Dava Sobel included 21 letters written to Galileo by his eldest daughter, Virginia Galilei, in her 1999 "historical memoir" GALILEO'S DAUGHTER. Virginia entered a convent at the age of 13, took the name Suor Maria Celeste and became a faithful corespondent to her famous father, who kept many of her letters. In LETTERS TO FATHER: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo, 1623–1633, Sobel provides the first English translation of all 124 extant letters from daughter to father. The decade's worth of letters touch on many of the key events of the times, most notably the appearance of Galileo before the Holy Office of the Inquisition.
LETTERS TO FATHER presents the letters in both the original Italian and in English, with the two versions appearing on facing pages. While this might be helpful to scholars (or to those seeking an interesting, but fairly limited, way to learn some Italian), it is unnecessarily distracting to the lay reader, who really only needs the pages that appear on the right side of the book. Sobel's annotations, however, are quite helpful, filling in historical and personal information without becoming intrusive or long–winded.
The clarity and brevity of the notes allows the focus to remain on the letters themselves, and they are wholly fascinating. While many of them mention the plague and various remedies and precautions to battle the scourge, and many more deal with Galileo's trial and subsequent house arrest, even the letters that touch on nothing more than everyday matters --- the need for more citrons to make treats for Galileo, the state of the wine in Galileo's casks, the health of the nuns --- are absorbing because they serve to humanize one of the great mythic figures of history.
LETTERS TO FATHER reveals Galileo as more than a brilliant scientist at odds with the Church. He was a father, a gardener, a generous giver to those in need, a person with bills to pay and a man who tended to drink more than his daughter felt was good for him. While he is revered today for his contributions to science, in his own day he was highly esteemed by many who could scarcely fathom his theories and discoveries but who were touched by his kindness. Indeed, one of the most interesting things about the letters is the revelation that Suor Marie Celeste's fellow nuns and others associated with the Church continued to honor and pray for Galileo long after his sentence had been handed down by Church officials.
Revealing Galileo's character in a way no biography could approach, LETTERS TO FATHER is an important work, and Sobel's efforts to bring it to the English–speaking world are to be commended.
Reviewed by Rob Cline on December 31, 2002
Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo, 1623–1633