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The Ghost of Galileo Reviews

The Ghost of Galileo by J.L. Heilbron (University of California, Berkeley)

The Ghost of Galileo: In a forgotten painting from the English Civil War

J.L. Heilbron (University of California, Berkeley)

Score pending

2 reviews

Category: Non-fiction, History
Imprint: Oxford University Press
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication date: 28 Jan 2021
ISBN: 9780198861300

The appearance of Galileo's Dialogue in a forgotten painting launches John Heilbron's exploration of science and culture in Stuart England, and its deep connections with continental Europe. Ranging across art history, politics, and religion, he unravels the painting's mysteries, setting its sitters and painter against their rich cultural backdrop.

5 stars out of 5
Tim Smith-Laing
30 Jan 2021

"a book that is both learned and witty – and considerably more striking than its nominal subject"

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”.


3 stars out of 5
23 Jan 2021

"J.L. Heilbron devotes 500 pages to trying to make sense of this painting, but makes surprisingly little progress"

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.