GG Superstar!

My recent post on Kepler and Galileo contained a statement about Galileo’s relative obscurity in 1597 that provoked the following comment from Porlock Junior:

BTW, as to obscurity: the first known mention of Galileo in English comes in 1611, a year after Sidereus Nuncius, in a work by John Donne, no less: Ignatius his Conclave, about Loyola in Hell, which as I recall is somewhere between Dante and Shaw in the X in Hell genre.

It also provoked this from another commentator:

Galileo was completely unknown in Europe in 1597? Not quite: his father Vincenzo had been active working for some years in music theory…

Before returning to 1611 and John Donne I will first say a few words about Vincenzo. It is in fact true that Vincenzo Galilei played a significant role in the Renaissance music theory discussion and even turns up in Kepler’s contribution to the subject in his Harmonices Mundi. However in terms of his notoriety one must consider the following facts. The works of Zarlino, Vincenzo’s theory teacher and his opponent in the discussion didn’t become known outside of Italy until the first quarter of 17th century and so Vincenzo, who had died in 1591, would also not have been known in 1597. Secondly although the fundamental discussion on music intervals and similar problems in the Renaissance is seen today by the musicologist as seminal, at the time that it took place it was only of interest for a very small group of experts. Lastly even if Vincenzo had been known to a wider circle of European music experts this says nothing about general public awareness of the existence of his son.

In terms of the notoriety, or lack of, of a scientist one is always hindered by the reputation that the person in question enjoys today. In the case of Galileo we have the problem that he is along with Newton and Einstein one of the three most famous physicists of all time and this strongly colours our perception of him in his own times. In fact not only was Galileo relatively obscure in 1597, if he had died 12 years later in 1609, a not unrealistic speculation as he was then already 45 years old and did not enjoy the best of health, he would have been remembered, if at all, as a competent but insignificant North Italian teacher of mathematics who had a good reputation as an instrument maker. He might also be know as the author of an interesting paper on hydrostatics that although distributed in Northern Italy in manuscript had never been published and was obviously in need of further work. To put it bluntly Galileo would just have been another Renaissance mathematicus and nothing special.

So what changed? Why did he feature alongside Copernicus, Kepler and Clavius in John Donne’s brilliant anti Jesuit satire Ignatius and his Conclave in 1611? Porlock Junior has already revealed the answer in his comment, what had changed was the publication 400 years ago on 12th March 1610 of the Sidereus Nuncius. This book made Galileo, almost overnight, to a scientific Superstar throughout Europe and it’s first from here on that Galileo as he is perceived today comes into existence. Even so there still remains the question how John Donne got access to the Sidereus Nuncius so soon that he could include its author in his own work only one year later? The answer is found in the English Ambassador to Venice Henry Wotton. Wotton had been James I’s (VI if you’re Scottish) Venetian ambassador since 1604 and was a close friend of Paolo Sarpi who was a long time friend of Galileo. In fact it was Sarpi who had first made Galileo aware of the telescope. Wotton who was a big science fan sent two copies of the Sidereus Nuncius to London by diplomatic courier one day after its publication in Venice. As a result intellectual circles in London, including such as Donne or Thomas Harriot were amongst the first in Europe to read of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries.

The use of the pop terminology “superstar” is justified in this case because in this phase Galileo’s fame rested on a set of observations with a new scientific instrument rather than any real scientific achievement and as such was more a result of sensation than anything else. Again, if he had died soon after and never written and published the Assayer, the Dialogo and the Discorsi (including that reworked paper on hydrostatics) his fame what have dimmed over the years and with it his status in the history of science. The Sidereus Nuncius catapulted Galileo into the public gaze but it was his later works that established his real reputation as a methodologist and theorist.

15 Comments

Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science

15 responses to “GG Superstar!

  1. Many thanks for the elucidation: there is, perhaps, still an argument that Vincenzo’s work on string harmonics long outlived him as his work on dissonance and recitative led directly to the rise of baroque style some years after his death, possibly through John Dowland, who travelled in Italy at this time, in court and diplomatic circles.
    That would have placed his son in a position where the step to renown was shorter than it might otherwise have been.

