Galileo in Florence

This story first appeared in The Listener, issue 3688, 15 January 2011. 

I’d come a long way to see Galileo’s arthritic middle finger, but recognised the great 17th-century astronomer’s aged appendage – displayed in a gilt-edged glass egg in a Florence museum – as human only by the fingernail at the end: the fossil-like protuberance looked more like an old chicken bone discarded after the cat had been at the rubbish bag.

Galileo’s finger took pride of place, behind a bust of the great astronomer, in Galileo, an exhibition hosted by Florence’s Museum of the History of Science to cele­brate 400 years since Galileo changed our picture of the universe by making the world’s first astronomical observations. Surrounding the finger were the fruits of Galileo Galilei’s work – his notebooks and instruments and copies of his books – from which I learnt about the life of this Tuscan-born mathematician and natural philosopher.

In 1609, after learning of the invention of the telescope, he set about making his own. The short tube, with a lens at each end, allowed the magnification of distant objects by up to three times, and was being sold primarily as a toy. Galileo’s plan was to manufacture and sell his refined instrument in Venice for military and trade purposes – the advantage of being first to see which ships were coming into port would be enormous – but he soon realised the telescope could also be used to explore the night sky. By the end of 1609, Galileo had built a telescope with a magnifying power of 20 times, which he used to observe the moon, the planets and the stars. He discovered the four brightest moons of Jupiter, observed that the Earth’s moon was not smooth, but had mountain ranges, valleys and craters, and saw that the Milky Way was made of millions of individual stars. He published his initial results in 1610 and gained not just wealth and prestige in his native Tuscany but also international fame.

Galileo’s finger might have been in Palazzo Strozzi, but the rest of him was in the nearby Basilica di Santa Croce. I found the church in Piazza Santa Croce, which was all decked out for an evening performance of Dante’s Divine Comedy, but by now it was lunchtime and I had a family commitment. I walked down a small lane off Piazza Santa Croce to Santa Croce Wine Company, a boutique wine shop specialising in Tuscan wines, with its own line of specialty foods such as giant cerignola olives from Apulia, tuna-stuffed baby peppers in olive oil, and award-winning Tuscan dark chocolate.

The shop belonged to my sister Rachel Priestley. Eight years as a food and beverage ­consultant in Italy has given her a remarkable aptitude for Italian curses and an extensive knowledge of Italian food and culture that she used to stock her shop with the best Italy has to offer. Her New Zealand provenance might help to attract English-speaking tourists, but in my eyes she’s fully Italian. When I suggested grabbing a panini for lunch, the look of horror that crossed Rachel’s face was pure Latin. Lunch in Italy is a serious sit-down affair. With wine. I sighed and succumbed.

Rachel had visited the markets that morning and we were in for a taste of Tuscany’s finest flavours. As a lapsed vegetarian, I was a bit squeamish about some of the treats on offer – Tuscany’s traditional fritto misto, or mixed fry, includes lambs’ brains, tripe, rabbit and chicken, which didn’t tempt me – but there were plenty of vegetarian dishes to choose from. We started our meal with a ubiquitous glass of prosecco, an Italian sparkling white wine made from prosecco grapes. The wine has a light, floral flavour, and is drunk while fresh and young – and often early in the day. First course was a carpaccio of porcini and ovuli, a scary-looking fluorescent orange fungus. The raw mushrooms were sliced thinly and served with shaved parmesan and a skinny green Tuscan weed, nepitella, that tastes like mint and grows wild near the porcini in the Tuscan hills. At the market that morning, Rachel had tried to touch one of the ovuli but the protective seller, with cigarette hanging out of his mouth, warned her off. If they have been touched, he warned, he could not sell them. She asked instead to taste a cherry tomato. “Porca miseria“, he said and shrugged: his “pig’s misery” meant “go ahead, whatever”. The pigs may have been more miserable about the next course, though; it was luscious fresh figs with finocchiona, a Tuscan pork and fennel salami. And after that, it was zucchini flowers. Italian cooking is strictly regional, and the consistency of a dish is vital. Because the zucchini were grown in Tuscan soil, Rachel sautéed the flowers in a light Tuscan olive oil and added a splash of Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a minerally white Tuscan wine. The rest of the bottle we drank. Topping off the meal was a simple tomato salad served with chopped celery, basil, parsley and green capsicum. Rachel tasted the sun in the strongly flavoured dark-red cherry tomatoes and paired them with a peppery olive oil from Apulia, where the olive-producing trees are more than a thousand years old and have trunks the size of a small car.

By now a good hour and a half had passed, some customers had popped in for a wine tasting, and we were fully sated. Passing on the chance to have a digestivo, a traditionally herby alcoholic beverage designed to aid digestion after a meal, I decided to pay my respects to the rest of Galileo. Galileo’s astronomical discoveries, along with his mathematical reasoning, provided evidence for Copernicus’s 1543 astronomical model that placed the sun, rather than the Earth, at the centre of the universe. Galileo’s endorsement of Copernican ideas led to a Papal commission, which concluded the idea that the sun was the centre of the universe was foolish, absurd and heretical. In 1616, Galileo received a warning from the Pope, and another from the Inquisition. In 1632, despite a previously amic­able relationship with the Pope, Galileo was summoned to Rome to stand trial for heresy after publication of a new book supporting the Copernican model. With the choice between confession to heresy or torture/death at the hands of the Inquisition, Galileo “confessed” and renounced his belief in the Copernican model. His sentence of life imprisonment was softened and he was allowed to return to his home in Arcetri, near Florence, where he was confined until his death. He died peacefully in 1642, having escaped the wrath of the Inquisitors and the curse of the plague, but suffering painful arthritis.

Galileo was initially buried next to a small chapel, but in 1737, when his remains were moved to the sepulchre at Santa Croce, his finger was removed and exhibited in a library. Galileo’s mausoleum inside Basilica di Santa Croce shows Galileo staring up at the stars, surrounded by the symbols of his work – a sun-centred solar system, a telescope, and symbols of geometry and astronomy. I left the basilica impressed by Galileo’s legacy, and ready for some of Florence’s famous wild-strawberry gelato.

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About Rebecca Priestley

I have a PhD in the history & philosophy of science and I write about science and science history. I live in New Zealand.
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