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New relics of Galileo found: two fingers and a tooth

Il telescopio di Galileo

Three exceptional Galilean relics, deemed lost for over a century, have been recently found again. They will be displayed to the public for the first time in spring 2010 on the occasion of the reopening of the Museo di Storia della Scienza, under the new name of Museo Galileo.

These remains consist of a tooth and two fingers from Galileo’s right hand, removed from the great scientist’s corpse on March 12, 1737, when Galileo’s mortal spoils were moved from the secret storage room where they had first been laid to the monumental tomb in the basilica of Santa Croce.

For 95 years after the death of Galileo (8 January 1642) the unflagging efforts of his disciples and the Grand Dukes to give the great master an honoured burial place had been opposed by the ecclesiastical authorities, resolutely refusing the celebration in a consecrated church of a man condemned “by the Holy Office for an opinion so false and so erroneous”. Giving Galileo an honoured burial place meant not only authoritatively proclaiming the independence of the civil government, but also celebrating the Tuscan scientist as a symbol of and martyr to freedom of thought.

The solemn ceremony was attended by representatives of the cultural world and members of the city’s most illustrious nobility, while the official representatives of the Church were not present. Thanks to the report compiled by a notary and the records left by other eye witnesses, we know many details of the ceremony. We know, for instance, that some of those present at the moment when Galileo’s remains were displayed after the coffin lid had been raised removed some organic fragments from the cadaver – three fingers on the right hand (the thumb, index finger and middle finger), a vertebra (the fifth) and a tooth.

Some of these “relics” have been carefully preserved to this day: one of the fingers in the Florence Museum, and the vertebra at the University of Padua. The history of the other two fingers and the tooth –taken by Marchese Capponi– was known up to 1905, when all traces of them disappeared. The Galilean mementos recently reappeared at an auction, where a wooden case surmounted by a wooden bust of Galileo was being sold as a lot. Inside it was an eighteenth-century glass vase containing two fingers and a tooth.

A collector decided to buy this singular object and engaged at once an in-depth research that allowed to identify the remains of Galileo. The Soprintendente al Polo Museale Fiorentino, Cristina Acidini, and the Director of the Museo di Storia della Scienza, Paolo Galluzzi have confirmed the authenticity of these finds on the basis of the abundant historical evidence come to us.


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