Knocking on Heaven’s Door

Plane Astrolabs, Museo Galileo, Photo by cjverb (2019)
Plane Astrolabs, Museo Galileo, Photo by cjverb (2019)

Happy Friday! We’re shooting for the stars today on Museum Bites with a tour through the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. Named after superstar scientist, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), this museum is filled with scientific instruments from a wide variety of fields including astronomy, cartography, medicine, meteorology, navigation, physics, and much, much more. There are so many delightful gizmos and gadgets, but such little time. We’ll focus on just three. We begin with a massive sphere that is a colorful mix of both art and science…

Spin Me Right Round:  Our first gadget is not only pretty, it was once practical. Commissioned by Ferdinando I de Medici (1549-1609), this spectacular armillary sphere (1588-1593) was crafted by cartographer, Antonio Santucci. For five years, he and his team of craftsmen painstakingly mapped and recreated the heavens based on Ptolemy’s earth-centric version of the universe.

Standing over 12 feet tall with a diameter of 6 ½ feet, Santucci’s sphere is an impressive sight. A model of the Earth is nestled in the center and surrounded by gilded rings which represent key circles on the celestial sphere (e.g., ecliptic, equator, horizon, meridian, polar, tropics). Armillary spheres date back to the ancient Greeks and the oldest version on record was created by mathematician and astronomer, Hipparchus (146-127 BCE). If you’d like to view more versions of these nifty devices, click on this Armillary Sphere link courtesy of Google Arts & Culture.

Counting Stars:  Our next gadget is not one, but two, telescopes handcrafted by Galileo. In 1609, a Dutch optician placed lenses inside a tube in an effort to magnify distant objects. Galileo caught wind of this ingenious Dutch contraption and went to work handcrafting his own version. His first telescope is approximately 3½ feet long with a 1½ inch diameter. Made from wooden strips wrapped in leather, this telescope has a magnification of 21 with a 15-foot field of view. Galileo’s second telescope is slightly bigger at approximately 4 feet long with a diameter of 2 inches. This larger telescope is comprised of two wooden semicircular tubes wrapped in copper wire and paper. The magnification is 14 and also has a 15-foot field of view.

Galileo Galilei Telescopes (1609-1610), Galileo Museo, Photo by Sailko, Wikimedia Commons
Galileo Galilei Telescopes (1609-1610), Galileo Museo, Photo by Sailko, Wikimedia Commons

Galileo was the first to turn his tubes toward the heavens and record his observations. Despite being crude by today’s standards, his nocturnal research resulted in a number of notable discoveries including four of Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s rings, the phases of Venus, sunspots, the surface of the moon is cratered as opposed to smooth, and the opaque band of light (aka Milky Way) we see in the night sky is composed of a vast number of stars. Galileo accessorized his telescopes with a micrometer in order to determine the distance between Jupiter and its moons. He also added a helioscope so he could view the sun and its accompanying sunspots without damaging his retinas. Galileo and his telescopes succeeded in turning the world on its head.

He Blinded Me With Science!  Galileo’s astronomical observations disproved the conventional wisdom of the time which stated the Earth was at the center of the universe. His research, instead, supported Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus’s (1473-1543) theory of a sun-centered solar system (i.e., the Earth and planets revolve around the sun). The Catholic Church, however, took issue with these wild claims and in 1614 accused Galileo of heresy for promoting Copernicanism. Galileo thumbed his nose at the Church, continuing his research and publishing the results. But the Church was vehement. Galileo was rounded up and whisked off to Rome, where he was subjected to the Inquisition. Church officials found the rebellious scientist guilty of heresy and forced him to recant his findings. Galileo was subsequently placed under house arrest where he remained for 8 years until his death in 1642. In 1992, 350 years after Galileo’s death, Pope John Paul II made an unprecedented statement indicating the Catholic Church had made a mistake in branding Galileo a heretic.

Galileo Galilei's Tomb, Santa Croce, Photo by Ricardo André Frantz, Wikimedia Commons
Galileo Galilei’s Tomb, Santa Croce, Photo by Ricardo André Frantz, Wikimedia Commons

Wrapped Around Your Finger:  Our final exhibit is Galileo himself, well, at least parts of him. In 1737, his remains were exhumed and transported to a monumental tomb inside the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence. During the move, an ardent fan filched Galileo’s tooth and several fingers from his right hand. Over the centuries his middle finger bounced around among a series of Italian museums. His remaining fingers and tooth were purchased by a private collector and through the course of several centuries, passed down to family members. But like grandma’s quirky old knick-knacks, Galileo’s bits were eventually lost in the shuffle. In 2009, they resurfaced and are now on display in the Galileo Museum.

Given Galileo’s acrimonious relationship with the Catholic Church, it’s ironic that his gnarled bones have been preserved and exhibited like a saint’s relics. The middle finger in particular, begs the question…Is this a beyond-the-grave salute to the Catholic Church, and the science deniers of his time? If you’d like to learn more about this multi-talented man, click on this Galileo Galilei video clip courtesy of Biography.

That wraps up our brief tour of the Galileo Museum. I’ll be back next week with more Museum Bites. In the meantime, have a fun and festive week!

Milky Way, Pixabay-100 px Cover photo courtesy of Pixabay.


Ancient Origins

BBC: Galilei Galileo

Biography: Galileo

Biography: Galileo Mini Biography

Britannica: Armillary Sphere

Britannica: Nicolaus Copernicus

Britannica: Galileo Galilei


Epact: Science Instruments of Medieval & Renaissance Europe

Google Arts & Culture: Armillary Sphere

Merriam Webster

Museo Galileo

Museo Galileo: Antonio Santucci

Museo Galileo: Armillary Sphere

Museo Galileo: Galileo’s Fingers

Museo Galileo: Galileo Telescope (1610)

Museo Galileo: Galileo Telescope (1609-1610)


New York Times



The Telegraph

Wikimedia Commons


2 thoughts on “Knocking on Heaven’s Door

  1. I loved that museum! But I wish they sold museum catalogs, and replicas of some of the scientific instruments in the gift shop. I was looking for an astrolabe, both here and at the Science Museum in Istanbul. I finally found one – in an antique store in Morocco!

    Liked by 1 person

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