Why Galileo? Why not Galilei?

Why do we remember Galileo Galilei as “Galileo”, his first name, and not as “Galilei”, his last name?

We remember the other astronomy greats of that time by their last names: Newton, Brahe, Kepler (or a Latinized version of the last name, in the case of Copernicus).

So why the special treatment for Galileo? Was he just a back-slapping, friendly guy: “No, no, just call me Galileo, thanks!” Or is the “-leo” ending easier for anglos than the “-lei” ending?

Any thoughts? :confused:

Well, it’s not just English – I don’t know if any major culture in the West commonly refers to him as “GalileI”.

It may be the alliterative “Galileo Galilei” thing. May have something to do with the same pattern that leads us to remember a bunch of other Italian historical figures as Dante, Michaelangelo, Leonardo and Rafael, rather than as Aligheri, Buonarotti, DaVinci and Sanzio. OTOH there are contemporaries that ARE identified by name such as Bruneleschi, Bocaccio, Vespucci.

It says more about the time and place where he lived than his field of work. Italian artists of the Renaissance are often, but not exclusively known by their forenames too – Leonardo (da Vinci), Michelangelo (Buonarotti) etc. Artists from northern Europe are generally known by their surnames – van Eyck, Bruegel, Dürer etc.

Supposedly, Galileo was the last scientist (natural philospher back then) referred to by his first name. After him, the system switched to family names.

Urban Ranger, Copernicus (1473-1543) and Brahe (1546-1601) preceded Galileo (1564-1642), while Kepler (1571-1630) was his contemporary, but we use their last names.

JRDelirious, the entry in my Petit Larousse for Galileo is “Galilée”, which I take it is the French version of “Galilei.”

I think everton’s on to it - which opens the wider question, why do we remember Italian notables of this period by their last names?

Dunno. Why do we call certain Presidents by their initials, certain Presidents by their last names, and certain presidents by their full names?

[flashback] Dwight. D. EisenHOWER [/flashback]

That’s evidence that the system had been changing. You realise that these things just don’t happen overnight. It helps to be a big wig too.

Was he from a town called Galilei?

I might be about to say something really stupid but I always thought that Leonardo went by his first name and Vinci was just where he was born. Hence, Leonardo from [or “of”] Vinci. Wasn’t his mother a prostitute? That would explain him not having a last name.

Maybe Galileo didn’t have a last name and that’s why he didn’t use it.

That’s an interesting hypothesis, but it seems unlikely that people did not have surnames back then.

When I was an astronomy student, we called Brahe by his first name, Tycho.

And as long as we’re on the subject, why do we always call Mr. van Rijn by his first name, “Rembrandt?”

Ok, I found out here that Leonardo was in fact born in a town called Vinci so I would assume that’s where he got his name from. I seriously feel like pitting my stupid conservative fundie pro-life high school civics teacher for telling me his mother was a whore though.

I’ll be back if I can find anymore clues on the Galileo mystery.

About Leonardo: he was definitely born out of wedlock, but we don’t know who his mother is. She is likely the “Catarina” of his notebooks, but no one knows for sure.

And speaking of guys whose last names are ignored, what about Mr. Alighieri?

That’s right, now I remember.

I can’t even PRONOUNCE the name correctly. Maybe that’s why? (No, not because of me ALONE :wink: )

“Tycho” and “Galileo” are both slightly easier to pronounce than “Brahe” and “Galilei”. I think we’re just out of luck when it comes to Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.

I suspect we’re wasting our time if we try to look for a rule or a logical reason why many Italians are known by their forenames while northern Europeans are more likely to be known by their surnames – it seems to be so variable that it’s more of a fashion than a regulation.

We’ve already heard that there are exceptions anyhow (some Italians known by surnames, one or two northerners known by first names). It’s not that the Italians didn’t have surnames, although some didn’t or are not remembered, it’s just a custom that some are not commonly used. Galileo did have a surname; his father was Vincenzo Galilei.

Some Italians artists are even remembered by their nicknames – Tintoretto and Boticelli for instance. So the most likely answer to the OP is still that we remember Gallileo by his first name because he was Italian.

Some people here seem to be assuming the concept of surname was as standard hundreds of years ago as it is today. It was not. People had Christian names given them when they were baptised and then any further surnames were pretty a matter of personal preference or need. Nobles used their titles but commoners often had no need for a surname. When they did need a distinctive surname thy could use their father’s or mother’s name, or their trade or their local origin. Any of these things were at first considered adjectives more than part of the name itself and only later were they considered part of the actual name.

There are countless instances of people at the time adding their place of birth to their given names. This was especially common when the person had lived or travelled outside his natal place. Being called “the Greek” if you are in Greece does not add much information but Domenicos Theotocopoulos was called “El Greco” in Spain. If you look at the names of Spaniards who crossed to America you will see many instances of this. One of those who went with Cortés was Pedrarias Dávila but if you analize the name it is really Pedro Arias de Avila. In those days people were not picky about spelling, in fact, most could not read or write, so Pedro Arias became Pedrarias, of the city of Avila. Many others used their trade (Thatcher, etc) or the name of their lord or whatever distinguished them. It is only n the last 100 years that we have become so anal about consistency and people having papers etc. Two hundred years ago people could pretty much travel all over Europe without need for visas or passports. They just risked their lives at the hands of robbers.

*Originally posted by Northern Piper *

JRDelirious, the entry in my Petit Larousse for Galileo is “Galilée”, which I take it is the French version of “Galilei.”


It’s also French for “Gallilee”, as in the region between Samaria and the Lebanon – so it could work as a translation of either part of his name (“of or pertaining to the Gallilee” – a reference to Jesus Christ) – though the Galilei may fit better.

But his first name is the same as his last name. More or less.

An earlier thread on this subject: