A right thumb, a finger, a tooth. These were the contents of a reliquary acquired several years ago by a collector at an auction in Florence. Little did he know that for centuries the remains had been objects of profane devotion. Last seen in 1905, they had been sliced from the corpse of Galileo, along with another finger and a vertebra, during his highly publicized reburial in the Basilica of Santa Croce in 1737 almost 100 years after his death, and preserved in a slender case fashioned of glass and wood and crowned with a carved bust of the scientist. The reliquary’s new owner consulted Galileo experts about his find, and after the authenticity of its contents had been verified he donated it to the Museo Galileo, which is tucked behind the Uffizi in a quiet piazza overlooking the River Arno. (A dentist asked by the museum to examine the tooth concluded that Galileo suffered from gastric acid reflux and ground his teeth in his sleep.) The rediscovered reliquary is displayed adjacent to a smaller one containing Galileo’s other finger, a prized museum possession since 1927. Nearby are several artifacts of Galileo’s scientific genius: a telescope presented to the Medici and the broken objective lens of the original device with which Galileo sighted Jupiter’s four satellites in 1610.
Galileo was not the first scientist whose corpse was as revered as his corpus. That honor belongs to René Descartes, who was reburied numerous times after his death in 1650, initially to secure the return of his body to French soil and subsequently to install him in the pantheon of French genius. Yet Galileo’s remains in Florence have an added meaning. In 1633 the scientist was tried for heresy, having been accused of violating a 1616 papal decree condemning as contrary to Scripture the idea of a heliocentric universe, first described by Copernicus in On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543). The Florentines who snatched a few of Galileo’s bones in 1737 sought to canonize the scientist as a counter-saint, even as the Roman Catholic Church, with a century of hindsight, relented on its decision to deny Galileo a public burial and monument worthy of his fame when he died. Times were changing, but not rapidly enough for Galileo’s most ardent disciples. Their veneration of a few body parts privately commemorated his martyrdom for the cause of science. The church’s interment of his other remains in a sepulcher adjacent to Michelangelo’s in Santa Croce designated him a heroic embodiment of Tuscan genius and creativity.
Understanding Galileo has been the task of historians ever since he became a mythical figure. His youngest disciple, Vincenzo Viviani, spent more than half a century trying to get his biography right, never quite managing to meet his own impossibly high expectations of how to write about a great scientist. Bertolt Brecht was so mesmerized by the particulars of Galileo’s life that he wrote three versions of it for the stage, the first while living in exile in Denmark, the second while in postwar America after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the third during his voluntary exile from McCarthy’s America in communist East Berlin. Brecht’s Galileo was simultaneously the victim of a tragedy perpetuated by his society, and the tragedy himself. As Brecht witnessed the evolving role of the scientist in the mid-twentieth century, he began to see similarities between Galileo and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who paid a high price for attempting to work on the Manhattan Project while resisting its core values. In this respect, it may be fairly said that Brecht got Galileo right more than any modern historian in recognizing that he belonged to the ages, and that our perspective on him would be ever changing.
The publication of two recent biographies of Galileo, by John Heilbron and David Wootton, coincided with the 400th anniversary of the publication of Starry Messenger (1610), the treatise in which Galileo reported the astronomical observations he had made with the instrument not yet called the telescope. Heilbron, a distinguished historian of physics and mathematics, has spent many years studying the relations between science and religion, including how the Roman Catholic Church stimulated and materially supported a research program of Catholic astronomy. Wootton has previously written on the history of atheism and unbelief, and about Galileo’s controversial Venetian friend Paolo Sarpi—a theologian and tireless critic of the papacy. In Venice there is a statue of Fra Paolo in Campo Santa Fosca commemorating his survival of a botched assassination attempt in October 1607. The cutthroats were sheltered and paid by Rome, yet Sarpi continued to defend freedom of thought and belief, both in conversation and in print, and to discuss science with Galileo. In Heilbron’s account, Galileo is a versatile connoisseur and critic; in Wootton’s, he is all but a modern scientist without faith.