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Galileo: Things To Know Before You Go

20 Nov 2023

The world premiere of Galileo is an opera depicting the life journey of Galileo Galilei. And whether you’re an opera fan, or a history buff this is a musical journey not to be missed.

But maybe you need a refresher on his story before seeing the show? Here’s some background on one of history’s most fascinating men.

Galileo Galilei was born on February 15, 1564, in Pisa, Italy.

Born to a family of musicians, he initially studied medicine at the University of Pisa.

However, after seeing a mathematics lecture, his interest quickly moved to science. He took up studies in mathematics instead, leading him to become a professor of mathematics and eventually move into physics and astronomy.

Image Description: Grey/Green illustration of Galileo from the chest up looking upward on a parchment background. Source: History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma

Whilst he didn’t invent the telescope, Galileo is most well known for his advancement of the telescope and the ground-breaking discoveries he made with them:

  • He discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter, which led them to be named the Galilean moons.
  • His improvements to the telescope allowed him to magnify them further, leading him to discover there are mountains on the moon.
  • He learnt the milky way was made up of thousands of stars.
  • And he observed the phases of Venus, which therefore supported the heliocentric model of the solar system…
Image Description: Black and white illustration of Galileo seated (centred) at a telescope (right). Scrolls and sextants are placed around him. Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What is heliocentrism?

Heliocentrism is an astronomical model proposed by Nicholas Corpernicus in 1543.

In this model, the Sun is the central point of the universe with the planets of the solar system rotating around it.

This model conflicted with the beliefs of the ruling Roman Catholic Church in Italy, who argued that Earth was the centre of the universe, as God created it. Their model was called Geocentrism.

Image Description: Square Illustration of Heliocentrism of a sun centred and four Earths surrounding it in pink circle. Circle is surrounded by intricate illustrations of angels and monarchs. Source: Andreas Cellarius, Harmonia Macrocosmica

The rule of the church

Galileo lived in Italy at the height of the Catholic Reformation. In quick summary:

  • Prior to Galileo’s birth, the Roman Catholic church had ruled over significant territories in Italy. Its political and spiritual power dominated a lot of Western Europe.
  • However, the Church’s power was challenged by increasing secularist thinking as a result of the Renaissance (1450 to 1650).
  • Years of built-up criticism against the Church for greed and corruption in leadership also came to a head in 1517, when Protestantism was established.
  • Protestants moved away from the Catholic Church, due to differences in doctrine, and this period was known as the Protestant-Reformation.
Image Description: Colourful illustration of Martin Luther burning papal bull of excommunication, with vignettes from Luther's life and portraits of Hus, Savonarola, Wycliffe, Cruciger, Melanchton, Bugenhagen, Gustav Adolf, & Bernhard, duke of Saxe-Weimar. Source:Getty

In response, the Counter-Reformation (or Catholic Reformation) began and lasted into the 1600s. This was a historical period in which the Roman Catholic church made efforts to reform the church and its authority in society.

As part of the Catholic Reformation:

  • The Roman Inquisition was established. This was a group of institutions in charge of combatting Protestantism by combatting heresy.
  • Heresy was what the Church defined as ideas, teachings and behaviour that contradicted the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church. Heresy was made illegal and punishable by death or imprisonment.
Image Description: Black and white intricate line illustration of Galileo (centred) in court room full of officials of the Inquisition, on trial. Source: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Galileo is one of the most famous figures to have faced trial via the Roman Inquisition, due to his teachings of Heliocentrism and scientific practices. Throughout his life he worked on motion, mechanics, velocity, astronomy and completely revolutionised the scientific method.

All the while he wrestled with how the Church and the beliefs he held about the universe intersected.

The fact that he was deeply Catholic himself and believed in God, makes his story all the more compelling and absolutely unmissable.


Author: Greta Doell

Image Description: Galileo: Face of Galileo (right) on a black background, glancing upward to the left. To his left are planets. Source: Owlcation

Want more?

To learn more about his astonishing life through this moving new Australian work, don’t miss Galileo at the Palais Theatre this December.