David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York. His latest book, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, is published by Yale University Press.

Troubled by his own making

There is, somewhere in a private collection, a rather battered portrait of Galileo by Domenico Crespi. It shows Galileo at the age of sixty; all his major discoveries are behind him, but his great work, the Dialogue, and his trial are still ahead. Galileo's eyes are haunted and one wonders what might be the cause.

The answer is, I think, simple: his mother, Giulia. She was, by all accounts, a monster. We have a letter from Galileo's brother, written in 1619, the year before her death, when she was eighty. "I am more than a little astonished to hear that our mother is just as dreadful as ever. But, given her physical decline, she won't be with us much longer, so there will be an end to all these conflicts." Recently discovered evidence establishes that she reported Galileo to the Inquisition when he was an adolescent, and testified against him – years later she was still indignant that his response had been to call her a whore and an ugly old cow. Twice, it seems, she paid Galileo's servants to spy on him: in 1604 she wanted to know if Galileo was going to Mass (he wasn't); in the winter of 1609–10, when Galileo was making his first great discoveries with the telescope, she was trying to persuade one of his servants to steal valuable telescope lenses from him. She had recently visited Galileo, his mistress, and their children – she wanted a detailed report on the lengthy and boisterous celebrations that she felt sure had marked her departure.

Giulia had two boys: Galileo, and the much younger Michelangelo. Galileo was repeatedly in trouble, denounced to the Inquisition half a dozen times in the course of his long life. Michelangelo was never in trouble, but always troubled. He went first to Poland and then to Munich to make a career as a musician. In 1627, after twenty years in Munich, he returned to Florence with his wife and seven children. He stayed for six months, and then stormed off (carrying away the keys to Galileo's home in his pocket), leaving Galileo living with his brother's wife and five children under the age of five. Perhaps a year later Michelangelo returned and took his family away. He was broke (partly because he was extravagant – he insisted on drinking wine rather than the local beer) and he quickly went into a decline. Mental distress, we are told, preceded physical illness. After three years he was dead and his family were penniless. Galileo did his best to escape taking any responsibility for their welfare.

During his six months in Florence, Michelangelo spent money renovating a property. Where was this property? He had no money to buy, and his brother (who was wealthy) wouldn't even refund the cost of his journey. It seems that he was doing up his mother's old house. When Michelangelo stormed off it was because Galileo had been trying to get him to move in there. Michelangelo wanted them all to live in Galileo's fine villa (hence the keys in his pocket); Galileo wanted his brother to live in the home of their childhood. He wanted him to be a ghostbuster, but this was too much for Michelangelo, for he too was haunted, just as much as Galileo was, by their mother's malign presence.

Michelangelo escaped his mother by going on his travels; long after her death he was still running away from her. Galileo had a better escape route. He sat in his study and dreamed of distant planets. He imagined looking at the earth from outer space. He was, as his pupil Vincenzo Viviani said, the first space traveller. He devoted his life to proving that the universe was far larger than almost anyone had imagined. One thing was clear to him – it was that this vast universe wasn't made for us. If it has a purpose we can't begin to guess what it is. Indeed we can't begin to imagine what varieties of life there may be out there – just as someone brought up in a forest could never imagine that there are dolphins and whales, octopuses and ships. Someone who knew only terra firma could not predict the teeming riches of the oceans, and we can't begin to predict what life may be like on other planets. We are only "earthlings", provincial inhabitants of a universe that stretches far beyond our ken. When Galileo wrote his Dialogo dei due massimi sistemi del mondo our world – il mondowas the universe. In the Latin translation of his great book, which appeared three years after the Italian edition in 1635, the title is Systema cosmicum. This linguistic shift acknowledges that our world is a tiny part of a vast cosmos. Contemporaries suspected Galileo had got some of these ideas from reading Giordano Bruno – burnt at the stake for heresy in 1600. Galileo took the precaution of never mentioning Bruno's name.

When Copernicanism was condemned in 1616, Galileo, if he had been prudent, would have turned his attention elsewhere. He had invented the microscope. He could have studied the vacuum, as his pupils would shortly do. He could have published his great work on projectiles and the law of fall, which was largely written by 1610, but only published in 1638. But he couldn't. He was obsessed with Copernicanism, and that obsession – just like his mother – gave him no peace.

His mother was vicious, dangerous, powerful, invasive, domineering. The great merit of Copernicanism was that it shrank the world, humanity, and Giulia herself to utter insignificance.

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