Galileo Event

Synod Hall, Armagh, 20 October 2002

Programme Notes by Mark Bailey, Conor O'Malley and Allan Chapman

The Galileo Event is a joint venture between the Armagh Natural History and Philosophical Society and the Armagh Observatory, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund 'Awards for All' programme. The event describes different aspects of the life and times of the famous Italian scientist and founder of classical physics, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). The programme focuses on two facets of Galileo's life, the first a version of events leading up to and surrounding his famous trial at the hands of the Inquisition in 1633, the second his place in Italian Society at that time and the circumstances leading up to his conflict with the Church authorities.

Portrait of Galileo
Galileo Galilei demonstrating the telescope to the cardinals

The first part of the proceedings, a rehearsed reading of Bertolt Brecht's play "The Life of Galileo", directed by Dr Conor O'Malley, is presented by members of the Armagh Theatre Group; the second, a lecture by Dr Allan Chapman (Wadham College, Oxford), explores the events leading up to Galileo's trial, and aims to put the trial - and Galileo's position in Italian society - into its correct historical perspective.

It is widely accepted that Brecht's play, written in the period 1938-1939 just before the outbreak of the second World War and modified subsequently, does not follow Galileo's life particularly closely, and is more a commentary on events in the twentieth century. Similarly, the picture of Galileo that emerges from most modern biographies, great scientist though he was, is equally skewed. The 1633 trial of Galileo, where he was forced to abjure the Copernican (heliocentric) theory of the nature of the world and sentenced to life house arrest at Arcetri and Florence, is sometimes presented as a kind of battle between science and religion, but the truth is more complicated.

It is hoped that by bringing together these aspects of Galileo's life, in an interesting and perhaps novel way, those attending will gain an enhanced appreciation of the respective roles of history and the performing arts in leading to a greater understanding of Galileo's place in history and his contribution to science.

Galileo's Recantation, 1633
Concluding Portion of Galileo's Recantation, 22 June 1633
Image from UMKC

Following Galileo's trial, his enthusiastically pro-Copernican book ("Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World") was immediately banned, and placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1664, where it would remain for nearly 200 years until 1822.

Recent developments in the Galileo-Church controversy include:

Reviews of Galileo's contributions to science can be found in almost any standard biography or history of astronomy. He invented many practical devices and machines, as well as scientific instruments, and was the first (in 1609) to apply the newly invented telescope to astronomical observations. These observations revealed mountains on the Moon, stars invisible to the naked eye (and hence the structure of the Milky Way), apparent blemishes (sun-spots) on the surface of the Sun and its roughly monthly period of rotation, the phases of Venus, and the four principal ('Galilean') satellites of Jupiter.

Galileo's Drawings of the Moon
Galileo's Drawings of the Moon
Image from Library of Congress

Observations of Jupiter's satellites
Observations of the Galilean Satellites of Jupiter
Image from Cambridge University

As outlined in Arthur Koestler's famous book "The Sleepwalkers", Galileo lived at a watershed: between a more traditional Aristotelian world-view, keyed into religion, and the start of a rapidly accelerating growth of 'worldly' knowledge informed by scientific observation and mathematical theory. Although vanity and a tendency to get involved in litigious disputes played a major role in his life, his character - and the spirit of the new age - is well illustrated by his dictum: "Measure that which is measurable, and make measurable that which is not measurable".

The Society

The Armagh Natural History and Philosophical Society is a small community organization, seeking to grow and improve the quality of its contribution to the wider community. It is one of the oldest learned societies in Northern Ireland, having been established in 1839 following the foundation of the Armagh Mechanics Institute in 1825. Its object is: "the promotion of the knowledge of Philosophy, Natural History and Archaeology".

The Society acquired the former Mall School in 1856 and developed a museum, library and reading room, its collection ultimately being taken into the care of the Armagh County Museum, now in the same building. The Society retains its fine reading room which occupies the full extent of the Museum's columned facade, and meets in the Museum approximately every two months. Those who are interested in the pursuit of knowledge, open-minded debate and the exchange of ideas, are invited to obtain more information about membership of the Society by writing to the Secretary, c/o The Armagh County Museum, The Mall East, Armagh BT61 9BE.

The Observatory

The Armagh Observatory is the oldest continuously functioning astronomical research institute in Great Britain and Ireland. Founded by Archbishop Richard Robinson in 1790, it stands close to the centre of the City in attractive, landscaped grounds which include the Armagh Astropark (a scale model of the solar system and the Universe), and the Armagh Planetarium.

The Armagh Observatory's main function is to undertake original scientific research of a world-class academic standard that broadens and expands our understanding of astronomy. The Observatory also has a unique, and scientifically important, 200-year long meteorological record.

