My Books of 2018: The Crime of Galileo

“A great and rigid authoritarian administration with a thought police which is supposed to know all should at least keep its records straight.”

De Santillana, The Crime of Galileo. 1955. Page 263

The Crime of Galileo by Giorgio De Santillana (Goodreads)

“Galileus Galileus Florentinus” by Ottavio Leoni. Painted 1624. Source: Wikimedia

In school I only learned the most basic information about Galileo: that he was a genius scientist and polymath who sought to prove that the Earth orbited the Sun, at a time when the accepted view was that the Sun went around the Earth. That the Roman Catholic Church opposed him, and when he would not recant, employed the Inquisition to see that his writings were banned and he himself was put under house arrest. The reality is far more complicated. For example, at first the church had little problem with his writings; rather, it was other academics who first became hostile to Galileo and who were suspicious of applied mathematics. Throughout his life there were certain groups, especially, it seems, of the Dominican Order, who declared themselves his enemy and worked tirelessly to turn the Church bureaucracy against him, even when he often had the support of powerful church officials, and sometimes even of popes. Galileo himself bent over backwards to avoid getting in trouble with the Church; he had no fear of controversy so long as the authorities granted him the right to debate on equal footing, but he took care to avoid needless provocation. Still, drama and frustration seemed unavoidable. His life was full of mountains and valleys, and it’s something of a wonder how much data this book is able to collate and make into a single, understandable story.

“…it was clearly established among all concerned, with the possible lone exception of the Pope himself, who stood there in the solitary unawareness of despots, that Galileo’s trial was based on a judicial forgery, although it could not be stated explicitly without bringing about a diplomatic crisis.” (297)

Giorgio De Santillana’s examination of Galileo and his world is packed tightly with extracts from letters, legal documents, private memoirs, contemporary published works, Inquisition files, and many other primary documents. With an impressive attention to detail, and a strong belief in the humanity behind each historical character, he stitches together a saga based on fact, that reaches beyond the narrow confines of the Florentine scholar’s books and touches not only other aspects of his life, but the many aspects of the lives of every significant player in his story. So we learn not only what Galileo Galilei wrote about the movements of the sun and earth, but also of his personal friendships, his relationships with the Catholic and Protestant denominations, his health problems, his hopes and desires and disappointments. And then when another major character enters the picture, say the Duke of Tuscany or Cardinal Bellarmine, we dive into their own life to try to understand just who they were and why they did what they did at the time of Galileo’s story. I was continually surprised by just how much contemporary evidence there is for all of this. De Santillana will quote from characters who were very minor in history, who perhaps made only one or two important contributions to Galileo’s life, and yet De Santillana has found this person’s diary, and in it something which sheds new light on these events. It’s a dense approach, to be sure, and makes for heavy reading. Heavy, but riveting.

“Moralist historians do not seem to notice that their perspective is that of believers in another religion…They forget [Galileo] was a member of the Apostolic Roman communion and had to submit in some way. Quite apart from the personal inconvenience of being burnt at the stake…” (278)


5 thoughts on “My Books of 2018: The Crime of Galileo

  1. Fascinating! I’m constantly surprised by how superficial what I learned in school seems to be. I know there’s limited time, but sometimes it feels like we all “know” a certain historical figure, when really all I could give is a two-sentence biography.

    1. Yup. I have a degree in history and had several fairly focused classes, and have an abiding love for the stuff, yet when I read a well-researched book or article in my own specialization I feel very much the ignorant layman.

    1. That’s certainly how I found it. It took me a long time to get through because of all the detail, but they were mostly relevant and I did find the writing style very readable and interesting. Occasionally quite witty and funny too, when the author lets his own opinions through. I got the feeling that he’d spent so much time with these historical figures that he sometimes viewed them with the wryness often applied to family members or at least lively, troublesome coworkers.

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