Biographies & Memoirs



At Siena


Not knowing how to refuse him the keys

In framing Galileo’s trial as a simplistic case of science versus religion, anti-Catholic critics have claimed that the Church opposed a scientific theory on biblical grounds, and that the outcome mocked the infallibility of the pope. Technically, however, the anti-Copernican Edict of 1616 was issued by the Congregation of the Index, not by the Church. Similarly, in 1633, Galileo was tried and sentenced by the Holy Office of the Inquisition, not by the Church. And even though Pope Paul V approved the Edict of 1616, just as Pope Urban VIII condoned Galileo’s conviction, neither pontiff invoked papal infallibility in either situation. The freedom from error that belongs to the pope as his special privilege applies only when he speaks as shepherd of the Church to issue formal proclamations on matters of faith and morals. What’s more, the right of infallibility was never formally defined in Galileo’s time, but issued two centuries later from Vatican Council I, held in 1869-70.

Although Urban personally believed in his own power enough to boast that the sentence of one living pope—namely Urban himself— outweighed all the decrees of one hundred dead ones, he refrained from claiming infallibility in the Galileo case.

French philosopher Rene Descartes, who followed Galileo’s trial from his home in Holland, understood these distinctions. Thus Descartes could comment hopefully to a colleague: “As I do not see that this censure has been confirmed either by a Council or by the Pope, but proceeds solely from a committee of cardinals, it may still happen to the Copernican theory as it did to that of the antipodes [the eighth-century censured notion of a sub-Earth Earth with human inhabitants] which was once condemned in the same way.” Nevertheless Descartes, a product of his Jesuit education and a devout Catholic throughout his life, withheld from publishing the book he himself had just completed, Le Monde, which espoused Copernicus’s view of the universe.

Numerous churchmen, however—including highly placed clerics such as Ascanio Piccolomini, the archbishop of Siena—had endorsed Galileo’s Dialogue from their initial reading of it and continued to consider the author their friend. “It seems exceeding strange to me,” Archbishop Piccolomini had written to Galileo when the outcry over the Dialogue first arose, “that such a recent and precise approbation should be opposed by the passions of some people who might find fault only in what they conceive of the book, for the work itself ought to appease the most timid conscience. On the other hand, I will say you deserve this and worse, for you have been disarming by steps those who have control of the sciences, and they have nothing left but to run back to holy ground.”

Archbishop Piccolomini, capping a long line of scholars from a distinguished family that produced two popes, had himself studied mathematics and been Galileo’s admirer for many years. Now, in the aftermath of the trial, Piccolomini assumed custody of Galileo, who left the Tuscan embassy in Rome on July 6 and arrived at the archiepiscopal palace, immediately adjacent to the magnificent domed cathedral of Siena, three days later on July 9.


Ascanio Piccolomini, Archbishop of Siena

If Galileo looked “more dead than alive,” as Ambassador Niccolini had described him when he returned from his April questioning by the Holy Office, how must he have appeared at Siena in July, after these many more weeks and traumas? The injustice of the sentence tormented him so that he did not sleep for several nights but could be heard crying out, babbling and rambling in distraction. The archbishop feared for his safety to the point where he considered binding Galileo’s arms to keep him from accidentally injuring himself in bed. Piccolomini determined to restore the man’s broken spirit and return his thoughts to scientific pursuits. The fact that Galileo was able to rise from the ashes of his condemnation by the Inquisition to complete another book project (and for this last work to prove his greatest original contribution) is due in large measure to Piccolomini’s solicitous kindness. A French visitor to Siena in 1633, the poet Saint-Amant, reported finding the archbishop and Galileo together among the rich tapestries and furnishings that filled the guest apartment at the palace, engaging each other in discussion of a mechanical theory, which lay partially written on pages spread all around them.


THAT THE LETTER YOU WROTE me from Siena (where you say you find yourself in good health) brought me the greatest pleasure, and the same to Suor Arcangela, is needless for me to weary myself in convincing you, Sire, since you will well know how to fathom what I could not begin to express; but I should love to describe to you the show of jubilation and merriment that these mothers and sisters made upon learning of your happy return, for it was truly extraordinary; since the Mother Abbess, with many others, hearing the news, ran to me with open arms, and crying with tenderness and happiness; truly I am bound as a slave to all of them, for having understood from this display how much love they feel for you, Sire, and for us.

