I am just beginning a new biography of Galileo by Heilbron, and what an unusual biography it is! Rather than giving us a blow-by-blow of the life of the great man in embryo, we are almost immediately tossed into the chaos and ferment of late Renaissance Italian intellectual life. Perhaps the details of Galileo’s early life are few and far between anyway. But, more surprising, the attitude of the writer towards his famous, sainted subject is frequently one of ironic detachment and humor. No hagiography here! It’s an exhilarating and fresh approach to a man who is crucial in the history of modern science, but whose own accomplishments seem relatively slender compared to Newton and some others.
One of the most entertaining and unusual elements of the biography is its focus on Galileo as an aspiring literary lion of Florence. He wrote criticism of poetry, fought in furious and futile intellectual battles over the relative merits of Tasso, Dante, and Ariosto, was instrumental in diagraming the true extent of the Inferno as described in The Divine Comedy, and was influenced by the ironic epic, Orlando Furioso, as much as he was by Aristotle. Not exactly a typical resume for a giant of early modern science. (Of course, we conveniently forget that Isaac Newton spent more time on numerology and alchemy than he did on physics.)
I have been hearing about Orlando for so many years now, it’s time to read it.