Whilst astronomy provides a unique perspective on our place in the Universe, its 'inspiration' encompasses both Arts and Science, including music, the visual arts, literature, philosophy and film. The recognition that the Earth is an almost unimaginably tiny speck in a vast, expanding Universe is perhaps one of the major intellectual achievements of the twentieth century. As demonstrated by the Galileo affair, astronomy lies at the heart of cultural endeavour, and continues to be an imagination driver.

The Theatre Group

The Armagh Theatre Group was formed in 1966, and over the past 36 years has presented a wide variety of entertainment to audiences in Armagh and indeed all over Ireland. It has competed successfully in drama festivals in Athlone, Belfast, Claremorris and Dundalk, and has recently played to capacity audiences in the Market Place.

Conor O'Malley, who directs this rehearsed reading of "The Life of Galileo", has been with the Group since 2001 and has previously directed "The Silver Tassie" (November 2001) and "There's Nobody Mad Here" (May 2002). The Group's next production is "The Heart's a Wonder", which will be staged in the Market Place in November 2002.

Brecht's Galileo

At the heart of any theatrical offering is the notion of conflict and the expression of that in dramatic terms. Brecht understood this core principle very well, and like many a dramatist would not have been overly concerned about exhibiting historical truth in his dramas if that 'conflicted' with the dramatic imperative. So Brecht's rendering of Galileo's life must be viewed with the usual theatrical health warning.

Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht in 1946
Image from U.S.C.

The basic facts are enough to form the framework for the action - the focus then is on whether Galileo was right to lie in order to survive and complete his studies. Was the cause of science better served by the lie or the output? And who showed the greater understanding of the 'bigger picture', or did that merely depend on the vantage point?

While typical 'Brechtian dialectic' forms a main structure for the action, another strand focuses on the nature of the man himself - a portrayal in the play that arguably owes more to Brecht's own life experiences than those of the real Galileo. The author himself spent all his life engaged in the business of surviving in order to facilitate his writing. That he betrayed many a principle and promise in order to do so is the stuff of legend in its own right. He could access too for his work a first-hand knowledge of varying forms of totalitarian mind-sets, their lethal potentiality, and of the power of any corporate entity to crush the little person.

Brecht's work also contains some of the finest realizations in dramatic literature of the corporate soul once infected with malign intent. In tackling the theme of survival of the individual caught within a web of Corporate Authority, Brecht concentrates on the effects on the soul of the individual. Brecht returns to this favourite topic again and again in his plays. Were Galileo, Mother Courage or Azdak to meet each other they would have no problem in empathizing with the other's life predicament. Certainly any of his 'anti-heroes' would easily recognize the nature of their respective protagonists.

For the theatre practitioner the action of working with a play is usually more appealing than the exploration of the theory. Such persons naturally prefer to display complexity than expound an analysis of it. Nor do they tend to pay much attention to an author's written theories of stagecraft. While Brecht himself favoured a theatre that emphasized a formal 'alienation' technique, to distance the viewer from the story whilst allowing greater concentration on the meaning, there is a need to separate Brecht the theorist from Brecht the practitioner. Being true to Brecht requires being true to the performance medium, for the medium is, at base, an aural and visual one. Brecht's medium involves many features: ritual expression, a powerful narrative, a sense of Epic scale, a wide variety of interesting character types, a strong lyrical sensibility, earthy and relentless satiric edge, great precision in dramatic construction and splendid orchestration of action and crowd scenes.

Even in translation, during which process something of the original must always be lost, "The Life of Galileo" still manages to convey the master thinker and the master craftsman at work.

Galileo in History

Popular mythology sees Galileo as a 'martyr of science', a man persecuted by the Church for his scientific beliefs and in particular for saying that the Earth goes around the Sun. Yet historical research shows this not to have been the truth. That Galileo was an astronomer of the greatest importance is beyond doubt, but not until 1616 did the Church express any opinions about science, and not until 1632 was Galileo hauled before the Inquisition - some 89 years after Copernicus's ideas had been in free circulation across both Catholic and Protestant Europe. What is more, Galileo's telescopic discoveries after 1610 were applauded by Bishops and Cardinals, and Galileo went both to Florence and to Rome as a celebrity.

So what went wrong? Galileo, we must not forget, was a provocative and imaginative man, with an established track record of rows and lawsuits behind him. It was when he began to teach Copernicus as the truth, in 1616, that he first got into trouble. For quite simply, from the available evidences, the Earth's motion could not be proven. And when he did it again in 1631, he really got a wigging!

The Pope, who had formerly been Galileo's friend and patron, felt insulted and cheated at Galileo's often offensive behaviour. Yet the heresy for which he was condemned in 1632 was a minor one - a 'parking ticket' heresy - and in no way involved the death penalty. The heresy was one of academic disobedience, not of religious unbelief, and down to his dying day in 1642, no one doubted the sincerity and orthodoxy of his Christian beliefs. So if we insist on seeing Galileo as a martyr of science, then we must not forget that, metaphorically speaking, he brought his own firewood and matches!

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Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund: "Awards for All"

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Last Revised: 2009 November 2nd