Hearing furthermore that you are staying in the home of a host as kind and courteous as Monsignor Archbishop multiplies the pleasure and satisfaction, despite the potential prejudicial effect this may have on our own interests, because it could well prove to be the case that his extremely enjoyable conversation may engage and detain you much longer than we would like. However, since here for now the suspicions of contagion continue, I commend your remaining there and awaiting (as you say you wish to do) the safety assurance from your closest friends, who, if not with greater love, at least with more certainty than we possess, will be able to apprise you of the facts.

But meanwhile I should judge that it would be wise to draw a profit from the wine in your cellar, at least one cask’s worth; because although for now it is keeping well, I fear this heat may precipitate some peculiar effect: and already the cask that you had tapped before you left, Sire, from which the housemaid and the servant drink, has begun to spoil. You will need to give orders as to what you want done, because I have so little knowledge of this business; but I am coming to the conclusion that since you produced enough to last the entire year, and as you have been away for six of those months, you will still have plenty left, even if you should return in a few days.

Leaving this aside, however, and turning to that which concerns me more, I am longing to know in what manner your affair was terminated to the satisfaction of both you and your adversaries, as you intimated in the next to last letter you wrote me from Rome: tell me the details at your convenience, and only after you have rested, because I can be patient a while longer awaiting enlightenment on this contradiction.

Signor Geri was here one morning, during the time we suspected you to be in the greatest danger, Sire, and he and Signor Aggiunti went to your house and did what had to be done, which you later told me was your idea, seeming to me at the time well conceived and essential, to avoid some worse disaster that might yet befall you, wherefore I knew not how to refuse him the keys and the freedom to do what he intended, seeing his tremendous zeal in serving your interests, Sire.

Last Saturday I wrote to Her Ladyship the Ambassadress with all the great love that I felt, and if I receive an answer, I shall share it with you. I close here because sleep assails me now at the third hour of the night, on which account you will excuse me, Sire, in the event I have said anything inappropriate. I return to you doubled all the regards you offered to those named in your letter and especially La Piera and Geppo, who are thoroughly cheered by your return; and I pray blessed God to give you His holy grace.


Most affectionate daughter,


The deed that Signor Geri Bocchineri accomplished in Galileo’s absence with the help of their young mutual friend, Niccolo Aggiunti, head of mathematics at Pisa, involved the destruction of potentially incriminating evidence. Fearing that representatives of the Inquisition might requisition Galileo’s papers, his supporters took the prudent path of editing what could be found on his property.

Even though Signor Geri arrived at the convent in advance of Galileo’s letter announcing his mission, Suor Maria Celeste surrendered her keys to him without hesitation. Geri served as a trusted link to her father throughout this period, and no one but her father could have informed him that she held the needed keys in safekeeping. These must have opened a certain closet or cabinet in Galileo’s study. For surely Geri could have obtained keys to the gate and doors of the villa from Signor Rondinelli, who enjoyed free access to Il Gioiello, or from La Piera, the housekeeper, who would have opened any door to his familiar face—he being, as Sestilia’s brother, practically a member of the family. But only Suor Maria Celeste could help him unlock the trove of private papers.

Her description of the event shows she did not judge Signor Geri’s action inappropriate, nor herself an accomplice to any crime against the Holy Office. Apparently nothing she—or Geri and Aggiunti, or Galileo—had done in this connection required asking God’s forgiveness, or she would have shared her prayer for it here in writing, in her customary way.

Her confusion about the contradictory outcome of Galileo’s affairs in Rome—things appearing to her to have been settled to the satisfaction of both sides—stemmed from letters he sent just before being sentenced. At the end of May, as shown in surviving correspondence with his friends, Galileo fully expected leniency for himself and the saving of face for all concerned, though in the end nothing had turned out that way.

“I do not hope for any relief,” Galileo wrote to a former pupil in France after the trial, “and that is because I have committed no crime. I might hope for and obtain pardon, if I had erred; for it is to faults that the prince can bring indulgence, whereas against one wrongfully sentenced while he was innocent, it is expedient, in order to put up a show of strict lawfulness, to uphold rigor.”

Though the sisters of San Matteo had been overjoyed to hail Galileo’s “happy return” to Tuscany from Rome, it soon occurred to them how far away from home Siena really lay. Not just the days’ ride over forty miles of hilly terrain still barred the way of reunion, but the pope’s anger as well. Galileo had not yet been granted permission to return to Arcetri. In fact, Urban might never allow him to go home.

