Galileo’s Lost Fingers Join Medici Treasures in Florence Museum

Galileo's Fingers
The recently discovered fingers of astronomer Galileo Galilei at the Museo Galileo in Florence. The display is the centerpiece of the high-tech museum, newly reopened to the public. Source: Catola & Partners/Museo Galileo via Bloomberg

Galileo Galilei’s right thumb and sinewy index finger reach skyward to the stars. They are shrunken with age and are reunited, after more than a century, with his right middle finger. They sit in a glass case spotlight, below a miniature bust of the great scientist.

Florence’s Museo Galileo, the Renaissance-science museum exhibiting two centuries of Medici treasures, credits the luck-goddess Fortuna for the rediscovery of its centerpiece relics in time for its reopening.

Florentine collectors found the astronomer’s digits in November while the museum -- formerly the Institute of the History of Science -- was closed for renovation. Galileo’s remains share a room with the telescope they once used to change man’s conception of the universe.

Italy is putting on display the remains of some of its most venerated figures. Apart from Galileo (1564-1642), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) is also being remembered. Bones found in a church went on show in Porto Ercole after researchers said they were those of the Baroque master.

The dark passages inside the Palazzo Castellani, the 11th-century manor housing the Florence collection, convey the mixture of mysticism and mystery of Renaissance science. Beakers, chalices, vases and spiral thermometers record the Medici family’s interest in alchemy. Ornate Ptolemaic armillary spheres place Earth at the center of the universe.

Bugatti Telescopes

It is impressive for visitors -- accustomed to GPS navigation, intercontinental flights and satellite photos -- to consider how much 16th- and 17th-century time and energy went into simply figuring out where one was. Wealthy merchants would compete to purchase handsomely designed telescopes made by optician Giuseppe Campani the way today’s financiers bid to buy Bugatti cars.

One of Campani’s finest creations was the 12-meter-long, gilt-tooled “compound eyepiece,” or telescope, he made in 1665 that bore the Medici coat of arms. By then, the Tuscan family already had their stamp on other-worldly estates, the result of Galileo’s naming Jupiter’s four largest moons “the Medicean stars” (later to be called the Galilean Moons) after his benefactors.

Galileo found the moons in 1610 with a worn, wooden telescope he’d built the year before. That piece, along with other lens and instruments he made, create a shrine inside the room where they are displayed next to the severed fingers of the museum’s namesake.

Heliocentric Heretic

The astronomer’s fingers were removed by mourning Freemasons when Galileo’s body was interred inside Florence’s Santa Croce basilica 95 years after his death. Galileo had previously been denied a resting place inside the church because of his then heretical conception of a heliocentric universe.

People, particularly those in religious orders, collected body parts as relics to be venerated by followers.

The digits, along with one of Galileo’s teeth, were discovered “by chance” inside an antique lot auctioned by Florence’s Pandolfini Casa D’Aste auction house, said the purchaser, Candida Bruschi, in a statement issued by the museum. The scientist’s right-middle finger was already a permanent part of the collection.

The museum this month introduced digital tablets that act as interactive guides through the collection. One of the revolutions behind Renaissance science was that it turned tinkerers into discoverers. Now visitors can be that.

Museo Galileo, Piazza dei Giudici 1, 50122 Florence. Information:

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