New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2010, ISBN: 9780300125368; 354pp.; Price: £25.00
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin
Date accessed: 1 October, 2023
David Wootton discloses to the reader on page 182 that his aim is to provide an intellectual biography of Galileo Galilei. But this book does not. Wootton's aim is rather to re-enter, re-open or even unhinge the structures of all arguments about the so-called Galileo affair that have been written until now. His aim is to position himself in the debate concerning the relation between Galileo and the Church and, moreover, between science and religion.
This book is a long and vibrant oration which demonstrates that Galileo was an ungrateful person and that his ingratitude was directed toward the Roman Catholic Church. In a reverse reconstruction, Wootton intends to show how Galileo developed a sort of esoteric, almost too esoteric view of God to allow us to consider him a deist. Moreover, he reconsiders and endorses Pietro Redondi's thesis concerning Galileo's atomism and its ‘negative’ consequences with regard to the dogma of transubstantiation. Finally, he shows, by means of a very detailed analysis, how Galileo, first, was Copernican even before the end of the 16th century, second, remained Copernican even after the prohibition of the doctrine of Copernicus in 1616, and third, did not make appropriate use of his chances to continue investigating within the frame of the Copernican doctrine after Maffeo Barberini became Pope in 1623 under the name of Urban VIII.
In other terms, according to the author, objectively Galileo was in danger of landing in the fire of damnation (the one of the inquisitors) and therefore his abjuration of 1633 should be considered as a particularly lenient way of punishing him. Galileo should have been grateful to the Church for that.
David Wootton worriedly interrogates himself about the reasons for Galileo's behavior. Galileo’s scientific evidence went notoriously against the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic worldview (excluding his tides theory), but not really in favor of any of the other two candidates, Tycho's and Copernicus' systems. Why did Galileo not accept this reasonable perspective? Why did he insist on recognizing only the Copernican system? Why did he not add a lengthy chapter to his 1632 Dialogue to clearly describe the limits of the human intellect, as Urban VIII would have liked? Worse, considering the charges that the Inquisition could have brought against him, why did he remain so firm on his own theoretical convictions without accepting the reasonable compromise offered by the Pope to handle the Copernican doctrine as a mathematical hypothesis? Here, the author departs from all standard accounts and adopts a very novel approach to these questions. His answer concerns Galileo's ability (or inability) to behave reasonably, and his approach is new because it is based on the reconstruction of Galileo's psychological profile. Galileo was: 1) a person who tended to create his own world without perceiving what was really going on around him (p. 19), 2) an introvert because of the expansive and invasive character of his mother (p. 95), 3) subject to psychosomatic and hysterical illnesses (p. 145–6), 4) subject to surges of anger (p. 163), 5) the victim of a conflictual childhood (p. 234) described in the following way: ‘the paternal conflict between experience and reason and the maternal conflict between power and impotence’ (p. 255).
Galileo remained an indomitable Copernican, not because he was convinced about issues and aspects related to his scientific research or to its results. He did so because of his mother and father who caused such an alteration of mind that he was not able to receive and interpret the friendly messages coming from Rome and, at the same time, was even looking for pretexts to attack Christianity (p. 48). Following modern habits, the author also offers further psychological profiles of people close to the patient: parents, relatives and friends.
The argument makes use of a great deal of historical evidence and the author instrumentally ranges over a wide variety of subjects, treated in the frame of four main sections, to achieve his goal.
The first section – ‘The mind's eye’ – focuses especially on Galileo's youth and on the time of his first academic position, between 1589 and 1592, at the University in Pisa as a lecturer for mathematics. The author chose not to follow a chronological order, but rather a thematic one. Sudden flashbacks to Galileo's Paduan years (1592–1610) are not infrequent.
