Giulia and Leo

A short play from the LabLit fiction series

Thomas Pierce 13 May 2010

I would have told my flock the truth, not perversions of the Scripture and worn out old tales from Aristotle


Galileo: At age 51
Giulia: Galileo's mother, about 75

Time and place

Late 1615, Galileo's home in Florence

Galileo's study. A writing desk with small telescope, a table with a bowl of fruit and a smaller bowl of nuts or olives, some chairs. Galileo is at the desk trying to write. Giula is feather dusting aggressively. She pauses in her dusting and stares at the fruit bowl. She picks up an apple and plucks a feather from her feather duster. She carefully holds the apple and feather at arm's length. She adjusts to be sure they are at the same height. She drops them. The apple plummets, the feather floats to the floor. Giula studies the results, then performs the experiment again. Galileo is oblivious.

Giula: Leo?

Galileo: Hmmm.

Giula: Do you remember that boy you played with as a child, Alessandro? You were always chasing each other through the streets, pushing people out of your way. Thinking of no one but yourselves. You knocked a priest down. Nearly killed the poor man.

Giula crosses herself.

Galileo: What?

Giula: Alessandro. His name was Alessandro. A poor family but his grandfather was the duke's armorer.

Galileo: Sandro makes swords. Good for him.

Giula: No. His grandfather. Alessandro is the duke's personal doctor. He married well, too. He and his wife have a grand home. And a country house.

Galileo: I'm happy for him.

Giula: Alesandro provides very well for his family.

Galileo: I'm sure he does.

Giula: Doctor to the duke. A very important position in the duke's household.

Galileo: So?

Giula: You were going to be a doctor.

Galileo: I was not.

Giula: You studied medicine.

Galileo: That was father's idea. I wanted to be a priest.

Giula: (laughs) You, a priest?

Galileo is now thoroughly distracted from his work and ready for an argument.

Galileo: Yes, I would have been a good priest.

Giula: A lawyer, maybe. Not a priest.

Galileo: Why not a priest?

Giula: Priests are supposed to be humble.

Galileo: Ah! Most priests are lazy windbags.

Giula: So you would have been a lazy windbag, too?

Galileo: Of course not. I would have told my flock the truth, not perversions of the Scripture and worn out old tales from Aristotle.

Giula: Ah, the great Galileo Galilei's truth! And what would that get you? You'd be hauled before the bishop. Your family begging in the street.

Galileo: I have always looked after this family since father died. You have never wanted for anything. I paid the dowries for both my sisters. My shiftless little brother was to share that burden. What do I get from him? Endless requests for "loans." Money I will never see again.

Giula: Michelangelo is a good boy. Don't speak of him that way.

Galileo: Michelangelo is a musician who can't even feed himself. I am a musician too, but I don't have the luxury of plucking the lute all day. No one fills my pocket with coins.

Giula: Your father was a musician. I suppose he was worthless?

Galileo: No, of course not.

Giula: (Picking up the apple and feather again) You have surpassed all of us. You are greater than all of us. Your father, your sisters, your brother, me. You, the great professor of mathematics who knows all about how things fall.

Galileo: What is that supposed to mean?

Giula lets the apple and feather drop once more while Galileo watches.

Giula: The apple is heavier and reaches the floor first. Of course, I'm an old woman. What do I know?

Galileo: The apple falls faster because it cuts through the air easily. The feather – designed by God, designed by God for birds' efficient and beautiful flight – the feather rides the air gently to the floor. If there were no air the apple and the feather would hit the floor at the same time.

Giula: If there were no air we would be dead.

Galileo: Do you remember the hail storm last spring? The one that knocked the petals off your roses?

Giula: Of course.

Galileo: Some of the hailstones were no bigger than prayer beads and some were almost the size of plums. They all came from the same clouds and they arrived in your garden at the same time. The big ones did not land first.

Giula: Perhaps God creates the small hailstones first and then the big ones. The big stones catch up and they all land at the same time.

Galileo: God busies himself with creating hailstones of different sizes at different times so that all the stones, large and small, will knock off your rose petals at the same instant?

Giula: God is capable of doing anything he pleases.

Galileo: Why would he trick us into believing hailstones all fall at the same speed?

Giula: (Crossing herself again) Shame on you, Leo! God is not a trickster. You are questioning God's wisdom.

Galileo: I do not question God. I question fools who cannot see for themselves what is going on around them.

Giula: People are talking. They say you mock the Church, even our Holy Father himself.

Galileo: I do no such thing.

Giula: You could have had a proper career.

Galileo: I have a career. I advise the duke. I teach mathematics.

Giula: You shout at your students.

Galileo: (shouting) I do not!

Giula: You won't wear the proper gown. You don't act like a professor. Or a courtier. Or anything I understand. I don't know what you are.

Galileo: I am a student of nature.

Giula: You shock and enrage people wherever you go.

Galileo: I have been most careful not to challenge religious or secular authority. I simply want to get on with my investigations.

