The same memorable day is marked by the setting of one of the most brilliant stars in the firmament of art and the rising of another in the sphere of science, which was to enlighten the world with beams of equal splendour. On the 18th February, 1564, Michael Angelo Buonarotti closed his eyes at Rome, and Galileo Galilei first saw the light at Pisa.
He was the son of the Florentine nobleman, Vincenzo Galilei, and of Julia, one of the ancient family of the Ammanati of Pescia, and was born in wedlock, as the documents of the church clearly attest. His earliest years were spent at Pisa, but his parents soon returned to Florence, which was their settled home. Here he received his early education. His father had distinguished himself by his writings on the theory of music, particularly the mathematical part of it. They were not merely above mediocrity, but aimed at innovation, and if they did not achieve reform, it was to be attributed to the conservative spirit then reigning in Italy, which asserted itself in every department of life, and especially in the spheres of art and science.
Galileo’s father had no property. His income was but scanty, and the fates had endowed him with a numerous family instead of with fortune. Under these untoward circumstances he at first destined the little Galileo, as is related by Gherardini, his earliest biographer, to a career by no means distinguished, though advantageous in a material point of view, and one that conferred much of their wealth on the Florentines, so that it was held in high esteem—he was to be a cloth dealer. But the young noble first received the education befitting his station, that is, a very mediocre teacher instructed him in the Humanities. Fortunately for the clever young scholar, he was handed over to the pious brethren of the convent of Vallombrosa for further education. Here he at once made rapid progress. He acquired great facility in the classics. His thorough study of the masterpieces of antiquity was of the greatest advantage to him. He doubtless thereby laid the foundation of the admirable style to which he afterwards, in some measure, owed his brilliant successes.
Galileo had a great variety of talent. Besides ardent pursuit of the solid branches of learning, he had considerable skill in drawing and music, in which he afterwards attained so much perfection that his judgment was highly esteemed, even by great artists. He played the lute himself with the skill of a master. He also highly appreciated poetry. His later essays on Dante, Orlando Furioso, and Gerusalemme Liberata, as well as the fragment of a play, bear witness to his lively interest in belles lettres. But from his earliest youth he showed the greatest preference for mechanics. He made little machines with an ingenuity and skill which evinced a really unusual talent for such things.
With these abilities his father must soon have arrived at the conclusion that his son was born for something better than for distributing wool among the people, and resolved to devote him to science; only it was necessary that the branch of it to which he turned his attention should offer a prospect of profit. Medicine was decided on as the most likely to be lucrative, although it may not seem the one most suited to his abilities.
On 5th November, 1581, Galileo, then just seventeen, entered the University of Pisa. Even here the young medical student’s independent ideas and aims made way for themselves. At that time any original ideas and philosophical views not derived from the dogmas of Aristotle were unheard of. All the theories of natural science and philosophy had hitherto been referred to theology. It had been held to be the Alpha and Omega of all human knowledge. But now the period was far advanced in which it was felt to be necessary to cast off the narrow garments fashioned by religion, though at first the will to do so exceeded the power. A stir and ferment agitated men’s minds. A period of storm and stress had begun for the study of nature and the philosophical speculation so closely connected with it. Men did not as yet possess energy and ability for direct advance, so they turned with real fanaticism to ancient learning, which, being independent, and not based on religious notions, afforded them satisfaction. Under these circumstances recurrence to the past was real progress.
Unconditional surrender to the ideas of others, entire adoption of opinions, some of which were not too well verified, might suit mediocrity, but it could not suffice for the powerful mind of Galileo, who was striving to find out the truth for himself. The genius of the young student rebelled fiercely against rigid adherence to an antiquated standpoint. To the horror of the followers of Aristotle, who were quite taken aback at such unheard-of audacity, he resolutely attacked in public disputations many oracular dicta of their great master hitherto unquestioned, and this even then made him many enemies, and acquired for him the epithet of “the Wrangler.”