Galileo – Reading the Book of Nature | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[No Comment]

Galileo – Reading the Book of Nature



Restano solamente in contradizzione alcuni severi difensori di ogni minuzia peripatetica, li quali, per quel che io posso comprehendere, educati e nutriti sin dalla prima infanzia de i lor studii in questa opinione, che il filosofare non sia nè possa esser altro che un far gran practica sopra i testi di Aristotele, sì che prontamente ed in gran numero si possino da diversi luoghi raccòrre ed accozzare per le prove di qualunque proposto problema, non vogliono mai sollevar gli occhi da quelle carte, quasi che questo gran libro del mondo non fosse scritto dalla natura per esser letto da altri che da Aristotele, e che gli occhi suoi avessero a vedere per tutta la sua posterità. Questi, che si sottopongono a così strette leggi, mi fanno sovvenire di certi obblighi a i quali tal volta per ischerso si astringono capricciosi pittori, di voler rappresentare un volto umano o altra figura con l’accozzamento ora de’ soli strumenti dell’agricoltura, ora de’ frutti solamente o de i fiori di questa di quella stagione: le quali bizzarrie, sin che vengono proposte per ischerzo, son belle e piacevoli, e mostrano maggior perspicacità in questo artefice che in quello, secondo che egli averà saputo più acconciamente elegger ed applicar questa cosa o quella alla parte imitata; ma se alcuno, per aver forse consumati tutti i suoi studii in simil foggia di dipignere, volesse poi universalmente concludere, ogni altra maniera d’imitare esser imperfetta e biasimevole, certo che ‘l Cigoli e gli altri pittori illustri si riderebbono di lui.

The only people who oppose this point of view are a few rigid defenders of philosophical minutiae. These people, as far as I can see, have been brought up and nourished from the very start of their education in this opinion, namely that philosophy is and can be nothing other than continuous study of such texts of Aristotle as can be immediately collected in great numbers from different sources and stuck together to resolve whatever problem is posed. They never want to raise their eyes from these pages as though this great book of the world was not written by nature to be read by others apart from Aristotle, and as though his eyes could see for the whole of posterity after him. Those who impose such strict laws on themselves remind me of those whimsical painters who as a game set themselves constraints such as that of deciding to depict a human face or some other figure by simply juxtaposing some agricultural implements or fruits or flowers of different seasons. All of this bizarre art is fine and gives pleasure as long as it is done for amusement, and it proves that one artist is more perceptive than another, depending on whether he has been able to choose more suitably and use a particular fruit for the part of the body to be depicted. But if someone who had spent all his training in this kind of painting should then decide that in general any other form of painting is inferior and defective, certainly Cigoli and all other illustrious painters would laugh him to scorn.

Galileo Galilei, Istoria e demostrazioni itorno alle macchie solari, terza lettera (1613) in Opere de Galileo Galilei, vol. v, p. 190.

Suddenly, in the midst of Galileo’s third letter on the nature and significance of sun spots, he turns to a discussion of the work of the Mannerist painter Giuseppi Arcimboldo, whose highly stylized portrait of the Emperor Rudolph II is placed above the text. In other works on celestial mechanics, Galileo takes swipes at Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and defends Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso. In still others, he takes up the ancient theme of music as a language of mathematics and deliberates the notion of the “music of the spheres.” Is all of this a wild digression? Or is it not perhaps more essential to understanding Galileo’s approach to science? The key to understanding this passage and its broader import lies in the concept of the “book of nature” that appears near the end of the long and rambling first sentence. Galileo’s fascination with painting, poetry and music—which for him form an essential trinity of artistic expression—is not so much art for art’s sake, but rather art as a grammar of the mind.

He is following in a specific tradition of the Neoplatonic Renaissance that had its seat in his hometown, Florence. Raymond Sebond, the Catalan scholar who was immortalized as the subject of Montaigne’s greatest essay, used the same expression that Galileo uses here—the “book of nature.” And so did Nicholas of Cusa, the German cardinal-theologian who was perhaps the greatest philosopher of the Renaissance. All of them are concerned with the grammar of nature, its alphabet, its words. How does one “read” nature, plumb its depths, come to mastery of the rules that govern it? As Galileo writes in Il saggiatore, “Philosophy is written in this enormous book which is continuously open before our eyes (I mean the universe), but it cannot be understood unless one first understands the language and recognizes the characters with which it is written.” It was Galileo’s life’s work to understand that language. And to that end, he has earned a principal position in the history of science for his development and articulation of scientific methodology.

