It had been hiding in plain sight. The original letter — long thought lost — in which Galileo Galilei first set down his arguments against the church’s doctrine that the Sun orbits the Earth has been discovered in a misdated library catalogue in London. Its unearthing and analysis expose critical new details about the saga that led to the astronomer’s condemnation for heresy in 1633.
The seven-page letter, written to a friend on 21 December 1613 and signed “G.G.”, provides the strongest evidence yet that, at the start of his battle with the religious authorities, Galileo actively engaged in damage control and tried to spread a toned-down version of his claims.
Many copies of the letter were made, and two differing versions exist — one that was sent to the Inquisition in Rome and another with less inflammatory language. But because the original letter was assumed to be lost, it wasn’t clear whether incensed clergymen had doctored the letter to strengthen their case for heresy — something Galileo complained about to friends — or whether Galileo wrote the strong version, then decided to soften his own words.
Galileo did the editing, it seems. The newly unearthed letter is dotted with scorings-out and amendments — and handwriting analysis suggests that Galileo wrote it. He shared a copy of this softened version with a friend, claiming it was his original, and urged him to send it to the Vatican.
The letter has been in the Royal Society’s possession for at least 250 years, but escaped the notice of historians. It was rediscovered in the library there by Salvatore Ricciardo, a postdoctoral science historian at the University of Bergamo in Italy, who visited on 2 August for a different purpose, and then browsed the online catalogue.
“I thought, ‘I can’t believe that I have discovered the letter that virtually all Galileo scholars thought to be hopelessly lost,’” says Ricciardo. “It seemed even more incredible because the letter was not in an obscure library, but in the Royal Society library.”...
Galileo wrote the 1613 letter to Benedetto Castelli, a mathematician at the University of Pisa in Italy. In it, Galileo set out for the first time his arguments that scientific research should be free from theological doctrine (see ‘The Galileo affair’).
He argued that the scant references in the Bible to astronomical events should not be taken literally, because scribes had simplified these descriptions so that they could be understood by common people. Religious authorities who argued otherwise, he wrote, didn’t have the competence to judge. Most crucially, he reasoned that the heliocentric model of Earth orbiting the Sun, proposed by Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus 70 years earlier, is not actually incompatible with the Bible.
Galileo, who by then was living in Florence, wrote thousands of letters, many of which are scientific treatises. Copies of the most significant were immediately made by different readers and widely circulated. His letter to Castelli caused a storm.
Of the two versions known to survive, one is now held in the Vatican Secret Archives. This version was sent to the Inquisition in Rome on 7 February 1615, by a Dominican friar named Niccolò Lorini. Historians know that Castelli then returned Galileo’s 1613 letter to him, and that on 16 February 1615 Galileo wrote to his friend Piero Dini, a cleric in Rome, suggesting that the version Lorini had sent to the Inquisition might have been doctored. Galileo enclosed with that letter a less inflammatory version of the document, which he said was the correct one, and asked Dini to pass it on to Vatican theologians.