A Visit to Florence on the Trail of Galileo
It’s said that tourists regularly experience a kind of nervous breakdown in Florence, overloaded and overcome by Renaissance art and architecture, masterpieces at every turn. I can believe it – the city can be almost overwhelming if you like that kind of thing (which I really do).
But for this visit I’m ignoring Leonardo and Michelangelo, Giotto and Donatello, to concentrate on the cities’ connections with one of the greatest and most famous astronomers, of Galileo Galilei of course.
Galileo’s musician father Vincenzo was from Florence and moved back there when Galileo was a child (he’s buried there too), but Galileo Galilei himself was born in Pisa and attended the university there.
Galileo later lived in Padua where he had several children with his mistress Marina Gamba. Only in 1610 did he move to Florence, but his connections to the city are long and deep.
Galileo lived in several houses in and around Florence and I visit two of them, at least in passing. It’s in this great Renaissance city where he made many of his astronomical observations. Two of his daughters – Virginia and Livia - were cloistered nearby to become Suor Maria Celeste and Suor Arcangela. Maria Celeste was particularly close to the great scientist (see below). Galileo is buried in a Florentine church.
Galileo’s full achievements are beyond the scope (sorry!) of this article. Suffice to say he was the first to use a telescope for serious astronomy and made numerous discoveries, including the four largest moons of Jupiter, the craters of the Moon, the phases of Venus, sunspots and much else besides.
Galileo was, of course, eventually tried for heresy in Rome due to his heliocentrism, but returned to Florence to live out his days under a kind of house arrest, cared for by his daughter and later his son’s family.
View of Florence from as close as I could get to Galileo’s house on Costa San Giorgio.
I first read ‘Galileo’s Daughter’ by Dava Sobel when it came out nearly a quarter of a century ago. It’s a biography centred around the extraordinary relationship between the great scientist and his eldest daughter. I strongly recommend it as background reading.
It tells a wonderful story and humanised Galileo in a really poignant way for me. Perhaps that’s just because I had a daughter at exactly the same age as Galileo did. But at the risk of taking a woke diversion, I think there’s something really important here too.
Unlike Galileo’s ne’er-do-well son Vincenzo, Virginia Galileo (aka Suor Maria Celeste - who chose her cloistered name to reflect her father’s interests) not only had an ‘exquisite’ mind (she seems to have read and critiqued her father’s works) but was remarkably industrious and resourceful with it; she also seems to have been a singularly kind and selfless person.
I can’t help wonder what might have been if the devoted Virginia had been able to study with Galileo, become his assistant and then perhaps a scientist in her own right, rather than being shut up in a convent to die young from the poor living conditions there. As we’ll see, she probably shares his tomb but doesn’t even warrant a mention on the inscription. She deserved so much better.
This is an especially interesting question now we’re at last starting to recognise Renaissance geniuses who happen to have been women, like the Florentine artist Plautilla Nelli (herself a nun like Maria Celeste) and the composer Maddelena Casulana.
Florence is a huge tourist destination and there are lots of ways to get there. From the UK, one of the cheapest and easiest is to fly into Pisa on a budget airline and then take the train direct from Pisa Centrale station – easily and cheaply booked via the Trainline app which delivers an e-ticket to your phone. The train ride takes about an hour and is quite scenic, traversing classic Tuscan countryside.
The only wrinkle is that first you have to get from Pisa Airport to Pisa Centrale station on the PisaMover, a kind of horizontal funicular. The problem is that it’s quite hard to find – out the back of the terminal and then up some stairs.
What to see
I took in most of the Galileo-linked sights described as a circular walking tour, so that’s how I’ve ordered it, starting from the statue outside the Uffizi. The walk itself takes a couple of hours and involves a steep uphill section at the start and some narrow lanes with little or no pavement (sidewalk).
I’ve included some annotated Google maps to help you find your way.
(Note: There are other Galileo-related sites around Florence and Pisa to seek out, including his house at Bellosguardo.)
First section of the walk, from the Uffizi to Galileo’s house on the Costa San Giorgio.
Galileo’s Uffizi Statue, Map Location: 1
Outside Florence’s famous Uffizi gallery is a colonnaded Piazzale with numerous statues of great Florentines. At the far end, to the right of the arch that leads out to the embankment above the Arno, is a full-length statue of our hero, holding a telescope and looking pensively heavenwards.
From here we take a right along the riverside by some arches that support the Vasari corridor, then left over the Ponte Vecchio with views down the river.
