365DaysDate:  February 22, 2009


Podcaster:  Mark Thompson

Description:  Although Galileo had achieved success in his career as a professor and inventor and had cultivated many important friendships among the most influential patricians of Venice, he longed to return to his beloved and beautiful Florence.  When Prince Cosimo became Grand Duke of Tuscany in February, 1609, Galileo redoubled his efforts for patronage, but did not promote himself publicly.  Rather he communicated his intentions discreetly to three confidants whose influence with the Grand Duke, he supposed, might yield the desired result.  Following this brief explanation, the podcast will consist of “Galileo’s” oral recitation of a letter to one of these confidants, which actually took place 400 years ago in February.

Links:  Galileo 1610

Bio:  Mark Thompson, a professional cantor and amateur astronomer, has appeared as Galileo on radio, at community theatres and libraries, public schools, colleges and universities throughout the country. He has performed as Galileo for civic organizations, astronomy association conventions, marketing and outreach programs as well as private events and parties since 1996.

Today’s Sponsor:  This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the Warren Astronomical Society, one of Michigan’s premier amateur astronomy groups.  Attend a great presentation or enjoy the sky at an observatory open house – visit for a schedule and more information.


Remember from our previous podcast, that the year 1609 did not begin particularly well for Galileo.  He was not only suffering from a recurrence of rheumatoid arthritis, but his foray into astrology at the behest of the Grand Duchess Christina at the Tuscan court was an abysmal failure.   From his analysis of a horoscope, Galileo had predicted the Grand Duke Ferdinand would recover from a serious illness but twenty-two days later the head of the Medici family in Florence was dead.

We will never know if Galileo suffered a blow to his prestige as a result of this miscalculation.  But if he did, certainly it was short-lived.   From time immemorial in the world of high-level politics and patronage, the death of leader always presents an opportunity for the talented opportunist to advance his own station and prestige, and as an aspiring worldly courtier, Galileo Galilei was no exception.   The reigns of power now lay in the hands of the young prince Cosimo, whom Galileo had tutored for several summers and to whom Galileo had provided instruction on fortifications and the use of his military compass.

There can be no denying that at this point in his life Galileo was ready for a major change.  Now, at age forty-five, having fathered three children with a woman, Marina Gamba, whom he never married, stuck in a dead-end low-paying job as a mathematics professor at the University of Padua, Galileo was debt-ridden and burned-out.   For years he had sought a way to gain patronage from the Medici family in Florence, so he could return to his ancestral home with security.   His predicament could not be stated in a more poignant or desperate fashion than in this letter which he wrote early in 1609 to a gentleman in Florence, probably a power broker in the Tuscan court whom he addressed as “Vespuccio” in this prolific run-on sentence:

“If his Highness, with his courtesy and humanity which distinguish him above all other men, would deign to take me under his service, thereby rendering me satisfied beyond overflowing, I would say without hesitation that having now labored for twenty years, and these the best years of my life, in dealing out, so to speak in retail, to all who choose to ask, that small portion of talent, which through God and my own labor, I have gained in my profession, my desire would be to possess so much rest and leisure as to be able to conclude three great works which I have in hand, and to publish them before I die.  This might possibly bring some credit to me, and also to those who had favored my undertaking…”

These three great works by the way, which are cited by Galileo most likely refer to The Dialogues on Motion, the Two Great Systems, and another, which is lost, one historian speculated was a work entitled: De Incessu Animalium.

Anyway, now referring to his present position in Il Serennisima, the beautiful republic of Venice, Galileo continues his lament:

“It is impossible to obtain from a republic, however splendid and generous, a stipend without duties attached to it; for to have anything from the public, one must work for the public, and as long as I am capable of lecturing and writing, the Republic cannot hold me exempt from my duty, while I enjoy the emolument.   In short, I have no hope of enjoying such ease and leisure as are necessary to me, except in the service of an absolute prince.”

Is anyone beginning to feel sorry for poor Galileo?   Well, let us hear more of what he has to say:

“But I would not that, from what I have said your lordships should think that I have unreasonable pretensions, as that I desire a stipend without merit and without service, for such is not my thought.  As to my merit, I have various inventions of which one alone should a great prince take delight in it, might suffice to place me above want for the rest of my life.”   For experience shows me that many discoveries of far less value have brought honor and riches to their discoverers.  And it has always been my intention to offer my inventions to my prince and natural master that he might do with both the invention and the inventor, according to his good pleasure.”

Galileo is well aware that a timely and well-placed gift or invention can sometimes do wonders to advance one’s career, but what novelty is he referring to here?  It is most likely not the lodestone which, in honor of Prince Cosimo’s marriage, Galileo had earlier cast into a globe-shaped impressa with small pieces of iron surrounding it, on which is inscribed the motto “vim facit amor” – love produces strength.   Certainly this invention  cannot be the telescope, since word of its creation would not reach Galileo until the summer of 1609!    So what could he promoting here?   Let’s listen in:

“Daily I discover new things, and if I had more leisure, and were able to employ more workmen, I should do much more in the way of experiment and invention.”

Apparently, he has nothing in hand at the moment, except empty promises.  But Galileo is supremely confident that he will devise some kind of contrivance that shall find great favor with the new Grand Duke of Tuscany.   Did he consult his own horoscope?  It would seem that Galileo has a talent for prediction after all– for in less than one year after writing this letter, having published his “Starry Messenger” and having dedicated the marvelous discoveries revealed therein to his patron Cosimo d’Medici, Galileo would indeed be in a position to dictate his own terms to the Grand Duke and achieve the prestige and position that he had long desired.   But, there is much more to that story which we will reveal in future episodes.

365 Days of Astronomy
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