Dionysius Lardner.

Eminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) online

. (page 1 of 34)
Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 1 of 34)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


3 3433 06727793 3

\ - O




f )

rrrrt :




I < < < '

< ,

< ,

! I

r i < C

t C I

(l , < '
i , .

< l < < ' i







TASSO - 96






GOLDON1 - - 213


MONTI - 303

UGO FOSCOLO - - - 353

VOL. ii. a






THE history of the life and labours of Galileo is preg-
nant with a peculiar interest to the general reader, as
well as to the philosopher. Plis brilliant discoveries, the
man of science regards as his peculiar property ; the
means by which they were made, and the developement
of his intellectual character, belong to the logician and
to the philosopher ; but the triumphs and the reverses
of his eventful life must be claimed for our common
nature, as a source of more than ordinary instruction.

The lengthened career which Providence assigned to
Galileo was filled up throughout its rugged outline with
events even of dramatic interest. But though it was
emblazoned with achievements of transcendent magni-
tude, yet his finest discoveries were the derision of his
contemporaries, and were even denounced as crimes
which merited the vengeance of Heaven. Though he
was the idol of his friends, and the favoured companion
of princes, yet he afterwards became the victim of per-
secution, and spent some of his last hours within the
walls of a prison ; and though the Almighty granted.



him, as it were, a new sight to descry unknown worlds
in the obscurity of space, yet the eyes which were al-
lowed to witness such wonders, were themselves doomed
to be closed in darkness.

Such were the lights and shadows in which history

" The starry Galileo with his woes." *

But, however powerful be their contrasts, they are not
unusual in their proportions. The balance which has
been struck between his days of good and evil, is that
which regulates the lot of man, whether we study it in
the despotic sway of the autocrat, in the peaceful en-
quiries of the philosopher, or in the humbler toils of or-
dinary life.

Galileo Galilei was born at Pisa, on the 15th of
February, 1564, and was the eldest of a family of three
sons and three daughters. Under the name of Bonajuti,
his noble ancestors had filled high offices at Florence ;
but about the middle of the 14th century they seem to
have abandoned this surname for that of Galileo. Vin-
cenzo Galilei, our author's father, was himself a phi-
losopher of no mean powers; and though his talents seem
to have been applied only in the composition of trea-
tises on the theory and practice of music, yet he appears
to have anticipated even his son in a just estimate of
the philosophy of the age, and in a distinct perception
of the true method of investigating truth, f

The early years of Galileo were, like those of almost
all great experimental philosophers, spent in the con-
struction of instruments and pieces of machinery, which
were calculated chiefly to amuse himself and his school-
fellows. This occupation of his hands, however, did
not interfere with his regular studies ; and though, from
the straitened circumstances of his father, he was edu-
cated under considerable disadvantages, yet he acquired
the elements of classical literature, and was initiated into
all the learning of the times. Music, drawing, and paint-

* Childe Harold, canto iv. stanza liv.
f Life of Galileo, Library of Useful Knowledge, p, 1.


ing were the occupations of his leisure hours ; and such
was his proficiency in these arts, that he was reckoned a
skilful performer on several musical instruments, espe-
cially the lute ; and his knowledge of pictures was held
in great esteem by some of the best artists of his day.

Galileo seems to have been desirous of following the
profession of a painter : but his father had Observed
decided indications of early genius ; and, though by no
means able to afford it, he resolved to send him to the
university to pursue the study of medicine. He ac-
cordingly enrolled himself as a scholar in arts at the
university of Pisa, on the 5th of November, 1.581, and
pursued his medical studies under the celebrated botanist
Andrew Caesalpinus, who filled the chair of medicine
from 156? to 1592.

In order to study the principles of music and draw-
ing, Galileo found it necessary to acquire some know-
ledge of geometry. His father seems to have fore-
seen the consequences of following this new pursuit,
and though he did not prohibit him from reading
Euclid under Ostilio Ricci, one of the professors at
Pisa, yet he watched his progress with the utmost
jealousy, and had resolved that it should not interfere
with his medical studies. The demonstrations, how-
ever, of the Greek mathematician had too many charms
for the ardent mind of Galileo. His whole attention was
engrossed with the new truths which burst upon his under-
standing ; and after many fruitless attempts to check his
ardour and direct his thoughts to professional objects^ his
father was obliged to surrender his parental control, and
allow the fullest scope to the genius of his son.

