The RSC is currently staging a new production of Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo, a play that I studied for German A-Level. Yes folks, I really do have a rather ropey A-Level in German literature. Stuart Clark, who apparently was employed by the RSC as scientific advisor on the production, has written a post on the Guardian’s Science Blogs about it. In the middle of his piece he makes the following extraordinary claim:
Brecht does subvert the Galileo story for artistic purposes. The most significant departure is the relationship that Galileo has with his eldest daughter, Virginia. In the play, her marriage prospects are ruined by Galileo’s dogged championing of his observations.
In realty, Galileo could not raise sufficient dowry and so placed Virginia and her younger sister in a convent. Nevertheless, his relationship with Virginia was a strong and loving one, as their letters prove.
When I read that I experienced a “wot the f…” moment. It’d had been a couple of decades or more since I last read Brecht’s play but my memory said that whatever its literary merits might or might not be it’s anything but historically accurate. If anything Galileo’s relationship with his daughter is the least significant departure from the historical reality.
Not wishing to run into a bun fight based on old unreliable memories I acquired a copy of the German original, the RSC production is apparently a new translation so its based on the original (1937 – 1939) and not the later American version (1945 – 1947), and have spent the last couple of days rereading it. In what follows I’m not criticising Brecht who wrote a piece of fiction but Clark whose knowledge of the real life of Galileo appears to be somewhat deficient.
Before looking at any of the specific details of the play and comparing them to the actual history there are two powerful subtexts to Brecht’s piece that distort the historical facts immensely. Firstly throughout the drama it is continually implied that the Church is anti science per se this is historically completely untrue. In the Early Modern Period the Catholic Church only opposed scientific theories that stood in contradiction to established central tenets of the Church. In the 17th century these were principally heliocentricity and atomism. Heliocentricity of course contradicted important passages in the Old Testament whereas atomism contradicted the accepted Aristotelian explanation of transubstantiation. The latter dilemma was solved by Pierre Gassendi who showed that it was possible to integrated atomism into Catholic theology doing so in a similar manner to Albertus Magnus’ and Thomas Aquinas’ integration of Aristotelian philosophy and Catholic theology in the 13th century. A similar compromise for heliocentricity would probably have been found if Galileo and Foscarini hadn’t forced the issue. On other scientific developments in this period the Church remained open, the research often being done by members of the Church. Christoph Clavius’ seminar for mathematical research at the Jesuit Collegio Romano, for example, provided the necessary observational confirmation of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries; a fact to which we will return later.
Brecht’s second subtext concerns his own political views. Brecht was a Marxist and throughout the play he presents Galileo as some sort of 17th century Che Guevara fighting for the proletariat against the oppressive ruling classes i.e. the Catholic Church. This is so far from the historical truth as to be grotesque. Galileo was a social climber, scion of an impoverished minor aristocratic family he used his scientific discoveries as instruments of credit in order to climb the social greasy pole of North Italian absolutist politics. He became a courtier cashing in his astronomical discoveries for a position at the Medici’s court in Florence from which base he set out to become an accepted and celebrated favourite in the much more powerful Papal court circles of Rome. In a revolutionary analogy Galileo would be closer to Rasputin than Lenin.
Turning to more detailed factual aspects of the play I shall go through it scene by scene picking some but not all of the salient historical falsehoods.
The opening scene takes place in Galileo’s “humble study” in Padua, where he is the university’s professor of mathematics, and the only characters who appear to constitute his household are his housekeeper her young son and one daughter of Galileo’s. Later a potential private student makes an appearance, who Galileo very reluctantly takes on at the urging of his housekeeper. In reality Galileo, who was actually quite well paid but who was permanently in debt because he lived beyond his means, ran a large prosperous household with several servants and quite a large number of private students who paid handsomely for their private tuition. The numbers varied over the years but an average of twenty inhabitants was not unusual. The play makes no mention of Galileo’s mistress, the mother of his children who he never married and who lived in a separate establishment, or of his second daughter and his son. In this scene in a discussion with the head of the university Galileo is describes as famous throughout Europe, whereas before he made his telescopic discoveries Galileo was an unimportant mathematicus totally unknown outside of Northern Italy.
The second scene is largely correct and concerns Galileo’s presentation of ‘his’ telescope to the Senate of Padua in 1609. The only strange thing is the involvement of his daughter Virginia in the scene who is presented as 15 years old whereas in reality she was only 9 in 1609.
The third scene has Galileo making his astronomical discoveries the whole process, which in reality took many months, is for dramatic purposes telescoped (pun intended) into one evening, which is OK. What is not OK is the claim, that appears here for the first time and is repeated throughout the play, that these discoveries prove Copernicus right. They didn’t, as I’ve posted before, and even Galileo never claimed that they did.
The fourth scene has Galileo now ensconced in Florence and preparing to receive Cosimo Medici in his abode to show him the Medician stars, the moons of Jupiter. This whole scene is from beginning to end historical codswallop. Firstly Galileo travelled to Florence from Padua to demonstrate his telescope and to show Cosimo and his Court the moons of Jupiter before he was appointed to that court and moved to Florence. He would not have received the appointment if the demonstration had been a failure, as it is in fact presented in the play. Secondly Cosimo is presented as a ten year old and a stranger to Galileo. In reality in 1610 when Galileo wrote the Sidereus Nuncius Cosimo was already twenty years old and he and Galileo were already old friends, as Galileo had been his private tutor for several summers in the preceding decade. Also Cosimo, as one of the richest and most powerful aristocrats in Europe, would never have gone to Galileo’s house for such a demonstration but Galileo would have gone to the Medici palace. When the members of the court arrive for the demonstration Brecht repeats one of the biggest of the Galilean myths, that of the Aristotelian philosophers who refused to look through the telescope. I have dealt with this falsehood elsewhere and won’t repeat the story here.
