The British Journal for the History of Science

Research Article

The return of Thomas Salusbury's Life of Galileo (1664)


a1 Department of History, Georgia State University, General Classroom Building, P.O. Box 4117, Atlanta, GA 30302-4117, USA. Email:


Thomas Salusbury's Life of Galileo (1664) was the first substantial biography of Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) in any language. All copies but one were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The surviving copy was lost in the library of the Earls of Macclesfield at Shirburn Castle in the mid-nineteenth century. With the auction of the library in 2004–7, it temporarily re-emerged. This essay presents a preliminary description of the copy and its contents. It argues that to understand the existence and nature of the book we need to explore the social relations governing the control of information in early modern Europe. It is shown that Salusbury's project was launched in the face of social and political information blockades and in direct competition with other similar ventures. In particular, rumours of the future publication of an official biography by Vincenzo Viviani (1622–1703) and continuing negotiations over the memory and reputation of Galileo in Italy presented insurmountable barriers to the successful completion of his project. Despite these problems Salusbury's biography, produced on the margins of the emerging Royal Society, presents a spirited portrait of Galileo. Moreover, nearly four hundred years after the event, it offers a new and provocative explanation of the famous trial.

(Online publication March 06 2008)


I would like to thank the following for their generosity and help: Paul Quarrie, Charlotte Miller, Giles Mandelbrote, Roger Gaskell, Simon Schaffer, Noel Malcolm, Seth Fagen, Maria Gioia Tavoni, Lesley Whitelaw, Philip Oldfield, Theresa Thom, Pierangelo Bellettini, Caroline Moss-Gibbons, Maurice Finocchiaro and Patrizia Ruffo. Apologies to Freddie Mercury.