La bella scienza

Galileo gives posterity the finger, and other revelations from an Italian science museum.

La bella scienza

Florence has a science museum, but you can be forgiven for not knowing it.

It sits on the banks of the Arno river in the shadow of the world famous Uffizi art gallery, home to numerous paintings by Botticelli, da Vinci, and Michelangelo, among a great many others. The Galeria degli Uffizi is always jammed with tourists. The Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza is not.

Florence has the look of a city that was freeze-dried in the early 17th century. The crooked, narrow streets are paved with medieval flagstones. The architecture and art seem to have been suspended in place for some four hundred or more years. Only the noisy fume-spewing motorbikes and cars place you unmistakably in the modern age. It is home to some twenty museums, almost all of them devoted to art and religious artifacts.

Near the end of a five day stay in Florence, I had been to the best known of the art museums in town and was casting around for something fun to do on the last day in town. I decided to take a peek at the science museum. I felt lame going to it, because, hey! this is Florence. You’re supposed to do art and cathedrals. And eating and shopping. But science? Don’t be such a geek.

Without putting it in so many words, a voice somewhere in my brain was saying geeks are bad and art is good. Why is that? Where does that sentiment come from? The Florence science museum was itself an eloquent commentary on that very perplexity. My visit went from being an afternoon’s afterthought to one of the glowing high points of my entire week in Italy. In short, I was amazed.

It starts off with a bang: a room filled with brightly polished astrolabes, quadrants, armillary spheres, theodolites, and compasses, each housed in an elaborate case. Some of them were from the Near East, with beautiful flowing Arabic script, and every single one was an original piece that was used for navigation or calculation as early as the sixteenth century. These were practical devices dating from a time when art, magic, science and religion freely co-mingled. They were ornamented like exquisite works of art. As a result, they seemed to radiate a kind of magical energy. I could picture some desperate Moorish sailor trying to fix his latitude with this very astrolabe on a tossing bark in the Mediterranean back in 1570.

Some of the instruments, though, were so painfully overwrought, having been ordered for show by Cosimo I de’ Medici, that they could scarcely have been used. I had seen so much lovely artwork in Florence on my trip, that it didn’t seem surprising so much of it would encrust Italian scientific instruments. But I also wondered if all that art wasn’t getting in the way of the task at hand, namely: where the hell is my boat? The Florentines were dedicated to beauty, and manufacturing scientific instruments was not going to divorce them from it.

Several rooms followed along these lines, adding to the collection elaborate Renaissance maps, globes, orreries, cosmographical spheres, clocks, and calculating rods. I was still dazzled by these when I walked into the Galileo room and saw the telescope through which he first saw the moons of Jupiter.

Look at it! After all those filigreed astrolabes and gold-plated orreries, here is this plain little stick of a thing, a homely tube through which Galileo brought riches that changed the world. I confess that at that moment, I felt an unexpected reverence, like something I imagine a more religious person might feel in a famous cathedral. It’s hard to name a figure more important to the history of science than Galileo. He was the first to truly lay out a method for the process of scientific discovery. And of the outstanding highlights of his life, it’s hard to name a more dramatic time than when he first turned his telescope to the heavens and saw thousands of never before seen stars as well as the moons of Jupiter. And here was the very telescope that inspired him to say, “I render infinite thanks to God for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries.”

And yet Galileo was a man out of tune with his culture, for which he suffered. Consider the two diametrically opposed quotes below. The first is from the vigorous young Galileo eloquently arguing for informed reason over blind faith. The second is from the seventy year old Galileo, broken by the Inquisition, confessing the errors of his ways.

  1. I do not think it is necessary to believe that the same God who has given us our senses, reason, and intelligence wished us to abandon their use, giving us by some other means the information that we could gain through them.

  2. I have been judged vehemently suspected of heresy, … of having held and believed that the Sun is at the center of the Universe and immovable, and that the Earth is not at the center and that it moves. Therefore, … I abjure with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith these errors and heresies, and I curse and detest them as well as any other error, heresy or sect contrary to the Holy Catholic Church.

The scientific revolution would have to move elsewhere from Italy in order to thrive. Twenty four years after Galileo’s death, Isaac Newton would begin his years of wonderful invention in England. Italy, so steeped in the traditions of art and religion, could not untangle them from science, and so slowed development of the new discipline to a crawl.

Oddly, there is another quasi-religious twist in the Galileo room: just as Italian cathedrals have reliquaries that enshrine the arms, toes, and noses of various saints, the science museum has a jar containing Galileo’s middle finger. The irony is striking: when Galileo is finally acknowledged after his death, he is treated like a religious saint rather than a secular hero.

I have long been fascinated by the historical connections between art, mythology, and science. They repel and attract one another in surprising ways. This museum provides a snapshot of the last period in history when these things were still seriously intertwined. The beauty of Florence takes us back to a time when the aesthetic and the religious overpowered the scientific. Now the situation is reversed: science is ascendant and we have stricken our mythologies and arts with anemia. And that’s why a visit to the medieval cities of Italy is so much fun. It’s a trip to another world.

Note: The Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza has an impressive web site. Try the interactive 360 degree image of the Galileo room and check out the
gruesome picture of Galileo’s finger.