Sunday, August 16, 2015

Cristelle Baskins: “Galileo’s Idol”

Cristelle Baskins

Book Review

Nick Wilding, Galileo’s Idol: Gianfrancesco Sagredo & the Politics of KnowledgeUniversity of Chicago Press (Chicago, 2014), 232 pages, 4 color plates, 6 black and white figures, endnotes, bibliography, and index. ISBN: 9780226166971

1> “Inevitably, and for better or worse, to some extent we resemble our subjects.” (p. 5) Indeed, Wilding’s examination of wit, discernment, and determination in the production of early modern science reveals his own feats of historical detection and delectation. This teller of amusing anecdotes and unabashed punster would have made an excellent courtier, man of letters, or perhaps even a spy in seventeenth-century Italy. The nexus between science, sociability, and politics guides Wilding’s study. If the protagonists, Gianfrancesco Sagredo (1571-1620) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), fashioned their identities through epistolary correspondence, scribal publication, literary hoaxes, and court patronage, Wilding crafts his own scholarly work via the archive, inventories, and the internet, while expanding his information network to include experts on Venetian portraiture, Persian carpets, and the Frankfurt book fair. Whereas historians once confidently sought to discover intentions and to trace influences, Wilding, in the wake of Michel De Certeau, distinguishes between strategies and tactics while he articulates the unpredictable, and at times unlikely, paths of knowledge transfer. Overall, Galileo’s Idol is written in a very clear and engaging style that renders his multi-layered research accessible and persuasive. The book should interest anyone who works on early modern Italy as well as those who specialize in Galileo and the history of science.

2> In chapter one Wilding introduces Sagredo as a supporting actor in the staging of Galileo’s career. Whether as a student, friend, advocate, or “idol,” the Venetian nobleman played many roles. Rather than inventing scientific instruments or publishing discoveries, Sagredo participated in the social production of knowledge at the University of Padua, in the global diplomatic corps, and within anti-Jesuit factions. To mark their relationship, Sagredo and Galileo exchanged portraits circa 1619. Wilding has traced three different but related portraits of Sagredo that were dispersed along with his goods after his death. These paintings were later misattributed to various artists, obscuring the authorship of the brothers Leandro and Gerolamo Bassano. The Sagredo portrait now at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford seems the most likely to have been intended for Galileo since the background vignette represents the Pharos or lighthouse of ancient Alexandria, believed to have been a catoptric device or predecessor of the telescope. That Leandro and Gerolamo worked jointly but discontinuously on the Sagredo portraits makes Wilding’s larger point that identities are never singular or unified but rather constantly negotiated, deployed, feigned, and provisional. Thus in the following chapters, the reader encounters playful alter egos, pseudonyms, imposters, and masks, all of which argue for a thorough revision of the “pious, serious, and ecumenical” history of science.

3> In the second chapter Wilding traces Sagredo’s intellectual formation at the University of Padua, particularly in relation to the crisis of 1591 that led to the closure of the Jesuit College. Sagredo’s early correspondence allows Wilding to present his protagonist as a “go-between” who, like the magnets he studied, could bring disparate people or political positions into a temporary bond through charismatic force. Reconstructions of some lost letters to Claudio Aquaviva, superior general of the Jesuits, show that despite Sagredo’s later anti-Jesuit stance he was also capable of making common cause with his enemy in the pursuit of knowledge. In another letter, Sagredo writes to university rectors in support of a pay raise for his teacher Galileo; although the attempt failed, the exchange reveals the extent of his patronage networks and class affiliation.

4> The third chapter considers the interplay between Galileo’s teaching and students, his approach to scribal and print publication, and his “calculating instrument” or compass. Unlike the faithful student Sagredo, the Milanese Baldassarre Capra attacked his former teacher twice in print, first over the theories of Tycho Brahe and secondly over the invention of the compass. Capra was eventually tried in Venice and found guilty of incompetence and plagiarism; copies of his books were destroyed and the author forced into exile. Wilding argues that Galileo’s Difesa (1607) countering Capra’s claims allowed him to build a public audience that eventually led to Medici patronage. Turning scandal into social capital is a theme shared by the following chapter.