At the far end of the bridge, turn left for a short way up the Via de Bardi and then right through an archway onto the narrow Costa Dei Magnoli, which merges into the Costa San Giorgio – the street on which you’ll soon come across one of Galileo’s Florentine houses on the right.
Galileo’s statue next to botanist Pier Antonio Micheli forever playing air guitar (or so it looks from some angles).
Costa Dei Magnoli looking up towards Galileo’s house on Costa San Giorgio.
Galileo’s Houses on Costa San Giorgio, Map Location: 2
Galileo helped buy this house as a wedding gift to his son in 1629. His name remained on the deeds and he seems to have lived there for extended periods during his later years whilst his son’s family cared for him. Galileo bought the house next door at some point as well.
The attached pair of houses weren’t open to the public at the time of writing, but there’s a plaque on one and a frescoed portrait on the other.
From here, continue uphill past Fort Belvedere and merge onto the Via San Leonardo, then out into the countryside along some narrow lanes between walls and houses. At the top of this lane, you’ll come across a plaque marking a house on the right where the composer Tchaikovsky once lived before coming to a junction with the main road through Arcetri, the Viale Galileo.
Crossing the main road at the lights, you continue up Via San Leonardo for a short way, then bear left onto the Via Vincenzo Viviani (named for Galileo’s last and most famous pupil) opposite a gateway that leads into a beautiful olive grove that you can see to the right over a wall as you climb on.
On the way, you pass a gateway in the high wall on the right which is the back entrance to the Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory. Bearing right at the top of this lane, opposite the gate to an impressive villa, you’ll get views over another wall and across another olive grove to the domes of the observatory and scenic Tuscan hills beyond.
A little further on is a cluster of houses and then you come to Galileo’s villa ‘Il Gioiello’ (The Jewel) on the right.
Galileo’s house(s) on Costa San Giogio and dedication detail.
Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory, as seen en route to ‘Il Gioello’.
Second section of the walk, from the house on Costa San Giorgio, past the INAF observatory to the Arcetri villa ‘Il Gioiello’ and finally the convent site at San Matteo.
Villa ‘Il Gioiello’ The Jewel, Map Location: 3
Galileo’s daughter Maria Celeste found this villa for him and he moved there in September 1631. It was just a few minutes’ walk from the convent where she and her sister Suor Arcangela lived, so he could visit often and Maria Celeste could tend to her beloved father’s needs in old age – cooking for him and helping with sewing and making up medicines for his various ailments, critiquing his writings.
Built in the 14th C. and rebuilt after a siege a century before Galileo moved there, Il Gioiello featured a sheltered garden and loggia from where he could make observations. Galileo would receive various famous scientists at Il Gioiello and he eventually died there in 1642.
The villa is owned by the observatory now and is a national monument. It bears a 19th C. plaque with a pretty vacuous paean in Greek and Latin and an equally dodgy bust of a startled-looking Galileo in a niche.
Galileo’s Arcetri villa ‘Il Gioiello’ – The Jewel.
Dodgy bust and Latin paean (the Greek words mean ‘with God’).
The little church at San Matteo in Arcetri where the convent used to be.
Site of the Convent at San Matteo where Galileo’s Daughters were Cloistered, Map Location: 4
You could go back at this point, but having come all this way I wandered on past The Jewel to the top of the road, turned right down the Via San Matteo in Arcetri to find the location of Maria Celeste’s convent.
The convent is long gone, but a small church and cloister still occupy the same position and there’s a notice about it and Galileo’s daughters.
From there, head back the way you came as far as the gates to the imposing villa, but now turn right along the Via della Torre del Gallo. This has a nice wide pavement (for once!) and leads back down to the Viale Galileo towards Florence with some magnificent views over the city and Duomo.
Opposite the marble steps leading up to the Monastery of San Miniato, cross the road and take a winding left turn onto Via del Monte alle Croci which leads back to the southern bank of the Arno. From there, the Ponte alle Grazie takes you back across the river.
Carrying straight on from the bridge down the Via de Benci, turn right onto Borgo Santa Croce towards the basilica where Galileo is buried.
Third section of the walk, back down from the Arcetri villa ‘Il Gioiello’ to Santa Croce and then the Galileo Museum.
Some great views as you head back down into town.
Galileo’s Tomb in Santa Croce, Map Location: 5
The basilica of Santa Croce isn’t the most famous in Florence and lies a few hundred metres from the historic centre in a district that was once marshy and poor. Still, it’s been described as a kind of Italian version of the Paris Pantheon because it’s full of great Italians including Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Rossini and Galileo (and Galileo’s father).