From the elementary works of geometry, Galileo
passed to the writings of Archimedes ; and while he
was studying the hydrostatical treatise * of the Syra-
cusan philosopher, he wrote his essay on the hydrcstati-
cal balance t, in which he describes the construction of
the instrument, and the method by which Archi-
medes detected the fraud committed by the jeweller

* De Insidentibus in Fluido.

f Opere di Galileo. Milann, 1810, vol. iv. p. 24*-

B 2


in the composition of Hiero's crown. This work gained
for its author the esteem of Guido Ubaldi, who had dis-
tinguished himself by his mechanical and mathematical
acquirements, and who engaged his young friend to inves-
tigate the subject of the centre of gravity in solid bodies.
The treatise on this subject, which Galileo presented to
his patron, was the source of his future success.

Through the cardinal del Monte, the brother-in-law of
Ubaldi, the reigning duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand de'
Medici, was made acquainted with the merits of our
young philosopher; and, in 1589, he was appointed
lecturer on mathematics at Pisa. By the drudgery of
private teaching he was obliged to add to the small
salary of sixty crowns which was attached to the office.

With this moderate competency, Galileo commenced
his philosophical career. At the early age of eighteen,
when he had entered the university, he displayed his
innate antipathy to the Aristotelian philosophy. This
feeling was strengthened by his earliest inquiries ; and
upon his establishment at Pisa, he seems to have re-
garded the doctrines of Aristotle as the intellectual prey
which, in his chace of glory, he was destined to pursue.
Nizzoli, who flourished near the beginning of the sixteenth
century, and Giordano Bruno, who was burned at Rome
in 1600, led the way in this daring pursuit ; but it was
reserved for Galileo to track the Thracian boar through
its native thickets, and., at the risk of his own life, to
strangle it in its den.

With the resolution of submitting every opinion to
the test of experiment, Galileo's first inquiries at Pisa
were directed to the mechanical doctrines of Aristotle.
Their incorrectness and absurdity soon became apparent ;
and with a zeal, perhaps, bordering on indiscretion, he
denounced them to his pupils with an ardour of manner
and of expression proportioned to his own conviction of
the truth. The detection of long-established errors is
apt to inspire the young philosopher with an exultation
which reason condemns. The feeling of triumph is
apt to clothe itself in the language of asperity ; and the


abettor, of erroneous opinions is treated as a species of
enemy to science. Like the soldier who fleshes his first
spear in battle, the philosopher is apt to leave the stain
of cruelty upon his early achievements. It is only from
age and experience, indeed, that we can expect the dis-
cretion of valour, whether it is called forth in contro-
versy or in battle. Galileo seems to have waged this
stern warfare against the followers of Aristotle ; and
such \vas the exasperation which was excited by his
reiterated and successful attacks, that he was assailed,
during the rest of his life, with a degree of rancour
which seldom originates in a mere difference of opinion.
Forgetting that all knowledge is progressive, and that
the errors of one generation call forth the comments,
and are replaced by the discoveries, of the next, Galileo
did not anticipate that his own speculations and incom-
pleted labours might one day provoke unmitigated cen-
sure ; and he therefore failed in making allowance for the
prejudices and ignorance of his opponents. He who
enjoys the proud lot of taking a position in advance of
his age, need not wonder that his less gifted contempora-
ries are left behind. Men are not necessarily obstinate
because they cleave to deeply rooted and venerable errors,
nor are they absolutely stupid when they are long in
understanding and embracing newly discovered truths.