  2. Further to my last, and with my thinking hat on, Galileo Galilei took the Chair of mathematics at Padua in early 1592 from underneath Giordano Bruno, triggering Bruno’s move to Venice which would see his downfall. Galileo would hold it until 1610, the exact period of this so-called fallow period. That placed him in a linear descent from Cusanus, who studied law there, through Copernicus, who studied cosmology there, a subject Galileo taught, as well as geometry. As the son of a leading musician, that wrapped up the entire Quadrivium. In total, someone who could outbid Bruno for such a job was not a relatively obscure man!
    Galileo’s initial mentor in Copernican astronomy was Christian Wursteisen (1544-1588) in Basel, and there is some suggestion he may have followed that up with contacts with Michael Maestlin at Tubingen during this period. Kepler was his pupil there in 1588-94.
    It begins to look as if I’ve found your missing link, into the bargain:)

    • Galileo did not take the chair in mathematics in Padua from underneath Bruno. Bruno had had vain hopes of the chair in 1591 but had left Padua two years before Galileo was appointed to the chair. Galileo was not only the son of a musician but a very accomplished musician in his own right. All Renaissance professors of mathematics were required to teach the quadrivium, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, as this was the mathematical syllabus at the time. Bruno was not in anyway qualified to become a professor of mathematics and therefore was not called to the chair, Galileo was and was called. As a Renaissance humanist scholar Galileo would have known of Cusanus as would Copernicus no matter where he worked. Copernicus did not study cosmology in Padua but canon law and medicine.

      Wursteisen was not Galileo’s mentor. Galileo decided to investigate Copernicanism after talking to a student who had attended Wursteisen’s lectures on the subject in Pisa; lectures that Galileo had not attended because he thought the subject was rubbish. Galileo had no contacts with Maestlin.

      • I beg to correct your dates, which were not as cut and dried as you suggest: Galileo’s appointment at Padua had clearly been reserved for him by his contacts in the Medici for some time, as he was a thorn in the flesh of the principally monastic academic corps at Pisa almost since his start as a student there – there is a memorable piece of doggerel about his contempt for their rules, and he never completed his undergraduate studies there out of fury at their hide-bound methods of learning by rote: it is often remarked that he was in this respect a prototypical red-head.

        The critical factor which won him the post at Padua was a personal recommendation by Grand Duke Ferdinando I of Tuscany, who described him as “one of Tuscany’s finest mathematicians”. There was clearly a relationship of trust between them, as it was to Galileo that Ferdinando’s wife Catherine turned for hope when he lay dying in 1609, in the belief that all astronomers are astrologers. Out of sympathy, Galileo invented an optimistic horoscope, but sadly, the Duke died within the week.

        The relationship between the Medici and Galilei goes back to the root of both families in the Mugello valley, north of Florence. Strathern’s history of the Medici shows how Galileo’s knowledge of mathematics was instilled by Ostillion Ricci, Cosimo I’s mathematicus. After a premature end to his undergraduate studies in Pisa, Galileo found his way into the service of the Medici, firstly lecturing at the Florence Academy (after his father, a musician in the Pitti Palace, pulled strings) in the mid 1580s, then placed by them as Professor of mathematics at Pisa (under Florentine control at the time), next at Padua as described, doubling as tutor to Cosimo II in 1605: this is the Duke to whom Galileo dedicated The Starry Messenger. Cosimo’s cousin was Marie de’Medicis, Queen of France from 1600: it is inconceivable that someone as close to the Ducal family as Galileo was could have been unknown to her.

        To round off this potted chronology, Lippershey’s discovery of paired lenses in 1608 gave Galileo the start he needed on telescopes. Cosimo rewarded him for the dedication of the book which resulted, The Starry Messenger, with the post of First Philosopher and Mathematician in Tuscany, freeing him to pure research.

        Like I say, this was not an insignificant nobody, but someone rising steadily if unremarkably within the ranks of the Medici patronage until he was ready to publish, which pushed him from exceptional to the top of the heap.

        Strathern also reports finding correspondence between the Galileo and Kepler in this period: he does not document the source, however. There is also a study in German by Josef Smolka into the relationship between Galileo and Maestelin.

        The problem may be that there is a confusion between England and Europe here. The English were fairly ostracised after 1588, which probably explains why their scientific revolution came with the Restoration.

