the complete review Quarterly
Volume III, Issue 3   --   August, 2002

Galileo in Hell
Looking for a dialogue between science and art


Galileo's Infernal Meddling

       In 1588, a still very young Galileo famously (or infamously) delivered two lectures on the topography of Dante's Inferno. Based on the textual evidence and using scientific methods he attempted to map out the realm Dante described. [1]   It is not considered one of Galileo's signal achievements, treated instead as, at best, an amusing oddity. Yet it warrants closer scrutiny.
       German poet Durs Grünbein recently suggested that it was an historic moment, the peripeteia when the natural sciences and the arts definitively diverged. [2]   For Grünbein Galileo's (mis-)measurement of Dante's Inferno was an example of haughty and presumptuous science laying claim to a world outside its dominion. Galileo's transgression was merely the first step; many followed. In redrawing the boundaries science has conquered the world -- to the detriment of civilization, Grünbein implies.
       To measure art in scientific terms strikes the poet as an affront and a danger, its consequences catastrophic. Grünbein's interpretation mirrors Galileo's later conflicts with the Church, which similarly found it intolerable that scientific method could be used to call theological tenets into question. But Grünbein is mistaken. Galileo did not mean to usurp the role of art. His mappings were not meant to be a substitute for Dante: they were support, not trespass. Galileo hoped only to facilitate the reading of the great poem by delineating the occasionally disorienting and ambiguous layout of the settings. (Galileo was by no means the first -- or last -- to make the attempt. [3])   And, despite Grünbein's claims to the contrary, Dante's work was in no way lessened by such a gloss.
       The young scientist was trying to make his mark by demonstrating that science can enhance all aspects of human endeavour, even the enjoyment of works of the imagination written in verse. Galileo also meant to show that art and science could be complementary (as, significantly, theology and science largely could not [4]). The historic moment Grünbein discerns was not, as he insists, a final sundering blow but a failed attempt at conciliation. There was no idyllic unity to be destroyed here: these were two long-separated cultures, running in uneasy parallel, that Galileo hoped to integrate. Unfortunately, Galileo's audience (and the times) appear not to have been particularly receptive, and his efforts largely did not impress. Even (or perhaps particularly) now the episode is considered something of an embarrassment, a misguided and foolish undertaking unworthy of Galileo and best ignored -- suggesting that contemporary opinion also holds that science and art are to be considered distinct spheres, and that only in certain areas can overlap be tolerated.
       Galileo's failure was a significant one, both because of the protagonist and the point in time at which it occurred. Science succeeded -- and continues to do so, playing an evermore dominant role in contemporary life. From Galileo's time onwards there has been a surge of theoretical and practical advances with far-reaching consequences. Scientific breakthroughs and technological innovation repeatedly fundamentally changed the way man lives. But instead of engaging closely with the scientific world, artists have, in their work, largely done little more than observe it from afar.

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The Possibilities of Dialogue

       The bisection of culture has not always been as pronounced as C.P.Snow diagnosed it. Nor, however, is the split solely a modern invention. Science and art have often stood uneasily side by side. Aristotle was one of the foremost scientists of his age, and could also write on many other subjects, including poetry and the theatre -- yet his Poetics do not even consider the idea that a playwright might conceive of putting a scientist on the stage or that the natural philosophy of the day was a fit subject for theatrical performance.
       The presentation of science in literary form was not unheard of even in classical times, and has fluctuated wildly ever since. The most famous such work surviving from the classical age is Lucretius' poem, De rerum natura, acclaimed both as a literary and scientific work. Despite obvious limitations the use of poetry as a medium not only to address but to actually convey scientific information continued until modern times. Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden (completed in 1791), for example, is an ambitious attempt to elaborate on the botanical system of Linnaeus. The treatise-in-verse no longer appears to be a viable form, but modern poets -- including respected scientist-poets such as Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann and Miroslav Holub -- continue to present science in their verse.
       Over the last century or so it is works of historical and other types of fiction concerned with scientists and the practise of science, as well as non-fiction prose works popularizing science that have proven most successful. They have become publishing mainstays, welcome introductions to and considerations of science that appeal to large audiences [5]. Twentieth century drama has also turned to science [6], notably in Brecht's Life of Galileo, Tom Stoppard's Hapgood and Arcadia, and Michael Frayn's Copenhagen.