It was one of the axioms of the Aristotelian me-
chanics, that the heavier of two falling bodies would
reach the ground sooner than the other, and that their
velocities would be proportional to their weights.
Galileo attacked the arguments by which this opinion
was supported ; and when he found his reasoning in-
effectual, he appealed to direct experiment. He main-
tained, that all bodies would fall through the same
height in the same time, if they were not unequally re-
tarded by the resistance of the air : and though he per-
formed the same experiment with the most satisfactory
results, by letting heavy bodies fall from the leaning
tower of Pisa; yet the Aristotelians, who with their
own eyes saw the unequal weights strike the ground

B 3


at the same instant,, ascribed the effect to some unknown
cause, and preferred the decision of their master to that
of nature herself.

Galileo could not brook this opposition to his dis-
coveries ; and the Aristotelians could not tolerate the
rebukes of their young instructor. The two parties were,
consequently, marshalled in hostile array ; when, for-
tunately for both, an event occurred, which placed them
beyond the reach of danger. Don Giovanni de' Medici,
a natural son of Cosmo, had proposed a method of
clearing out the harbour of Leghorn. Galileo, whose
opinion was requested, gave such an unfavourable report
upon it, that the disappointed inventor directed against
him all the force of his malice. It was an easy task
to concentrate the malignity of his enemies at Pisa ;
and so effectually was this accomplished, that Galileo
resolved to accept another professorship, to which he had
been previously invited.

The chair of mathematics in the university of Padua
having been vacant for five years, the republic of Venice
had resolved to fill it up ; and, on the recommendation
of Guido Ubaldi, Galileo was appointed to it, in 1 592,
for a period of six years.

In 1591, Galileo lost his father, who died at an ad-
vanced age, and devolved upon his eldest son the support
of the family. This event, probably, increased his
anxiety to better his situation, and must have added to his
other inducements to quit Pisa. In September, 1 5Q2,
he removed to Padua, where he had a salary of only
180 florins, and where he was obliged to add to his
income by the labours of tuition. Notwithstanding this
fruitless occupation of his time, he appears to have found
leisure for composing several of his works, and com-
pleting various inventions, which will be afterwards
described. His manuscripts were circulated privately
among his friends and pupils ; but some of them strayed
beyond this sacred limit, and found their way into the
hands of persons who did not scruple to claim and
publish, as their own, the discoveries and inventions
which they contained.


It is not easy to ascertain the exact time when
Galileo became a convert to the doctrines of Copernicus,
or the particular circumstances under which he was led
to adopt them. It is stated by Gerard Voss, that a
public lecture of Maestlin, the instructor of Kepler, was
the means of making Galileo acquainted with the true
system of the universe. This assertion., however, is by
no means probable ; and it has been ably shown, by the
latest biographer of Galileo*, that, in his dialogues on
the Copernican system, our author gives the true account
of his own conversion. This passage is so interesting,
that we shall give it entire.

" I cannot omit this opportunity of relating to you
what happened to myself at the time when this opinion
(the Copernican system) began to be discursed. I was
then a very young man, and had scarcely finished my
course of philosophy, which other occupations obliged
me to leave off, when there arrived in this country, from
Rostoch, a foreigner, whose name, I believe, was Christian
Vurstisius (Wurteisen), a follower of Copernicus. This
person delivered, on this subject, two or three lectures
in a certain academy, and to a crowded audience. Be-
lieving that several were attracted more by the novelty
of the subject than by any other cause, and being firmly
persuaded that this opinion was a piece of solemn folly,
I was unwilh'ng to be present. Upon interrogating,
however, some of those who were there, I found that they
all made it a subject of merriment, with the exception
of one, who assured me that it was not a thing wholly
ridiculous. As I considered this individual to be both
prudent and circumspect, I repented that I had not
attended the lectures j and, whenever I met any of the
followers of Copernicus, I began to inquire if they had
always been of the same opinion. I found that there
was not one of them who did not declare that he had
long maintained the very opposite opinions, and had not
gone over to the new doctrines till he was driven by
the force of argument. I next examined them one by

* Life of Galileo, in Library of Useful Knowledge, p. 9.

