Have you ever reflected upon how the name Galileo Galilei creates a melodious echo in one’s mind? The surname almost sounds like a reverberation to the first name, doesn’t it?
Where did this celebrated name come from?
Dava Sobel’s excellent book ‘Galileo’s Daughter’ throws light upon this mystery. It tells us that it was a common practice among most Tuscan families during Galileo’s time to give a Christian name to the eldest son derived from the parents’ surname . So, it was not surprising that Galileo’s parents- Vincenzio Galilei and Giulia Ammannati Galilei gave the name Galileo to their eldest son. The meaning of the name is connected with the land of Galilee. Although Galilee was the home to most of Palestine’s Jewish population, Galileo himself explained that he was not at all a Jew.
But interestingly, the family name Galilei itself had originated from the name Galileo! It traces back to the distinguished doctor Galileo Buonaiuti who practiced and taught medicine in Florence in the early 1400s. In addition, he also served the government faithfully. In his honour, his progeny designated themselves as the Galilei family and wrote ‘Galileo Galilei’ on his tombstone. Yet, they held onto the coat of arms that had been possessed by the ancestral Buonaiutis since the thirteenth century- a red step-ladder on a gold shield which formed a pictograph of the word ‘buonaiuti’, meaning ‘good help’. This was the famed family to which Galileo belonged, and thus the surname.
Repetition of names in a family was a general custom. In fact, the Galilei family itself had three ‘Galileo’s- first, the esteemed doctor Galileo Buonaiuti; second, the eminent scientist Galileo Galilei, and last, his grandson , another Galileo Galilei- the eldest son of his only son Vincenzio who was again the namesake of the scientist’s father.
Galileo even followed a few footsteps of his former namesake by studying medicine at the University of Pisa for two years, before embarking on his true passion, mathematics and physics!