       At least one literary form similar to drama -- the dialogue -- suggests that drama might have been particularly well suited to presenting scientific material and bridging the two-culture cleft. A dialogue reads much like a play without stage instructions. It is discourse in its most basic form, a back and forth between individuals without anything embellishing the exchange. The Platonic dialogues remain the best-known examples, but the form has endured and continues to find some use. The subject matter is, most often, philosophy, but many dialogues also deal specifically with questions of science [7]. Scientists have frequently found the form suited to presenting their theories and findings, and the type of interplay it reflects is critical to the success of scientific method itself [8]. And among the best-known scientist-dialogists crops up again the name of Galileo
       Despite their similarities, dialogues must be considered separately from drama. The dialogue was not an intermediary form; it developed and exists alongside drama. Its objective was a different, largely didactic one. The dialogue is usually presented almost like a school lesson, the participants often in a teacher-pupil relationship. The dialogue is rarely meant to be an entertainment, while this has always been one of the primary functions of drama. Still, it surprises that the two forms remained so utterly distinct: the dialogue was almost never transformed into performance piece, despite the potential to reach a much larger audience if it were seen instead of read. The leap from dialogue to play apparently proved too daunting, the purpose and potential of each form too closely circumscribed.
       There it was however: all that didactic material, presented in near-dramatic form, almost packaged for a broader audience. But no one took the leap -- though Galileo was among those best positioned to.
       It is often forgotten that while Galileo was not a Renaissance man the equal of a Leonardo da Vinci, he was a scientist who came from a cultured background and showed a lively interest in the arts. Beside his Dante-lectures, he also wrote poetry, a consideration of Tasso, and at least attempted to write several plays [9] He also, of course, wrote several dialogues, including Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.
       It is the plays -- written both when he was young as well as near the end of his life -- that are of particular interest. Those that are still extant have impressed no one, their subject matter and form no different from all the other second or third rate drama of the day. Willing to challenge Aristotelianism in science, Galileo remained largely a traditionalist regarding art. He was drawn to a dialogic presentation of his science -- witness the dialogues -- but it contained only a hint of the dramatic. His dialogues are not plays, and he never came any closer to making the truly brave jump of presenting his science in a form anything like which could pass for an actual drama. Like Aristotle, he seems to have been completely blind to the possibility.
       One wonders whether it was that early failure, when he tried to utilize scientific methods to help in the understanding of Dante, that led him to accept the historical divide and keep art and science separate. He, like Leonardo before him and few after might have been able to break down the boundaries. Unfortunately, he had to battle on another front as well (the theological one), and made almost no further efforts in this area.
       Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems is a massive work, but in it he shows himself adept in presenting his material. The dialogue form allows him greater liberties than the straightforward treatise. There are actual characters in it, speaking in character -- hints of possible stage-roles. The dialogue form sufficed for Galileo's purposes here, but a talent for drama seems also to lurk there. More the pity that it could never unfold.

       Galileo's mapping of Dante's vision suggested only one approach to use science to further art. Perhaps it was misguided, or overly ambitious -- or badly presented. But it could -- and probably should -- have been taken more seriously. Like so many others, Galileo instead apparently took this failure as yet another confirmation of an inherent irreconcilability between science and art. The lectures should not be dismissed, as they are nowadays -- and certainly not cursed, as they are by Grünbein -- but rather hailed as an important attempt, a marvelous first step unfortunately not (or not yet) followed up on.

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   1. For a good account, see: John Kleiner, Mismapping the Underworld (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994) pp. 25-34.

   2. Durs Grünbein, Galilei vermißt Dantes Hölle und bleibt an den Maßen hängen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1996) pp. 89-104. See also our review.

   3. John Kleiner's Mismapping the Underworld (see note 1) offers an interesting overview of the history of such attempts.

   4. The (ir)reconcilability of science and religion is, of course, also a question that has been (and continues to be) much debated. Significant aspects, however, -- including the unpalatable (at least to the Church) world-view that resulted from Galileo's science -- show there are many rifts that are not easily bridged.

   5. There is also, of course, science fiction itself. Science fiction is, however, largely fantastical and forward-looking rather than reflective or analytical, often considering innovations that are at best distant possibilities. While the demarcation between fiction (or drama or poetry) about science and science fiction is not always entirely an obvious one, the focus here is specifically on that which realistically reflects the science of its times.

   6. There are surprisingly few examples from earlier times, Thomas Shadwell's The Virtuoso (1676) being perhaps the most notable one.

   7. Imre Lakatos' Proofs and Refutations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976; see also our review) is among the more recent well-known examples, straddling philosophy and science.

   8. See Mara Beller's excellent account of Quantum Dialogues (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999; see also our review).

   9. See Dante Della Terza's Galileo, Man of Letters, in Galileo Reappraised (ed. Carlo L. Golino), (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966) pp. 1-22.

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© 2002 the complete review Quarterly
© 2002 the complete review