Galileo's Fingers

April 27, 2011 – Galileo was a man of multi-disciplinary genius and enduring scientific vision, and he deserves to have a museum dedicated to him. And there is one, in the city of Florence, Italy, where most of his life was based. So I went there. But not because he was a man of multi-disciplinary genius and enduring scientific vision. I visited solely because they had parts of his body on display. That’s what happens when you grow up in a religious household. No respect for science.

The Museo Galileo, which up until last year had been known as the Institute and Museum of the History of Science, is located in an 11th Century building at 1 Piazza dei Giudici, right around the corner from the world-famous Uffizi Gallery and just down the way from the Ponte Vecchio. The three floors of the recently renovated and reorganized museum are only dedicated to Galileo in the honorific sense. It’s not a museum about Galileo, but about the history of science or, more specifically, the history of the scientific instrument.

On display are a variety of antique-to-ancient telescopes, microscopes, globes, and a range of instruments the names of which sound more whimsical than scientific: voltaic detonating-gas eudiometers, dipleidoscopes, thunder obelisks, astatic galvanometers. All really quite amazing for numerous reason— their age, their design, their aesthetics, their purpose—and only kind of showed up by three desiccated tubes of flesh and a chunk of dentine.

In fact, I originally planned on just pretending to be interested in the contents of the museum, biding my time until I got to the fingers and tooth that I was there to see. However, the Museo Galileo turned out to be one of the more elegant museums I’ve ever visited, displaying a gorgeous array of delicate and ingenious scientific apparatuses from the romantic days of science before lab coats and computer monitors.

Everything in the museum was polished wood and brass, delicate gears and glass. There were astrolabes and armillary spheres, terracotta models of birthing procedures, a room-sized mechanical globe made of interlocking rings. Heck, each instrument looked more decorative than functional, but each one had opened pathways into nature that we’re still exploring today, and which could still be used to measure, quantitate, and explore the world despite being hundreds of years old. I wish we could’ve taken pictures, but there were multiple signs prohibiting it, and the guard had a bank of CCTVs at his desk that rivaled the Architect in the second Matrix movie. It was only through a bit of surreptitious iPhone usage on the part of my friend that we have the ones shown here.

Nevertheless, I was there to see ancient fingers, not ancient scientific instruments.

That’s right, you can have a finger on the pulse, a finger on the trigger, a finger on the button…but this lucky institution has a finger on display. Enough, in fact, to snap, were dead finger so inclined to do. On the top floor, under a pair of elegant antique glass domes, almost crowning the museum like some kind of morbid cock’s comb are two fingers, a thumb, and a tooth, all once connected to the man known as the father of modern everything fascinating. And even though I skipped the story of his life and manifold scientific accomplishments for this article, here’s the story of his body that ended with anybody who can pay an entrance fee being able to press their face against his severed parts.

Galileo died in 1642 at the age of 88. Nine years previously, he had been tried by the Inquisition and found to be guilty of heresy by the Catholic Church for espousing the view that the Earth orbited the Sun. As a result, he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. When he died, the Pope didn’t allow him to be buried anywhere prominent or overtly sacred, so he was quickly and quietly interred in an obscure off-room of the Basilica of Santa Croce, just a few blocks from the museum.

Galileo's Tomb

About a century later, in 1737, the Vatican issued an official “Our bad on Galileo, but we’re still right about everything else” statement. As a result, he was then moved to a place of honor in the main chamber of the basilica in an elaborate tomb near the revered Michelangelo himself, where he lies to this day.

In the process of moving his remains, though, a few relics were taken from his body, namely, three fingers, a tooth, and a vertebra. The vertebra ended up in the collection of the University of Padua, where Galileo was a teacher, and the middle finger in the collection of what is now the Museo Galileo. The index finger, thumb, and tooth went to a private collection for a couple hundred years and were somehow lost in 1905 (“How did you lose Galileo’s fingers?” “I don’t know. They were right there where I left them after the party last night.”).

In 2009, they randomly turned up at auction, were authenticated as belonging to the guy that discovered four of the moons of Jupiter, and placed alongside their compatriot in the newly unveiled Museo Galileo. Now you can see the digits that turned the nobs on the telescopes that saw the future of modern science.

As you can see from the pics, they’re exhibited vertically in two different glass domes, you can get really close to them, and you can see them from all sides. They were also right in the middle of the room, displayed way more prominently than I expected. After all, having the purview of exhumed body parts, even famous ones, is not something you’re supposed to be too excited about, at least publicly. I mean, there’s a reason they’re not on the cover of the museum brochure or the front page of the website. Nevertheless, seeing them first hand, inches away, was definitely a “I’m going to hang out here for a moment...I’ll catch up” kind of experience worth a bit of macabre elation. Macabellation. That’s how new words happen.

Anyway, I haven’t started any religions yet that I know of, but when I do, its highest blessing will be, “May your body have an interesting post-death life.” And I hope it won't botch fundamental truths about the solar system.