With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

A Ghost of Galileo in the English Civil War

Should we tear their statues down? Our world is full of symbols that orient, instruct, annoy, or command us. Think of traffic signs, corporate logos, national flags, religious objects and apparel, emojis, as well as individuals representative of causes we may oppose or support. My immediate interest among these individuals is Galileo, who as intellectual property occupies a space between eponym and emoji: he is the David of free thought against the Goliath of institutional oppression, and a recognizable advertisement for consumer products for discriminating tastes. There are Galileo wines and sausages, space probes, planetary features, and institutions of learning. There is also Galileo the traitor (for betraying his friend Pope Urban VIII) and the coward (for not allowing himself to be martyred). Hitler invoked Galileo together with Kepler as an emblem of the power of the bond between himself and Mussolini. Among subtler symbolic appeals to Galileo's persona is one I chanced upon a decade ago in a 17th-century painting hanging in a dark corridor at Kingston Lacy, a National Trust property in the south of England.

Galileo is present only virtually, as the unnamed author of the open book in the painting [see figure]; for the book is easily identified by the illustration as the famous Dialogue on the two chief world systems that brought him before the Inquisition in 1633. What does the reference to Galileo represent there? That is the subject of my new book, The Ghost of Galileo. I know of only one earlier symbolic reference to Galileo in a painting (apart from portraits). This is a fresco completed in 1636 in the palace of Pope Urban's friend Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger. It shows a number of Florentines famous for literary, artistic, or philosophical accomplishment; Galileo appears with his telescope as a symbol of Italian leadership in the abstruse sciences. Near him stands a literary figure holding Dante's Inferno as Galileo had modeled it long before he took up with the Copernican system. Perhaps the connection intended was that despite his grand discoveries, Galileo belonged among the deceitful, whom Dante had placed in the last circle of Hell. The message of the symbol in the Kingston Lacy painting may be even more mixed and complex.

Decoding the message began with identification of the sitters, painter, and commissioner of the painting. All turn out to have had close ties to King Charles I. The seated melancholy adolescent is the son of Sir John Bankes, Chief Justice of Common Pleas and member of the Privy Council, the king's chief legal advisor. The standing sitter is Sir Maurice Williams, the boy's physician and tutor, whom he had then recently become free to attend owing to an everlasting stain on Charles's reign. This was the king's acquiescence in the judicial murder of his most forceful minister, the Earl of Strafford, whose execution in 1641 advertised the monarchy's irretrievable loss of power. The painter, Francis Cleyn, was the artistic director of the royal tapestry works. A native of Rostock, he had come to England from Denmark, where he painted pictures for the walls of the castles of Charles's uncle, King Christian IV, and sometimes the walls themselves. He was also a graphic artist celebrated for his ability to compress several stories into one image.

The painting was almost certainly made during the early years of the Civil War, in Oxford, when Charles held his court there. Williams and young Bankes were then in residence at Oriel College, and Sir John, as an important member of the court, also had college accommodation. Cleyn seems to have visited Oxford from time to time to find employment as the tapestry business declined; he painted at least one other portrait in the neighborhood of Oxford, which now hangs at Lodge Park on the Sherborne Estate in Gloucestershire (also a National Trust property). Our painting probably was first conceived as a memorial to young John Bankes's unsettled time at the university, where he studied astronomy, no doubt with its professor, whose cabinet contained a telescope, globe, and book like those depicted in the painting, as well as with Williams, whose previously undisturbed manuscripts in the British Library show familiarity with Galileo's ideas. Williams had spent several years studying at Venice's university in Padua, where Galileo once taught.

The painting's nod to Galileo was arch, recognizable only by those who could have identified Cleyn's impressionistic rendering of the frontispiece to the Dialogue. Who were these people and where would they have acquired their information? I was surprised to find that many masques, plays, sermons, political speeches, almanacs, and astrological forecasts supposed considerable star lore on the part of their consumers. The harder question is what informed consumers would have seen in the Galilean reference. The question comes down to asking what Sir John Bankes had in mind when putting it there. What do we know about him? He had not always been a government man. In the last parliaments of James and the first of Charles, he was a strong moderate voice in opposition, and went over to government after the murder of the royal favorite, the Duke of Buckingham, opened political space for men eager to serve themselves and the nation. In his first major government office, as Attorney General, Bankes had to draw up grants of monopolies, some beneficial, most pernicious; to defend and prosecute causes good and bad; and, in the years before his elevation to Chief Justice, to help create order in the royal finances. It tried a man of his probity.

In the pressing matter of religion Bankes had the confusing advantage of growing up in Calvinist northern England where residues of the old religion were still strong and German miners were permitted a Lutheran minister. In his private legal practice, he served both Catholics and Protestants; as Attorney General he worked with the high church Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, and prosecuted Puritan extremists like William Prynne. By the time he became Chief Justice, Bankes had experienced several forms of religion and the damage done by intolerance, and he had participated in many damaging tussles between parliamentary privilege and royal prerogative. It was enough to make a man tolerant. Sir John tried to effect a compromise between Parliament, which trusted him, and the king, and he came close to succeeding before Charles's insistence on his prerogatives and his constitutional inability to make up his mind defeated Bankes and other peace makers.

How does all this relate to Galileo? When professor of mathematics at Padua, Galileo belonged to a group centered on a Venetian friar named Paolo Sarpi. A principal councilor of the Venetian Republic, Sarpi was combatively anti-Roman and regarded the popes as anything but spiritual leaders. Sarpi's revolutionary group included Archbishop Marc'Antonio de Dominis, who also fought with Rome and advocated an irenic Christian religion. The writings of Sarpi and De Dominis were well known and admired in England, and De Dominis was known there personally, though not admired, when he served for a few years as Dean of Windsor and edited Sarpi's most poisonous anti-papal work. The Holy See disliked Sarpi and De Dominis even more than it did their sidekick Galileo. It attempted to assassinate the friar, compassed the death of the archbishop, and incarcerated the astronomer in his villa. Everything falls into place if Galileo stands for the trio, for anti-Roman Catholicism, and for the degree of religious tolerance and republican government practiced successfully in Venice. For Sir John, the Venetian system was a viable compromise between prerogatives of state and privileges of citizens; for King Charles, the symbol of degradation of princely power was the status of a Venetian doge.

Of all the causes to which Galileo's image has been applied, freedom of thought and expression is the weightiest. The historical Galileo had in mind opinions supported by "sensory experience and necessary demonstration," not big lies, not fake news. In the fight against forces that would suppress or exploit the fragile freedom he defended, he has been, and deserves to be, an enduring symbol.