The second section, with the same title as the book, concentrates on Galileo’s Paduan stay and on the first years after his move back to Florence. This long section is fundamentally devoted to Galileo turning increasingly to astronomic investigations and touches all classical related subjects like the appearance of the nova in 1604, the telescopic observations and the publication of Sidereus nuncius in 1610. Here, the author seems to feel the need to justify the attention he gives to the important episodes of early modern astronomy associated with Galileo. With an original approach, however, he does not justify it by remarking on their relevance, but by mentioning, at the beginning, the fact that a recent scholarly paper (of which the author of the present review is co-author) has been published, whose aim was to investigate the origins of Galileo's Two New Sciences. Wootton implicitly suggests that because this paper does not deal with the history of astronomy, it seeks to convey that Galileo therefore played no role in this. This seems to be the reason why Wootton chooses to deal with this subject at length.
The third section – ‘The eagle and the arrow’ – covers the time from 1616, a time when it was forbidden by the Roman Church to treat Copernicus' doctrine as a physical theory, and also the time of the publication of Galileo's Dialogue in 1632. The plot of this most fundamental section, as is the next and last section, is based on the 1616 sources concerning the condemnation of Copernicanism as a physical theory and Galileo's trip to Rome, where he negotiated the boundaries within which he could continue to investigate in the frame of the Copernican doctrine. As all Galileo's scholars are aware, it is still an open question whether one of the textual sources concerned with the 1616 events is genuine or whether it is a text produced in 1633, during Galileo's trial, in order to create legal justification for Galileo's final condemnation. This debate is touched (but only touched) upon in this book and then quickly dismissed by mentioning one single paper dealing with the question and stating that historians have reached an almost unanimous opinion in favor of the (1616) authenticity of that textual source (p. 162). The unproven 1616 injunction against Galileo becomes then, in Wootton's argument, an indubitable historical fact (p. 169) and, one page later, even Galileo's 1616 ‘condemnation’.
The fourth section – ‘Prisoner to the inquisition’ – exposes the major events of Galileo's life, from the trial in 1633 to the end of his life. It is in this section that the real aim of the author becomes evident; it is here that Galileo's lack of faith in the Catholic God is stated, so that in the coda the author is allowed to conclude that Galileo was ‘disloyal and ungrateful’ (p. 266). Galileo's lack of faith is systematically demonstrated by means of sources and inferences. First, Galileo apparently liked a book by Giovanni Nardi published in 1641. The book – De igne subterraneo physica prolusio – is a mental exploration of the subterranean world, which, Wootton says, represented an alternative to Dante's vision of the underworld, evidently influenced by religious issues.
The second inference concerns Clemente Settimi, who took care of the aging Galileo between 1639 and 164, and some other members of the same religious order as Settimi. Settimi was called before the Inquisition because he was suspected of having read Galileo's Dialogue and of believing that the universe had no creator. He was cleared but subsequently sent to Sicily. But the accuser, Mario Sozzi, another member of the same order, who at the end of the story was given the position of general of the order, denounced Settimi and his companions again for teaching Galileo's science to their best pupils. Wootton develops this argument at length, starting from a 1615 letter of Galileo and ending in 1691. The overall message is that Galileo was at least morally responsible for the teaching not only of his scientific results, but also for imparting principles of an unchristian worldview. The same author, however, admits that these are all just conjectures and that their power in his argument is limited, at least in comparison with the last of the textual evidence he analyzes. This is a letter by Galileo's pupil Benedetto Castelli written in 1639, from which the reader can evince, according to Wootton, that Galileo had finally converted to the Roman faith, ergo, that before this date he was an unbeliever. This letter might appear as persuading evidence to support Wootton's perspective. However, in the context of the entire correspondence of Galileo, its content and the expressions it contains might also sound like an ordinary series of positive statements within which religious aspects are simply routinely quoted. After having reread the letter, I personally tend toward the second option. However, even following Wootton's reading, the question remains open as to why Galileo bothered to search for an alternative to Dante's vision of the underworld and, especially, why he should have promoted unchristian principles in 1641, that is, two years after his supposed redemption.