The next scene is a piece of pure invention and has a heroic Galileo refusing to interrupt his researches to leave Florence during an outbreak of the plague. As I say pure invention.
The next scene is viewed from an historical standpoint simply bizarre. Set in 1616 it has Christoph Clavius singlehandedly confirming the truth of Galileo’s astronomical discoveries and having done so leaving the building in silence whilst studiously ignoring Galileo. Where to start? Maybe with the simple inescapable fact that Christoph Clavius died in 1612! Far from ignoring or giving Galileo the cold shoulder Clavius and Galileo had been friends since 1586 and it was to Clavius that Galileo himself turned in 1610. The confirmation was actually carried out in 1610 and 1611 by Grienberger and Maelcote in direct correspondence with Galileo, who offered helpful tips from the sidelines. Clavius was by then all ready too old and infirm to do the work himself although even he was finally able to view and confirm the discoveries. Having confirmed them the Jesuits invited Galileo to Rome and held a banquet in his honour at which Maelcote held an oration in praise of their guest. Here play and reality have truly nothing in common.
We now have the famous confrontation between Galileo and Robert Bellarmin in 1616. Whereas the historical meeting took place in private in Bellarmin’s office, in the play it takes place during a masked ball in Bellarmin’s palace with both Bellarmin and Barberini, the future Pope Urban, talking to Galileo. The scene is set up to contrast the decadent and depraved Cardinals, Bellarmin and Barbarini, with the humble and honest scientist Galileo. Unfortunately whereas Barbarini a long-time party companion of Galileo’s was certainly, like Galileo, a connoisseur of the pleasures that life has to offer, it would be difficult to find a more straight-laced figure than Bellarmin in the history of the Catholic Church.
I’ll skip the next scene as of no significance but the one following it again mixes up the historical facts in a way that is astounding. We now have 1624. Firstly we have a Galileo presented as one who has been prevented from all future astronomical research as a result of his meeting with Bellermin. This is simply not true. Galileo effectively gave up his astronomical researches of his own accord in 1613, moving on to other fields of investigation. Also although Bellarmin told him that he could no longer hold or teach heliocentricity as a true theory he was perfectly free, should he choose to do so, to conduct further astronomical research. Also in this scene Galileo is presented as doing his (boring!) research on floatation only out of frustration because he isn’t allowed to do astronomy. Again complete rubbish. Galileo was very proud of his work on floatation, which was by the way carried out before 1616. We then receive the news that the Pope is dying and that Barbarini, a mathematician (?), will be elected to the Papacy. Barbarini was an intellectual and a poet but he was not a mathematician. Believing that Barbarini will support him Galileo restarts his astronomical research refuting the sunspot theories of a Fabrizius from Holland!
Galileo’s dispute concerning the sunspots was with Christoph Scheiner, a German, in 1612 and both of them either ignored or were unaware of the sunspot publication of the Frisian astronomer Johannes Fabricius. Post 1616 Galileo was involved in a dispute over the nature of comets with the Jesuit astronomer Orazio Grassi. The dispute started in 1618 and dragged on through several polemical publications peaking in 1623 in Galileo’s legendary Il Saggiatore (The Assayer), which was in fact dedicated to the newly crowned Pope Urban VIII, Barbarini.
Brecht’s play is now drawing to a close. He doesn’t actually deal with the writing and publication of Dialogo the next scene being Galileo’s rejection by Cosimo Medici. Here again Brecht bends the historical truth. He has Cosimo simply letting Galileo fall, which is not quite what happened. Being part of the system, Cosimo was in fact not prepared to fight the Vatican and the Inquisition on Galileo’s behalf but he did supply him with transport to Rome. He also allowed Galileo to reside in a Medici residence during his time in Rome during the investigation and also paid his living expenses.
There follows a short scene where the Inquisitor demands that Galileo be tried and Urban argues against. Once again this is not historically correct. It was Urban who demanded that the Dialogo be examined to see if it was actionable and when the three assessors said it was, it was Urban who demanded the trial.
Brecht skips the trial and just has Galileo’s supporters waiting for news that he has martyred himself for the cause of science. However Galileo recants and is criticised by his supporters for doing so. This scene, that closes with Galileo quoting a passage from the Discorsi, has little in common with the historical events.
The play closes with an almost blind Galileo under house arrest in his villa. He is presented as being under constant supervision by a monk, historically false. Andrea his housekeeper’s son who in the process of the play became his disciple and then spurned him when he recanted comes to visit him on his way to Holland to research in freedom. The dialogue that takes place between the two is pure Brecht. At the end of the play Andrea leaves for Holland with the manuscript of the Discorsi.
I hope I have made clear that Brecht’s play is a massive misrepresentation and to a large extent falsification of the episodes that actually constituted Galileo’s life. Anybody who has bothered to read this far is probably saying so what? It’s a play and not a history book. That is my whole point Brecht wrote a fictional piece very, very loosely structured around some real historical figures and events and this piece should not be used as the basis of comment on science policy or science communication as some people have started to do since the RSC announced their revival of the play. Any discussion about science policy or science communication should and must be based on the real practice of science in the present and accurate historical accounts of how it was practiced in the past and not on fictionalised fantasy whoever may have written it.