Biographies & Memoirs


The memory of the sweetnesses

While Galileo grew old and bent under house arrest in Arcetri, prohibited by inquisitors and infirmities from leaving II Gioiello, the priest assigned to San Matteo visited him once a month, the convent records show, presumably to hear his confession and administer the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Thus enfeebled, Galileo welcomed the October 1638 arrival of the perfect live-in companion: Vincenzio Viviani, a Florentine youth of sixteen years with a remarkable aptitude for mathematics. His scholastic distinction had brought the boy to the attention of Grand Duke Ferdinando, who in turn commended him to Galileo as an assistant.

Viviani wrote Galileo’s letters for him, read aloud the responses, and helped Galileo reconstruct his earliest scientific investigations to clarify questions raised by correspondents. The biography of Galileo that Viviani began writing years later, in 1654, suggests a timeless period of pleasant hours shared by these two alone, when the old man would unleash his tongue to ramble and the young one would listen with all his might. It was Viviani who pursued, perpetuated, and all but mythologized certain pivotal moments in the story of Galileo’s life—how, for example, while still a medical student, he intuited the law of the pendulum from watching a lamp swing during mass in the Pisan cathedral,* and how he dropped cannonballs from the summit of the Leaning Tower to crowds of professors and students below.


Vincenzio Viviani

If Galileo warmed to Viviani as to a second son, he also enjoyed the attentions of his actual son through these last years. Vincenzio, now the father of three boys (the youngest, Cosimo, was born in 1636), visited Galileo in Arcetri—and most likely Suor Arcangela as well, who lived on in silence at the convent next door. When Galileo conceived the idea for harnessing the pendulum as the regulator for a mechanical clock, he discussed the project at length with his son, appealing to Vincenzio for the use of his sight and artistic skill in drawing the clockwork. The sketch completed, Vincenzio offered to build the working model himself, rather than let the idea fall into the hands of some competitor who might pirate Galileo’s invention.

In a description he later wrote of his father, Vincenzio mixed memories of such times with hagiography:

Galileo was of jovial aspect, in particular in old age, of proper and square stature, of robust and strong complexion, as such that is necessary to support the really Atlantic efforts he endured in the endless celestial observations. His eloquence and expressiveness were admirable; talking seriously he was extremely rich of sentences and deep concepts; in the pleasing discourses he did not lack wit and jokes. He was easily angered but more easily calmed. He had an extraordinary memory, so that, in addition to the many things connected to his studies, he had in mind a great quantity of poetry and in particular the better part of Orlando Furioso, his favorite among the poems of whose author [Ludovico Ariosto] he praised above all the Latin and Tuscan poets. His most detested vice was the lie, maybe because with the help of the mathematical science he knew the beauty of the Truth too well.

In 1641 Benedetto Castelli, through persistent petitioning of the Holy Office, obtained permission to come to Arcetri and study the motions of the Jovian moons with his old teacher, as well as to advise him spiritually—with the caveat that any discussion of the Earth’s motion would be grounds for excommunication.

“The falsity of the Copernican system must not on any account be doubted,” Galileo affirmed in his correspondence at this time,

especially by us Catholics, who have the irrefragable authority of Holy Scripture interpreted by the greatest masters in theology, whose agreement renders us certain of the stability of the Earth and the mobility of the Sun around it. The conjectures of Copernicus and his followers offered to the contrary are all removed by that most sound argument, taken from the omnipotence of God. He being able to do in many, or rather in infinite ways, that which to our view and observation seems to be done in one particular way, we must not pretend to hamper God’s hand and tenaciously maintain that in which we may be mistaken. And just as I deem inadequate the Copernican observations and conjectures, so I judge equally, and more, fallacious and erroneous those of Ptolemy, Aristotle, and their followers, when without going beyond the bounds of human reasoning their inconclusiveness can be very easily discovered.

Upon Castelli’s return to Rome, he resumed his efforts to see Galileo’s sentence of house arrest commuted, though these proved unsuccessful. Castelli continued to say mass for Galileo every morning (until his own death in 1643), and the two close friends kept in touch on matters of mutual interest. Concluding a letter to Castelli on the hydraulics of fountains and rivers, Galileo expressed gratitude for the solace of his companionship over a lifetime: “Bereft of my powers by my great age and even more by my unfortunate blindness and the failure of my memory and other senses, I spend my fruitless days which are so long because of my continuous inactivity and yet so brief compared with all the months and years which have passed; and I am left with no other comfort than the memory of the sweetnesses of former friendships, of which so few are left, although one more undeserved than all the others remains: that of corresponding in love with you.”


Painting of Galileo at age seventy-one,

by Justus Sustermans

Still Galileo’s imagination would not rest but returned to the longitude problem, to the books of Euclid, whose ancient definitions of ratios Galileo redefined at this time, as well as to any number of other ideas he may have entertained but neither recorded nor reported to anyone.

“I have in mind a great many miscellaneous problems and questions,” he wrote to a fellow philosopher in Savona, “partly quite new and partly different from or contrary to those commonly received, of which I could make a book more curious than the others written by me; but my condition, besides blindness on top of other serious indispositions and a decrepit age of 75 years, will not permit me to occupy myself in study. I shall therefore remain silent, and so pass what remains to me of my laborious life, satisfying myself in the pleasure I shall feel from the discoveries of other pilgrim minds.”

