Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 984
It is 1609, and the forty-six-year-old Galileo Galilei, a renowned if impoverished professor of mathematics at the University of Padua in Italy, is forced to live frugally and in humble surroundings despite his taste for luxury and good food. Through it all, he maintains an obvious love of learning. When his housekeeper’s son, Andrea Sarti, brings in a model of the geocentric universe based on the ancient Ptolemaic system, Galileo patiently demonstrates how in actuality the earth orbits around the sun, as had been hypothesized by the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.
A young aristocrat named Ludovico Marsili arrives, seeking a tutorship under Galileo. Marsili explains that he had seen primitive telescopes in Amsterdam, where they were being sold in the streets. Galileo sends Andrea out to purchase lenses for his own experiments with the device. He promises Priuli, the curator, that he will soon have something practical to offer the authorities in Venice.
Galileo gives a demonstration of his own improved telescope to the Venetian senators and arsenal artisans; afterward, he has his fourteen-year-old daughter, Virginia, present it to the city as a gift, to be copied and openly sold. Priuli tells Galileo that the gift will improve Galileo’s financial situation. However, the curator visits Galileo and his friend Sagredo to complain that Galileo had deceived the city fathers. A ship from Holland had arrived in Venice and was about to unload a shipment of telescopes to be hawked cheaply on every street corner. After the curator’s indignant exit, Galileo explains to Sagredo what his improved telescope has revealed to him: evidence that there is movement in the previously believed fixed and rigid crystalline spheres of the universe. To Virginia and Sagredo, Galileo announces his intention to move to Florence and seek the patronage and protection of the wealthy and powerful Medici family.
In Florence, Galileo is quickly disappointed by the cautious and politic courtiers of Cosimo de Medici, who is but a boy of nine years. However, Galileo earns a temporary victory when Christopher Clavius, the chief astronomer at the Papal College in Rome, confirms Galileo’s findings. Soon after, Galileo encounters Cardinal Barberini at a masked party and dinner at the home of Cardinal Bellarmin. Barberini (who will later become Pope Urban VIII), takes a practical view of Galileo’s findings, which leads Galileo to believe that he has a strong ally at the papal court, despite the guarded manner in which Barberini expresses his support. At the same party, another Church leader, an inquisitor, urges Virginia to look after her father’s spiritual well-being with a veiled hint that she should spy on him.
Galileo’s growing renown wins for him many converts, including the Little Monk, who, when first confronting Galileo, strongly argues a humanitarian’s case for not disseminating Galileo’s Sun-centered theory of the solar system. The Little Monk’s thirst for truth proves too powerful, however, and he is soon drawn into Galileo’s inner circle.
Galileo remains content to study without publishing his findings. Then, just as his eyesight begins to fail from having repeatedly looked at the sun in his telescope, Galileo grows bolder. Word comes that the pope is dying and that his most likely successor would be Cardinal Barberini, which gives Galileo hope that the Church might be more receptive to his radical ideas. However, Galileo soon begins to pay a price for his dedication and relentless pursuit of evidence to prove his theories. His daughter is the first to suffer. Marsili, with stern warnings to Galileo about his revolutionary concepts, breaks off his eight-year engagement to her.
In the meantime, Galileo’s radical ideas have become common knowledge in the Italian streets. Ballad singers and dancers enact in song and pantomime what the authorities consider the dangerously heretical and seditious notions of Galileo. In catchy choruses and engaging dances, they sing with raucous abandon that Galileo is a thinker bent on destroying the Bible. Indeed, friends and supporters, like Matti, an iron founder, try to warn Galileo. Gradually even they desert him.
Under pressure from the Church, Cosimo de Medici withdraws his protection, as does Pope Urban VIII, the former Cardinal Barberini, who instructs his cardinal inquisitor to threaten Galileo with torture to exact a confession of heresy and ultimately a recantation. To the dismay of his close followers, who await him at the Florentine ambassador’s house in Rome, Galileo recants. The news is announced to his family and friends by the church bells of Saint Marcus, followed by the town crier’s reading of the text of the recantation. Galileo, his abjuration done, sits quietly by himself, unnoticed among the commotion in the street, listening to the words of the crier.
Nearly nine years have passed since the recantation. Feeling betrayed, Galileo’s disciples had long turned away from him. Only Virginia believes that her father had done the right thing and that he has saved himself from damnation. Galileo himself, still vigorous but nearly blind, remains a de facto prisoner of the Inquisition, under house arrest in a country villa near Florence, under the care and watchful eye of Virginia. Secretly, he works at night on his scientific opus. He hides his papers inside a globe.
Galileo wants to get his theoretical work out to the burgeoning European scientific community. His former apprentice, Andrea, visits him, reluctantly, to ask about his health. After admitting that he had recanted out of a fear of being tortured, Galileo commits the manuscript to Andrea’s care. Andrea conveys the document across the Italian frontier on his way to Amsterdam, ironically even as a group of children harass an old woman by accusing her of being a witch, the very kind of superstitious excesses that Galileo’s radical theories would ultimately end. Soon, Galileo’s scientific opus, Discorsi, will be published and, in turn, will commence the golden age of science.
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