B 4


one, to see if they were masters of the arguments on the
opposite side ; and such was the readiness of their
answers, that I was satisfied they had not taken up this
opinion from ignorance or vanity. On the other hand,
whenever I interrogated the Peripatetics and the Ptole-
means (and, out of curiosity, I have interrogated not a
a few), respecting their perusal of Copernicus's work, I
perceived that there were few who had seen the book,
and not one who understood it. Nor have I omitted to
enquire among the foUowers of the Peripatetic doctrines,
if any of them had ever stood on the opposite side ; and
the result was, that there was not one. Considering, then,
that nobody followed the Copernican doctrine, who had not
previously held the contrary opinion, and who was not well
acquainted with the arguments of Aristotle and Ptolemy ;
while, on the other hand, nobody followed Ptolemy and
Aristotle, who had before adhered to Copernicus, and had
gone over from him into the camp of Aristotle ; weigh-
ing, I say, these things, I began to believe that, if any
one who rejects an opinion which he has imbibed with
his milk, and which has been embraced by an infinite
number, shall take up an opinion held only by a few,
condemned by all the schools, and really regarded as a
great paradox, it cannot be doubted that he must have
been induced, not to say driven, to embrace it by the
most cogent arguments. On this account, I have become
very curious to penetrate to the very bottom of the
subject." *

It appears, on the testimony of Galileo himself, that
he taught the Ptolemaic system, out of compliance with
the popular feeling, after he had convinced himself of
the truth of the Copernican doctrines. In the treatise
on the sphere, indeed, which bears his name t, and which
must have been written soon after he went to Padua,
and subsequently to 1592, the stability of the earth, and
the motion of the sun, are supported by the very argu-

* SystemaCosmicum, Dial. ii. p. 121.

t The authenticity of this work has been doubted. It was printed at
Rome, in 1656, from a MS. in the library of Somaachi, at Venice. See
Opere di Galileo, torn. viL p. 427.


ments which Galileo afterwards ridiculed ; hut we have
no means of determining whether or not he had then
adopted the true system of the universe. Although he
might have taught the Ptolemaic system in his lectures,,
after he had convinced himself of its falsehood ; yet it is
not likely that he would go so far as to publish to the
world; as true, the very doctrines which he despised. In
a letter to Kepler, dated in 1597, he distinctly states
that he had, many years ago, adopted the opinions of
Copernicus ; but that he had not yet dared to publish
his arguments in favour of them, and his refutation of
the opposite opinions. These facts would leave us to
place Galileo's conversion somewhere between 1593 and
1 597 ; although many years cannot be said to have
elapsed between these two dates.

At this early period of Galileo's life, in the year
1 593, he met with an accident, which had nearly proved
fatal. A party at Padua, of which he \vas one, were
enjoying, at an open window, a current of air, which was
artificially cooled by a fall of water. Galileo unfor-
tunately fell asleep under its influence ; and so powerful
was its effect upon his robust constitution, that he
contracted a severe chronic disorder, accompanied with
acute pains in his body, and loss of sleep and appetite,
which attacked him at intervals during the rest of his
life. Others of the party suffered still more severely,
and perished by their own rashness.

Galileo's reputation was now widely extended over
Europe; and the archduke Ferdinand (afterwards emperor
of Germany), the landgrave of Hesse, and the princes
of Alsace and Mantua honoured his lectures with their
presence. Prince Gustavus of Sweden also received
instructions from him in mathematics, during his
sojourn in Italy; and it has been supposed that this was
the celebrated Gustavus Adolphus.

When Galileo had completed the first period of his
engagement at Padua, he was re-elected for other six
years, with an increased salary of 320 florins. This
liberal addition to his income is ascribed by Fabbroni


to the malice of one of his enemies, who informed the
senate that Galileo was living in illicit intercourse with
Marina Gamba. Without inquiring into the truth of
the accusation, the senate is said to have replied, that if
" he had a family to support, he had the more need of
an increased salary." It is more likely that the liber-
ality of the republic had been called forth by the high
reputation of their professor, and that the terms of their
reply were intended only to rebuke the malignity of the
informer. The mode of expression would seem to
indicate that one or more of Galileo's children had been
born previous to his re-election in 1598 ; but as this is
scarcely consistent with other facts, we are disposed to
doubt the authenticity of Fabbroni's anecdote.

