A nun, traditionally identified as Suor Maria Celeste, daughter of Galileo Galilei. Oil painting.

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A young nun in the black headdress and grey habit of the Poor Clares, head and shoulders to left, eyes turned towards the front. Painted spandrels of a fictive oval frame are visible at the corners. The position of the portrait on the canvas is characteristic of seventeenth-century painters such as Sustermans

Traditionally identified as a portrait of Virginia (1600-1634), natural daughter of Galileo Galilei and Marina Gamba. In 1613/1614 (Favaro p. 103) she entered the convent of San Matteo d'Arcetri near Florence: the convent was under the Rule of Saint Clare in the Order of Saint Francis (Favaro p. 102). She took her vows and the monastic name of Maria Celeste in that convent on 4 October 1616 (Favaro p. 105, though website of Istituto e Museo di Storia delle Scienze says "she entered the Monastery of San Matteo in Arcetri in 1617"), and is called in Italian sources Suor Maria Celeste. She and her father retained a close relationship

No portrait of her appears to exist from her lifetime, nor is there at hand any reference to a lifetime portrait having been made. Judging by technique and condition (see below), the present portrait dates from later than her lifetime, therefore it is presumably either (a) a copy of a lost earlier portrait of Suor Maria Celeste, or (b) a portrait of another nun, misidentified knowingly or unknowingly as Suor Maria Celeste, or (c) a later, imaginary portrait showing what a later painter imagined would approximate to a plausible likeness of Suor Maria Celeste, perhaps inspired by the publications about her by Allen-Olney and Favaro. The third possibility is plausible considering the extensive Galileian iconography dating from the nineteenth century, comparable to that associated with other scientific figures such as Harvey, Newton, Lavoisier, and Jenner, and created by artists such as Annibale Gatti and Tito Lessi. Provenance from Villa Galletti suggests family piety and stimulus to the imagination rather than academic veracity as the source of its value

The present painting (apparently) was photographed by Alinari while in the possession of Conte Paolo Galletti (d. 1914). Fahie described how, as he came to know more about Suor Maria Celeste, "my veneration for the photograph increased, until, one day, having occasion to speak of it to my new master, Professor Favaro, he shocked me by saying:-"Never again let me hear of that thing. It is an impudent forgery-worse, it is a sacrilege". Such a comment reflects Favaro's role in recuperating and organizing the seventeenth-century documentation of Galileo and distinguishing it from later mythology. However, his view was not entirely shared either by the century before him, which produced an extensive array of imaginative Galileana, or by the century after, in which the painting was regarded as being located at the beginning of a new Nachleben for Suor Maria Celeste, fostered (so far) by English-speaking women writers, from The private life of Galileo (London: Macmillan, 1870; anonymous author stated by Fahie to be Mary Allen-Olney) through Five secrets in a box written and illustrated by Catherine Brighton (London: Methuen, 1987), to Dava Sobel's book entitled in America Galileo's daughter : a historical memoir of science, faith, and love (New York: Walker, 1999), and in England Galileo's daughter : a drama of science, faith, and love (London: Fourth Estate, 1999), and on the cover of which a tinted copy of the Alinari photograph of the present portrait was reproduced

Physical description

1 painting : oil on canvas ; canvas 54.8 x 40 cm

References note

A. Favaro, Galileo Galilei e Suor Maria Celeste, Florence: G. Barbèra, 1891
J.J. Fahie, Memorials of Galileo Galilei, Leamington: for the author, 1929
M. Righini Bonelli and W.R. Shea, Galileo's Florentine residences, Florence: Museo di Storia della Scienza, 1979, p. 29 (Alinari photograph, as Suor Maria Celeste)
Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi and Alessandro Tosi, Il cannocchiale e il pennello: nuova scienza e nuova arte nell'età di Galileo, Firenze: Giunti, 2009 (Gamm, Giunti arte mostre musei), p. 310 (reproduced) and no. 136, pp. 379-380
J. L. Heilbron, Galileo, Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2010, pl. 9


Wellcome Collection 45565i

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