Meet Galileo’s Daughter (1600-1634 AD)

By: The Scribe on Sunday, January 13, 2008

Galileo’s daughter Maria was his oldest child, from whom 120 letters survive that she wrote to her father during her lifetime.

Sister Maria Celeste, born under the name Virginia Gamba, came into the world on August 16th, 1600. She was the daughter of the now-famous astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher Galileo Galilei and a woman named Marina GambaMarina actually bore all three of Galileo’s children, but the two never wed. As a result, Virginia and her sister Livia were considered illegitimate and unmarriable – and so Galileo entered his two daughters into the San Matteo convent of Florence just after Virginia’s 13th birthday.

Galileo wanted his daughters to have a good life and to be cared for, and since they could not marry, life in a convent was the best option at the time. Unfortunately, the girls were considered too young to make the decision to enter a convent for themselves, and Galileo was met with significant resistance from the church authorities. After a time, Galileo was able to obtain special dispensation from the Cardinal Maffeo Barberini – who just so happened to be an admirer of Galileo’s work – and in 1613, his two daughters were placed in the San Matteo convent of Arcetri, Florence.

In 1616, Virginia realized that the life of a nun was truly what she wanted for herself, and proceeded to “take the veil”. She chose the name of Sister Maria Celeste – young women were expected to take a new name, symbolic of their new devotion – which represented both her reverence for the Virgin Mary, and her father’s passion for astronomy.

As Galileo’s scientific books began to stir up controversy among leaders of the Catholic Church, father and daughter began composing letters to each other, an activity which likely sustained Galileo through some of his darkest trials. While very little is known about Maria Celeste’s actual life, about 120 letters have survived – written between 1623 and 1634 – that she wrote to her father while in the convent. Unfortunately, only one side of the story survives – after Maria died, the church authorities burned Galileo’s letters to his daughter, not wishing to retain the writings of someone considered to be a heretic.

Galileo drew up a horoscope for his daughter after she was born, probably just for fun, since it involved complex mathematics and dealt with planetary rotations.

The picture of Maria that emerges from these letters is of a caring, loving daughter, who was not only constantly concerned with her father’s well being, but who also seemed to nearly match him in intelligence and wit. She often prepared her father’s manuscripts, a feat which must have been remarkable to accomplish inside the convent – under the rule of the very church that accused her father of heresy. However, Maria saw that Galileo was a devoted man of God whose scientific discoveries clashed in no way with his religious beliefs – yet, in 1633, Galileo was tried and convicted of heresy.

For a time, Maria served as the convent’s apothecary, and was able to send various remedies to her father, now living in Tuscany, for his ailments, and managed to appeal to him on more than one occasion to help the convent’s upkeep – the convent of San Matteo was extremely poor, as the nuns had no means with which to feed themselves or repair the buildings. After notifying her father of various problems, Galileo even took it upon himself to ensure that the convent clock was running properly at all times.

When Galileo was convicted of heresy, he was sentenced to house arrest in Arcetri – which happened to be near enough to the convent that he could see its outer walls and hear the bells each day. Another portion of his sentence had been to recite the seven penitential Psalms once every week for the next three years, which Maria Celeste took upon herself to perform for him – however, it wasn’t long before she contracted dysentery and died on April 2nd, 1634, only four months after her father’s return to Arcetri.

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