Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dads & Sons 3: The Musician and the Scientist

This is the third and last installment of Dads & Sons:  a series of posts about famous men in Italian history and about their fathers.  The sons are people whose names we still know today, and while the fathers are not totally forgotten (if they were, I wouldn't be able to write these posts),  they are much less familiar to us than their sons are.  Each father is known for a different activity than is his son.  I hope to find connections between the lives of the fathers and the lives of their well-known offspring.

Also, I propose to spend more time on the fathers than on the sons, because you have so many opportunities to learn about the famous sons, whereas the fathers are a bit more elusive.

And that is especially true today, when the famous son is none other than Galileo Galilei.

The Son

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans
What can I tell you about the great Galileo?  Astronomer, physicist, mathematician, philosopher, sometimes called the Father of Science (also the father of modern physics, of modern observational astronomy, and of modern science), born in Pisa in 1564 and died in 1642.  Writer, teacher, experimenter, observer, Galileo did not exactly invent the telescope, but he improved and fine-tuned it and then used it to make some remarkable discoveries, including the phases of Venus, the four satellites of Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn.

And as everyone knows, he stood up to the vast power of the Church in defense of heliocentrism, ending his life under house arrest (and under "vehement suspicion of heresy").

What can I possibly tell you about Galileo that you don't already know, or can't easily find out from someone much more expert in these matters than I am?  There is so much.  His work in physics.  His writings.  I can't do him justice, but there are those who can.  Suffice it to say that he was a great and original thinker, a brilliant scientist, a man who changed the way people thought about the world they lived in.  Go to the experts for details - you won't regret it.  The man's life is fascinating.  But from me, what you get is pictures.

Galileo's drawing of the phases of the moon
Galileo Galilei showing the Doge of Venice how to use the telescope, by Giuseppe Bertini
Galileo's beloved daughter Virginia (Suor Maria Celeste)
Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, by Cristiano Banti
Galileo's tomb, Santa Croce, Florence
 Galileo is buried in an elaborate tomb in Santa Croce, in Florence, though his original resting place was in a humbler section of that church, since the Catholic officials would not permit his body to lie in the main part of the basilica.

When his body was relocated to its present location in 1737, a tooth and three fingers were removed.  The middle finger of his right hand is on display at the Museo Galileo in Florence, where I have seen it.  Somehow, given all that he went through, it seems appropriate.

The Father

Vincenzo Galilei(c. 1520-1591), father of Galileo, was a composer, music theorist, lutenist, and an expert in early music.  A member of the prestigious Florentine Camerata, Vincenzo was influential in the early development of opera.  He conducted studies of acoustics and pitch that were as elegant as many of the experiments later conducted by his famous son, and his writings had a great influence on late Renaissance and early baroque music.

Vincenzo Galilei's Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna

What did it mean for someone living in the 16th century to be a student of early music?  When I say I perform early music, I mean music from about 1300 up to and including Vincenzo's own time.  What he meant by it, however, was that he sought to understand the music of the ancient Greeks.

(Warning:  oversimplification follows, necessary to prevent this post from turning into a book).  Vincenzo maintained an extensive correspondence with Girolamo Mei, a historian and humanist who wanted to revive ancient Greek drama.  Mei believed that Greek drama had been mostly sung rather than spoken, and on the strength of that belief he helped evolve the new recitative style of singing, which supported the development of musical drama and eventually of opera.  His ideas on Greek music were extremely influential in the Camerata and with his colleague Vincenzo.

The Florentine Camerata, which both shaped Vincenzo's professional life and was shaped by him, was a group of eminent humanists, musicians, poets, and other intellectuals who gathered under the patronage of Count Giovanni de' Bardi.  The heyday of the Camerata was roughly 1577-1582, though it was in existence in a less prominent form both before and after those dates.

Members of the Camerata were concerned that music of their day had become corrupt, and that an excess of polyphony was obscuring listeners' emotional responses to the poetry being sung.  They favored a single line of music, sung to a simple instrumental accompaniment, believing this to be close to the performance practices of the ancient Greeks, whom they revered.

Vincenzo's life:  He was born in Santa Maria a Monte, in Tuscany, and studied lute from an early age.  He moved to Pisa as a young man and married Giulia Ammannati.  They had six children, four of whom survived infancy.

Galileo Galilei was their firstborn.  A younger son, Michelagnolo, followed his father's example to become a lutenist anda composer.  Michelagnolo was to become something of a financial drain on his father, and later, on his older brother Galileo, for he was never able to contribute his share toward his sisters' dowries, which in time would result in legal proceedings taken by Giovanni and Michelagnolo's brothers-in-law.

The distinguished teacher of Vincenzo's early years, composer and music theorist Gioseffo Zarlino, did not go along with the Camerata's thinking.  He was said to question what, exactly, musicians had to do with the writers of tragedies and comedies.  His own compositions were in a more solidly Renaissance style than Vincenzo's, who was both exploring and helping to define the early baroque.

Gioseffo Zarlino
It seems likely, though, that Zarlino's extensive work on temperaments in music, specifically the various forms of meantone (no, I'm not going to explain that here - it would take too long), had an influence on Vincenzo's later work in the area of music theory.  Vincenzo's theoretical contributions included the treatment of dissonance in composition, especially in the use of suspensions; the very definition of "dissonance" is dependent on temperament.

Vincenzo also studied acoustics, notably the physics of vibrating strings and columns of air.  He was the first to identify certain mathematical relationships involving frequencies, and he studied the effects of different degrees of tension applied to a string.

In terms of composition, Vincenzo was noted for his madrigals and also for his lute music, and for music for lute with voice.  His music is still in the repertoire; here are a couple of examples:

 Vincenzo's influence on Galileo must certainly have included his emphasis on exacting experimentation.  It is said that Vincenzo wanted Galileo to study medicine, but when Galileo became fascinated with mathematics, Vincenzo steered him away from abstract mathematics and toward experimentation and toward quantitative descriptions of his results.


And this brings our three-part series on famous Italian fathers and sons to a close.   I hope you've found something of interest here, maybe enough to make you want to read more about the lives of some of these remarkable men.

Will we do women and daughters next?  I don't know yet.  Women in medieval and Renaissance Italy were considerably more limited in what they could do, or at least what they could do that actually made it into the history books; nuns may have had a few more scholarly options, and female lay saints led interesting lives, but those populations don't yield a lot of mother-daughter relationships, for obvious reasons.  I can think of one pair in the political arena, though, so maybe it will happen.

Images in this post are all in the public domain.

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