Galileo Courtier

Galileo Courtier

Galileo Courtier recasts Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) as a member of the court, a role which allowed him to self-fashion a new socioprofessional identity as a mathematical astronomer/philosopher. Author Mario Biagioli argues that the identity that Galileo created was a new one, and that it was made possible through the social world of patronage systems and Galileo’s skilled maneuvering through them. Biagioli traces Galileo’s trajectory through multiple patronage networks; beginning with Galileo’s time as professor at the University of Padua, Biagioli goes on to explain how the mathematician presented himself and his discoveries to the powerful Medicis in order to gain their support. The latter half of the book covers Galileo’s transition into the Roman court, where different practices and customs made the game of patronage an altogether new one. While Galileo was successful there as well in the beginning, it was a crisis of patronage, Biagioli argues, that ultimately led to his condemnation in 1633. It was the patronage system that brought Galileo professional and financial success, and it was the patronage system that brought about his ruin.

I can find no fault with the first third of Biagioli’s work. The arguments run smoothly, and the evidence is plentiful; the footnotes are well done, and it is obvious that the author did an immense amount of research. If his thesis is problematic, the book must at least have some value in bringing to light many aspects of Galileo’s life previously under-researched. That being said, the rest of the book has some outstanding problems. Chapter four, “The Anthropology of Incommensurability,” seems out of place. It attempts to analyze court disputes in Kuhnian terminology, and what appears to be the conclusion — that scientific bilinguality is unique to proponents of the new “paradigm” — is arguably irrelevant to Biagioli’s narrative. There is additionally the issue that much of Galileo’s most important scientific contributions, including The Two Sciences and his pre-Florentine work in mechanics and mathematics, fall outside the restricted years of analysis that Biagioli sets up.

Also notably missing from Biagioli’s analysis of Galileo’s career as a courtier is the ethical dimension of court life as elucidated by contemporary political commentators. In his chapter on the topic, Robert Harding outlines what was seen as morally correct behavior of patrons, which included a desire for men of noble birth to be placed in the role of client before less noteworthy candidates. Men of power were supposed to perpetuate the social hierarchy as the natural state of affairs. Lesser nobles, or men who found fame through alternate routes (such as Galileo through his discoveries) were given varying degrees of approval by different commentators.[1] Gifts like Galileo’s distribution of telescopes could also reek of corruption if they were meant to entice beneficiaries to away from their “prior loyalties and obligations.”[2] How could these ethical dynamics have influenced Galileo’s career as a courtier, and could they have contributed to his downfall in the more cosmopolitan court of Rome? Could part of the reason he fell so far be that, ethically speaking, he was out of line in being there in the first place?

[1] Robert Harding, “Corruption and the Moral Boundaries of Patronage in the Renaissance,” in Patronage in the Renaissance, ed. Guy Fitch Lytle and Stephen Orgel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981): 54.

[2] Ibid, 56.

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