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Letters to Father by Dava Sobel | Book Review

Galileo Galilie is renowned for his immense contribution to the physical sciences with his discovery of telescope that enables him to examine the heavenly bodies, study of tides, motions of pendulum and moving bodies. His inquisition and house arrest in the old age by the Catholic Church due to his “so-called” heretic work and writings is also famous. But, this great man had a personnel life too where he played the roles of a patron and a father.

While working as a mathematics teacher at the University of Padua in Florence, Galileo met Marina Gamba and took her as his mistress. Though he never married her, they were together for 12 years and during this tenure Galileo’s three children, namely Virginia, Livia and Vincenzio were born. When Galileo moved back to Tuscany as the Chief mathematician and philosopher to grand duke, Marina married another man. Galileo remained on good terms with her husband and also kept providing money for care of his infant son, while he took his daughters with him.

The daughters lived with their father and grandmother for a few years. In the seventeenth century Italy, it was common practice for girls to enter convents. If at the age of sixteen, their families could find a husband for them, they would get married, otherwise they would take the religious vows and became nuns. Many of them however chose to take religious vows willingly to enjoy the quiet convent life over the responsibility of supporting a family. In any case, the families were supposed to pay dowries, either to the convent or to the husband.

Since Galileo’s daughters were illegitimate children, there was not much chance for them of getting married. Also, Galilieo’s work was incurring envy and protest from a group of Jesuit scholars. Under these circumstances, he thought it best for her daughters to be in the safety of a convent and hence, Virginia and Livia entered the convent of St Clares at Arcetri, when Virginia was only thirteen. At the age of sixteen, both the sisters became nuns and were renamed as Suor Maria Celeste and Suor Arcangela. Galileo got his son Vincenzio legitimized and he went on to study law and married a respectable woman to have a family.

Though Galileo was frequently obliged to help and support his many relatives throughout his life, he practically lived alone with a few servants. And of all his children, he found a continuous source of love and comfort in Suor Maria Celeste who kept in touch with his father through letters. Of their discourse, 124 letters of Suor Maria Celeste remain, which were preserved by Galileo. She also preserved Galileo’s letters but these were either destroyed or lost after her death.

“Letters to Father” is a collection of this letters, written originally in Italian and translated to English and annotated by Dava Sobel. These letters introduce us to an industrious woman of intelligence. Though living in poverty and desolation inside her convent walls, she was not an unhappy soul. She ran the convent’s apothecary, taught singing to junior nuns, worked in the kitchen and provided care and support to her fellow nuns. Her letters show her to be very fond of her father. Almost every letter mentions of some task performed by her for her father, be it preparation of medicines, or particular delicacies favored by Galileo, or washing and mending his clothes and sewing the household linen, or copying Galileo’s work for compilation and publication.

Her writing is flourishing and neat, her language refined, which also made her the primary correspondent for her convent. She took immense interest in her father’s work. In any distress, she appealed to her father and by the gratitude following every appeal; it appears that Galileo never denied her any service. She also spoke on behalf of her brother whenever he needed assistance and thus acted as a bridge between the father and the son.

The year of Galileo’s prosecution at Rome and following house arrest term at Sienna took a heavy toll on her. She managed all Galilieo’s household and monetary affairs while he was away during this period, but soon after his most anticipated and desired return to home, she succumbed to death in a short period of illness. The emotional and mental stress and anxiety over her father’s difficulties finally proved to be fatal for her. Galileo felt the loss of his most devoted and beloved child immensely. After his death, his disciples placed the remains of Suor Maria Celeste in Galileo’s tomb and thus in death the father and daughter are reunited.

The book is a chronological collection of the letters spread over the span of ten years from 1623 to 1633. A good read for those who admire the “now-almost-lost” art of letter writing that serves as a very important and authentic mode of documentation while studying the figures buried in history. Enjoy…..

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