A play is not a history book.

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.




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

23 responses to “A play is not a history book.

  1. Michael Weiss

    I wonder how much Brecht himself knew of the actual history.

    • An interesting question and in the vast research literature on Brecht there are certainly several highly serious academic papers with titles like “Die historischen Quellen für Brechts Leben des Galileis”.

      I would think judging by the text of the play that he had actually read quite a lot about Galileo and his life and work. His “errors” have more to do with his dramatical needs than ignorance. As I said at the beginning I’m not criticising Brecht but rather the people who are, in my opinion, misusing his drama by treating it as if it were history rather than historical fiction.

    • Piers, Adam Gopnik’s article is too long and too complex for me to just dash off a repost. Some of what he writes is correct a lot isn’t but not in a naïve manner, which would mean a lot of time and effort involved in a total rebuttal. To be quite honest after this post I wish to leave the topic of GG for awhile.

      My next post, already half written, is however a refutation of one of Gopnik’s main claims, so keep tuned to this space. I hope to post at the beginning of the week.

  2. Michael Weiss

    This side remark was interesting:

    “…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…”

    While it is easy to google out the atomism-transubstantion conflict, I’d like to hear more about Gassendi’s resolution. What was it? Did it have an effect on the alchemy/chemistry of the time? etc.

    • Your musings would require several long posts to answer just in outline and as I’m not a historian of alchemy/chemistry I’m not even going to try.

      You can find quite a lot about Gassendi’s atomism in the SEP article on him. There is also a bibliographical reference for the 17th century English translation of his Syntagma philosophiae Epicuri cum refutationibus dogmatum quae contra fidem christianam ab eo asserta sunt, which was apparently highly influential.

      In his The Fontana History of Chemistry William H. Brock says that Robert Boyle adopted Gassendi’s version of Epicurean atomism because it was compatible with his deep Christian faith so his influence must have been substantial.

  3. Dr. K

    I would disagree with your interpretation of Galileo in the play (though I think I’ve read the later 1940s edition), that’s a fighter for the proletariat. I think he is in fact presented as a greedy, lustful, sensualist social climber. Rather, Brecht wants to argue that the logic of scientific discover is potentially disruptive.

    Which brings me to a question: when I teach about the Scientific Revolution, I tend to stress that it involved a changed way of thinking, with an emphasis on critical thinking and empirical evidence (though I also try to show them the medieval roots of the changes). And that is, to me, what Brecht stresses in his play: that the idea of doubt and criticism is progressive and revolutionary–or, depending on your view, corrosive. At the very least, disruptive. So the question is, do you think that is a valid way of looking at intellectual developments in the 17th century? Obviously, the connection with medieval thinking is important, and can undermine the whole idea of there being any “revolution” in thinking. But that wouldn’t by itself mean there wasn’t a change in thinking.

    • “…do you think that is a valid way of looking at intellectual developments in the 17th century?” Why don’t you ask me something difficult for a change?

      I have devoted a large part of the last forty years trying to understand what happened in the evolution of science during the Early Modern Period and a complete answer to your question would be a multi-volume work of immense dimensions. However I will make a couple of comments giving a general direction of my thinking.

      Firstly, I’m a hardcore gradualist, which is why I usually write “so-called Scientific Revolution” in my posts. As far as I’m concerned it never existed. It’s a historical figment of somebody’s imagination created around the beginning of the 19th century.

      Having said that science certainly evolved substantially between the beginning of the 15th century and the end of the 18th century. Lots of different explanations have been offered over the years for this evolution none of which is right, again in my opinion! However none of them is wrong! What is wrong is trying to assign a single mono-causual cause to this evolution.

      In reality a highly complex web of causes must be taken in to consideration in any explanation of the history of science in this period. This is one of the reasons for my recent tongue in cheek post on The
      Ideal Historian of Science.

      Going back to your original enquiry “doubt and critical thinking along with empiricism” are all factors in this process but these can be found in the works of influential European thinkers already in the 13th century. As I said gradualism!

    • Michael Weiss

      You don’t say what kind of class this is, but if it’s history, it sounds like you have a great paper topic for your students.

      There’s an old article by Kuhn, reprinted in _The Essential Tension_, in which he makes a distinction between the mathematical sciences (astronomy, dynamics) and the “Baconian” sciences (chemistry, heat, pneumatics, etc.). If I may oversimplify: the claim is that for the mathematical sciences, we have a continuation of medieval lines of development. (This viewpoint originates with Duhem, who held an extreme form of it.) But with the Baconian sciences, we have (according to Kuhn) a real break.