But it would be wrong to conclude that Galileo’s path was found entirely in scientific method as that is understood today. Rather, for Galileo human perception is sharpened and advanced when it draws not on one but rather on a multitude of paths of understanding. The artistic vision was thus an alternative, equally valid and important path to understanding truth, to unfolding the book of nature. This point is found in his discussion of the curious painter Arcimboldo, whose various portraits of men composed of vegetables, fruits, stacks of books and piles of twigs have assumed an iconic quality even as his name has never been put among the pantheon of painters of the era. Still, Arcimboldo’s knack for the double meaning has exercised a strange hold on the modern world. The Surrealists loved him, and in Roberto Bolaño’s last work, 2666, Arcimboldo surfaces as a character. For Galileo, however, Arcimboldo belonged to the “enemy camp,” since he served the emperor, like Johannes Kepler, the man Galileo seems consistently (in a display of his human shortcomings) to have viewed as a rival and never to have properly appreciated. And Galileo prefers, in his tastes and vision, a classical approach like that of his friend Lodovico Cigoli, whom he mentions. But his criticism of Arcimboldo is not entirely dismissive. The Arcimboldo style and technique is fine as far as it goes, he tells us—the use of objects of nature to portray a human face even shows a flash of genius—but its repetitiveness is a problem. Galileo agrees with Arcimboldo that the artist must not be obsessed with superficial verisimilitude—with an approach that moves inevitably towards the modern photorealism. The real focus of graphic art must be to reveal an internal truth that cannot be captured on the surface. That truth can flow from the selection of the subject, the use of light, line and color, the composition or from other factors. But Arcimboldo falls short on this point, at least in Galileo’s judgment. He does not reach for the internal truths, he is “cute” and superficial.

The artist’s search is a quest for the grammar of nature, the artist’s tools are another language, an alphabet by which nature can be approached and understood. If “nature” takes a human subject, then it is the psychological or internal dimension which must be portrayed; if it is a landscape, then it must be the unseen hand or animating force of nature. This grammar is pursued in the interests of unlocking nature and understanding its secrets. But it also is essential to create a means of broader communication among humans over time and space–a topic of enduring concern for Galileo.

And in his Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue on the Two World Systems, but usually referred to in English as the Dialogue on Tides), the book that provoked Galileo’s final and tragic confrontation with the Holy Office, Galileo is focused on the same issues. He talks about the newly discovered Indies and the wondrous and alien civilization there. But his major concern is communication: how do we communicate our learning to them, and absorb also their attainments? He talks about the exploration of the “alphabet,” by which he means understanding the grammar of the mind. “What eminence of mind was his who first devised the way of communicating his innermost thoughts to any other person however distant in time or space? The way of communing with those in the Indies, with those who have not yet been born, with those who will come into being a thousand or ten thousand years hence?” Galileo’s book is a sort of dialogue between adherents of the Copernican and the Ptolemaic systems, but at a more fundamental level it is a book about dialogue—how do we assemble, order and transmit our thoughts? What discipline do we impose to make them more readily understood?

The drive for an increasingly universal medium of communication leads Galileo to consider and value the graphic arts, poetry and music, in particular, as the other most promising paths. Galileo does not view them as rivals or alternatives to the scientific method which is his chief focus. Rather he sees them, well pursued, as essential adjuncts which will aid understanding, and—in the case of music and graphic arts—move it beyond the limitations inherent in words.

Listen to two toccatas from Girolamo Frescobaldi’s Toccate e partite d’intavolatura di cimbalo, libro primo (1615), performed by Scott Ross on the harpsichord. Galileo’s father was a musician and Galileo had a life-long fascination with music that helped propel him towards his study of celestial mechanics—which had from the time of Pythagoras been understood and described in terms of music theory. Galileo repeatedly expressed his disdain for madrigals, intermezzi and the use of the human voice generally. “Music,” he wrote, “if we wish to penetrate the essence of its being, must be taken as instrumental music detached from words.” Among Galileo’s contemporaries in the musical world, Frescobaldi is arguably the one who comes closest to Galileo’s ideas. Frescobaldi knew Galileo both from his days in Florence (they were both in the service of the Grand Duke) and later from his service as musician to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who participated in the trial of Galileo and walked a fine line between his friendship for Galileo and his duty to his uncle, the pope. Did Barberini attempted to sway things for Galileo’s benefit? There is some evidence for that proposition, and this music is part of it. In 1635, as the trial was underway, Frescobaldi, acting at Barberini’s behest, reworked pieces from the Libro primo into a new setting which he dedicated to Cardinal Scaglia. In fact, Frescobaldi had no dealings with Scaglia of any sort–other than the fact that Scaglia was serving on the Galileo trial panel together with his patron, Barberini. Was this work an effort to sway Scaglia’s vote and help preserve Galileo’s freedom in the face of the Holy Office’s onslaught?

More from