Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610
Galileo Galilei (gah-lee-LAY-oh gah-lee-LAY-ee), a forty-five-year-old lecturer at the University of Padua and a subject of the Republic of Venice. He lives with his daughter, Virginia; his housekeeper, Mrs. Sarti; and her bright son, Andrea, whom he enjoys instructing in his research in astronomy and physics. He is fat, self-indulgent, sensuous, and crafty, a glutton for both old wine and new ideas, a hedonist but also a great teacher as well as scientist. Frustrated by his meager pay, which he must supplement by private tutoring, Galileo accepts the invitation to improve his material circumstances at the court of Florence, dominated by the Medici. In Florence, Galileo’s research confirms the Copernican cosmology of a sun-centered universe. Ordered to avoid further inquiry into astronomy, Galileo obeys for eight years. When the progressive Cardinal Barberini becomes the new pope, however, Galileo obsessively resumes his work on sunspots. As his subversive ideas become popular, the Inquisition first warns and then imprisons him. In 1633, threatened with torture, Galileo recants. Although he secretly continues his work, he regards himself as a traitor to both science and society at large. He believes that had he held out against the Inquisition, scientists might have developed something like the physicians’ Hippocratic oath, a vow to use their knowledge only for the good of humankind.
Andrea Sarti (AHN-dreh-ah SAHR-tee), Mrs. Sarti’s son, who is eleven years old in the first scene and thirty-nine in the last. He is an ardent pupil of Galileo, enjoying a father-son relationship with him. In the recantation scene, Andrea leads Galileo’s disciples in passionately affirming their faith in the truth of his discoveries and the courage of their master. After Galileo’s disavowal of his work is announced, the distressed Andrea greets his returning teacher with contemptuous insults. In his last meeting with Galileo, Andrea refuses to accept Galileo’s self-revilement, then successfully smuggles Galileo’s masterwork across the Italian border. He ends the play by introducing some boys to scientific reasoning, just as Galileo began by initiating Andrea into the scientific method.
Virginia, Galileo’s daughter. She is a pious devotee of church dogma who has neither interest in nor understanding of her father’s work. In turn, Galileo shows little concern for her welfare: He insults Virginia’s reactionary fiancé to the point of causing the young man to break the engagement. During the abjuration scene, she prays fervently that Galileo will see the error of his challenge to the church’s guidance. The Inquisition places Virginia in charge of her father’s submissive conduct for the remainder of his life. She is forty when the play concludes.
Mrs. Sarti, Galileo’s housekeeper. She braves even the plague to care for him. She is shrewd, salty, practical, and wholly devoted to his welfare.
Ludovico Marsili (lew-doh-VEE-koh MAHR-see-lee), the smug, spoiled son of reactionary, rich, landowning aristocrats. He briefly becomes Galileo’s private pupil in Venice and enters an eight-year engagement with Virginia. He abruptly terminates it, however, when he witnesses Galileo’s defiance of the Inquisition’s strictures against conducting astronomic research.
Cardinal Barberini (bahr-BEHR-ee-nee), a liberal mathematician who befriends and impresses Galileo during a masked ball in Rome. When Barberini becomes Pope Urban VII, however, he finds himself subject to the pressures of both the Inquisition and the aristocracy allied with the church. He reluctantly yields to the Inquisition’s insistence that Galileo be interrogated. Although the new pope refuses to sanction Galileo’s torture, he does permit the showing of the instruments of physical coercion to the scientist. That suffices to frighten Galileo into disavowing his research.