Suor Maria Celeste

by cheri block

If I’ve learned one thing this quarter while studying the trial of Galileo from every angle, it’s that my literary heart must be accompanied by facts if I am going to receive a favorable nod on any paper.


Why do historians demand so many facts?  Just kidding.

I realize that I have taken too many “liberties” in my assessment of the trial. The lawyers in our class sound so sure of the events, using legal vocabulary (gag me with a spatula) with the precision of  sushi chefs.

There I sit, trying to understand Galileo the man, not Galileo the mathematician or Galileo the natural philosopher or Galileo the courtier or Galileo the scientist.

Who was Galileo? Really?

Finally, last Wednesday, we came to a peephole in the Galilean fence. I looked through it, squinting, and saw a convent so poor that even the plague passed it by in 1633. In the order of Clares, lived Galileo’s two daughters, Suor Maria Celeste and Suor Arcangela, claustrated there when they were eleven and thirteen years old.

In the text Letters to Father Suor Maria Celeste, 1623-1633, translated and annotated by Dava Sobel, Galileo the man emerges.

During our class discussion, we stepped down from the scientific and political ladders we’d been straddling, and walked into Suor Maria Celeste’s painful life, one that ended at age 34.

“This is what 50% of  Florentine women did (either go into convents on their own because they didn’t want to be married or go through childbirth) or because their parents put them there,” we heard. Galileo placed his illegitimate daughters there but legitimized his son, Vincenzio. Ironically, Vincenzio was a bit of a flake, never actualizing like his sister, Maria Celeste.

In the 124 letters to her father, we learn that life in a poor convent was a daily challenge, even though the sisters had taken a vow of poverty.

I observed out loud that Galileo’s putting his young daughters there was heartbreaking. Clearly, Maria Celeste yearned to see her father more regularly and be a part of his problems with the Inquisitors in Florence and Rome.

Did Galileo try his best with his daughters? Was he a good father? Is my worldview getting in the way, here?

More in the next post.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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59 Responses to Suor Maria Celeste

  1. Fascinating. I have a cousin who is one of these nuns but I never knew anything of their history or that they had illustrious alumna. You also raise the interesting history challenge of trying to get to know historical figures and the related problem of evaluating a person’s behaviour against modern sensitivities. Was Galileo a good father? Purist historians would ask whether the solar system function differently if he weren’t, but some of us like to think that people who made special contributions were special in other ways too. I’ve always had this problem in literature when I find out that an author I idolize was a real jerk. But the bottom line for me is that I want to know about these people, warts and all.

    My only complaint, if I can be blunt–“so poor that even the plague passed it by” sounds more like a Danny Thomas routine than your usual quality prose. 🙂

    • Cheri says:

      Fair comment!

      But the plague did pass it by, not because of the poverty but because of the isolated nature the nuns endured. Never going out…few coming in.

      Also, cleanliness due to the spare space. Rats found better places in Florence.

      I did kind of like Danny Thomas… 🙂

  2. ” … we came to a peephole in the Galilean fence” … a lovely fresh image.

    I enjoy these stories from the margins of history, about the people who didn’t feature, the women, the places on the boundaries. I love being involved as a writer and as a reader in hearing them speak to us. Thanks.

    Re his goodness as a father … who cares? He was a father and unless he was pathologically disturbed he would have loved his children and made decisions in what he thought their best interests. They may not have been great decisions but the intention wouldn’t have been to harm them.

    • Cheri says:

      I guess I care whether or not he was a good father. But you have made me think with your question.

      • Sorry … was a silly way of saying I don’t care. I do care that G was a father, I don’t care whether he was a good one (who is this good father anyway? For me, a figure in a fairytale).

        Interesting how many readers are citing socio-cultural relativities, and not the biological/evolutionary imperative often cited elsewhere as an explanation of everything.

        I think this is a case where both are at play. He was a father and from that we can infer he felt and acted in a certain way towards his children. He was a father of both female and male children and lived at a certain time in history, so he brought different considerations to the futures of his daughters and his son.

