insights contained a quantity of bluff.
I’m almost done apologizing. Florence, for me, will forever be imbued with the mystique and grandeur of Galileo’s larger-than-life discoveries and struggles, with his martyrdom to science, with his architectural interpretations of Dante’s Comedia, and with the incredible wake and undertow he leaves in the city. But it is up to me to discover what Florence means now, to a middling American academic, and that too is a worthy cause. Let me avoid the pigeons and keep company with lynxes. Let me practice a literary form or two while I keep my family intact, out of nunneries, and out of debt. I abjure nothing, and without shame take no small pleasure in simply having cameoed as a professor in the same city where Galileo once learned, taught, and discovered the difficult truth that the earth is not the center of the universe.
The truth of the matter is that Florence didn’t come easily to Galileo either. He had to leave Florence to do much of his life’s work, and returned to Florence under house arrest for his last years. I once dreamed of living in Florence for four months, teaching and editing and writing for my keep while my family lived with me, and we partook of Florentine culture as temporary residents. The lived experience will be something less epic, for now. In spring I’ll go to Florence for a few weeks to teach a handful of my university’s students to write about Florence—that’s the plan my university has set up and it sounds inviting to me. Not epic, but my life isn’t really about the epic, if I’m being honest. When I’m in Florence I simply want to meet a few people and get to know Florence University of the Arts. I want to eat great food and see the skyline. I hope to avoid house arrest and public abjuration of any of my beliefs and accomplishments.
But however self-satisfied or humbled I may feel about going to Florence, representing my university and sharing my writing, I will always be haunted, just a little, by the idea of Galileo’s finger, pointing at me, reminding me that Florence is for accomplishing great things and enduring extraordinary personal suffering. Forgive me, then, this one last misstep should you sense that I am enjoying myself, savoring small accomplishments, and forgetting to reach for the epic.
A man such as I can only obtain a moderately dignified situation by coming crawling on his belly.
To whose Highness, besides the reverent service and humble obedience which every faithful vassal owes him, I feel myself drawn with a devotion which I may call by the name of love (for God Himself asks us no more than love), so that, setting aside my own interests, I would without hesitation change my fortune, to do his Highness a pleasure.
And if I know any heretic, or one suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor and Ordinary of the place in which I may be. I also swear and promise to adopt and observe entirely all the penances which have been or may be by this Holy Office imposed on me. And if I contravene any of these said promises, protests, or oaths, (which God forbid!) I submit myself to all the pains and penalties which by the Sacred Canons and other Decrees general and particular are against such offenders imposed and promulgated.
I wrote at the time when theologians were thinking of prohibiting Copernicus’s book and the doctrine enounced 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 you to be merely a poetical conceit, or a dream . . . this fancy of mine . . . this chimera.
Alas! revered Sir, your devoted friend and servant, Galileo, has been for a month totally and incurably blind. This heaven, this earth, this universe, which I have enlarged a hundred, nay, a thousand fold beyond the limits previously accepted, are now shriveled up for me into that narrow compass occupied by my own person.
Oh, prime cause of my sweet misery!
To gaze upon those eyes was my destiny.
“I covert my torments.” Galilei, Galileo. Excerpted from a long poem translated in Heilbron, J.L. Galileo. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print. 85.
“Mr. Galilei . . . Florence.” Line spoken coolly by the Venetian CURATO to GALILEO in Brecht, Bertolt. Galileo. Trans. Charles Laughton. Ed. Eric Bentley. New York: Grove P., 1966. Print. 53.
“The rays . . . toward you.” Galilei, Galileo. Excerpts from a letter to Cosimo de Medici telling of the naming of the Venetian moons. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. (157)
“By November . . . his siblings.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 89.
“The young scientist’s . . . writing sonnets.” Scientists Vol. 2: Famous People. . . Incredible Lives. Text by Shevela Olga. Encyclopedia Channel/Film Ideas, 2008. DVD.
“Although Galileo’s “Capitolo contro il portar la toga” . . . master a literary form.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 60-61.
“The ways of invention are varied, very / . . . / Bad and good are as like as pence in a pound.” Galilei, Galileo. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 61.