That this book is not an all-encompassing intellectual biography becomes particularly evident while analyzing the way the author involves Galileo's research, efforts and results on mechanics in his arguments. If the reader wishes to understand Galileo's lifelong research towards the foundation of a new dynamics, this is not the appropriate book. Wootton does not disregard any of the classical topoi concerning Galileo's work on mechanics, considered here in the widest possible sense: his studying Euclid and Archimedes, his early studies on dynamics while lecturing on mathematics in Pisa, his technological turn during the Paduan years and, finally, the Two New Sciences. However, these aspects are treated cursorily, often leaving the impression that they do not really contribute to the argument.
Galileo's Discorsi published in 1638, for example, is dealt with in five pages. Galileo's Two New Sciences are presented fully de-contextualized. Wootton does not recognize that behind Galileo's science of materials there was the urgent and real need to avoid the frequent collapsing of buildings and wooden machines, which were built following a schema of linear-proportional and scalar building from model to real size. He does not recognize either that behind Galileo’s theory there were other theoretical approaches formulated by commentators on Aristotle's Mechanical Questions. Concerning Galileo's dynamics, Wootton fails to stress the importance of the debate concerning the study of the trajectory of projectiles which framed the research of Galileo and of many other scholars and which was basically rooted in the experience accumulated by artillerists on the early modern battlefields. Instead, Wootton limits himself to the statement that Galileo's ‘preoccupation with resistance’ came from the ‘conflicts of his childhood’ (p. 234).
By basing the argument on the reconstruction of psychological profiles, the overall narrative of the book often follows the rules of a modern crime novel, in places even suggesting the feeling of a conspiracy. The author often seeks to build a sort of conspiratorial relationship with the reader. The latter, whether she/he likes it or not, is simply placed on the high-backed chair of the Inquisitor. As it might have been at Galileo's time, the reader-inquisitor does not actively search for suspects of heresy. The inquisitor sits and waits for evidence to be submitted by people willing to denounce other people, like friends, members of the same order, colleagues, superiors, often with the objective to eliminate in this way possible competitors, as might have been the case with Mario Sozzi. The reader waits and Wootton submits.
Denouncers are never unconcerned and never really furnish evidence in a neutral way. They filter the pieces of information and what is submitted is always provided with an interpretative layer. Recurring on his reconstruction of psychological profiles, the author seems willing to show that he has almost spoken to the historical protagonists, that he has shown that they (Galileo) had alternatives and, therefore, that they cannot be excused, pardoned, cleared.
Wootton discloses also his own psychological profile when he endorses an explanation of the reasons for Galileo's trial and defeat furnished by Orazio Grassi, a Jesuit with whom Galileo undertook a long scientific dispute about the nature of the comets. Grassi reputedly held Galileo to be the cause of his own misfortune because, in Wootton's words, ‘he had fallen in love with his own arguments and had paid no attention to the views of others’ (p. 225). In other terms, Galileo would have been better off had he made proficient use of the well-known techniques of simulation and dissimulation. This is the working context of inquisitors. Do we really want to join them?
Matteo Valleriani's review is a puzzle; it is also an insult. Every other reviewer has understood Galileo: Watcher of the Skies to be a book written by someone who has no religious belief, someone who admires Galileo for not being a good Catholic, someone who applauds him for resisting the Catholic authorities; Valleriani, by contrast, seems to think that I believe the fires of hell are an objective reality and that the condemnation of Galileo was justified. It is difficult to understand how he can have failed to pick up all the clues scattered through the text which make clear on which side my sympathies lie – my praise of Brecht, to take just one example, should have puzzled him. My argument, of course, is not that the condemnation of Galileo was justified, but that it is explicable. The historian's job is to understand events in the past by looking at them from several points of view, including, in this case, the viewpoints of the pope and the inquisitors. If we do this we can explain Galileo's condemnation, which remains, of course (the point is so obvious that I am astonished I have to spell it out), unjustifiable. Let me clear a couple of technical issues out of the way, and then we can return to these fundamental issues of explanation and justification.
