Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Galileo Galilei

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.


(The entire section is 610 words.)