by cheri block
If I had been a guest at the Florentine Court presided over by her Most Serene Highness the Grand Duchess Christina de’ Medici, I surely would have been treated to one of Galileo’s post-dinner debates, billed as “entertainment.”
Such debates with the ultra-scholarly Jesuits (God’s Marines) or the Dominicans of the day were, as author Mario Biagioli characterized them, “dangerous games.” Why?
In the competitive religious and political environment of Florence and Rome in 1615 or so, winning debates helped clients find important patrons, who had the scudi to improve a client’s soci0-political status. Losing debates reflected poorly on your patron, especially if he was a religious rather than secular “prince”. Both Cosimo de’ Medici and Maffeo Barberini (his buddy, later to become Pope Urban VIII) were patrons.
At first, Galileo must have been the biggest ticket in Florence. He dazzled guests with his discovery of Jupiter’s four moons, which he named the Medicean Stars, after his patrons. Besides taking his audience into the skies and beyond, his wit must have amused even the stuffiest of Friars. Or did it?
In these debates, Galileo relished in making mincemeat out of high-profile Aristotelian philosophers and Jesuit mathematicians . He debated Ludovico delle Columbe over why bodies, like ice, float in water. He took on one of the most respected astronomers of the day,the Jesuit Christoph Scheiner, in a debate over who discovered sunspots and how to interpret them. He bickered publicly or in writing with Jesuit Orazio Grassi about the nature of comets and with Francesco Ingoli about the Copernican system.