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The Status of Women in Galileo’s Time

by Mark Covington and Amit Mistry

As one reads these letters, one quickly realizes that Maria Celeste lived in a very different time and place. Galileo and his daughter had a relationship quite different from that between a typical father and daughter in twentieth-century America. Each letter is addressed to her "Most Illustrious and Beloved Lord Father", and throughout the letters, she refers to Galileo as "Signore", the Italian equivalent of "sir". From a modern perspective this formality appears strange and foreign. In addition, throughout her letters Maria Celeste expresses nothing but immeasurable devotion and loyalty to her father. Although much of this is explained by the love she had for him, further explanation is necessary.

To understand Maria Celeste's great respect for Galileo and the formality of her letters, one must first understand that women during this time had very different roles in society. Maria Celeste's reverence for her father was not uncommon in the seventeenth century. In this male-dominated society, a woman was subservient to her father until she married. Men were the heads of almost all households and kinship was traced along male lines. Women were temporary members of these households; they were transferred by marriage, divorce, or entry into a convent. A good father raised a large dowry for his daughter so that she could be accepted into a respectable family. The daughter then became servant to her new family.

If a married woman became widowed, the dowry that she had brought into the marriage became her own. It is important to understand, however, that one's economic status was not as important as one's social standing: despite having a significant economic place in society, a woman's social rank depended on that of her father or husband. A woman alone was perceived as weak, distrustful, and uncaring towards her children. In general, women were often characterized as temptresses who were more likely to sin. In Florentine society, the two main options for unmarried women of respectable families were either to enter a convent or to marry.

Galileo did not marry his children's mother, Marina Gamba, for it would not have been an honorable arrangement. Marina Gamba was much younger than Galileo and was of a lower social standing. Yet Galileo was still financially responsible for the family he and Marina were creating. Since Galileo's father had passed away relatively early, Galileo was also left with responsibility of providing a dowry of his sister, Virginia Galilei Landucci. The cost of maintaining his sister, Marina Gamba, and raising three children was a great strain on Galileo's budget. His salary as professor of mathematics at the University of Padua was inadequate, and he therefore took in boarding students and sold mathematical instruments of his own design. Yet, several times he had to borrow money in order to pay an installment of the dowry.

In 1610, Galileo moved to Florence with his two daughters, Virginia and Livia, leaving their mother and his four-year old son behind. Since his daughters were born out of wedlock, he would have to raise enormous dowries if they were to make a good marriage, and Galileo's income was inadequate for this. The best option for him was to send his daughters to a convent. In a convent the daughters maintained allegiance to their father. Hence, Galileo remained lord over Maria Celeste and therefore was owed the respect given by her.

While his daughters were still very young, Galileo secured places for Virginia (later Suor Maria Celeste) and Livia (later Suor Arcangela) in the convent at San Matteo in Arcetri, a few miles from Florence. Both took the veil at age 16. As a nun living in a convent, Maria Celeste was forbidden to go outside the convent walls. However, she still maintained a intimate relationship with her father, as can be seen from the letters written by her over the period 1623-1633. No letters to or from sister Arcangela (who had a personality very different form Maria Celeste's) survive.

From her letters we can see that Maria Celeste was an active participant in the affairs of the convent. It was perhaps this social quality that gave her the dedication to write so often to her father, but perhaps she also wrote to provide a diversion from the strict schedule that the nuns were required to follow. It is apparent from her letters that she also was well educated, which was somewhat unusual for a woman of her circumstances. For example, her father trusted her to take care of the house while he was on trial in Rome. She had full control over his household and finances. While she often wrote Galileo asking for assistance in certain matters, it is clear that, although she could not leave the walls of the convent, she was fully able to manage Galileo’s household.

