Traces of Galileo 

Inspired by the sight of the Belvedere fort from my window, I spent part of yesterday tracking down traces of Galileo.

The museum dedicated to the great man in the Palazzo Castellani, where the history of Florentine science is traced broadly–there are lots of great big old globes, terrestrial and astral, as well as lots of devices intended for military calculation. 

In the room fronted by Galileo’s bust, we find the VERY telescopes he used to look at the moons of Jupiter. Also, his Jovilabe, microscope, and other things. 


But the oddest things are … his tooth, thumb, and finger, kept in a gold-trimmed glass vial surmounting an alabaster base. It’s a Catholic country, I guess, and relics are revered even for notable ex-communicants as well. (The New York Times noted the same sort of reverence reserved for saints in a piece called “A Museum Display of Galileo Has a Saintly Feel”, from 2010.)
The inscription on the finger-jar– the reliquary– reads,

Leipsana ne spernas digiti quo dextera coeli
Mensa vias numquam visos mortalibus orbes
monstravit parvo fragilis molimine vitri
ausa prior facinus cui non titania quondam
suffecit pubes congestis montibus altis
nequidquam superas conata ascendere in arces.
— Thomas Perellius

which translates as,

Let you not scorn the relics of the finger, with which his right hand measured the paths of heaven, and pointed out worlds unknown to mortals. With a small structure of fragile glass did (this finger) first dare an outrage to which the Titanic youth was once insufficient, having tried, on high mountains heaped together, in vain to climb into the highest citadels.

I have to say, it is a complicated little poem, but I do like the idea that, with his finger alone, Galileo outdid even the mythical efforts of the Titans who– though piling up Mounts Olympus, Ossa, and Pelion— failed to storm heaven. 

Speaking of hands, though, perhaps the best part of the Galileo museum was the hands-on exhibit, in which various Galilean theories were put to practice. I hadn’t realized that Renaissance theories of parabolics was the basis of Angry Birds!

Later, I went over to Santa Croce, which seems to be something like Florence’s Westminster Abbey. Here are the memorials to Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Rossini, and cenotaphs for Dante, Leonardo, and Marconi. Galileo,too, is numbered among the worthies.

 He holds his globe in one hand, the telescope in the other. Not till later do I think to remember looking at his finger.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
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