(frontispiece), Florence, Giovanni Battista Landini, 1632. Rare Books Collection, State Library of Victoria. On display in the exhibition Mirror of the World: Books & Ideas at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, until October 28.
GALILEO’S watershed work, Dialogo, first published in 1632, was one of the books that changed the world, but it was so revolutionary that it also attracted the ire of the Catholic Church. The church considered Galileo’s discourse on astronomy so dangerous that he was convicted of heresy, placed under house arrest until his death, and the book put on the Inquisition’s index of forbidden books, where it remained for more than 200 years.
Galileo’s mistake, as far as the church was concerned, was to support the astronomical observations of Nicolaus Copernicus, who postulated that the planets revolved around the sun rather than the Earth. The so-called heliocentric theory of Copernicus was considered extremely radical and had been published in his De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Spheres) nearly 100 years earlier, in 1543.
Galileo’s support of Copernicus put him at odds with the church, which believed the Earth was God’s creation and naturally was the centre of the universe. Even before he published his own book, Galileo knew his ideas would put him in a perilous position. So, in an effort to avoid censure by the church, he travelled to Rome in 1624 and met Pope Urban VIII. The pope gave him permission to discuss the Copernican system in a book on the proviso that Galileo take a hypothetical approach and give equal and impartial treatment to the church’s view, which supported the geocentric theory associated with Ptolemy and Aristotle.
which in English
is generally known as Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, across a period of six years. In it, he presented a series of discussions or dialogues between two philosophers and a layman. He used these characters to argue the merits of the theories of Ptolemy and Aristotle, on the one hand, and Copernicus on the other. The two spokesmen attempt to win over the layman to their side of the argument.
However, Galileo was none too subtle in whose side he took; he clearly weighed in on the side of Copernicus. As a result, he was hauled before the Inquisition in 1633, found to be ‘‘ vehemently suspect of heresy’’, placed under house arrest and his book banned until 1835.
A rare first edition copy of Galileo’s Dialogo is on display at Melbourne’s State Library of Victoria as part of an exhibition, Mirror of the World: Books & Ideas. When I visit the library, I’m shown the book by Des Cowley, the library’s rare printed collections manager.
The frontispiece engraving, by Italian artist Stefano della Bella, tells much about the political and religious climate in which Galileo’s work was published. In the engraving we see the three great astronomers from different eras, from left to right, Aristotle, Ptolemy and Copernicus, discussing matters of astronomy.
Cowley believes that like Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Galileo’s book led to a fundamental shift in the way humans perceived their place in the world.
‘‘ After Galileo, every aspect about man’s place in the cosmos, in particular the individual’s relationship with the church and God, could be called into question. By providing proof of the Copernican theory, Galileo literally turned the world on its head,’’ he says.
‘‘ When I view a copy of the rare 1632 first edition of Galileo’s work, the very object Galileo’s readers held in their hands, I consider I am as close as I can possibly get to a time when such radical ideas were considered dangerous. More than anything, I am palpably reminded of the power of the book to effect change. Despite the attempts by Galileo’s enemies to silence him, his ideas, set in metal type and printed on to pages that freely circulated, rendered their very efforts futile.’’