  4. I’ve never seen the play, but I’ve often found myths about history can be traced to representations in movies, novels and plays (eg Washington Irving’s Columbus novel and the flat earth myth or a host of nonsensical ideas and Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”) Thanks for the debunking – this is one to file away.

    On an encouraging note, last May someone asked the question “What is the most misunderstood historical event?” on the Q&A social media site Quora. I answered with an essay about the myths around the Galileo affair and this was “top-voted” by a large margin of site users – 331 so far.


    Of course, judging from some of the comments on my answer, some are displeased at having their myths debunked. One has recently cited Adam Gopnik’s grumpy article in the New Yorker, so perhaps that is worth a detailed reply:


    Thanks again for your posts – always a pleasure to read.

    • Have already seen and read with pleasure your excellent Quora post. As I said above I won’t be dealing with Gopnik in full as this post exhausted my desire to write about GG for the time being 😉

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  6. Michael Weiss

    I just discovered your blog recently and am catching up on old posts, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I bring up an old issue. (At least it’s relevant to this post.) How important was Galileo to the transition to heliocentrism?

    I believe you’ve unduly minimized his influence (which is not to say he was The Pivotal Figure, either — of course there is no such beast). I divide my counter-argument into two parts.

    First, let us consider the “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” (hereafter just Dialog). True enough, it’s light on the astronomy. But the real point of the Dialog is the physics. By 1632 it was clear that you could always “pull a Tycho” and have heliocentric orbits with a stationary Earth (as indeed Riccioli proposed for Kepler’s orbits).

    The Dialog is a polemic, not a treatise. But polemics can be important. As you’ve argued at length, raw intuition cries that the earth doesn’t move. The classical and medieval synthesis derives great strength from the way its cosmology and physics fit together. To make the heliocentric-moving-earth proposal attractive, you have to lay out a persuasive alternative. It’s not necessary to resolve every last detail, just make a strong enough case to move it from “that crazy idea” to “could be something to it” for a critical mass of people.

    For the second part of my argument, let me quote Koestler’s _The Sleepwalkers_:

    It is curious to note that Copernicus’ Book of Revolutions had created little stir for half a century, and Kepler’s Laws even less at their time, while the Star Messenger, which had only an indirect bearing on the issue, caused such an outburst of emotion. The main reason was, no doubt, its immense readability. To digest Kepler’s magnum opus required, as one of his collegues remarked, “nearly a lifetime”; but the Star Messenger could be read in an hour, and its effect was like a punch in the solar plexus on those grown up in the traditional view of the bounded universe.

    Once again, the effect is to weaken adherence to the standard view, even if the arguments are not strictly logical.

    I guess, to employ a bit a jargon, I am arguing against a purely internalist evaluation of Galileo’s role in the eventual adoption of heliocentrism, and advocating for a role of the “climate of opinion”.

    • You are certainly correct in suggesting that Galileo’s physics played a role in the acceptance of heliocentricity but it was in fact the Discorsi and not the Dialogo that had this effect. However the impact of Galileo’s work on the heliocentricity debate was much, much less than is usually claimed in popular or even some academic texts.

      Although Koestler is correct about the unreadability of several of Kepler’s main works it was two of his lesser known works that were the main cause of the acceptance of heliocentricity in the 17th century. On the one hand was his Epitome astronomiae Copernicanae (Epitome of Copernican Astronomy) a sort of Keplerian astronomy for dummies in question and answer dialogue form published in three volumes between 1617 and 1621. On the other the most influential work was his Rudolphine Tables published in 1627.

      These tables were so superior in accuracy in comparison to all others that they quickly convinced nearly all working astronomers in Europe to accept the Keplerian system or as it was also known the Elliptical astronomy by about 1660.

      • Michael Weiss

        I thought it was pretty well established that the only work by Galileo that Newton had read was the Dialogues and not the Discourses. At least that’s what Stillman Drake says in his (very interesting) article “Newton’s Apple and Galileo’s Dialogue” (SciAm 243:2, (1980) p150-156), crediting I. Bernard Cohen for the claim and the research to back it up.

        Of course, the direct Newton channel wasn’t the only way Galileo influenced future work.

      • Heliocentricity had been generally accepted before Newton wrote his Principia. In his A Guide to Newton’s Principia Cohen explicitly discusses a problem from the Discorsi on which Newton worked in the period before Principia.

        Also Newton’s knowledge of Galileo is somewhat confused/confusing as he attributes both his own first and second laws of motion to Galileo neither of which can be found by Galileo.

  7. Michael Weiss

    “Also Newton’s knowledge of Galileo is somewhat confused/confusing as he attributes both his own first and second laws of motion to Galileo neither of which can be found by Galileo.”