Giula: Then why I am I hearing such awful things about you?

Galileo: Mother, I am discovering the most remarkable things about our world, things no one has ever known before. (Picks up a telescope.) Do you see this instrument?

Giula: The devil's toy.

Galileo: This "toy" reveals the infinite stars of God's creation. Satan surely wouldn't be interested in that.

Giula: You underestimate the prince of darkness.

Galileo: Perhaps I've underestimated you.

Giula: What do you mean?

Galileo: You sent some of my lenses to Benedetto.

Giula: And why shouldn't I? He is family.

Galileo: Benedetto is my brother-in-law.

Giula: Family.

Galileo: Just as Marina is family?

Giula: That woman is not your wife.

Galileo: "That woman" is the mother of my children. You treat her like a servant.

Giula: She is not worthy of you.

Galileo: You and the fools of this world find her unworthy.

Giula: Now I am a fool.

Galileo looks at his mother with the telescope; he circles her while she screams. Giula gets up and runs around the room with Galileo chasing her

Giula: Leo, stop that! Don't point that thing at me.

Galileo: With my invention I can see into people's souls.

Giula: Leo, stop! Mary, mother of God, stop!

Galileo: I will know all your secrets, Mother. (Giula is quickly exhausted and collapses into her chair; Galileo laughs.) Your secrets are safe. This is a paper tube with glass disks carefully shaped to make things appear closer than they are. I can't see your soul. I can't even see what's on the other side of that wall. Try it yourself.

(Galileo holds out the telescope to Giula.)

Giula: I won't look through that thing.

Galileo: It isn't a snake. It won't bite.

Giula: No!

Galileo: Then tonight I will show you the stars, the great discoveries I have made.

Giula: I will only look at stars the way God intended we should look at stars.

Galileo: All right, if you won't look through my instrument, I will show you another way. (Picks up a plate from the table and an olive from the dish.) This plate is Jupiter, one of the wandering stars. It appears through my instrument as a bright disk. I've watched it dozens of nights. It's unimaginably beautiful. One night I noticed small lights near Jupiter. (Holds up the olive in front of the plate and moves it across the plate as he continues speaking.) Imagine that this olive is a small moving light. I looked again the next night, and the next. I noticed the lights moved! First they were on one side of Jupiter and then the other. The one closest disappeared behind Jupiter and then reappeared some days later. (Galileo moves the olive behind the plate and then brings it out on the opposite side.) Don't you see, Mother, don't you see what I have discovered?

Giula: Jupiter is bothered by fireflies?

Galileo: Jupiter has moons! Jupiter has four moons!

Giula: Moons.

Galileo: Yes! These small lights are moons that revolve around Jupiter.

Giula: Why do these moons have you jumping up and down as a child?

Galileo: Because this means there are heavenly bodies that do not revolve around the earth. The Copernican system is correct. It is the sun that stands still. The wandering stars and our own earth revolve around the sun. And the moons of Jupiter revolve around Jupiter just as our moon revolves around the earth.

Giula: You can tell all this from tiny lights in the sky.

Galileo: I have other proofs. Venus, for example, has phases just as our moon. It could only have phases if it revolves around the sun.

Giula: I don't pretend to understand these moons or phases or whatever. I only know there are wiser heads than mine who condemn these ideas.

Galileo: I also have many defenders.

Giula: Why doesn't everyone defend you? Why do they say you are guilty of heresy?

Galileo: I have proven the Church's doctrines on the heavenly bodies are false.

Giula: Leo, if you oppose the Church you oppose God. I don't want to hear more of this!

Galileo: The Church and God are not the same. I honor God and the true meaning of the Scripture. I do not honor those who twist the Scripture and ignore the plain teachings of nature.

Giula: Now you're a theologian! You can interpret Scripture better than the Holy Fathers?

Galileo: I interpret only what I see in the world. As for the world beyond this one I am content to leave those interpretations to others.

Giula: And if you are wrong?

Galileo: The Scripture and a correct understanding of the world cannot be in conflict. If my discoveries appear to conflict with God's Word then it is the fallible interpretations of Scripture which must be changed.

Giula: Listen to you talk. Maybe you should have been a lawyer. At least then you'd make some money before they burn you.

Galileo: They won't burn me.

Giula: They burned Bruno.

Galileo: Bruno was an atheist.

Giula: You'll leave me a lonely old woman with no one to support me.

Galileo: I am not going to be burned. The Church will come around to my point of view.

Giula: (She picks up the feather once more, places it in her palm and with a quick puff blows it away.) A man came to see you yesterday.

Galileo: A man? From where? Why didn't you tell me?

Giula: You were busy. Playing with one of your inventions, I believe. I called out but you didn't answer.

Galileo: What did he want?

Giula: He was from Cardinal Bellarmino. The Cardinal wishes to speak with you. In Rome.

Galileo: Ah, Cardinal Bellarmino. In Rome. Yes, well, I'm sure we will have quite a good talk.

Other articles by Thomas Pierce