The Polymath from Pisa: Ancestors

So most of us have heard of Galileo… the father of modern science (well according to Einstein and Hawkins… and really they’d know, right?). Galileo is known as … well… Galileo. Like Michelangelo, Napoleon and Jesus, he doesn’t need a surname (which was Galilei). He was so famous even in his own lifetime that he was simply known as Galileo.

I’ll get into what Galileo did and did not do in later posts. (For those now dying of anticipation… Earth around sun (technically he confirmed it and Copernicus thought of it first, but I digress, sorry), telescopes, upset the Catholic Church and was made to Take It All Back, Moon mountains, Leaning Tower and so on.

Today I’m interested in young Galileo. Where did this incredible person come from? What formed Galileo Galilei. (This is going to take more than one blog post methinks).

The marble tombstone of Galileo Bonaiuti can be found in the floor of the central nave in the Basilica of Santa Croce, in Florence.

The marble tombstone of Galileo Bonaiuti can be found in the floor of the central nave in the Basilica of Santa Croce, in Florence.

The man had good genes.

He could trace his ancestry back to 1200 to a Giovanni Buonaiuti (or Bonaiuti) of Florence. From Giovanni onwards pretty much all (19 no less) of the Buonaiuti’s were part of the Florentine ruling elite (called the Signoria).

But it was Giovanni’s Great Grandson, Galileo Buonaiuti who really put the family on the map.

Galileo Buonaiuti

Born in Florence in 1370, Galileo Buonaiuti was a doctor with a successful practice (well as successful as doctors could be circa 1400 – not having antibiotics and the prevalence of various plagues meant it was a challenging profession), and a professor at the University of Florence.

Like his antecedants he was a member of the council which governed Florence – but Galileo took it one step further… in 1446 he became the leader (or gonfalonier) of the council, and this was a Very Big Deal because

  • Florence was the equivalent of an independent country rather than a state of Italy at that time

  • Cosimo Medici – the first notable member of the legendary Medici clan, this Cosimo (there were two) was hellbent on founding a dynasty and ruling all he surveyed (ie Tuscany). Cosimo the Elder was as close to epic wealth and power that Buonaiuti could get.

This Galileo accrued massive wealth and prestige, and was so successful that rather than hang onto the old Buonaiuti name, he switched to Galilei – so as to better found a noble Medici-like dynasty. He died (in Florence) around 1450.

But it wasn’t to last. A mere 35 years later the family fell from grace. The reasons are not known, but it would be a fair guess to say they upset a Medici or two, and suffered the consequences. Interestingly there was an assassination attempt on Lorenzo Medici in 1478, the same year that the Galileis, sold up and left their beloved Florence to move to the small village of Santa Maria a Monte. While there is no evidence the Galileis were involved in the plot, it’s entirely possible they were linked to the murderous consortium led by the Medici rivals, the Pazzis.

Forty-two years later (in 1520) Vincenzo, Galileo’s dad arrived on the planet. Vincenzo was born in the village of Santa Maria a Monte, and was the great-nephew of Galileo Buonaiuti (then Galilei)…