Places: Galileo

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1952; third version, 1955; revised, 1957 (English translation, 1960)

First produced: Leben des Galilei, first version, 1943; second version (in English), 1947; third version (in German), 1955

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Historical

Time of work: 1609-1637

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Padua

*Padua. GalileoNorthern Italian city at whose university Galileo is a forty-six-year-old professor of mathematics when the play opens. Both the place and person are in tension because the mercantile republic of Venice desires power, wealth, and prestige, and Galileo wants to advance scientific knowledge, boost his career, and make his life comfortable. Although he knows that the telescope is a Dutch invention, he presents himself to the Venetian senators as its creator, assuring them “on the most scientific and Christian principles” that it has been “the product of seventeen years patient research at your University of Padua.”


*Florence. Powerful city-state in central Italy that is the site of the play’s middle scenes. The play depicts Florence as a more totalitarian state than the Venetian republic. Although Galileo despises the despotism of the Medici rulers of Florence, he nevertheless writes a groveling letter to ask for their patronage for his work. Besides Medicean control, Florence is also subject to powerful papal influence. Thus Galileo, having compromised his freedom for security, runs the risk of having his research frustrated by both state and church.


*Rome. Center of the Papal States at the time the play is set. Several pivotal scenes occur in the Vatican, which, for Brecht, represents not only spiritual but also intellectual and worldly authority. Galileo’s Copernicanism so troubles church officials that he is eventually put on trial, which leads to him to recant his belief that because the earth rotates around the Sun, the earth cannot be the center of the universe. In the earliest version of the play a cunning Galileo recants to preserve his chances for completing his scientific work. The versions that Brecht wrote after World War II treat Galileo less sympathetically because the postwar Brecht questioned the alliance between scientists and the state. In this interpretation Galileo capitulates out of cowardice and his dedication to science becomes a vice since he practices it without concern for humanity.

BibliographyEsslin, Martin. Brecht: The Man and His Work. Rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1971. A seminal study of Brecht that remains significant because of its insights into Brecht’s own theories of drama and the relationship of his works to Communist ideology.Fuegi, John. Bertolt Brecht: Chaos, According to Plan. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Offers a very detailed chronology and reviews the production problems of the 1947 staging of the play with Laughton in the title role. Useful selective bibliography.Gray, Ronald. Brecht: The Dramatist. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1976. An excellent introduction to Brecht, focusing exclusively on his plays, his dramatic theory, and his theater.Hayman, Ronald. Bertolt Brecht: The Plays. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1984. A short, succinct study by a major Brecht biographer. An excellent starting place for further study of Brecht’s plays. Relates Galileo to Brecht’s Marxist ideology and his practical reasons for writing the play.Hill, Claude. Bertolt Brecht. Boston: Twayne, 1975. A good critical introduction to Brecht, with a chronology and bibliography. Focuses in the discussion of Galileo on Brecht’s artistic intention in the different versions of the play.
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