First, Valleriani has difficulty understanding the prominent place I give in my book to his co-authored article ‘Galileo and the Challenge of the Arsenal’. Let me make myself plain. I discuss it because I think its argument is based (like his review) on a serious misunderstanding of the sources, and demands a rebuttal (see pp. 51, 70–5). Naturally, since we disagree radically on the nature of Galileo's study of mechanics and engineering, Valleriani thinks my book misses out much that is important – but strangely he does not, in his quite lengthy review, respond to a single one of the arguments I levy against his approach (which I presume is also developed in his book, Galileo Engineer, which appeared after mine went to press). The suggestion that I felt the need (because I was in some mysterious way under the influence of an article whose arguments I reject) to justify (even ‘implicitly’) an extended discussion of Galileo's astronomical discoveries is more than just puzzling – to make such a suggestion while reviewing a book entitled Galileo: Watcher of the Skies is, to be frank, simply bizarre. Does Valleriani really imagine, even for a moment, that I would have preferred to write a book in which there was no mention of Galileo's telescope?
As for the vexed question of the injunction of 1616, it is simply not true that I mention only one single paper dealing with the question of the authenticity of the document. In the relevant note (p. 152 [not 162] and note 80 on p. 290) I cite an overlooked primary source; the works of Camerota and Beretta, both of whom believe in the possibility of a forgery in 1633; and Mayer's recent and authoritative article, which provides an extensive, even exhaustive, survey of the literature. In the next two notes I cite two further relevant authorities (Fantoli and Pagano). And, since the book went to press, I have been able to read Vittorio Frajese's new book, which also, quite rightly, dismisses the possibility of a forgery in 1633 (though arguing for the possibility of a forgery in 1616 – Valleriani doesn't seem to be familiar with this new solution to the problem, which I find ultimately unconvincing but which certainly deserves careful consideration).
Now let's get back to fundamentals. Valleriani seems to have difficulty understanding the enterprise of writing a biography, which necessarily involves considering questions of character and motivation. He describes my view as follows: ‘Galileo remained an indomitable Copernican, not because he was convinced about issues and aspects related to his scientific research or to its results. He did so because of his mother and father ...’. But of course this isn't my view – that would be foolish in the extreme. The choice between science and psychology is a false choice, since Galileo was both a scientist and a human being, with the normal range of human emotions and passions. As I explain ‘by means of a very detailed analysis’ (as he puts it), Galileo became a Copernican because he had achieved a wonderful result in his scientific research (the parabolic path of projectiles). He remained a Copernican partly because of his (mistaken) theory of the tides. Psychology must also come into it, of course, if we are to understand Galileo's boldness, his ambition, and his preference for maths over medicine.
But why – this seems to me a crucial question – did Galileo reject opportunities to compromise and collaborate after 1616? Why did he not step back from Copernicanism after it had been condemned, and turn to other, less dangerous, subjects, such as the vacuum? These are questions, at least in part, about the way Galileo responded to power and authority. (Compare Galileo's response to that of Descartes, who, even though he was in the safety of a Protestant country, resolved, on learning of the condemnation of Galileo's Dialogue, never to publish his own arguments in support of Copernicanism, saying ‘I desire to live in peace and to continue the life I have begun under the motto ”to live well you must live unseen”’.) Psychoanalysts think one way of answering such questions is to look back to see if childhood conflicts are being re-enacted. In Galileo's case this approach works remarkably well. But even if one thinks this approach is misconceived, the questions of character and motivation won't disappear to be replaced entirely by questions of scientific knowledge or (as in the work of the science studies school) of social history. Valleriani says ‘David Wootton worriedly interrogates himself about the reasons for Galileo's behaviour’. Isn't that the very essence of the task I set myself when I set out to write a biography? Take away the ‘worriedly’ – and then what is there that one can possibly object to in this enterprise? – Ah yes, it still won't do. ‘David Wootton interrogates himself’. No I don't; if I did I would become ‘worried’ indeed. But the fact is I'm hopelessly old-fashioned. I interrogate the documents. Let's try again: ‘David Wootton interrogates the documents about the reasons for Galileo's behaviour’. What is there that one can possibly object to in this enterprise?