The new star, which attracted the notice of astrono-
mers in 1604, excited the particular attention of Galileo.
The observations which he made upon it, and the spe-
culations which they suggested, formed the subject of
three lectures, the beginning of the first of which only
has reached our times. From the absence of parallax,
he proved that the common hypothesis of its being a me-
teor was erroneous, and that, like the fixed stars, it was
situated far beyond the bounds of our own system. The
popularity of the subject attracted crowds to his lecture-
room ; and Galileo had the boldness to reproach his
hearers for taking so deep an interest in a temporary
phenomenon, while they passed unnoticed the wonders
of creation which were daily presented to their view.

In the year 1 606, Galileo was again appointed to the
professorship at Padua, with an augmented stipend of
520 florins. His popularity had now risen so high,
that his audience could not be accommodated in his
lecture -room ; and even when he had assembled them in
the school of medicine, which contained 1 000 persons,
he was frequently obliged to adjourn to the open air.

Among the variety of pursuits which occupied his
attention, w r as the examination of the properties of the
loadstone. In l6'07, he commenced his experiments;
but, with the exception of a method of arming loadstones,


which, according to the report of Sir Kenelm Digby, en-
abled them to carry twice as much weight as others, he
does not seem to have made any additions to our know-
ledge of magnetism. He appears to have studied with
care the admirable work of our countryman, Dr. Gil-
bert, " De Magnete/' which was published in 1600;
and he recognised, in the experiments and reasonings of
the English philosopher., the principles of that method
of investigating truth which he had himself adopted.
Gilbert died in l603, in the 63d year of his age, and
probably never read the fine compliment which was
paid to him by the Italian philosopher : "I ex-
tremely praise, admire, and envy this author."

In the preceding pages we have brought down the
history of Galileo's labours to that auspicious year in
which he first directed the telescope to the heavens. No
sooner was that noble instrument placed in his hands,
than Providence released him from his professional toils,
and supplied him with the fullest leisure and the amplest
means for pursuing and completing the grandest dis-

Although he had quitted the service and the domains
of his munificent patron, the grand duke of Tuscany,
yet he maintained his connection with the family, by
visiting Florence during his academic vacations, and
giving mathematical instruction to the younger branches
of that distinguished house. Cosmo, who had been one
of his pupils, now succeeded his father Ferdinand ; and
having his mind early imbued with a love of knowledge,
which had become hereditary in his family, he felt that
the residence of Galileo within his dominions and still
more his introduction into his household would do
honour to their common country, and reflect a lustre
upon his own name. In the year 1609, accordingly,
Cosmo made proposals to Galileo to return to his ori-
ginal situation at Pisa. These overtures were gratefully
received ; and in the arrangements which Galileo on
this occasion suggested, as well as in the manner in
which thev were urged, we obtain some insight into


his temper and character. He informs the correspond-
ent through whom Cosmo's offer was conveyed, that
his salary of 520 florins at Padua would be increased to
as many crowns at his re-election ; and that he could
enlarge his income to any extent he pleased, hy giving
private lectures, and receiving pupils. His public duties,
he stated, occupied him only sixty half-hours in the
year ; but his studies suffered such interruptions from
the domestic pupils and private lectures, that his most
ardent wish was to be relieved from them, in order that
he might have sufficient rest and leisure, before the close
of his life, to finish and publish those great works which
he had in hand. In the event, therefore, of his returning
to Pisa, he hoped that it would be the first object of
his serene highness to give him leisure to complete
his w r orks without the drudgery of lecturing. He ex-
presses his anxiety to gain his bread by his writings,
and he promises to dedicate them to his serene master.
He enumerates, among these books, two on the system
of the universe ; three on local motion ; three books of
mechanics ; two on the demonstration of principles, and
one of problems ; besides treatises on sound and speech,
on light and colours, on the tides, on the composition of
continuous quantity, on the motions of animals, and on the
military art On the subject of his salary, he makes the
following curious observations :

" I say nothing," says he, " on the amount of my
salary ; being convinced that, as I am to live upon it, the
graciousness of his highness would not deprive me of

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 1 of 34)