Another Galilean in Florence

The Medici dynasty of Florence were not just great art patrons, they were also great science patrons. Nowhere can this be seen better than in one of the city’s most intriguing museums, the Galileo Galilei Museum of science which we revisited on a recent trip to the city.

Before the museum’s entrance there is a delightful gnomon which also includes some astrological signs. Unfortunately, I couldn’t measure its accuracy as it was raining…

Galileo Galilei, who was born in Pisa in 1564 and died at Arcetri, Florence in 1642 (where there is an observatory dedicated to him) holds a supreme position in science corresponding to that of such figures as Michelangelo in art. Leaning on the manufacture of higher precision lenses from Holland, Galileo was able to construct telescopes which revealed such discoveries as mountains on the moon and satellites around Jupiter (which he named the “Medici” planets in honour of Florence’s rulers). Above all, Galileo was the perfector of our modern scientific method of research which he applied not only to astronomy but also to physics, dynamics and mathematics.

The revolution effected by Galileo in kicking out the earth from the centre of the universe and making it revolve around the sun (“e pur si muove” he said under his breath at his “recantation” when the Inquisition showed him the instruments of torture – “and yet it (the earth) moves”) was drummed home to me when I saw the incredibly elaborate model of an armillary sphere by Antonio Sanducci and made around 1590 showing the earth very much in the centre of things.

I’m glad to say that the papacy has now apologised in retrospect to the great scientist for the insult and suffering it inflicted on him. Let’s hope that (if there is an after-life) poor Galileo heard their apology.

However, for anyone sailing during Galilei’s time the earth had to be the centre of the universe since all positions were worked out by reference to the sun, stars and planets surrounding it like concentric globes. This picture of navigation continues well into the modern age.

I visited the museum with a sailing instructor who was able to point out to me the mathematical instruments like sextants and astrolabes used for the calculation of the position at sea for captains and skippers in pre-GPS times. What amazed me was how these scientific instruments were also supreme works of art combining accuracy with elegance.

The section on clocks was also fascinating; it should be remember that, although latitude could be fairly easily computed since mediaeval times, longitude depended on extremely accurate time-measuring equipment not available until Harrison constructed his famous chronometer, gaining him a Royal Society award and now on proud display in the Greenwich maritime museum.

My own interest in calculating machines and computers was aroused when I saw an English development of Leibnitz’s original machine beautifully carried by Samuel Knibb in 1664. I wish my laptop could look so elegant!

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The field of electricity and thunder flashing inducing equipment produced at the turn of the romantic era turned my imagination to Frankenstein’s laboratory in the lonely tower and the galvanization of his monster. Indeed, science became a popular entertainment and, just as ladies would entertain at the piano, so gentlemen would show off their latest scientific toy. Amateur science was born and moved out of the exclusiveness of aristocratic enclaves.

There was an amusing section on optical illusion apparatus:

and another on anatomical wax models for instructional purposes (using corpses was not considered ethical and, besides, they would tend to stink):

The Galileo Galilei museum, which is just at the back of the Uffizi gallery, is yet another of Florence’s museums which have been expertly revalued and present their wares as they should be presented – with clear and informative displays both in Italian and English. Kids of all ages from 4 to 100 should also enjoy experimenting with the museum’s hands-on section which illustrates various physics laws and clock mechanism.

Florence’s Science museum’s web site at is a supreme example of how it should be done. One can actually visit the museum without having to go to it by experiencing its “virtual museum”. I think however, that the virtual museum serves a double purpose, the second being that of preparing one for a visit to the museum and deciding what to concentrate on there.


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