“When you were in Rome, Sire,” Suor Maria Celeste wrote Galileo on July 16, “I said to myself: if I have the grace of your leaving that place and coming as far as Siena I will be satisfied, for then I can almost say that you are in your own house. And now I am not content, but find myself longing to again have you here even closer. Be that as it may, blessed be the Lord for having granted us His grace so magnanimously until now. It falls to us to try to be truly grateful for this much, so that He may be the more favorably disposed and compassionately moved to bless us in other ways in the future, as I hope He will do by His mercy.”

In Rome, Ambassador Niccolini continued to press for Galileo’s return to II Gioiello and notified him of each minuscule development in this campaign as a way of keeping hope alive.


I READ THE LETTER you wrote to Signor Geri with particular pleasure and consolation, Sire, on account of the things contained in its first paragraph. I will be so bold as to venture on into the third paragraph as well, although it pertains to the purchase of some little house I do not know about, which I have inferred that Signor Geri very much wants Vincenzio to buy, albeit with your help. I certainly would not want to be presumptuous, interfering in matters that do not concern me. Nonetheless, because I care a great deal about whatsoever is of even minimal interest to you, Sire, I would implore you and exhort you (assuming you are in a position to be able to do this) to give them, if not the full amount, then some appreciable part of it, not only for love of Vincenzio, but just as much to keep Signor Geri favorably disposed toward you, as he has, on past occasions, shown great fondness for you, Sire, and, from all I have seen, tried to help you in any way he could: therefore, if, without too much trouble on your part, you could give him some sign of gratitude, I should judge that a deed well done. I know that you yourself can perceive and arrange such matters infinitely better than I, and perhaps I do not even know what I am saying, but well I know how anything I say is dictated by pure love toward you.

The servant who was in Rome with you came here yesterday morning, urged to do so by Signor Giulio Nunci. It seemed strange to me not to see letters from you, Sire. Yet I was appeased by the excuse this same man made, explaining that you had not known whether he would pass this way. Now that you are without a servant, Sire, our Geppo, who cannot move freely about here, desires nothing more, if only he were granted permission, than to come to you, and I should very much like that, too. If your thoughts concur, Sire, I could see to sending him well escorted, and I believe Signor Geri can secure him a permit to travel.

I also want to know how much straw to buy for the little mule, because La Piera fears she will die of hunger, and the fodder is not good enough for her, as she is a most original animal.

Since I sent you the list of expenses paid out for your house, we have incurred these others that I give you account of now, besides the money that every month I have made sure was paid to Vincenzio Landucci, for which I keep all the receipts, except the last two payments; for at those times he was, as he continues to be now, locked up in his house with the two little children because the plague killed his wife; whereby truly one may say she is released from her toil and gone to her rest, the poor woman. He sent early to ask me for the 6 scudi for the love of God, saying they were dying of hunger, and as the month was almost at its end I sent him the money; he promised the receipt when he is beyond suspicion of contagion, and I will endeavor to hold him to that; if nothing else I will first see to these other disbursements, in the event you are not here to take care of them yourself, Sire, which I suspect on account of the excessive heat that is upon us.

The lemons that hung in the garden all dropped, the last few remaining ones were sold, and from the 2 lire they brought I had three masses said for you, Sire, on my own initiative.

I wrote to Her Ladyship the Ambassadress, as you told me to, and sent the letter to Signor Geri, but I do not have a reply, wherefore I suppose I might be wise to write again suggesting the possibility that either my letter or hers has gone astray. And here, sending you love with all my heart, I pray Our Lord to bless you.


Your most affectionate daughter,


Vincenzio had used part of Sestilia’s dowry to put the down payment on their Costa San Giorgio house years before. Galileo had also contributed his share then, for he was named as an owner on the deed. The house included a garden, a reservoir, and a courtyard, but its rooms were few. Now the building immediately adjacent to it had come up for sale, presenting an irresistible opportunity to expand the young family’s quarters without their having to move.

While Galileo considered this proposal, he began to improve his health and outlook by engaging his mind in a new puzzle: Archbishop Piccolomini put him to work on the problem of recasting the giant bell for the cathedral’s campanile.

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