  3. With two illegitimate daughters, Galileo had a choice: leave them on the steps of an orphanage or put them in a convent. Of course a cloistered order was not absolutely necessary but it was a better choice than the orphanage.
    I find it more troubling, though understandable considering the time, that he legitimized his son but not his daughters. I still think that he was somewhat cowardly.

  4. zeusiswatching says:

    It was the coward’s way, but the way when one had little money to provide for a dowry, two of them in his case. Galileo’s fortunes were not always high when it came to money.

    • Cheri says:

      From what I know (which is little), Galileo was very generous with what little money he did have while working as a mathematician at University of Padua.
      While in the de’ Medici court, he supported many in his family.

      Suor Maria Celeste asks him for money in at least 1/3 of her letters. Money for others in the convent, for the basics, etc.

      She was the apothecary and also quite a baker. Since she couldn’t leave the premises, she depended on Galileo to send money for sugar and blankets.

  5. Cyberquill says:

    Great word. Had I been Shakespeare, I’d have had the Great Dane throw in a Claustrate thyself! as he sent the toots off to the nunnery.

  6. sledpress says:

    To me the poignant part of this account was the idea that going into a convent was the only way to avoid undesired marriage or worse, undesired childbirth. There was no other sure way to avoid becoming a prisoner (and like as not the murder-victim) of your biology.

    What the hell happened to Galileo’s girlfriend? Just wondering, y’know…

  7. We run into this problem all the time with the great thinkers of the past.

    Rousseau, for example, had, I think, two or three daughters and gave them all to an orphanage. The better to imagine his noble savage, I suppose.

    • Cheri says:

      Great example. I remember taking a class on Rousseau’s Emile. One woman in the class could not, absolutely could not, get past Rousseau’s personal life to appreciate anything he wrote.

      I too, struggle with (as I’ve mentioned so many times before) “belief.”Charles Saunders Peirce wrote about true belief. His thesis was that one doesn’t hold a true belief unless one is practicing it. As an educator, I tend to agree. We believe what we do.

  8. Philippe says:

    “Do as I say, not as I do”, was the maxim of the Great Philosophers and Great Thinkers.

    • zeusiswatching says:

      Frequently, this was very true. Great men and only men who are great at being men. Great philosophers are great at writing and talking, at great length, about the relationships between men. They are still men.

      • Philippe says:

        Abstract philosophy is heavily a male thing. If these philosophers can’t practice what they preach, is any of what they write worth reading?

      • sledpress says:

        I’ve had similar thoughts many times. For example, I owe a lot to the thinking of Bertrand Russell, but I had to get off the ship when I became aware how glibly he rationalized four-way cheating (I do have to admire him for maintaining a stream of intellectual production while juggling women).

        I have no problem with people who wish to be candidly polyamorous, even though I suspect it usually doesn’t work, and I don’t have any real need to whack on the average erotic rascal either, but I hold suspect the philosophical credentials of someone who toots the horn of Reason while indulging his emotions in a way guaranteed to hurt someone eventually.

    • Cheri says:

      True enough.
      Always good to read your comments Phillipe. I’ve missed your writing.

  9. Man of Roma says:

    I think we all should get out of our shoes and try to understand that in the past – or in today’s past, ie III world or ex III world: India + China, 40% of the world population, Africa etc. – women count(ed) almost nothing compared to men. I think it was the British culture who started with the liberation of woman ( Suffragette at the beginning of 20th century) and – as an aexample – only in 1893 the British colony of New Zealand became the first self-governing nation to extend the right to vote to all adult women”. (Wikipedia)

    In this perspective it is not surprising – and not coward in my opinion – what Galileo did: letting her 2 illegitimate daughters to become claustrated nuns – better than an orphanage Paul said – , while legitimizing his son, even if less gifted perhaps.

    Was Galileo a good father? He was a good man possibly but seldom today great men are good fathers (one cam imagine 4 centuries ago): they are /were too busy with their favourite toy, their brain.

    Getting back to China, today’s second economic world power, every month 12,000 female babies – I may be inaccurate – are abandoned or killed out there. Some tourists from Colorado told me this a couple of days ago. They found this tiny baby girl almost dead in a garbage container in mainland China and so went into all the bureaucracy in order to adopt her. Now she is 5, beautiful, radiant.