5> In chapter four Wilding returns to Sagredo and his public service, first as treasurer in Palmanova (1605) and then as consul in Aleppo, Syria (1608). Ironically, these postings meant that Sagredo missed Galileo’s lectures on the “new star,” or supernova, as well as the Venetian Interdict. Despite the physical distance between the two friends, Sagredo kept Galileo informed about his epistolary hoax designed to trap Jesuits in which he assumed the fictive persona of Cecilia Contarini with the code name of Angelica Colombina (angelic or heavenly dove). His (or her) correspondent Antonio Barisone S.J. wrote under the nom de plume, M. Rocco Berlinzone, a nonsense name derived from Giovanni Boccaccio. The public and humiliating denouement unmasked the Jesuits’ hypocrisy as well as their supposed intention to create a universal monarchy that would threaten Venetian independence. Yet, as Wilding reminds us, these high stakes geopolitics should not dull the wit and humor of the episode.

6> In the fifth chapter Wilding looks at Sagredo’s correspondence from Syria in light of global information exchange, including diplomacy, espionage, and science. As consul, Sagredo took it upon himself to intercept and copy diplomatic letters. In his zeal to pass on international news he even copied scripts he could not read, including “Persian, Turkish, Arabic, and Chaldean.” But after relaying the purloined information back to the Council of Ten, Sagredo received stern instructions to cease his efforts and to destroy all of his copied documents. Back in Venice the inquisitors covered up the consul’s indiscretions. According to Wilding, Sagredo’s practice of “interception, transcription, translation, decipherment, replication, and interpretation” was a necessary prelude to the sunspot debates of 1610-1611.

7> Chapter six contributes to the publication history of Galileo’s Sidereus nuncius (1610). We learn that Galileo considered several alternative titles that reveal the relationship of the book to other genres such as the avviso, or news report, and the relazione, or diplomatic letter. Wilding demonstrates that, despite the inclusion of Tommaso Baglione’s name on the title page, in reality Roberto Meietti published the text. This subterfuge was necessary because Meietti had been excommunicated for printing heretical materials. Yet, Galileo took the risk of being excommunicated himself by publishing with Meietti whose participation in the Frankfurt book fair offered “immediate and dramatic entry onto the Northern European stage.” Since the Sidereus appeared at the fair alongside other pirated texts and known forgeries, it is understandable that some readers of the text were skeptical.

8> The final chapter starts with a list written by Galileo in early 1610 on the envelope of a letter sent to him from Sagredo in Aleppo. As with Wilding’s discussion of the different titles that Galileo considered for the Sidereus, this list consisting of “small boxes, cash, thin/fine table, mask” serves to estrange the now canonical text. Rather than reading it merely as a factual record of scientific observations, the “starry messenger” should also be understood as a mask, a subterfuge, a pseudonym not unlike Sagredo’s Angelica Colombina. Likely to be the most controversial claim of Galileo’s Idol is the assertion that the “pamphlet is a carnival piece: shocking in its claims, irreverent in its tone, subversive in its cosmology.” The question of disguised authorship consumed Galileo and Sagredo during the subsequent sunspot debates with Christoph Scheiner and Marcus Welser, and again in 1623 when Galileo attacked the work of the Jesuit Orazio Grassi. Given the confluence of experimentation in natural philosophy and in publishing, historians of science must not impose modern notions of authorship or identity on their early modern subjects. Wilding concludes, “fluid and falsified identities, a porous boundary between manuscript and print cultures, ludic satire and political diatribe: this is not the model of scientific authorship or intellectual history we are used to.” Although Wilding admits that an intellectual biography of Sagredo, whose very name means “secret,” remains to be written, Galileo’s Idol suggests that it would be a worthy and entertaining pursuit.

9> In this book the University of Chicago Press delivers its usual high production values. Yet the editors decided to omit page numbers for the first full citations to journal articles or book chapters. This decision cannot have saved much space and it unfortunately detracts from the utility of the book for students and scholars alike.

Cristelle Baskins is Associate Professor at Tufts University where she has taught Italian Renaissance Art History since 1997. Her articles have appeared recently in Muqarnas, Renaissance Studies, and Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal. She spent the academic year 2014-2015 as a Fellow at the Newhouse Center for the Humanities at Wellesley College working on a book entitled, "Lost Originals: Portraits and Print in the Early Modern Mediterranean.”

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges

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