9 September 2012

Museo Galileo - Florence

One of the many hidden gems in Florence is definitely the Museo Galileo. Overlooking the River Arno, just a short distance from the Uffizi Gallery, and recently renamed from the rather more descriptive title: Istituto di Storia della Scienza, this immaculately presented collection illustrates the transformation of speculative experimental philosophy into the rigorous discipline of scientific enquiry.

The Museum’s collections, founded upon those begun by the princes and dukes of the Medici and Lorraine dynasties which ruled over Tuscany from the 14th to the 19th centuries, are displayed over two floors and comprise a bewilderingly wonderful range of early scientific instruments – from enormous armillary spheres, intricate astrolabes, noturnals, beautiful globes, telescopes, and delicate glass thermometers, to detailed and accurate wax models of the human body and huge electrical conducting apparatus. The displays are all neatly laid out with beautifully clear graphics and explanations in both Italian and English. The centrepiece of the Museum though is the famous lens through which Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) first observed the satellites of Jupiter, naming them the Medicea Sidera, or the Medicean Stars, in honour of his patrons, along with one of his telescopes – a beautiful object, covered in red leather and decorated with elaborate gold tooling.

The first floor is devoted to the Medicean collections and begins with an impressive array of armillary spheres. These instruments represent models of the universe based on the Ptolemaic system (first described in the 2nd century AD), and show the orbits of the planets around the terrestrial globe, the various rings representing the main celestial spheres, showing the equator, the tropics, and the polar circles, as well as the relative positions of the constellations of the zodiac. Such devices were used in the study and instruction of astronomy. In this era, before proper observational astronomy had really begun, astronomy itself was a study aimed primarily at accurately determining the measurement of time. The motions of the heavenly bodies were studied mainly for the purposes of predicting the dates of certain religious festivities by means of accurate calculations – establishing a reliable calendar, and also enabling the refinement of astrological predictions. Other instruments were similarly devised or improved for calculating time, such as astrolabes, nocturnals, sundials, quadrants, and later on clocks too. These devices enabled the user to carry out complicated algebraic calculations simply by manipulating a few mobile parts and thereby negating the need for pen, paper, and time-consuming complex mathematical formulae. These instruments had distinct practical applications too which were quickly seen and taken up by cartographers and navigators intent on pursuing potential mercantile interests in the New World, as well as by military strategists and surveyors, who – for example – quickly saw the potential for enhanced accuracy in ballistics, calculating the parabolas of projectiles, etc., and thereby beginning the transformation of warfare from what was essentially seen as a chivalric art into an applied science, sowing the seeds for the deadly advances of modern technology as implemented in warfare, which we sadly know all too well today.

The Medici collections also comprise a number of maps and globes which demonstrate the evolution of cartography and in particular the famous Mercator projection. Again many of the advances here were to the benefit of navigators who were intent on exploring the realms of the New World in pursuit of trade and empire. And these charts were closely allied to the scientific instruments used for calculating time and position – in particular the quest to determine longitude. Many of Galileo’s experiments and observations, even in the subject of astronomy, were actually made in the pursuit of determining longitude or for enhancing military aims. In Galileo’s view all of these pursuits were unified in one over-arching discipline: mathematics. He summed up his world view thus: “Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it.” (Galileo Galilei, 1623). 

Galileo helped move science on from the long established notions of Ptolemy and Aristotle at great cost to himself and yet entirely to our debt even to this day in our modern era. To my mind, the simple fascination with the mechanics of the universe, and the unfathomable depths of all that we do not know, is still embodied in the simplest of observations, the nightly changes in position of the Galilean satellites around the bright dot of Jupiter through a pair of binoculars is enough to inspire awe and wonder in any observer – and it is impossible to do so without thinking of Galileo.

The first floor also contains an impressive array of early thermometers, many of which represent elegant masterpieces of the glassmakers’ skill. These astonishingly tall and frighteningly gracile devices, marked with a series of colour-coded gradations for accurately measuring changes in atmospheric temperature using alcohol rather than mercury, must be a real challenge to safely curate and preserve!

The second floor is devoted to the instruments collected or commissioned under the auspices of the Dukes of Lorraine. Here there are many wax models of human anatomy, as well as larger and more advanced telescopes and microscopes, and eventually various examples of dauntingly elaborate pneumatic and electrical equipment. These objects in particular demonstrate how the somewhat arcane procedures and texts of the early alchemists coalesced into the actual sciences of chemistry, physics, and medicine; and how such experimentation eventually moved into the popular realm of parlour room education and entertainment.

For those interested in the history of science, as well as the overlap between artistic interpretation and empirical evaluation, the Museo Galileo is well worth a few leisurely spent hours of thought-provoking perusal – a little known but highly commendable cabinet of curiosities in one of the most beautiful and venerable old cities of Europe.