By Jean Marie Carey

On 26 February 1616, Galileo Galilei was formally banned and banished by the Roman Catholic Church for teaching and defending the opinion that the Earth orbits the Sun. The geocentric model of the universe, in which the Earth is at the center of all the celestial bodies, was the agreed upon version of the heavens, with a literal interpretation of biblical scripture cited in several places. Galileo had theorized an astronomical model in which the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun at the center of the solar system.

The church did not officially rectify its error until 31 October 1992, when Pope John Paul redacted the church’s 1633 condemnation of Galileo. The condemnation, which forced the astronomer and physicist to recant his discoveries, led to Galileo’s house arrest for eight years before his death in 1642 at the age of 77.

What Galileo achieved in revolutionizing physics was to show how observation, careful measurement, and attention to the structure of a given event all led to an appreciation of hidden causes that ultimately expressed the pervasive mathematical unity of all nature.

When Galileo died in 1642, Pope Urban VIII did not forget his feud with the loquacious polymath, and refused to permit Galileo’s burial with a suitable monument. Instead, Galileo was buried unceremoniously in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence. Later were his remains moved to their present magnificent tomb, opposite that of Michelangelo, near the entrance to the church.

Italian Renaissance artists — painters, sculptors and architects — had been observing nature with a special interest in depicting it faithfully and realistically from the early 15th century on. In fact, by turning to the problem of art and science in the Renaissance, it is possible to find the roots for Galileo’s own realistic — and idealistic — approach to nature. The values and attitudes Galileo held were ones he shared with Italian humanists, including philosophers, artisans, and even musicians.

Galileo Galilei was born near Pisa in 1564—the same year in which Shakespeare was born and the year in which Michelangelo died. After studying at the University of Pisa, he was appointed to the chair of mathematics. It was in Pisa that the famous leaning tower might well have suggested Galileo’s most famous experiment, demonstrating the power of gravity.

Reference: Ian Ridpath.  “Galileo Galilei.“ In A Dictionary of Astronomy: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Galileo’s astrolabe, c. 1600. Museo nazionale della scienza e della tecnica di Milano.  

“Galileo’s Lamp,” 1586, Pisa, Italy. Scala Archives.

Ottavio Leoni, Portrait of Galileo, 1624, engraving and etching. The Fitzwilliam Museum.

Galileo Galilei, Study of a mechanical clock, 1637-41. Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze.

Galileo Galilei, Study of the Moon, 1610. Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze.

Tower of Pisa, Pisa Baptistry, 1173-1372. Photo Saffron Blaze.

Galileo Gallilei. Image of the moon, from Galileo’s presentation copy of the Sidereus nuncius, 1610. History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries.

Bust of Galileo, Giambattosta Foggini, Tomb of Galileo, Santa Croce, Florence, 1727.

Virgin Mary (detail), Ludovico Cigoli, Assumption of the Virgin, 1612. Pauline Chapel, Santa Maria Maggiore. “Clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet,” (Apocalypse 12:1).

Further Reading: J. L. Heilbron and Victor Bevine. Galileo. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 

 John Hyman. The Objective Eye: Color, Form, and Reality in the Theory of Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 

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