Galileo Galilei and the Medici: A Guest Post by Samantha Morris

One of the greatest names associated with the Enlightenment of the Seventeenth Century is that of Galileo Galilei, the infamous polymath who ended up getting on the wrong side of the Inquisition. Born on 15 February 1564 not far from Pisa, Galileo was the son of a humble musician however it soon became clear that the young man was exceptionally intelligent. But who was Galileo Galilei, and what was it about this man that brought him to the attention of one of the greatest dynastic families in Tuscany?

The Galilei family were already Florentine citizens, hailing originally from the Mugello region not far from the city itself and were a family of noble blood, if diminishing fortunes. In fact, Galileo’s father seems to have passed on some of his own intelligence to his son – Lorenzo was an incredibly gifted lute player as well as an able mathematician. From early on, therefore, Galileo had his best foot in the door to become the scientific genius that he would become known for. But despite his obvious intelligence Galileo had a lot of contempt for his teachers as he grew – perhaps this was his frustration that he was ahead of the curve intellectually when compared with those who were supposed to be teaching him, his frustration that they gave answers that were wrong when it was so obvious to him just what the correct answer would be. Thanks to his mind, as well as his gall in sneaking into a lecture given by Ostillon Ricci on one occasion when the Medicean court game to Pisa, Galileo became a student at the University of Pisa and even stayed on after Ricci and the court left Pisa once again. But despite his obvious ability, Galileo returned to his father in Florence in 1586 without his degree – it was only thanks to his father that Galileo managed to gain occasionally teaching posts at the Academy in Florence. Just three years later, in 1589, Galileo managed to secure himself a job as Professor of Mathematics at his one-time University in Pisa. How he gained the job, given as how he had left his studies there without a degree, is anyone’s guess but whilst he was there he began to conduct even more experiments that would pave the way for his becoming one of the greatest scientific minds of the era.

It was Galileo who, applying mathematics to physics, came up with laws of motion that in this day and age we take for granted. Galileo realised that to make scientific discoveries, one had to put theories into practice – it was only that way that results could be recorded, compared and then scientific laws formulated. He did, in essence, lay the foundations for scientific research that is still used to this very day. But despite his ground-breaking work Galileo was rebellious, refusing to follow rules such as wearing academic gowns and in the end the University of Pisa got so fed up with him that they sacked him, forcing him to seek employment in other academic institutions. He chose Padua, becoming their professor of mathematics following a glowing recommendation from the Grand-Duke of Florence, Ferdinando I.

Whilst at Padua Galileo began conversing with astronomers and even admitted to one of them, a German by the name of Johannes Kepler, that he believed in Copernicus’ theory that the earth and planets orbited the sun although he was afraid to admit to such a thing in case he became a laughing stock. It was his correspondence with men such as Kepler that began his own interest in astronomy and in 1604 noticed a new star in the sky, a star that was in fact a nova or exploding star – he began to lecture on the new star, pointing out to his students that its existence completely disproved the Aristolean notions that the existence of stars was explainable in that they did not belong in the dimension of space but were rather a completely separate entity. Of course these views ended up with Galileo causing consternation and feuding bitterly with those who believed in Aristotle’s theories. However despite Galileo’s belief that this disproved Aristotle, he couldn’t actually prove it himself – he was unaware that Kepler was working on proving such a thing.

With a constant need for money and growing frustration that he hadn’t yet made a name for himself in his field, Galileo sent a letter to Ferdinando I begging him for a position at the Florentine Court. The Grand-Duke of Florence, Ferdinando I de’ Medici, accepted Galileo’s request and appointed him to be the tutor to his son and heir, Cosimo. But the job wasn’t to last – he spent a summer tutoring the lad at the Medici villa of Pratorino before moving back to Padua. This wasn’t to be the end of Galileo’s work with the Medici family, however, and it was the work he would end up doing that would end up making his name.

In 1609 Galileo received a summons from Ferdinando’s wife Christina who had managed to convince herself that he was a famous astrologer rather than an astronomer and wanted Galileo to read her husband’s horoscope, wanting desperately to know whether or not her husband would recover from the debilitating illness that had befallen him. Not wishing to insult the ruling family of Tuscany, Galileo produced a horoscope that was highly favourable to Ferdinando’s recovery. Despite that, Ferdinando died just a week later. Things weren’t looking good for Galileo Galilei and he remained in Padua with his future looking bleaker with every passing day. But in that very same year Galileo heard of a new invention that had taken Holland by storm – the telescope. It didn’t take him long to work out the principles behind the device and promptly made his own version, a version that ended up being ten times more powerful than any other telescope produced at the time! With his powerful version of the important invention he used it to view the night sky and with it he would finally be able to prove that the Aristolean theories about the heavens were little more than fantasy. He also made a discovery that would bring him into the inner circle of the Medicean court – he was the first to discover that the planet Jupiter was orbited by moons, moons which he named “Sidera Medicae” or Medici Stars. It was this discovery, along with a book on his observations of the heavens which he dedicated to the new Grand-Duke, which had Cosimo II de’ Medici writing to his former tutor and asking him back to court.