One such roving intellect, the self-pronounced “Galileist” Evangelista Torricelli, who had been one of Castelli’s most precocious students in Rome, sent Galileo a letter and a manuscript for comment. Impressed, Galileo invited him to Arcetri. “I hope to enjoy your company for some few days before my life, now near an end, is finished,” Galileo wrote to Torricelli in September 1641, “as also to discuss with you some relics of my thoughts on mathematics and physics and to have your aid in polishing them, that they may be left less messy to be seen with other things of mine.”

Torricelli moved into Galileo’s house in October. The very next month, however, Galileo took to his canopy bed with a fever and pain in his kidneys that presently proved fatal. As he lay dying for more than two months, Galileo had time to dictate to Torricelli some thoughts in dialogue on mathematical ratios. It was the beginning of a new book—another intellectual adventure for Salviati, Sagredo, and Simplicio—but it was too late. On the evening of January 8, 1642, Galileo died in the quiet company of Torricelli, Viviani, and his own Vincenzio.

“Today the news has come of the loss of Signor Galilei,” wrote Lucas Holste, Francesco Cardinal Barberini’s Vatican librarian, "which touches not just Florence but the whole world, and our whole century which from this divine man has received more splendor than from almost all the other ordinary philosophers. Now, envy ceasing, the sublimity of that intellect will begin to be known which will serve all posterity as guide in the search for truth.”

Though Holste’s eulogy would eventually prove prophetic, the lingering effects of Galileo’s trial and condemnation subdued the immediate reaction to his death.

Grand Duke Ferdinando, dubbing Galileo “the greatest light of our time,” buried him in the Novices’ Chapel in the Franciscan church of Santa Croce. Ferdinando had hoped to honor the wishes expressed in Galileo’s will, that he be buried next to his father and other relatives in the church’s main basilica, which was padded with private chapels bearing the tombs and coats of arms of many of Florence’s finest families. Beyond this, the grand duke had proposed a public funeral oration and the erection of a marble mausoleum, but Pope Urban called down from Rome to check all these attempts. Any such fuss over the dead body of Galileo, Urban announced with an anger that he took to his own grave, would be deemed an offense against papal authority.*

Ferdinando submitted to the pope’s decree. He dropped the idea of the monument, and, eschewing the burial site inside the basilica, he had Galileo’s body interred in a closet-sized room off the chapel, under the campanile, where he naturally assumed it would stay. But the nineteen-year-old Viviani, with a dedication born of devotion, committed himself to moving and correctly commemorating his mentor’s mortal remains, someday, somehow.

Though Vincenzio Galilei was heir to his father’s financial estate— except for an annuity of thirty-five scudi set aside for the lifelong support of Suor Arcangela—Vincenzio Viviani inherited the master’s mathematics. Having studied as Galileo’s pupil, Viviani succeeded Torricelli, in 1647, in his teacher’s former post as mathematician to Grand Duke Ferdinando. And having served as Galileo’s amanuensis, Viviani later gathered all of his papers to publish, in 1656, the first edition of the collected works of Galileo— without the Dialogue, of course.

Ferdinando de’ Medici and his brother Prince Leopold inducted Viviani as a charter member of their scientific society, the Accademia del Cimento, which began holding regular meetings at the Pitti Palace in 1657. That honor, coupled with the luster of his own published books on mathematics, helped spread Viviani’s fame, so that King Louis XIV appointed him one of only eight foreign members of the newly founded French Academie Royale des Sciences in 1666.

All this time Viviani never slackened his resolve to resuscitate the plans for the monument and public recognition of Galileo. He received scant assistance from Galileo’s family, understandably, for Vincenzio died of a fever in 1649, and Suor Arcangela, though she survived another ten years after her brother’s death, could not have been any help.

Viviani found a sculptor to create Galileo’s death mask, and from it a bust. Later he commissioned a different sculptor to fashion a second bust in bronze, then a marble version from yet another artist whom he charged to design the still forbidden tomb. Viviani assumed all responsibility for the execution and expense of these efforts, trying simultaneously to convince influential persons of their importance. He lost Ferdinando’s support in 1670, when the grand duke’s five-decade reign ended in an agony of dropsy, apoplexy, and the painful treatments of his doctors. Viviani turned hopefully to the new heir to the throne, Ferdinando’s son, the gluttonous, sanctimonious Cosimo III, but he proved to be an ineffectual leader with no interest in science, who taxed the Florentines unfairly as he squandered what remained of the Medici fortune.* In Rome, Urban’s immediate successors—Innocent X for ten years, followed by Alexander VII for twelve—focused their funerary attention on their own lavish tombs.

In September 1674, in frustration, Viviani mounted a marble plaque and a plaster bust on the wall of the tiny room off the novitiate’s chapel where Galileo still lay in a virtually unmarked grave. He followed this action with a unique public yet private tribute, by renovating the facade of his own new house to accommodate a bust of Galileo over the arched front doorway, with eulogies to him inscribed in enormous stone scrolls on either side.

