Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A new angle on the whole Galileo Affair

Here is an example that highlights the excitement of discovery in history. The first biography of Galileo, written only 20 years after his death, has been (re)discovered, and it may alter our view of the whole Galileo Affair. However, the story of the lost biography itself is quite interesting and is definitely worth a read (hat tip Stranger Fruit):

Following Galileo's death, his apprentice, Vincenzo Viviani, collected Galileo's books and correspondences and announced his intention to write the definitive history of Galileo. Due to Viviani's privileged position, most other would-be biographers deferred to him. But by the 1660s, Viviani still had not written his promised masterpiece.

Enter Thomas Salusbury, an English historian who in 1664 published his Galilean oeuvre, Mathematical Collections and Translations. Composed of two volumes, the collection contained translations of Galileo's various discourses, letters, and the first book-length depiction of Galileo's life.

Then in 1666, the Great Fire of London swept through the city. The book trade in particular was badly hit; many publishing houses became piles of ashes overnight. In the inferno, all but a single copy of Salusbury's biography were lost. Salusbury died at about the same time—possibly in the fire, or maybe from the plague. By late 1666, Mrs. Susan Salusbury was a known widow.

But the book lived on. It passed through various hands before, in 1749, it wound up in the private library of George Parker, Second Earl of Macclesfield, a respected amateur astronomer. The 1830s marked the last time that the book was directly quoted. After that, the trail goes cold. Historians searched the Macclesfield library again and again, only to wind up empty-handed, and most were resigned to the fact that the book was lost.

In 2003, Richard Parker, the Ninth Earl of Macclesfield, was evicted from the family castle following a bitter property dispute with the castle's management company, whose shareholders included his own relatives. The 30-year family feud precipitating the eviction was based on, as the presiding judge put it, simple "palpable dislike." Upon his ousting, the Earl auctioned off the contents of the castle's three libraries.

Nick Wilding, an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, heard the libraries were up for auction and immediately called the Sotheby's representative in charge of the affair. Wilding asked him, doubtfully, if in the collection he had chanced across a particular title: Galilaeus Galilaeus His Life: In Five Books, by Thomas Salusbury. "To my surprise, he said, 'Why, yes, actually. I've got it right here,'" Wilding recalls. He hopped on the next plane to London.

Perusing the tattered tome at Sotheby's auction house, Wilding became the first person to study Salusbury's mysterious biography of Galileo in almost 200 years. Inside the timeworn document itself, Wilding discovered clues that allowed him to piece together its elusive, seemingly cursed history.

But the important question is about Salusbury's view of Galileo's trial:

Not that modern scholars give much credence to the traditional science-vs.-religion interpretation of the trial. Most Galilean researchers today agree that politics played a much bigger role than religious closed-mindedness, but there is spirited disagreement about the specifics. Some think the pope was angry at being parodied by Galileo's character Simplicius in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems­. Other scholars have suggested that church leaders felt Galileo had tricked them into granting him a license to write the book by not revealing its Copernican leanings. But "Salusbury's explanation is kind of refreshingly new," Wilding says.

Here is the main point:

It goes like this: In the middle of the Thirty Years' War between the Holy Roman Empire and almost every major power in Europe, tensions were high between Tuscany and Rome. The Tuscan Duke of Medici had refused to aid Rome in its war efforts against France. Pope Urban VIII decided to punish the Duke by arresting the Duke's personal friend, Galileo.

Whatever its motivation, the Roman court found Galileo guilty of heresy and placed him under house arrest. He spent the first five years of his sentence in a small house near Florence, where he continued to publish work on the science of motion, and the next—and last—four years of his life confined to another home in Florence closer to his doctors.

Salisbury, of course, can still be wrong. However, it is an interesting take, and it can certainly impact on the way we look at Galileo's trial:

"No other historian in the 350 years after the trial has ever proposed the theory" that the Pope persecuted Galileo to punish the Duke of Medici, Wilding says. Written only 20 years after Galileo's death, the newfound biography represents one of the earliest explanations for the trial ever recorded. "To me, it feels right," Wilding says. The idea "might provide some closure to a still-festering wound."

But Wilding admits that Salusbury himself could be projecting his own interpretations on the event. That's the view Galilean historian Paula Findlen, at Stanford University, takes. To her, the accuracy of Salusbury's claims is less interesting than the fact that Salusbury is claiming them at all. "It's interesting to see how people at that time, from outside Italy, are starting to reconstruct Galileo's life," Findlen says. It shows that people immediately recognized the importance of Galileo, of his works and of his trial. And not only did they grasp the significance, they also suspected that politics was at the root of the trial, even then. "Even if you disagree with Salusbury's interpretation, it reinforces the idea that people knew there was something deeply political about the whole thing."

This is very cool! Read the full article here.