Held within the Medici Archives of Florence is the very letter which Cosimo II wrote to his former tutor:

“You will be received with great satisfaction…to come and serve us…since we are resolved to have you here”[i]

Galileo could not say no to such a distinguished member of the Italian nobility, nor could he turn his nose up at the generous salary of 1000 scudi per year. So he packed himself, and his three children by his mistress, off to Florence where he took up residence in the expansive Villa Bellosguado. It was in Florence, at the side of Cosimo de’ Medici, that Galileo Galilei would take part in a Renaissance. Not an artistic Renaissance like the one headed by Cosimo’s forebears in previous centuries, but a scientific one.

Under the patronage of the Medici and able to use their money, Galileo was able to take part in more and more experiments. It was during this time and under the watchful eye of Cosimo, that Galileo was able to distinguish between the distinct qualities of objects – the differences, for instance, between those that could be measured and those that could not. He also began to work more on the heliocentric theory that had previously brought him to blows with others – that is to say to path of the earth about the sun. He realised that there must be some larger force at work keeping its path on track and as such made a shocking hypothesis. That the forces that worked on earth also worked in the heavens. These ideas were a threat and Galileo was treading on eggshells. Such hypotheses went against everything that the Church stood for and the Catholic Church began to keep an ear to the ground regarding the scientist and his ideas. Still, Galileo did not seem to grasp just how much danger he was in and wrote a book in which he stated that the Earth was the centre of the Universe. The idea did not go down well and, despite Galileo’s friendship with some members of the church, the church decided to take action.

Galileo Galilei’s ideas were heretical in their eyes. As was that of Copernicus. Their ideas did not agree with the teaching of the church and so it was decreed that any new ideas that were to be taught had to run in line with their word. Copernicus’ works were placed on a banned book list and Galileo was warned that as long as he stuck to talking about mathematics then there was no way he could get into any sort of trouble with the Church as well as being warned that if he defended Copernican ideals then he would be pulled before the Inquisition! Galileo was stricken, writing to his friends in the church as well as Cosimo II de’ Medici that it was an utter outrage to ban the works of the great Copernicus but his pleas were to no avail and he retired to his Villa at Bellosguado.

When Galileo’s friend became Pope Urban VIII in 1623 Galileo begged him to see reason and Urban was, to start with, somewhat sympathetic to Galileo’s plight. He allowed his friend to compose a book in which he could put forward arguments for both the Copernican and Church views of the universe, under one stipulation. The book had to agree with the Church. But Urban was furious with the resulting work which basically made a laughing stock of the viewpoint of the Church and in 1633 Galileo was ordered to Rome where he stood trial for heresy. As he stood trial and was sentenced to life imprisonment, Galileo Galilei was without any sort of protection – Cosimo II de’ Medici, the man who had allowed him to conduct his experiments and head the scientific Renaissance, had passed away in 1621. The 68 year old was on his own and soon bowed to the weight of the church under the threat of torture. But even to the last he could not help himself from defending his work – as he was forced to say he detested his work, he muttered under his breath that no matter what the Church said, the earth still moved around the Sun.

Despite the sentence of life imprisonment, Galileo was allowed to return to Tuscany on account of his failing health. He was consigned to house arrest which he spent in the care of the new Grand-Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II – but despite being a prisoner, Galileo continued to work his scientific magic. Even as his eyesight failed him he discovered that as the Earth orbits the sun it spins upon its axis, a fact that in the modern age we all know and take for granted. He even managed to complete a new book which ended up being smuggled out to Holland where it published away from the watchful eye of the Vatican.

It is interesting to note that despite Ferdinando II’s interest in Galileo and his telescopes, he offered very little protection to the scientist following the publication of his 1632 work, although he did make sure that it was preserved for future generations. The truth of the matter was that when Galileo was summoned to Rome to face the charge of heresy, Pope Urban VIII had been in contact with Ferdinando and warned him not to get involved. And Ferdinando, under the thumb of his domineering mother, really didn’t want to risk any sort of diplomatic upset when Florence was already under the thumb of Papal authority.

Galileo Galilei died on 8 January 1642 at the grand old age of seventy seven having had an incredible life. He had witnessed, and been at the forefront of, the scientific Renaissance, making discoveries that would stand the test of time. He had been accused of heresy for daring to go against the traditional views of the church and in the end come out on top, albeit three and a half centuries later when the Vatican finally admitted that they had made mistakes when it came to dealing with the scientist and his work. He was eventually buried within the basilica of Santa Croce, seventy five years after his death. It took so long due to the complete vindictiveness of his former friend Pope Urban VIII refusing to agree with Ferdinando’s demand that the scientist was buried within the walls. But in the end Galileo Galilei was interred within the church, taking his much deserved place among some of the greatest personalities from history including Michelangelo and Machiavelli.

Further Reading

Christopher Hibbert – The Rise & Fall of the House of Medici

Paul Strathern – The Medici: Godfather’s of the Renaissance

Franco Cesati – The Medici: Story of a European Dynasty

Paul Strathern – The Medici: Power Money and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance

[i] BIA, Doc ID #12821 (State Archives of Florence, Principality of Medicae 302, Folio 140)

Samantha Morris studied archaeology at the University of Winchester where her interest in the history of the Italian Renaissance began. Since graduating University, her interest in the Borgia family has grown to such an extent that she is always looking for new information on the subject as well as fighting against the age-old rumours that haunt them. Her first published book is Cesare Borgia in a Nutshell, a brief biography which aims to dispel the myths surrounding a key member of the Borgia family. Her second book, She runs the popular Borgia website The Borgia Bull. You can follow her on Twitter @TheBorgiaBull.



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