Nick WildingGalileo’s Idol: Gianfrancesco Sagredo and the Politics of Knowledge

University of Chicago Press, 2014

by Carla Nappi on March 15, 2015

Nick Wilding

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Nick Wilding’s new book is brilliant, thoughtful, and an absolute pleasure to read. Galileo’s Idol: Gianfrancesco Sagredo and The Politics of Knowledge (University of Chicago Press, 2014) takes an unusual approach to understanding Galileo and his context by focusing its narrative on his closest friend, student, and patron, the Venetian Gianfrancesco Sagredo. Though most readers might be familiar with Sagredo largely as one of the protagonists of Galileo’s 1632 Dialogue upon the Two Main Systems of the World, here he takes center stage. In order to bring Sagredo to life and help us understand his significance both for Galileo and for early modern science in context more broadly conceived, Wilding has worked with an impressive range of materials that include poems, paintings, ornamental woodcuts, epistolary hoaxes, intercepted letters, murder case files, and more. After a chapter that reads like a detective story as Wilding tracks down and expertly reads missing portraits of Sagredo, subsequent chapters explore the Venetian’s role in major disputes involving the Jesuits, his family’s mining interests, his time as treasurer for a fortress and a consul to Syria, and his performance as a “rich, old, slightly batty widow” in the context of a rather hilarious epistolary hoax. We also come to understand Galileo anew, as Wilding pays careful attention to his use of scribal publication to control and disseminate his writing and the relationship between instrument and text in his work. (In one wonderful chapter, Wilding reads woodcuts associated with the Sidereus nuncius in order to reframe how we understand the history of production and publication of this text in the context of transalpine book smuggling.) Along the way, the chapters make significant interventions in the historiography of science, suggesting ways that Sagredo helps us think anew about the use of visual sources, the agency of “intermediaries and go-betweens” in creating their own networks, the importance of understanding the sense of humor of our historical actors, the social nature of early modern authorship, and the need to reassess the historiography of the global scientific network of the Jesuits.

There are also some really, horribly, wonderfully bad puns. (Consider yourselves forewarned.)

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