Galileo Galilei

Galileo, the great Pisan astronomer is shown seated, holding his telescope whilst beside him lie other accoutrements...but is everything as it should be in this history painting of the heaven gazer?

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Painting of Galileo

Galileo Galilei
after Giusto Suttermans
18th c. after a 17th c. original

This is an eighteenth century copy after a seventeenth century original (or possibly a combination of imagery from more than one earlier painting) and may well be the product of more than one artist - his left hand is amateurishly depicted.

Although the original painting was Italian, this version may well be English. We think this because a book on the table has an English inscription on its spine. This reads: 'Galileo. Born at Pisa: Feb: 18. 1564. Son of Vicentio Galilei a Noble Florentine. Galileo applied a telescope to the Heavens. He died in 1642 at Arcetri near Florence'.

The terrestrial globe and the telescope are not of the correct period, reflecting the products available at the artist's time rather than Galileo's.

Did You Know?

Detail of Galileo painting showing his eyes

Galileo died the same year that Sir Isaac Newton was born.

Aged 13 Galileo started as a novice in the Benedictine Order but was withdrawn by his impecunious father, blaming an inflammation in the boy's eyes.

When Galileo first heard about what later became known as 'telescopes' they were scarcely known in Italy but spectacle-makers in Paris were already making them in large quantities, using stock spectacle lenses.

As you can see, there is no sign of his blindness in our version of the painting.

Detail of Galileo painting showing telescope

Other versions of this painting

Type 1 Suttermans painted a portrait of Galileo (Uffizi, Florence) for his friend Diodati in about 1636, which soon became celebrated. After Galileo’s death, it was brought back from France to Florence by Vincenzo Viviani (who at the age of eighteen, in 1639, had come to live with Galileo as a pupil) as a gift for Grand-duke Ferdinand II. We have records of it hanging in the Uffizi in 1704 and 1763, and it appears in Johann Zoffany’s painting of the Tribuna (1772-1774, Windsor Castle). It differs from the BOA Museum version in that Galileo does not hold a telescope and gazes to the upper left.

Type 2 Another portrait of Galileo, however, was painted around 1640 (Galleria Palatina, Pitti Collection, Florence) which shows him looking directly towards the viewer, with part of his telescope appearing in the bottom left corner, aspects which are repeated in the BOA Museum version. It may also have been painted by Suttermans, although it has often been attributed to one of his pupils. The difference in feeling between the two paintings was noted by Viviani in a letter to Diodati: ‘your picture [Uffizi version] shows him [Galileo] really alive, full of flesh and blood, illuminated, in the act of contemplation, while the other one makes him look rather attenuated, already blind and in the act of speculation, with more severely furrowed brows...’.

Apart from these two portraits, Suttermans apparently painted a sketch (bozza) of Galileo in 1636, which the scientist kept but which was lost after the death of his daughter-in-law-in-law, Sestilia Bocchineri.

There are several versions after the Pitti portrait which show the telescope, including a possible autograph copy in the Domus Galileiana di Pisa and a ruined copy, not autograph, in the Galleria Palatina, Pitti Collection, Florence.

Especially interesting for the BOA Museum version is the copy in England, that was sent to Oxford University in April 1661 (Bodleian Library, Oxford) by Viviani, which shows Galileo grasping the end of the telescope with his left hand. The fact that in the BOA Museum’s version the spine of one of the books bears details of Galileo’s life in English suggests strongly that it was a copy done in this country and possibly from the well-known, accessible Bodleian Library version. Whatever the case, the artist of the BOA painting embellished his version with books and globe, which do not appear in any of the pictures discussed above. Lucky us!

Many representations of Galileo depict him with his telescope, including:

  •     the bust on his funerary monument in S Croce, Florence
  •     the engraved frontispiece of Galileo’s History (1613) and The Assayer (1623)
  •     an engraving from the Opere di Galileo Galilei (1655-1656)

See also...


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