        As far as the descent of Vincenzo Galilei is concerned, Erycius Puteanus, successor to Lipius at Louvain in 1606 and Counsellor (from 1612) of Archduke Albert who governed the Lowlands (from 1598), seems to have picked up on his work through Archduke Albert’s cousin Archduchess Anna of Austria, whose husband Duke Albert V of Bavaria was one of Vincenzo’s principal sponsors. This was therefore much more rapid than you think.

      • Galileo’s appointment at Padua had clearly been reserved for him by his contacts in the Medici for some time, as he was a thorn in the flesh of the principally monastic academic corps at Pisa almost since his start as a student there – there is a memorable piece of doggerel about his contempt for their rules, and he never completed his undergraduate studies there out of fury at their hide-bound methods of learning by rote: it is often remarked that he was in this respect a prototypical red-head.

        This whole paragraph is pseudo-historical rubbish on the level of “the CIA planned 9/11″. Nobody reserved the appointment in Padua for Galileo and he was never in conflict with the teaching staff in Pisa. Clever students writing negative doggerel about their teachers belongs to the traditions of higher education just like academic gown and mortarboards. Galileo applied for the post in Padua after his father died leaving him the financial responsibility for his mother and sibblings. The post in Padua that had become free at that time paid three times as much as the one in Pisa. He received the post on the recommendation of del Monte (see below).

        The critical factor which won him the post at Padua was a personal recommendation by Grand Duke Ferdinando I of Tuscany, who described him as “one of Tuscany’s finest mathematicians”.

        Galileo was as dependent on the Renaissance patronage system as any other academic of the age who wanted to succeed but his patrons at the early stage of his career were not the Medici but the leading mathematicians of the age such as Christoph Clavius and Guidobaldo del Monte. Galileo wrote mathematical papers that he personally presented to del Monte and Clavius, he went to Rome in 1587 especial to get to know Clavius, who impressed by his abilities provided him with the necessary references for the post in Pisa. It was del Monte who arranged for Galileo to lecture at the Florence Academy and who asked his brother Cardinal del Monte to persuade Ferdinando Medici to also write a reference.

        There was clearly a relationship of trust between them, as it was to Galileo that Ferdinando’s wife Catherine turned for hope when he lay dying in 1609, in the belief that all astronomers are astrologers. Out of sympathy, Galileo invented an optimistic horoscope, but sadly, the Duke died within the week.

        Galileo taught astrology to the medical students in Padua as part of his duties as mathematics professor and was a working astrologer who wrote horoscope for private clients to supplement his salary. As the leading mathematical practitioner in her realm it was perfectly natural for the Grand Duchess Christine to employ Galileo as tutor for her son Cosimo and as her personal astrologer.

        The relationship between the Medici and Galilei goes back to the root of both families in the Mugello valley, north of Florence.

        No it doesn’t!

        Strathern’s history of the Medici shows how Galileo’s knowledge of mathematics was instilled by Ostillion Ricci, Cosimo I’s mathematicus.

        Galileo studied under Ricci as a student in Pisa when Ricci lectured there.

        After a premature end to his undergraduate studies in Pisa, Galileo found his way into the service of the Medici, firstly lecturing at the Florence Academy (after his father, a musician in the Pitti Palace, pulled strings) in the mid 1580s, then placed by them as Professor of mathematics at Pisa (under Florentine control at the time), next at Padua as described

        See above!

        …doubling as tutor to Cosimo II in 1605: this is the Duke to whom Galileo dedicated The Starry Messenger.

        Galileo dedicated the Sidereus Nuncius to Cosimo in order to earn the patronage of the Medici’s for the first time in his life; a strategy that succeeded.

        Cosimo’s cousin was Marie de’Medicis, Queen of France from 1600: it is inconceivable that someone as close to the Ducal family as Galileo was could have been unknown to her.

        Galileo might or might not have been known to Marie de’Medici but it is more than unlikely. The Medicis had literally hundred of servants and receivers of patronage and the Queen of France had better things to do than to take notice of a mere mathematician.

        Like I say, this was not an insignificant nobody, but someone rising steadily if unremarkably within the ranks of the Medici patronage until he was ready to publish, which pushed him from exceptional to the top of the heap.

