Great Astronomers HTML version
Among the ranks of the great astronomers it would be difficult to find one whose life
presents more interesting features and remarkable vicissitudes than does that of Galileo.
We may consider him as the patient investigator and brilliant discoverer. We may
consider him in his private relations, especially to his daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, a
woman of very remarkable character; and we have also the pathetic drama at the close of
Galileo's life, when the philosopher drew down upon himself the thunders of the
The materials for the sketch of this astonishing man are sufficiently abundant. We make
special use in this place of those charming letters which his daughter wrote to him from
her convent home. More than a hundred of these have been preserved, and it may well be
doubted whether any more beautiful and touching series of letters addressed to a parent
by a dearly loved child have ever been written. An admirable account of this
correspondence is contained in a little book entitled "The Private Life of Galileo,"
published anonymously by Messrs. Macmillan in 1870, and I have been much indebted to
the author of that volume for many of the facts contained in this chapter.
Galileo was born at Pisa, on 18th February, 1564. He was the eldest son of Vincenzo de'
Bonajuti de' Galilei, a Florentine noble. Notwithstanding his illustrious birth and descent,
it would seem that the home in which the great philosopher's childhood was spent was an
impoverished one. It was obvious at least that the young Galileo would have to be
provided with some profession by which he might earn a livelihood. From his father he
derived both by inheritance and by precept a keen taste for music, and it appears that he
became an excellent performer on the lute. He was also endowed with considerable
artistic power, which he cultivated diligently. Indeed, it would seem that for some time
the future astronomer entertained the idea of devoting himself to painting as a profession.
His father, however, decided that he should study medicine. Accordingly, we find that
when Galileo was seventeen years of age, and had added a knowledge of Greek and Latin
to his acquaintance with the fine arts, he was duly entered at the University of Pisa.
Here the young philosopher obtained some inkling of mathematics, whereupon he
became so much interested in this branch of science, that he begged to be allowed to
study geometry. In compliance with his request, his father permitted a tutor to be engaged
for this purpose; but he did so with reluctance, fearing that the attention of the young
student might thus be withdrawn from that medical work which was regarded as his
primary occupation. The event speedily proved that these anxieties were not without
some justification. The propositions of Euclid proved so engrossing to Galileo that it was
thought wise to avoid further distraction by terminating the mathematical tutor's
engagement. But it was too late for the desired end to be attained. Galileo had now made
such progress that he was able to continue his geometrical studies by himself. Presently
he advanced to that famous 47th proposition which won his lively admiration, and on he
went until he had mastered the six books of Euclid, which was a considerable
achievement for those days.