Heilbron’s long career as a scholar of the interactions between science, literature and religion gives him rare depth in just about every area. What makes it a joy, though, is his Puckish presentation of his knowledge. There are not many historians knowledgeable enough to draw up an authentic early modern horoscope for one of their subjects, and fewer still eccentric enough to bother. Despite his deep sympathy for the age – free of the ahistorical triumphalism that many lesser scholars of early science are apt to indulge in – he enjoys pointing out its absurdities. Candidates for the Royal College of Physicians, he notes, were examined “viva voce in Latin to check their ability to consult the dead if not to cure the living”.
Heilbron admits that he cannot pin down the meaning of the painting, though it is not, I suggest, difficult to do so. He resorts to writing an imaginary dialogue in which painter and subject discuss the painting, and, at some length, the significance of Galileo. Are we to think of him as a rebel, who deserved punishment, or as a great philosopher, who should have been allowed to publish freely? I think historians should not make things up, particularly conversations, and if they do they should avoid anachronisms such as ‘unintended consequences’, a phrase virtually unknown before 1936.