In April 1617, Galileo moved to a villa atop a hill called Bellosguardo. From there, it was only a three-quarters of an hour trip by foot or mule to the convent. It is known that Galileo did visit occasionally to perform chores and help the convent in other ways, but sickness, especially later in his life, prevented him from making the trip more often. In the many letters written by Maria Celeste during this period, it is obvious that she desperately longed for him to be closer. "I find my thoughts stay fixed on you day and night, and many times I rue the great remove that bars me from being able to hear daily news of you, as I would so desire" (Dec. 4, 1630). Galileo felt the same way, and eventually, in September 1631, he moved to a historic villa in close proximity to the convent that he had found with the help of Maria Celeste. From this home, called "Il Gioiello" (The Jewel), Galileo was able to visit Maria Celeste more often. During this time, Galileo was in the process of publishing his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Because of the Church’s reaction to this book, he was forced to travel to Rome to stand trial in 1633. Maria Celeste wrote several letters to Rome during his trial; Galileo’s replies are, unfortunately, lost.

The modern reader is truck by the quality of Maria Celeste's language and her obvious intelligence. She was educated, eloquent, and interested in her father’s studies. It was not easy for a woman in her situation to acquire books and learn about the world around her. Yet she found ways to satisfy her curiosity. Her Latin was poor because she had not been formally trained in it, but when Galileo published The Assayer in Italian (1623), Maria Celeste politely requested a copy.

Her cousin, Vincenzio Landucci, was much less dedicated in his letter writing. Maria Celeste had to send him letters, "to jog his memory that we are still alive, which he seems to have forgotten, as he never writes us a line" (March 4, 1627). His sole purpose for staying in contact with the family was to pursue a lawsuit against Galileo for an allowance that Galileo had stopped paying when Vincenzio became an adult. This obligation and the frequent requests for money from Maria Celeste and other members of the extended Galileo family were quite a strain on Galileo’s finances. However, it should be noted that Maria Celeste made no superfluous requests for money. On the contrary, she actually lived a life of poverty, sleeping on the floor of a shared room in the convent because, having given up her own room to a sister who needed it more than she did, she did not have the funds to secure another room for herself.

Her convent was quite poor and the Sisters were forced to support themselves through the sale of pastries and other food items that they prepared or grew themselves. Maria Celeste would send some of the convent’s pastries along with nearly all of her letters to her father. Galileo often returned the favor by sending, along with his letters, rare fruits and supplies the convent needed. Unfortunately all the letters Galileo wrote to Maria Celeste are lost.

It is through Maria Celeste’s letters that we learn about her extraordinary caring nature. Although many of her letters requested money from her father, she also prayed for him, cared for his physical and moral well-being, and frequently expressed her love for him. She took care of his clothes and baked pastries for him. While Galileo was in Rome, she often sent medicines that would protect him from catching "the evil pestilence", the bubonic plague that was then raging in Italy. Almost every letter contained an inquiry about the aging father’s health. But Maria Celeste's concern went beyond Galileo’s physical well-being. She also cared for his soul. She warned him about his excesses and prayed for him while he was on trial in Rome: "I console myself and cling to the expectation of a happy and prosperous triumph, with the help of blessed God, to Whom my heart never ceases to cry out, commending you with all the love and trust it contains" (April 20, 1633). To the convent, Maria Celeste was a mother figure who cared and worked hard for her fellow nuns. She often wrote to Galileo about her worries for her sister, Suor Arcangela, when she turned suicidal. When her good friend Suor Luisa became sick, she cared for her until she became better. Her average day describes her commitment to the convent. "The fact is, Sire, with Suor Oretta having been stricken several days ago by a catarrh in the small of her back, and thus unable to exert herself, I have had to assume most of the responsibilities of the Provider's office and between this and my other duties, I am reduced to writing at midnight and assailing my sleep, so that I fear I may I may say something inappropriate. I take delight, however, in hearing that you guard your health, Sire, and I pray blessed God to keep you well" (March 19, 1632). That final statement eloquently sums up not only her devotion to the convent, but also her devotion to her father.


Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter (New York: Walker and Company, 1999).

Christane Klapisch-Zuber, Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

1995 Al Van Helden
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