Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

(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.

Galileo wrote


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.’’

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