“Your friends . . . the crooked line.” Lines spoken by ANDREA to GALILEO in Brecht. Ibid. 122.
“Anyone will then understand . . . convolutions.” Galilei, Galileo. Sidereus Nuncius or The Sidereal Messenger. Trans. Albert Van Helden. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Print. 36.
“With monuments destroyed and temples burned / Proclaims my greatness in fierce examples.” Galilei, Galileo. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 86.
“We have it on Viciani’s authority . . . the whole assembly of students.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 59.
“One of Berni’s . . . urinals, plague, debt, Aristotle, etc.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 60-61.
“Circular motion . . . not too solidly attached together.” Galilei, Galileo. Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—Ptolemaic & Copernican. Trans. Stillman Drake. 2nd Ed. Berkeley: U of California P., 1967. 132.
“He never takes his adversary . . . notice of the combat.” Belloni, Luigi, quoted and translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 22.
“You greater ones . . . happiness for You.” Galilie, Galileo, in a letter to the doge, chief magistrate of Venice, quoted in Van Helden, Albert. “Introduction, Conclusion, and Notes.” Sidereus Nuncius. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. Print. 8.
“Galileo did not shirk . . . his children.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 164.
“He began to suffer . . . melancholy.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 162.
“I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei of Florence . . . hold, preach, and teach.” Galilei, Galileo. “Galileo’s Abjuration.” The Private Life of Galileo. London: Macmillon & Co., 1870. Print. 396.
“MONK: Hey! Hey! We’re slipping off! Help! . . . It’ll make you giddy!” Brecht, Bertolt. Galileo. Ibid. 72.
“Knights-errant travel light . . . the rest of their lives.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 192.
“A small flame moves in us as from the glow of a dim torch.” Galilei, Galileo. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 86.
“Galileo’s behavior . . . competent courtier.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 240.
“His hair hung down . . . his heart palpitates.” Horky, Martin, describing Galileo. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 161-162.
“Strozzi and Ricasoli . . . Galileo was a member.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 11.
“Before he contracted this advanced form . . . scholarly arrogance.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 26-27.
“[Galileo’s] poem . . . sex, wine, clothes, money.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 60.
“Galileo’s exercise in the Bernesue manner did not raise his standing at the university.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 62.
“But a broken spirit drieth the bones.” Dialog by GALILEO in Brecht, Bertolt. Galileo. Ibid. 78.
“As a good gambler Galileo . . . contained a quantity of bluff.” Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 24.
“A man such as I . . . crawling on his belly.” Dialog by GALILEO in Brecht, Bertolt. The Life of Galileo. Trans. Desmond L. Vesey. London: Methuen & Co., 1960. 44-45.
“To whose Highness . . . to do his Highness a pleasure.” Galilei, Galileo in a letter to a Florentine Gentleman, Sig. Vesp. In spring 1609, to arrange for his return to Florence from Padua. The Private Life of Galileo. London: Macmillon & Co., 1870. Print. 49.
“And if I know any heretic . . . imposed and promulgated.” Galilei, Galileo. “Galileo’s Abjuration.” The Private Life of Galileo. Ibid. 397.
“I wrote at the time . . . this chimera.” Galilei, Galileo from a 1618 letter to Austrian archduke Leopold in response to a request for a sample of his work. Excerpted from Sobel, Dava. Galileo’s Daughter. New York: Walker & Co., 1999. Print. 82-83.
“Alas! revered Sir . . . occupied by my own person.” Galilei, Galileo from a 1638 letter to his friend in Paris, Elia Diodati. MacLachlan, James. Galileo Galilei: First Physicist. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print. 97.
“Oh, prime cause of my sweet misery! / To gaze upon those eyes was my destiny.” Galilei, Galileo. Translated in Heilbron, J.L. Ibid. 86.
Michael Filas is Professor of English at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, where he teaches fiction writing and American Literature. He earned an MFA in fiction writing from San Diego State University, and a PhD in American literature from University of Washington in Seattle. His writing has appeared recently in Eleven Eleven, Specs, Fiction International, The Information Society, and Passages North. A native of Los Angeles, Michael now lives in Northampton with his family.