It is also, I think, part of the biographer's job to point out the choices people make, and the consequences that follow from those choices. Galileo chose to leave Padua for Florence, and thus to put himself within the jurisdiction of the Roman Inquisition. His friends told him at the time he was making a terrible mistake. Towards the end of his life he seems to have recognized that they had been right all along. He chose to publish on Copernicanism, even though it had been condemned. Was he right to do so? Of course. Did he understand the risks he was running? Apparently not. Was his behaviour reasonable? The pope thought not, and I tend to agree, although our reasons would differ. Again, I find myself having to explain the obvious: there is more to life than rationality alone. We can't all be Descartes. Let me take a familiar example: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Reasonable? Surely not: Wilfred Owen calls it ‘The old Lie’. Admirable? Sometimes. Heroism – even Galileo's heroism – is rarely reasonable, often admirable. Only a naïve reader – a reader like Valleriani – would think that if I say that the pope's view was reasonable it means that I and the pope think alike.
It so happens that I use the word ‘reasonable’ only three times in the entire book. Once (p. 178) to express Urban's view (‘The pope must have thought that he was making an entirely reasonable request’); once (again, p. 178) to point out that Galileo himself had insisted in The Assayer that there could be no certain knowledge in questions of science – precisely the concession he resisted making in the Dialogue – which made it seem perfectly reasonable to ask him to repeat what he had said in the past; and once (p. 260) to explain that Duhem and his followers think that Galileo was being unreasonable in insisting that he had adequate proof of Copernicanism. None of these usages support the implication that I conclude that Galileo was mistaken or in the wrong in his decision to defend Copernicanism (and I don't use an alternative word, the word ‘rational’, in this context at all). Valleriani's claim is that my approach is entirely ‘novel’ in that I question Galileo's ability ‘to behave reasonably’ because I represent him as suffering from a set of psychological defects. It may be news to him, but many people think that we are all shaped in our behaviour by unconscious impulses, and that our ‘reasons’ (even if we are Descartes) are nearly always rationalisations. I don't think Galileo was any less (or any more) rational than everyone else; and I think his defects – above all, his lack of insight into his own behaviour – are part and parcel of the human condition. (Valleriani thinks I present Galileo as ‘the victim of a conflictual childhood’, but if there is a victim in my account of Galileo's family drama it is not Galileo, but his brother; for the record, I never use the word ‘victim’ about Galileo, except when describing how he has been portrayed by others.)
I make no apology for discussing at some length the question of whether Galileo was or was not a believing Catholic. The question was important at the time. Edward Muir's recent book has brought out its wider significance for an understanding of late Renaissance Italy. And the question of the relationship between religion and science has been central to the history of science for an awfully long time. The puzzle is not why I discuss the question, but why others have avoided it. Discussing the question does not, of course, turn me or my reader into an inquisitor. We have no cells, no racks and thumbscrews, no power of life and death. We cannot even ask questions of the protagonists, let alone torture them until they answer. When we interrogate the documents no one gets hurt. But Valleriani isn't satisfied with the suggestion that I invite my reader to join me in an inquisitorial enterprise. Apparently, by some perverse trick, by the establishment of a ‘conspiratorial relationship with the reader’, I turn my poor reader (‘whether she/he likes it or not’) into the inquisitor, in his high-backed chair, with all the guilt that that implies. Who then am I, the author? I am the sort of person, it seems, who would denounce Galileo to the Inquisition, another Mario Sozzi. The suggestion is both grotesque and – no other word is appropriate – offensive. (A detail: I answer the question of why Galileo was hostile to Christianity two years after ‘his supposed conversion’ on p. 248 – Castelli had, in all probability, been taken in by a ruse. A fuller account of my views on Galileo's relationship to Christianity is in my LSE lecture, which can be downloaded here: http://www2.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/events/2010/20101111t1830vHKT.aspx.) Let me repeat myself, in case the reader has been momentarily distracted by this scholarly detail: the suggestion is offensive (and, there can be no doubt, deliberately so).