    As it is known, since by law Chinese can keep only one child, parents prefer sons and get rid of daughters.

  10. You are a fast worker, MoR. Thank you.

    Arrivederci to you.

  11. Cheri says:

    I agree with Man of Roma. Galileo did what was customary of the times.

    Also, he wasn’t writing about education or parenthood like Rousseau.

    Phillipe, I have a problem with men (or women for that matter) writing serious philosophy/sociology/psychology and not practicing what they write. I just do.

    Now, can I appreciate a marvelous piece of literature even if the author had many many social problems? Yes. I can separate the two.

    Did it bother me that the president of the united states was getting it on in the oval office? Yes.

    Had he been somewhere else, off-campus so to speak, it might not have offended me as it did.

    • sledpress says:

      To be honest, the detail that he did it in the Oval Office struck me as panache.

      Air Force One would have been stellar.

      • Cheri says:

        Such indiscreet ” in your face” behavior, in my view, was typical of my generation. We disagree here, for sure.

        There are some things which should be respected. It would be like having sex in the cemetery at Normandy.

  12. Man of Roma says:

    Phil wrote:

    Do as I say, not as I do”, was the maxim of the Great Philosophers and Great Thinkers.

    I must be a Great Philosopher then. I preach all the time: “Have fun, have sex!” but I have none of both.

  13. Cheri says:

    Man talk ( I’m not going to Latin-English translator)

    • Man of Roma says:

      Oh much much chaster than you think Cheri 😉

      • Man of Roma says:

        Damn close to Italian or Spanish (or to the Latin soul of English)

        Nulla dubitatio = nullo dubbio = no doubt (Paul was doubting about my statement)
        non omne quod apparet, hoc verum est = non ogni che appare, ciò vero est = not all that appears, it is true

        Amen = Amen = Amen

  14. Cheri says:

    Thank you, Giovanni.

    Interesting that “No doubt” in English would mean there are no doubts about the statement(that it is true), whereas, Paul’s translation is that there are doubts about your statement.

    Whatever the meaning of the translation, I will observe that you are not alone, especially as we move into mid-life and beyond. We’ve experienced it all, for the most part. We strive for contentment, a feeling often just a hair our of our grasp or reach.

    Contentment should be the goal. I would agree that fun and sex play a part in contentment.


    • Man of Roma says:

      Interesting that “No doubt” in English would mean there are no doubts about the statement(that it is true), whereas, Paul’s translation is that there are doubts about your statement.

      A bit of misunderstanding and yes maybe I translated badly.

      Paul said: I have a lot of doubts (dubito fortiter, ie with force);
      I replied: nulla dubitatio ie you are wrong to doubt, your doubt is nil, ie not valid. Complicated. I got even more confused now.

      In any case. Yes, we’ve experienced it all, we are in the same boat.
      Yes, we strive for contentment. Yes, fun and sex play a part in contentment, oh they sure do, anybody here disagreeing?

  15. ana terán says:

    specially since I turned 62 March 8. Cheers to all.

    • Cheri says:

      Dear Ana,
      Happy Birthday to you! I wish you a year of purple dragon flies, loving dragons, delicious food and wine, and loving family. (Not necessarily in that order).

      • ana terán says:

        purple dragon flies, good wine and love (on whichever order), what else could I wish for? Thanks Cheri, even if I reply late… Your thought brights my night.

  16. Man of Roma says:


    Tanti auguri a te / tanti auguri a te! (late as usual)

  17. Cheri says:

    I understand what you explained Giovanni. And I agree with you.

  18. Dear Mrs Cheri,

    Here is Manius speaking. Knowing Giovanni very well, I think he well understood you had understood. He told me to refer one doubt he’s got: that is, what do you mean by ‘sex play’. He being just curious of course. And I, ambasciatore che non porta pena.

    Yours sincerely

    Manius Papirius Lentulus
    soldier of Rome

  19. Cheri says:

    Dear Soldier of Rome,

    Did not mean “sex play”. the context of the sentence…that both fun and sex are important (they play a role) in human contentment.

    At different times in our lives we have more sex than fun and in other times we have more fun than sex.

    Sometimes we have no fun.
    Sometimes we have no sex.

