Monday, December 07, 2009

Forget Van Gogh's ear - it's Galileo's molar

A private art collector who recently purchased a seventeenth-century box containing unidentified “artefacts” must have had a gruesome surprise when he opened it, for it contained a human tooth, a thumb and a middle finger, later authenticated as having belonged to none other than Galileo Galilei [1564 – 1642] who was condemned by the Vatican for claiming that the Earth moved around the Sun.

The collector contacted the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence and the Museum’s director, Paolo Galluzzi, pieced together the story:
when Galileo died, those close to him feared that the Church would refuse him burial in consecrated ground because of his “heresies” so his body was taken to a small room beneath the bell tower of Santa Croce.

In 1737, 95 years after the astronomer’s death, his body was removed from its “temporary” grave and placed in a monumental tomb in the Basilica itself. It was during this process that Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti, chief physician of the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova Gualtieri, removed the tooth, two fingers and the thumb from the right hand and the fifth lumbar vertebra. He wrote that he found it difficult not to yield to the temptation to remove the skull too, for it “had housed such extraordinary genius”.

One of the fingers was kept in the Science Museum in Florence and the vertebra was conserved at the University of Padua, where Galileo had taught.
The other body parts, however, were kept in a blown-glass vase inside a wooden container and this was passed down the generations of a noble family. Eventually, no one in the family knew what was in the container and they sold it. All trace of it was lost by 1905. Then suddenly it turned up at auction.

The rediscovered relics will be displayed in the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence when it reopens next year as the Museo Galileo.