When Viviani died childless in 1703 at the age of eighty-one, he left all his worldly goods—including the solemn responsibility for relocating Galileo’s grave—in the hands of a nephew who never accomplished the plan in the remaining three decades of his own life. Viviani’s property, along with the duty it implied, passed eventually by family inheritance to a senator of Florence, Giovanni Battista Clemente de Nelli, who enjoyed the triumphant satisfaction of finally seeing the Galileo tomb project through to completion in 1737, thanks in part to the accession of Lorenzo Corsini as Pope Clement XII. With a Florentine pontiff once more ensconced on the throne of Saint Peter, Galileo would finally claim his proper due.

The mausoleum had first taken form in Ferdinando’s and Viviani’s envisionings as a match for the ornate monument to Michelangelo Buonarroti, another fellow Tuscan, near the entrance to Santa Croce. There against the south wall of the church, Michelangelo’s highly perched bust oversees the marble forms of the muses of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, who sit around his coffin in mourning. Not only did Ferdinando and Viviani view Galileo’s genius as the scientific counterpoint to Michelangelo’s art, but Viviani also promulgated the belief that Michelangelo’s spirit had leaped like an inspiration from his aged, failing body to the infant Galileo in the brief span of hours separating the former’s death from the latter’s birth.


Galileo offering his telescope to the Muses

The original design for Galileo’s monument called for three female forms to attend him—the muses of Astronomy, Geometry, and Philosophy, who would stand symmetrically opposed to Michelangelo’s three seated muses of the arts. In the tomb’s eventual execution, however, only two such statues, Astronomy and Geometry, emerged to flank the bust of Galileo, who holds in his right hand a telescope, while his left rests on a globe and an assortment of books. Philosophy was omitted, either on instructions from the Holy Office or out of fear that her presence would recall unfortunate memories of Galileo’s condemnation. And yet there is a third female figure incorporated into the tomb—in such a way that she remains invisible to even the most careful observer.

On the evening of March 12, 1737, after permission had been granted to move Galileo’s body from its first interment site to the marble sarcophagus of the nearly completed monument, a distinguished congregation—part ecclesiastic, mostly civic—assembled discreetly with torches and candles in the church of Santa Croce. Their task that long night involved elements of demolition work, religious ceremony, mortuary identification, and hero veneration as they exhumed the body of Galileo. This occasion also saw the ritual removal of a single vertebra from the venerated scientist, along with three fingers of his right hand and a tooth—and surely would have included the preservation of his brain as well, if by some miracle that organ had still survived.

The closet-sized room under the campanile, where Galileo had lain buried for ninety-five years, now contained two brick biers: one belonging to Galileo and the other to his disciple, Vincenzio Viviani, who had asked in his will to share the master’s grave.

The few men who could fit inside the tiny room broke open the more recent brickwork, laid at the time of Viviani’s death in 1703, and extracted a wood coffin. According to an eyewitness report filed by a notary, they carried this into the Novice’s Chapel, where everyone could watch as the lid was lifted to reveal a lead plate identifying the corpse as Viviani’s. Several sculptors and scientists in the party covered the bier with a black cloth, and lifting the draped coffin to their shoulders, they bore it through the long passageway from the chapel and across the cavernous basilica. Their chanted prayers for the dead reverberated off the wooden columns, which towered over the unattended procession, and the stone walls that had been frescoed by Giotto to trace the life of Saint Francis.

The assembly placed the body at the new site, then returned to the little chapel and set about repeating the procedure—smashing the older brick container under the 1674 memorial Viviani had mounted for Galileo, and pulling out another wooden coffin. This one had apparently been damaged over time, its lid bashed in and littered with broken pieces of plaster. As the men dragged the bier from the bricks, they were startled to discover another almost identical wooden box lying directly beneath it. Galileo’s grave contained two coffins, two skeletons, and no lead nameplate on either one of them.


Galileo’s tomb in Santa Croce

Panic no doubt gripped several hearts at the prospect of being unable to decide which body deserved to be deposited in the new monument. But when the grand duke’s chief physician, accompanied by several professors of anatomy, stepped forward to examine the evidence, they accomplished their identification with reassuring ease. Only one of the skeletons could possibly have belonged to Galileo—the top one, because its bones were those of an old man, with the detached mandible containing only four teeth. The skeleton in the lower coffin, the experts all concurred, was unmistakably female. Although the woman had lain dead for at least as long a time as the man, if not longer, she had died at a much younger age.

The congregation divided itself solemnly in half, each group walking Galileo’s body partway through the basilica, so that as many participants as possible could share the honor of being his pallbearers. Then they carried the woman to the mausoleum, too, and they laid her in the sepulchre beside her father.

Once the shock of the discovery had dissipated into the silence of the great empty church, those attendants who remembered Viviani could unfurl the mystery for themselves. The disciple, driven to despair by his failure to pay the tribute he felt he owed his mentor, had given Galileo something dearer than bronze or marble to distinguish his grave.

Even now, no inscription on Galileo’s much-visited tomb in Santa Croce announces the presence of Suor Maria Celeste.

But still she is there.

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