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Galileo the Immortalizer: Classical Allusions in the Dedication of Sidereus Nuncius

Benjamin C. Driver

Brown University

This paper will examine Galileo’s classical allusions in the dedicatory preface to Sidereus Nuncius. The treatise memorializes Galileo’s discovery of four moons that orbit Jupiter which he famously observed with his telescope. He dedicated the treatise to his patron Cosimo II de’Medici (1590-1621) and conspicuously makes almost direct quotations from Cicero, Pliny the Elder, and Propertius throughout this preface. The passages that he quoted primarily involve deification and poetic memory. Indeed, Galileo updates and adapts an ancient Roman discourse about divinization, generating his own latter-day deification of Cosimo II. I will argue that Galileo’s allusions and the literary memory of his readers lead to the conclusion that Cosimo II’s deification is superior to those of Julius Caesar and Augustus.

Ultimately, I contend that Galileo is divinizing Cosimo II in his preface. He quotes Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, a text that was very popular in Galileo’s day, and one dealing explicitly with deification. Where Cicero writes “ circos suos orbesque conficiunt celeritate mirabili,” Galileo writes, “ cursus suos, orbesque conficiunt celeritate mirabili.” Galileo, like Cicero, gives primacy to virtus as a prerequisite for divinization. Galileo, however, pays less attention than Cicero does to civil service as a requirement for apotheosis. In addition to Cicero, Galileo quotes Pliny the Elder. In discussing Caesar’s comet, Galileo writes, “ Graeci cometas, nostri Crinitas vocant ,” imitating Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia 2.89, a few sections down from which the encyclopedist also mentions Julius Caesar’s catasterism. Galileo, differently from Pliny the Elder, qualifies Caesar’s catasterism as frustra , later alluding to the much greater stature that Cosimo II will attain. Since the Christian god (Syderum Opifex) imbued Cosimo II with divinity from birth, his name will bestow glory on the stars rather than vice versa.

Lastly, Galileo echoes a line found in Propertius Elegiae III.2.20, a poem about the immortality a poet can offer to his subject. In discussing the lengths that men have gone to in order to honor worthy people, Galileo writes that “ Pyramidum, ut inquit ille, sumptus ad Sydera ducti.” In quoting this passage, Galileo connects his own duty with that of the poet as the one who bestows immortality. Throughout, he utilizes highly divizining language such as immortalia, in omne tempus, and lucidas illas sedes. I follow scholar Linda A. Koch’s work on Medici iconography, specifically the Tabernacle of the Crucifix of Piero di Medici (1416-1469), to establish the Medici family’s tradition of embedding their rule in an ancient, authoritative past. I use L.B.T Houghton’s scholarship on Naldo Naldi and Aurelio Lippi Brandolini to demonstrate a poetic link between the Medici court, Augustus, and Jupiter. Isabella Pantin’s commentary on Sidereus Nuncius is a useful text for clarification. The work of Mario Biagioli helps us understand Galileo’s relationship to the Medici court and the patronage networks that existed therein. Additionally, his work on artist and early art historian Giorgio Vasari’s Apartment of the Elements and Apartment of Leo X evinces the purposeful connections that the family made to Roman divinities. Scholar Spencer Cole helps to establish relevant topoi of divinizations in ancient literature, and how Cicero struggled to appropriate Greek practices of apotheosis toward a Roman deification based on virtus and civic benefaction. These are the topoi which Galileo then appropriates. By examining this preface, we can understand the connections between Galileo and his ancient precursors as a mirror for the Medici’s conceived relationships with Roman divinity and the ancient past.

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Neo-Latin in the Old and New World: Current Scholarship

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