Galileo’s eventual resting place is easy to find: it’s at the end of the nave directly opposite Michelangelo’s. Galileo’s tomb is in a similar style with mourning muses and a (perky and youthful) Galileo clutching his telescope. There’s also an inset showing the ‘Medicean Stars’ circling Jupiter. But there are some unusual things to point out here.
For one thing, this wasn’t his original tomb. As a ‘vehemently suspected heretic’ Galileo was originally interred with far less glory in a tiny room under the bell-tower, past the sacristy and at the back of the Medici Chapel. The room still has a bust of Galileo to mark the spot.
When Galileo was moved to his new tomb, 95 years after his death, he was treated as a secular saint: a thumb, two fingers and a tooth were removed as relics and can now be seen in the Galileo Museum near the Uffizi, our next and final stop. But the weirdness didn’t end there...
When his original brick tomb was broken open, they discovered two extra coffins. One contained Galileo’s devoted pupil Viviani; the other was of a young woman, probably none other than his beloved daughter Virginia (Suor Maria Celeste).
It’s thought that Viviani, frustrated at not being able to give Galileo the grand memorial he wanted to, had secretly arranged for Virginia to be exhumed from the convent graveyard and moved to Galileo’s tomb; and in fact, both she and Viviani are in the new one too, though there’s no inscription for Maria Celeste.
To get to the last stop on our walking tour, head back to the Arno and then turn right, back towards the Uffizi where you started. Just before you reach the gallery there’s a small square with the Galileo Museum just in front of you.
Galileo was originally interred in this tiny room at the back of the sacristy at Santa Croce.
Galileo’s eventual resting place is at the back of the nave on the right. Suor Maria Celeste and Viviani are here too.
The Galileo Museum, Map Location: 6
Like most of Florence’s museums, this one is housed in a grand old palazzo, situated on the north embankment of the Arno. It’s been occupied by the museum since the 1930s. When I first went there it was the ‘Museum of the Story of Science’, but changed to the ‘Galileo Museum’ in 2010.
If you’re expecting the Galileo Museum to be mainly about Galileo you’re going to be disappointed. Set out over three floors, only one large display area in the middle floor is devoted to Galileo. The rest is an eclectic science-themed mix of globes, armillary spheres (including one ginormous example), spark generators, astrolabes, compasses and clocks; and even a room full of wax anatomical dummies!
The Galileo space has a bust of the scientist that depicts him at an older age than any of the others I discovered on this visit. Nearby is the original lens of the telescope he used to discover Jupiter’s moons, set in an elaborate frame below two of his original telescopes - iconic and much photographed objects.
This special Galileo display brings together other artefacts, like his military compass and original editions of several of his books, including Siderius Nuncius: open at a page with his evocative drawings of the Moon.
Also in the Galileo room is a reconstructed telescope broken down into its component parts so you can see how the tube was built of wooden slats and how he mounted the objective and eyepiece lenses. There’s an interesting film loop about his telescope and discoveries too.
Perhaps the most grisly but compelling display is a marble column containing a pair of reliquaries. One glass container has a single finger; the other a finger, a thumb and a tooth. These were all removed, you’ll remember, when his body was moved to its current grand tomb in 1737.
The museum has other astronomy related displays, including a case full of early 17th C. telescopes, including some that look just like Galileo’s but much larger! Another display has some early wooden-tubed reflectors of the sort used by Herschel.
Galileo Museum on the bank of the Arno and next to the Uffizi gallery.
The Galileo Museum houses many unique artefacts, none more so than these reliquaries.
The museum holds lots of early telescopes in addition to Galileo’s.
Me at Pisa.
The Leaning Tower at Pisa
If you flew into Pisa airport, be sure to visit the cathedral with its leaning bell tower. If you took the train, you’ll probably have to change here anyway, so just exit the station and go for a walk!
If you’re a fast walker you can easily take in the cathedral and bell tower in an hour’s round-trip from the station, or stay on in Pisa to enjoy this beautiful city on the Arno. Yes, but what’s the Galileo connection? Galileo attended and later lectured at Pisa University; and the city is the site of a famous Galilean experiment too...
Pisa’s Leaning Tower needs no introduction – it’s one of the World’s most famous buildings, but is also the place where Galileo is said to have refuted Aristotle by dropping weights to demonstrate that the heavier ones accelerated at the same rate as the lighter.
I love Florence any time, any way, but devoting a day or two to hunting out the traces of its famous astronomer was great fun. I’m sure there’s even more to find and I’ll update this article if I do.
Do just note that I did my walking tour in spring and it’s best done out of season. At the height of summer, the heat and busy roads might make it a lot tougher and less pleasant.