I also make no apology for the fact that ‘The author seems willing to show that he has almost spoken to the historical protagonists’. Quite so. Indeed I quote Stephen Greenblatt's well-known line: ‘I began with the desire to speak with the dead’. I could equally have quoted Machiavelli's letter to Vettori: ‘io non mi vergogno parlare con loro e domandarli della ragione delle loro azioni; e quelli per loro humanità mi rispondono’. But we all know that no one speaks with the dead. We read them instead. Even so, let's be frank: the historian's task is to bring the dead to life. What else could it be? If we are going to think seriously about the writing of history, we need to start by acknowledging the fundamental impossibility of the enterprise. We begin with the desire to speak with the dead.
I also make no apology for writing a book that has some of the features of ‘a modern crime novel’, even one that suggests ‘the feeling of a conspiracy’. First, it is a book about someone who was repeatedly investigated by the authorities, and was eventually condemned, but who went on flouting the law. It is, inevitably, a book about what Santillana called ‘the crime of Galileo’. Second, it is a book about an authoritarian society where people were tortured and persecuted for their beliefs. What I like best about Redondi's Galileo Heretic is the atmosphere it captures, the atmosphere of fear and secrecy, an atmosphere that I am delighted to think might be in my book as well – ‘the feeling of a conspiracy’ (which often exists even where there is no conspiracy). Third, there is a sophisticated intellectual tradition which argues that the modern crime novel provides a crucial paradigm for thinking about historical understanding – Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose, Carlo Ginzburg's ‘Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes: clues and scientific method’, and Edward Muir's ‘Observing trifles’. So, however it was intended, I take this as a compliment.
Finally, Valleriani says I try ‘to re-enter, re-open or even unhinge the structures of all arguments about the so-called Galileo affair that have been written until now’. Not quite. My debts to a number of my predecessors – Redondi's Galileo Heretic; Renn, Damerow, and Rieger's ‘Hunting the white elephant’; Feingold's ‘The grounds for conflict’; Garcia's Élie Diodati et Galilée – ought to be apparent to any reader. But yes, my book does offer a fundamentally new account of the Galileo affair. Like Galileo, I think intellectual progress often involves ‘unhinging’ arguments that are accepted as perfectly sound by the most reputable authorities. How else are we to make progress? Indeed, I think that unhinging other people's arguments is what I do when I do my job best. Of course, I have no choice but to recognize that there will always be people who can't follow a good argument, no matter how carefully it is formulated. Galileo had Lodovico delle Colombe. I have Matteo Valleriani. Galileo also had to face the Inquisition; I count myself lucky that I only have to deal with my fellow academics.
A central premise of my book is that history has vindicated Galileo so comprehensively that we can now, at long last, acknowledge his imperfections (his psychosomatic illnesses, his self-destructive behaviour, his scientific errors) as well as his extraordinary and wonderful achievements. Will history vindicate my interpretation of Galileo? It is, as Zhou Enlai said when asked for his assessment of the French Revolution, too soon to say. Redondi's interpretation, which was roundly anathematized when it was first published in 1983, looks a great deal stronger since the discovery, as a result of the opening of the archives in 1998, of the document known as EE291. It is nearly always too soon to decide what history will say. In the meantime readers will have to make up their own minds – but prospective readers certainly should not rely on Valleriani if they want to get a reliable account of my argument. They will find a range of alternative accounts at www.watcheroftheskies.org, on the page dedicated to reviews.