    Well, the first law is the law of inertia, and I thought it was well-established (by Herivel) that Newton took his statement of the first law from Descartes. (Of course, after that promising start, Descartes proceded to make a major hash of his dynamics, C’est la vie.)

    Although Galileo never gave a clean statement of the law of inertia in its Newtonian form, the translation of the Dialogue that Newton read did have
    the following marginal note (from Galileo): “The motion impressed by the projicient is onely in a right line.” Elsewhere, I know, Galileo denies the possibility of straight-line unforced motion.

    I found Koyre’s discussion of the whole “circular inertia” topic, in his Galileo Studies, to be quite perceptive. Of course that’s pretty old now.

    • Although Galileo never gave a clean statement of the law of inertia in its Newtonian form, the translation of the Dialogue that Newton read did have the following marginal note (from Galileo): “The motion impressed by the projicient is onely in a right line.”

      Can you give a source for that? I’ve never heard it before.

      In the 3rd ed. of Principia Newton wrote in the scholium following the statement of the three laws:

      By means of the first two laws and the first two corollaries Galileo found that the decent of heavy bodies is the squared ratio of the time and that the motion of projectiles occurs in a parabola, as experiment confirms, except insofar as these motions are somewhat retarded by the resistance of the air.

      And yes Newton took the first law from Descartes who took it from Beeckman and not from Galileo as is often claimed. Of course by the time Principia was published Newton was denying ever having taken anything whatsoever from Descartes! Descartes of course had denied ever having taken anything whatsoever from Beeckman!

      • Michael Weiss

        As for the reference, it’s in the Stillman Drake article I mentioned above (“Newton’s Apple and Galileo’s Dialogue”, SciAm 243:2, (1980) p150-156). It occurs in the middle of the Second Day. It occurs near the beginning of Galileo’s fallacious argument that (to put it anachronistically) centrifugal force could never fling a stone off the Earth, no matter the speed of the diurnal rotation.

        In other words, Galileo did not really believe in Newton’s first law. Koyre’s explanation (which I think is right) is that because Galileo had only an Aristotelian concept of heaviness, but not a Newtonian[1] concept of gravity, he would not, could not imagine a projectile sailing off unaffected by it. The Descartes hypothetical, “what would a body do if it were weightless and in a vacuum?” was unacceptable to Galileo. (Cue the irony over Descartes’ denial of the vacuum.) Also Galileo ran afoul of a confusion between first and second order infinitesimals (anachronism license, again).

        Parenthetically: while Descartes deserves the credit for stating the law of inertia, I don’t think he really deserves the credit for understanding it. See Blackwell’s article “Descartes’ Laws of Motion”, Isis 57:2 (1966) p220-234. As for Beeckman, Koyre says that there is no evidence that he included direction in his notion of conservation of motion.

        Also, Koyre notes that Descartes gave credit to Beeckman for some result, once Descartes no longer believed in it. (Law of fall? Conservation of motion? I can’t remember.)

        Back to heliocentricity. OK, so by 1660 the Rudolphine tables had convinced all working astronomers that Kepler had gotten the kinematics right. When did it become generally accepted among natural philosophers that the Earth actually moved? And what convinced them? (My apologies if you’ve already covered this.)

      • Michael Weiss

        Rereading my reply, I think I should add one point to avoid confusion. The issue here is Galileo’s influence on Newton, i.e., what Newton might have concluded from his copy of Galileo’s Dialogue. The whole issue of “circular inertia” vis-a-vis Galileo is, as you know, complicated and contentious.

        Drake outlines a plausible mental path from Galileo’s fallacious argument, in the Dialogue, to Newton’s insight about the apple and the moon. He suggests that Newton may have followed this path. I find his argument mostly persuasive, but as Drake himself says, “I do not say ‘what it was,’ because there is no way to be certain of it, but I can suggest something it could well have been.”

  8. Jeb

    Real life does not work particularly well on the stage. P.V.C looks better than leather ,plastic plants can look more natural than the real thing. You move or talk as you do in life you look and sound weird.

    The one other reason for rejecting things drawn directly from life is often that audiences will not accept or believe.

    Reality can have a fictive quality that is unsettling and strange if you have not directly observed it. It can make for very restless and discomforted bums on seats as life as is presented on the stage can seem very unreal.

  9. Jeb

    I would cite as an example the tourist I saw getting on board a bus in Edinburgh. He was wearing a feathered hat and lederhosen and kept on repeating the question Princen Strasse? To the Driver, the driver repeatedly responded, Whit?

    Put that comedy of errors in a play I would have to seriously tone down the dress of the tourist if i wanted it accepted as fact rather than comedy. On the one occasion I was in a play that featured a Texan tourist, the costume designer choose not to go with the often seen reality for similar reasons.

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