Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sister Maria Celeste, Italy

Born Virginia Gamba (1600-1634), she was the daughter to Galilieo Galilei the famous Italian scientist who proved that the Earth revolved around the sun. Virginia was the eldest of her siblings sister Livia and her brother Vincezio. The three were all born out of wedlock by Maria Gamba, the life and love of Galileo. The girls were considered unmarriageable by Galileo since he never married their mother. When Virginia turned thirteen years of age Galileo decided to send both girls to the nearest convent, just south of their home in Florence, the Convent of San Matteo in Arcentri. There they both lived out their lives in extreme poverty and seclusion. Maria Celeste died from dysentry at the age of 33.

The Convent of San Matteo belonged to The Order of Saint Clare which was established by Saints Clare of Assissi and Francis of Assissi. The Clares, or Poor Clares dedicated themselves to the strict principles of Saint Francis, never able to leave the grounds of the convent and living in extreme poverty far severer than that of any female order of the time. There, their hair was cut round and they wore rough habits of dark brown with black linen veil and knotted cordbelt. They were always barefoot, slept on wood boards covered with a straw mattress, and were seemingly always fasting and praying. Viginia named herself Maria Celeste honouring both the Virgin Mary and her father with her name.

Maria Celeste proved to be an industrious woman for she had little free time to herself. The day was spent cleaning, cooking, and producing articles for sale on the outside such as fine embroidered handkerchiefs, lace, herbal medicines and bread in the summer when it was too hot for most other people to bother. She directed the choir and taught the novices to sing the Gregorian chant. In her few spare moments at the end of the day she wrote letters to her father. In these letters she enquired after his experiments and his poor health. 

Maria Celeste

The convent did have a farm that was tended by outside labor. They grew wheat, millet and other grains, grape for wine and kept some animals. It is not clear if there was an orchard but fruit trees were grown around a central well at the back of the church. There they grew pears, plums, quince, almond trees, pine trees and olive trees. Rosebushes were plentiful and said to bloom even at Christmas.

At the convent apothecary Maria Celeste assisted the visiting doctor by fabricating remedies in pill or tonic form and nursed the sick nuns. Rosemary was grown for nausea, rhubarb was dried and used as a laxative, and rue to staunch a bloody nose or to drink with wine for headaches. A syrup made of rosebuds was used as a purgative: 'prepared from several hundred roses, picked when the buds were half open, then steeped a full day and night in sugar and hot water.'

Galileo's own garden grew lettuce, bitter oranges, portuguese oranges, lemons, grapes for wine (which was made on the premises). There were white beans, chickpeas, broad beans, capers, plums, pears, an orange tree in a pot, a mule for transportation and a dovecote.

Galileo and his daughter Maria Celeste lives were intertwined in inumerable ways and linked by letters. If you are interested in knowing more please read the book Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel for a fascinating look at both their lives. 


  1. Wonderful post! When I first started reading it I was reminded of a book I had read a few years back now. I could not think of it but Galileo's Daughter did pop into my head. So glad you mentioned it at the end of your post. Fabulous book! So sad they could not simply be together as father and daughter, so that she would not have to live in such hardship. You make me want to read the book again for I have forgotten so much. ;>)

  2. Serendipity and synchronicity! Have just bought this book for my mother, because she is interested in history (and gardens). Will link back to you when I post about the books!

  3. Carol: There was so much more I would have liked to have added but it does not tie into the theme of the blog, Alas. It is a wonderful book and I hope you do pick it up again.
    ElephantsEye: Fate destiny serendipity wonderful.

  4. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for writing this post!!!! I teach about Galileo in my science class and look forward to it all year. I've bought Galileo's Daughter but haven't had time to read it yet. I love how intelligent your posts are. Your blog is like fertilizer for my brain!!

  5. TS: Thank YOU for such an enthusiastic comment. It is heartening to know that the blog is reaching interested people.

  6. Hi Patty. I've browsed your Women and the Garden blog with interest. Seeing that you're interested in that subject and are also a reader, I wonder if you would enjoy Love Every Leaf: the life of landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander (which I happened to write). I can't help but think you might find some of her influences and philosophies interesting.

    By the way, Cornelia is now 89 years old and still practising the profession that she first became interested in at the age of 11!

    Happy gardening!

    PS If you'd like to read how I compare gardening and writing...
    click here


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