Thursday, July 22, 2010

Galileo's middle finger rises again in Florence

Galileo's bits and pieces (okay only bits) are on display at a newly renovated history of science museum in Florence. I had posted on this last November (see Galileo's fingers to be reunited!). Here is some of the fascinating history behind the way his body parts got to where they did - and be treated as "relics":
Now a particularly enduring Catholic practice is on prominent display in, of all places, Florence’s history of science museum, recently renovated and renamed to honor Galileo: Modern-day supporters of the famous heretic are exhibiting newly recovered bits of his body — three fingers and a gnarly molar sliced from his corpse nearly a century after he died — as if they were the relics of an actual saint.  
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The scientist’s troubles did not end with his death in 1642.

Nearly a century later, in 1737, members of Florence’s cultural and scientific elite unearthed the scientist’s remains in a peculiar Masonic rite. Freemasonry was growing as a counterweight to church power in those years and even today looms large in the Italian popular imagination as an anticlerical force.As a heretic he could not be given a proper church burial. But for years after his death, his followers in the circle of the grand dukes of Tuscany pushed to give him an honorable resting place.
According to a notary who recorded the strange proceedings, the historian and naturalist Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti used a knife to slice off several fingers, a tooth and a vertebra from Galileo’s body as souvenirs but refrained, it appears, from taking his brain. The scientist was then reburied in a ceremony, “symmetrical to a beatification,” said Mr. Galluzzi.
After taking their macabre souvenirs, the group placed Galileo’s remains in an elegant marble tomb in Florence’s Santa Croce church, a pointed statement from Tuscany’s powers that they were outside the Vatican’s control. The church has long been a shrine to humanism as much as to religion, and Galileo’s permanent neighbors include Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Rossini.
Galileo’s vertebra wound up at the University of Padua, famous for its medical school, while his middle finger wound up in the collection that formed the basis for the Galileo Museum. But the thumb, index finger and tooth disappeared in 1905, only to re-emerge last October, in an auction of reliquaries in Florence.
Alberto Bruschi, a Florence collector, bought what turned out to be Galileo’s digits and tooth at the urging of his daughter Candida, who collects reliquaries. She also happened to be writing her senior thesis on Galileo’s tomb.
After she observed that the figure on top of the reliquary resembled Galileo, the family called an expert who contacted Mr. Galluzzi, and the match was made.
A spokeswoman for the Pandolfini auction house, which sold the reliquaries, said it could not reveal their provenance but said it had no idea they were Galileo’s.
Mr. Bruschi credits providence with the find. “More than by chance, things are also helped along a bit by the souls of the dead,” he said in a telephone interview. “I think they could not have wound up in better hands.”
(A dentist who examined the tooth for the museum said it showed signs of gastric reflux and indicated that Galileo ground his teeth in his sleep.)
But although the relics may be the museum’s sexiest draw, they are a small part of the museum, which reopened last month after a high-tech renovation that transformed it into one of Italy’s best boutique collections, a veritable curiosity cabinet of beautifully wrought scientific instruments.
Read the full article here.

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