Scene 3: Pears
[Lindsay Ohse as Maria Celeste, rehearsing Scene 3 last week]
Today we're going to jump "ahead" to Scene 3: Pears, where we are introduced to Galileo's oldest daughter, known throughout the opera as Maria Celeste, the name she took upon entering the convent at the age of 16. In this scene, Maria Celeste stands in the courtyard of the Convent of San Matteo, writing a letter to her father as she completes her chores.
One of the letters on which this scene is based is translated as the following:
Most Illustrious and Beloved Lord Father,
As for the citron, which you commanded me, Sire, to make into candy, I have come up with only this little bit that I send you now, because I am afraid the fruit was not fresh enough for the confection to reach the state of perfection I would have liked, and indeed it did not turn out very well after all. Along with this I am sending you two baked pears for these festive days. But to present you with an even more special gift, I enclose a rose, which, as an extraordinary thing in this cold season, must be warmly welcomed by you. And all the more so since, together with the rose, you will be able to accept the thorns that represent the bitter suffering of our Lord: and also its green leaves, symbolizing the hope that we nurture (by virtue of this holy passion), of the reward that awaits us, after the brevity and darkness of the winter of the present life, when at last we will enter the clarity and happiness of the eternal spring of Heaven, which blessed God grants us by His mercy. And, ending here, I give you loving greetings, together with Suor Arcangela, and remind you, Sire, that both of us are all eagerness to hear the current state of your health. From San Matteo, the 19th of December 1625.
Most affectionate daughter,
Suor M. Celeste
I am returning the tablecloth in which you wrapped the lamb you sent; and you, Sire, have a pillowcase of ours, which we put over the shirts in the basket with the lid.
What we know of Suor Maria Celeste, born Virginia Galilei in 1600, comes primarily from the 124 letters she penned to her father between 1623 and 1633. What became of the letters written prior between 1616, when she entered the convent, and 1623 -- for it's certain that such letters must have existed, given the nature of her frequent writing -- no one can say; nor do any of Galileo's responses survive.
Despite the portrayal in Glass's opera that Maria Celeste was quite devout, it bears noting that the cloistered life may not have been the first choice of either daughter, but rather a decision made by Galileo, due to the nature of his daughters' birth. (His second daughter, Livia, born in 1601, also entered the convent at San Matteo, taking the name Suor Arcangela). Galileo never married Marina Gamba, their mother, and although he provided for the girls throughout their lives, they were still illegitimate children. As such, it would have proved significantly more difficult to find them husbands, and Galileo also may have been concerned about the idea of paying their dowries, especially since he was saddled throughout his life with dowry payments for both of his sisters (also named Virginia and Livia). Thus, entering them into the convent was, in many ways, the easiest path (and a very common one). It remains a decision which is difficult for modern minds to understand, particularly because the Sisters of St. Clare were very poor (they were known as the Poor Clares), and he was essentially relegating the girls to a life of hard work, cold living quarters, and little food.
Regardless of her cloistered surroundings, Maria Celeste seems, by the nature of all her letters, to have been a woman of fundamental good spirits, sweetly humble, and full of affection for her father. She was among the most learned among the sisters at the monastery; very few of them could read or write. In her 18 years as a nun, Maria Celeste counted among her duties apothecary, scribe to the Mother Abbess, choir director, baker, and dramaturg (for the sisters were encouraged to perform small plays depicting stories from Scripture).
Galileo, in a letter to a colleague, described his daughter as "a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me."
She also clearly had a good sense of humor:
October 15, 1633:
But meanwhile I take endless pleasure in hearing how ardently Monsignor Archbishop perseveres in loving you and favoring you. Nor do I suspect in the slightest that you are crossed out, as you say, de libro viventium, certainly not throughout most of the world, and not even in your own country: on the contrary it seems to me from what I hear that while you may have been eclipsed or erased very briefly, now you are restored and renewed, which is a thing that stupefies me, because I am well aware that ordinarily: Nemo profeta accettus est in patria sua (I fear that my wanting to use the Latin phrase has perhaps made me utter some barbarism.)
September 3rd, 1633:
Lord Father, I must inform you that I am a blockhead, indeed the biggest one in this part of Italy, because seeing how you wrote of sending me seven "buffalo eggs" I believed them truly to be eggs, and planned to make a huge omelette, convinced that such eggs would be very grand indeed, and in so doing I made a merry time for Suor Luisa, who laughed long and hard at my foolishness. ["Buffalo eggs" was another term for egg-shaped lumps of mozzarella which were made from buffalo milk.]
Maria Celeste's combined letters make a very small volume, and yet they are utterly compelling to read. They are in many ways entirely mundane, full of the minute details of daily life: collars that need bleaching, friends who have taken ill, concern for her youngest sibling, her brother Vincenzio. She often sends, with her letters (most of which were transmitted back and forth either by servants of Galileo's household or by the caretaker at San Matteo), bits of candy or cake, small treats to entice her chronically ill father's appetite. As the convent's apothecary, she makes him pills for his many ailments, and constantly asks after and worries over his health. During his time in Rome, she manages his household affairs from her cell with nearly as much capacity as if she occupied the villa herself.
Maria Celeste wrote all through Galileo's trials in Rome, and there is such bittersweetness when read from the modern viewpoint; both Galileo and his daughter clearly thought, all through the Inquisition, that all would end up for the best. Never did either suspect that he would be found guilty and imprisoned.
Of her own health, Maria Celeste writes occasionally in her letters, although most of their content is devoted to explaining the health of those around her. How ineffably sad it is to read, then, this excerpt:
It does me good to hope, and also to believe firmly, that his Lordship the Ambassador, when he departs from Rome, will be bringing you the news of your dispatch, and also word that he personally will conduct you here in his company. I do not believe that I will live to see that day. May it please the Lord to grant me this grace, if it be for the best; with that thought I greet you with all my love, Sire, and the regards of our usual friends. From San Matteo in Arcetri, the 3rd of December 1633. Your Most Affectionate Daughter, Suor M. Celeste
Galileo's joyful homecoming took place just a week or two later, in mid-December 1633. Maria Celeste lived only three months more before dying of dysentery on April 2, 1634, at the age of 33.