    When we have no fun and no sex…that’s hell.

    Such is the cycle of life.

    That’s my opinion, only.

    I doubt if much has changed throughout the ages.

    • What has changed throughout the ages are the attitudes toward sex. Up to the 1600s people were much more casual about sex and considered it a part of life under all it’s forms. Then puritanism came in and spoiled everything.
      Our so called sexual revolution in the 1960s and 70s solved nothing because people felt obliged to have sex…which is not enjoyable under duress. I’m not sure that the 2000s are any better for that matter.

      • sledpress says:

        Bingo. At one point, as a freshman on a 1970’s college campus full of people trying to prove they were sexually free, I was really overcome by the urge to put on a flannel nightgown and stack up all my favorite children’s books on the bedstand. People having sex with everyone they can out of some obligation to be “sexually free” are the grimmest folk in the world.

      • sledpress says:

        Paul, that’s the second time I’ve clicked on your name above a post and been taken to some unknown blog called Costo De Oportunidad. I think you are typing yourself in as Costo at Blogspot instead of potsoc.

  20. @Cheri, (ie soldier of Rome’s friend)

    Dear Mrs Cheri,

    Giovanni told me to relate he’s quite satisfied by your answer and then added a few strange, non Latin, words. Well, non Latin, some resemblance they certainly present, but they sound so horribly barbarous. In any case his words are these:

    “Dille che è molto intelligente e bella. Et même sympa”.

    No idea what he meant. Just ambasciatore I am, Domina mea.


    • Cheri says:

      My dearest Manius,

      I tried to translate the second sentence of your comment, but to no avail.
      Of course you understood (we play games here, no?).

      When I come to Rome, we will have a great conversation. In 2013 we come back to Rome. Now that I have finished studying Galileo, I need to go back to Florence, too.

      I’m sorry Manius that I occasionally disappoint you.

      • Man of Roma says:

        To Rome in 2013? Great, we’ll surely meet then I hope!

        I’m sorry Manius that I occasionally disappoint you.

        You never do Domina (ie Milady), never. Neither me nor Giovanni. We like you the way you are, really, which makes you so special 🙂

  21. Man of Roma says:


    I couldn’t more agree with you both.

    Paul: the so called sexual revolution in the 1960s and 70s solved nothing …people felt obliged to have sex …which is not enjoyable under duress.

    Sled: People having sex with everyone they can out of some obligation to be “sexually free” are the grimmest folk in the world.

    Like any utopia that makes use of icy reason only (while people are more emotional than just ‘rational’ etc.) 1960s and 70s sexual liberation created much more problems than it solved. Statistically, the number of people in Europe visiting ‘shrinks’ etc. greatly increased in those days (as for North America, I cannot relate).

    Man of Roma


  22. Thank you Sled. I made the correction.

  23. Cheri says:

    I’m sorry I disappoint you with my ignorance of Latin? 🙂

    • Man of Roma says:

      Oh no no! That doesn’t matter anything to me. Mandarin for example is much more useful than Latin. It’s only this damn roots thing at my blog and my hobbies plus of course I was forced to study it in any case at school for many years.

  24. ana terán says:

    Would you please help me spread the word to email this letter to Steve Jobs (,, Thanks in advance, dear Cheri, Ana

    Dear Mr. Jobs,

    I am writing today as a loyal Apple customer to ask for your help.

    I am sure you have been watching the horrific events unfold in Japan since a magnitude 9 earthquake struck Japan on Friday. The devastation that followed has been heart-wrenching for those of us with loved ones in Japan.

    I am asking today for you to help with earthquake/tsunami relief efforts by donating a portion of the iPad2 sales to the charity of your choice.

    The Redcross and Doctors Without Borders are two organizations that come to mind for their fast-moving efforts. This will have minimal impact on your wallet and even less for your valued customers. And you will probably get a bigger boost for your efforts. Apple afficionados across the globe will love you even more. I am sure of it.

    Please help us help Japan.

    You can make this happen with one email.

    With hope and admiration,

  25. Cheri says:

    Will do, Ana.

    And will forward to my classmates over at the Farm, some of whom know Mr. Jobs.

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