        Galileo first became part of the Medici patronage system with the Sidereus Nuncius before that he was a mere mathematicus whose path occasionally crossed that of various members of the Medici clan. To make something very clear a Renaissance mathematicus was considered to be a craftsman on a level with a carpenter or blacksmith. When I lecture on the subject I usually say that a mathematician in the 16th century had the status of a cleaning lady. The two mathematicians who did the most through their work to radically change the status of mathematicians were Kepler and Galileo but only in the 17th century. This is the reason why Galileo insisted on the title of court philosopher by the Medicis.

        Strathern also reports finding correspondence between the Galileo and Kepler in this period: he does not document the source, however.

        On the Kepler Galileo correspondence or better-said lack of it see here.

        There is also a study in German by Josef Smolka into the relationship between Galileo and Maestelin.

        If you bothered to read Smolka’s paper before recommending it you would know that it shows contrary to previously published claims there was no contact between Galileo and Maestlin; I know because I have read it!

  3. PS on the last point: Puteanus was publishing in the period 1599-1602, pursuing Vincenzo’s theories:

    1599: Modulata Pallas, sive septem discrimina vocum, ad harmonicae lectionis novum et compendiarium usum aptata et contexta philologo quodal filo
    1600: Musica Pleias, sive, septem notae canendi
    1602: Musathena, sive notarum heptas, ad harmonicae lectionis novum et facilem usum
    1603: Il noniano, dialogo … nel quale, come compendio della Musathena, aggiungendo nel cantare di musica la Settima alle Note leua il travaglio delle Mutationi

  4. I keep mulling over this patronage aspect, as the relationship seems deeper than usual. The choice is between the paesano loyalty often noticed in Italy and the nepote concept found in the Church: does anyone have any ideas or am I sniffing up a wrong tree? I’m certainly not barking up it yet.

    Another interesting sideline of this is that it puts a sense of timeline to the 1560s furore. We find Catherine de’Medicis working with Ruggieri in 1558-9 for certain, possibly from much earlier – 1525 has been suggested – and probably later as well, given the evidence of more pentagrams and other symbols found in the attics of Chenonceau in 1990. It is thought that Ruggieri was far from alone, and yet by 1609 the Medici have no more astrologers, only Galileo who has no reputation in the area. That’s interesting, because it puts a different light on van Helmont’s 1618 work. Certainly, they were at opposite ends of Europe, and working for different patrons, but it still sets a scene.

  5. I enjoyed reading Dunne’s satire concerning a chorography of Hell.

    Thing that struck me and I have always noted it in Scottish text’s of the period; the beliefs Dunne is using and attributing to the Jesuits are not a hundred miles away from James the I’s own views on such occult matters and law.

    Some of the themes he uses are persistantly used in Scottish protestant writting of the time in relation to witchcraft persecution.

  6. jeb

    Idle speculation on my part but given James interest in second sight, much as described in the start of the satire (though it is a much older narrative theme) and the Scottish propaganda at the time taking an interest in Satan’s use of optical illusion.

    Working in such areas would have attracted attention I imagine. For good or ill.

    As would Donne’s poem as the propaganda machine was also re-using older catholic themes such as the ignis fatuus.

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  8. jeb

    I just read this on Donne. Has something to do with map making and ducks.

    But it’s the relationship with vision and metaphor that seems interesting.

    http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/french/as-sa/ASSA-No8/Vol3.No8.Flinker.pdf

  9. The use of the pop terminology “superstar” is justified in this case because in this phase Galileo’s fame rested on a set of observations with a new scientific instrument rather than any real scientific achievement and as such was more a result of sensation than anything else

    I’m not sure I follow you here. How is being the first to successfully use a new instrument that opens up new vistas not a real scientific achievement?

    • To begin with Galileo was not the first but that is just a minor point, the scientific achievement comes not through the simple observation of new facts, in what ever area, but in their utilisation within a scientific theory. Although Galileo did in fact do this to a limited extent his fame and popularity was based on the observations themselves, which had also been made independently by other, and not on their utilisations. We can say his fame was of the look-wow-sensation type rather than a considered scientific critic.

      • I’m not sure that there’s anything wrong with the “look-wow” sort of thing. If one just has interesting data but no theory that’s still interesting.

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