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Galileo and the Pope

Two Men of Florence

  • Richard N. Goodwin
Huntington Theatre, Boston, Massachusetts 6 March to 5 April 2009

Richard Goodwin's engrossing, witty and moving — if somewhat ahistorical — play about Galileo Galilei and Pope Urban VIII recently completed a run in Boston, Massachusetts, with a fine production mounted by the Huntington Theatre Company. Significantly reworked since its original production in 2003, Two Men of Florence deserves to become a classic.

Richard Goodwin's play explores the personal interactions between Galileo and Pope Urban VIII. Credit: T. C. ERICKSON

Goodwin retains a reference to the title of his earlier version, The Hinge of the World, which plays on the alternative meaning of 'hinge' as 'cardinal'. Having completed the masterpiece that will destroy his standing with the Catholic Church, Galileo says to his daughter, “You and I, Maria, the saint and the philosopher, together we lean on the hinge of the world.” Goodwin's depiction of their relationship, a role enhanced since the earlier production, deviates from the historical one that Dava Sobel described so compellingly in her 1999 book Galileo's Daughter.

Far from the play's portrayal of Maria as an essential collaborator in her father's work, the real Maria Celeste was placed in a convent at the age of 13, where she served as an apothecary. Although she read her father's books and letters, her assistance was limited to supplying him with medications and moral support. Galileo drew comfort from her letters as he endured his confrontation with the Inquisition and the Pope in 1633, following the publication of his controversial work 'Dialogo'.

Goodwin's new title for the play focuses the audience's expectations more properly on the complicated relationship between Galileo the scientist and Urban the cleric. Both native Tuscans, they discover that they are intellectual compatriots. Galileo recognizes Urban as “a philosopher”, an identification that Urban accepts with a slight modification: “Not a philosopher, Galileo, but at least a man of Florence, one who understands that the light of philosophy can enhance the radiance of faith.” The Boston production was well served by the two actors in the starring roles: Edward Herrmann as Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, later Pope Urban VIII, and Jay O. Sanders as Galileo.

In Goodwin's rendering, the Pope encourages Galileo to write a “discussion between the followers of Copernicus and the supporters of Aristotle, a dialogue which contains arguments of all schools, in language which every educated man will comprehend”. When Galileo tells Urban that his working title is On the Flux and Reflux of the Tides, the Pope advises him otherwise: “Since it is a dialogue, why not call it such — A Dialogue on the Two Great World Systems.” Although renaming the book was a requirement of the Inquisition, it was dramatic licence to make it the suggestion of the Pope himself.

Both are men of towering ambition, and each ultimately feels betrayed by the other. After reading Galileo's pro-Copernican magnum opus, the Pope complains. He had, he thought, received a promise that the book would give equal treatment to each side, Copernican and Ptolemaic: “He deceived me. He betrayed his word. He makes a joke of Christianity.” When Galileo learns that as a result of what he has written he will be under house arrest and his works banned, the scientist says, “This was never discussed. Never agreed.”

In 1992, Pope John Paul II said, although falling short of an apology, “A tragic mutual incomprehension has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith.” Goodwin's Galileo refers to this mutual incomprehension when he tells Urban, “I thought you understood, but you do not understand. My philosophy rests on faith. I have been gifted by God to understand some of the language of His creation.”

Goodwin beautifully dramatizes the two men's inability to reconcile by using on stage a piece of scientific equipment. Galileo demonstrates his occhiale — a compound microscope, a modification of his telescope — to the delighted Pope. Several scenes and many years later, the Pope picks up the same occhiale to let the scientist examine a communion wafer under its lens. Although Galileo admits he sees only an uneven surface, resembling that of the Moon, he accepts on faith the wafer as the body of Christ. The Pope accuses Galileo of being a heretic, “one who misreads the faith”, and “the creator of a whole new faith whose trinity is the eyes ... the mouth ... and the brain”.

Goodwin's earlier career as a speech writer for US presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson has clearly familiarized him with the loneliness of political leaders. At the end of the play, it is the victorious Pope who is more bereft than Galileo. Compelled by the responsibility of his office, Urban has jettisoned not only Galileo but also his own oldest friend, Monsignor Giovanni Ciampoli, who, as secretary of the briefs, gave Galileo “the licence to unloose his pestilential work on enfeebled Europe”. Urban banishes Ciampoli to a remote village.

Galileo, deprived of the companionship of his daughter who has predeceased him, is joined in the final scene by Father Benedetto Castelli, a former student of Galileo and now a professor. Castelli's return restores hope to his former teacher, whose forced recantation has left him wondering: “How shall I continue — my proclamations of new wonders returned only by mocking echoes from the indifferent hills of Tuscany.” As the two men set off for Arcetri, near Florence, where Galileo will be confined for the rest of his life, the older man tells his disciple, “Let us go home. There is much for us to do.”

Throughout the play, the language and stage business were enhanced through the motifs of burning, revolution and rotation. The powerful opening scene depicts philosopher Giordano Bruno being burned at the stake in Rome's Campo dei Fiori in 1600 for heresy. Later, Maria burns Galileo's papers, as per her father's request. Goodwin used large, horizontally rotating devices on stage to demonstrate some of Galileo's scientific insights to great effect.

Following its brilliant run in Boston, Two Men of Florence deserves to find its place as a standard in the growing repertoire of plays dealing with science and scientists, including Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo and Michael Frayn's Copenhagen.

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Pasachoff, J., Pasachoff, N. Galileo and the Pope. Nature 459, 512–513 (2009).

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