November 12, 2010

Galileo's finger points at the heavens

syndetics-lcFour hundred years ago this year Galileo Galilei published his Sidereus Nuncius, The Starry Messenger, described by him on its title page as "revealing great, unusual, and remarkable spectacles, opening these to the consideration of every man, and especially of philosophers and astronomers, as observed by Galileo Galilei, Gentleman of Florence, with the aid of a spyglass lately invented by him".

Or, as Bertolt Brecht put it in his play The Life of Galileo, "Today is the tenth of January, sixteen hundred and ten. Mankind will write in its journal: Heaven abolished."

An exciting event marks this anniversary. The Museum of the History of Science in Florence has long been the proud owner of one of Galileo's fingers, the third finger, to be exact. During the transfer of Galileo's body to the Church of Santa Croce after his supporters had finally gotten permission, something like 100 years after his death, for him to be buried on consecrated ground, one of the eminent intellectuals, aristocrats and freemasons who was present had sliced off three of Galileo's fingers. Two went missing (my uncle, who once worked for NASA, suggested that they had them) but the third was right there on display in the Museum, in a glass chalice.

www.atlasobscura.com

I tried to go see it last year when I was in Florence but every time I tried to get there the Museum was closed. As all kinds of museums seem to be closed all the time in Italy, I didn't dwell too much on it. But it turns out it was closed because it was undergoing renovations in order to reemerge for the 400th anniversary of The Starry Messenger, newly renamed the Galileo Museum, now the proud owner of - get this - all three fingers! Yes, the other two fingers have been found!

Two new biographies of Galileo have come out to coincide with the 400th anniversary of The Starry Messenger.

Galileo
by JL Heilbron, from Oxford University Press, is a major new biography which captures Galileo the humanist, passionate reader of Ariosto and defender of Dante, as well as Galileo the mathematician and scientist.

syndetics-lcAlways surprising when this happens after so many years. In Galileo: watcher of the skies (Yale University Press) David Wootton draws on Galileo's at times "self-censored and sly" letters to reveal such things as a previously unknown illegitimate daughter and evidence refuting the idea that Galileo was ever a good Catholic.

And finally, if you love beautiful illustrations, get The Starry Messenger , a picture book for all ages by the fabulous author/illustrator Peter Sis.

A final note. This is about Galileo, not Brecht, but I have to say that The Life of Galileo is a great read, full of Brechtian wit, intellect and revolutionary spirit (no pun intended). I've just been down to the basement to get our copy (noting that we have it in both German and English, even) and I've been sitting here reading it instead of finishing this.

First scholar: Signor Galileo, you have dropped something on the floor.
Galileo: No, Monsignor, it fell up to me.
Fat prelate: Impudent rascal.

If you don't like reading plays, you can get it from the library on DVD, directed by Joseph Losey or as an e audiobook with Stacy Keach.

 
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