The Private Lives of Galileo

By Paul Theerman, Associate Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

February 15, 1564, is Galileo’s birthday according to the Julian calendar; in our Gregorian calendar the date is February 26. Our collections hold two of his books published during his lifetime: Dialogues on two world systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican (1632) and Discourses on two new sciences (1638). The first was the book that got him into trouble with the Church, eventually leading to his sentencing and house arrest for his defense of Copernicus’ sun-centered astronomy. The second was in a sense his vindication, a physical treatise that was a summation of his investigations into the strengths of materials and the motions of bodies. As Galileo was forbidden to publish, the manuscript was smuggled abroad and appeared in Leiden, away from the censoring arm of the Church.

The mid-nineteenth century saw a flowering of biographical works on Galileo and other scientists. Biographies of scientists allow many things to happen: first of all, they become the occasion to do some popular science writing. Second, they often lend themselves to a progressive narrative, positioning a discovery, insight, or theory into a triumphant march of knowledge and improvement, undertaken against regressive forces of oppression. Finally, biographies provide narratives that shed light on individual motives and character, holding up personal qualities as keys to broader cultural and social understanding.

Galileo Galilei (1564–1642).  Frontispiece of Allan-Olney, The Private Life of Galileo, 1870.

Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). Frontispiece of Allan-Olney, The Private Life of Galileo, 1870.

Nineteenth-century biographies of scientists did all three. But often they did so in ways that defy our expectations.

One early effort in English was David Brewster’s The Martyrs of Science (1841), subtitled “The Lives of Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler.” A noted Scottish natural scientist (who had written a biography of Isaac Newton some 10 years previously), Brewster refused to follow the usual script for discussing Galileo: noble scientific reason versus conniving religious superstition. While the theme of “science versus religion” was present in his biography, a stronger argument was that Galileo brought his calamities on himself, and all the worse for the rest of us! Galileo evinced cowardice for giving in to the Inquisition: “what excuse can we devise for the humiliating confession and abjuration of Galileo?”1 Adding cowardice to his rashness, his sarcasm, and his boldness, Galileo ensured that the cause of truth—the reality of Copernicus’ sun-centered system—was set back for centuries:

One of the most prominent traits in the character of Galileo was his invincible love of truth. . . . His views, however, were too liberal, and too far in advance of the age which he adorned; and however much we may admire the noble spirit which he evinced, and the personal sacrifices which he made, in his struggle for truth, we must yet lament the hotness of his zeal and the temerity of his onset. . . . Under the sagacious and peaceful sway of Copernicus, astronomy had effected a glorious triumph over the dogmas of the Church; but under the bold and uncompromising sceptre of Galileo all her conquests were irrecoverably lost.2

After Brewster’s book, Galileo studies began in earnest, notably in Italy in the 1850s and ’60s. Of particular interest was Galileo’s correspondence with his daughter, a Franciscan nun, Suor Maria Celeste.3 Twenty-seven of her letters were published in Florence in 1852, and 121 in 1863. The correspondence formed the basis for an anonymously published biography, The Private Life of Galileo (1870). The author was Mary Allan-Olney, an Englishwoman, about whom nothing more has been found except her books: the novels, Junia (1878), Estelle Russell (1880), and Harmonia (1887); a two- volume travel narrative of life in Virginia under Reconstruction, The New Virginians, (1880); and The Private Life of Galileo.


Title page of Allan-Olney, The Private Life of Galileo, 1870. “Galileo’s Tower” is his house at Arcetri, outside Florence, adjacent to the convent where his daughters resided, and where he remained under house arrest after his condemnation.

Allan-Olney focused her biography on the celebrated trial. The biography’s backdrop was the first Vatican conference, running 1868 through 1870, which affirmed the infallibility of the Pope. She wrote that Galileo’s sentence had not been signed by the Pope, thus leaving it in the realm of the fallible!4 She concluded her book with two appendices, translations of the Inquisition’s sentence and Galileo’s abjuration.

Galileo’s daughter, Suor Maria Celeste (1600–1634), via the University of Maryland.

Galileo’s daughter, Suor Maria Celeste (1600–1634), via the University of Maryland.

Just as Brewster wished to make character the touchstone of the story, so did Allan-Olney. She saw Galileo as paterfamilias, benevolent toward his pupils as well as his children and family.5 And if rashness and ambition were Galileo’s besetting sins according to Brewster, for Allan-Olney these were a too-generous spirit and a naiveté towards the ways of the world. She brings out the richness and softness of the letters that Suor Maria Celeste wrote her father (his letters have not survived), and highlights the generosity that Galileo showed to his son, daughters, and pupils. If Galileo has “secret enemies in court” and is subject to the “ill will of the Jesuits”6, he nonetheless supports his extended family, often in the face of their ingratitude. His pupils no less benefited from his generosity, as Allan-Olney often attests, but in their case it was from his generosity of mind:

This letter [sent by pupil Paolo Aproino] is another instance of the undying attachment which Galileo’s pupils felt toward their great teacher. Aproino refers to the time he spent in Padua while studying mathematics under Galileo in terms of enthusiasm, and thanks God daily “that he had for his master the greatest man the earth had ever seen.”7

Allan-Olney ends her biography with these words:

Pages might be filled with expressions of gratitude and affection such as these, culled from the correspondence of Galileo’s disciples. And truly, the great master himself might adjudge them to be of higher value as a testimony to his merit, than the marble monument under which his body now lies in Santa Croce [church, in Florence].8

To this day, Galileo sparks interest—two major biographies were published within the last five years.9 And, like these two 19th-century authors, each writer needs to come to terms with the man behind the story. Only these days, character is not held to be the key.


1. Brewster, Martyrs, p. 94.

2. Brewster, Martyrs, pp. 117–18.

3. Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo, 1623–1633, translated and annotated by Dava Sobel (Walker Publishing Co., 2001), especially p. xiii.

4. Allan-Olney, Private Life of Galileo, p. 260.

5. The stretching of Galileo’s life to fit a mid-19th-century ethic shows its strains. The hero of this story, Galileo, showed his concern for his daughters—all three of his children were illegitimate, but his youngest, a boy, was legitimized to allow him a place in society—by placing them as vowed nuns in a monastery when they were 13 and a bit younger (the birthdate of the second daughter is in doubt). The letters between Galileo and his oldest child show signs of real affection, though, which Allan-Olney then uses as the center of her work.

6. These are chapter subheads in Private Life of Galileo.

7. Allan-Olney, Private Life of Galileo, p. 208.

8. Allan-Olney, Private Life of Galileo, p. 298.

9. John Heilbron, Galileo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); and David Wootton, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

3 thoughts on “The Private Lives of Galileo

  1. Do you suppose Dava Sobel used Allan-Olney’s book as a guide when writing “Galileo’s Daughter?” That is a marvelous book, and it didn’t shy away from the complexities of Galileo’s character.

    • Ms. Sobel lists the book in her bibliography, so she used it and no doubt learned from it, but she also tells her own story!

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