Galileo: Rescuing the Relics of a Secular Saint

Pity poor Galieo. And not just because his scientific beliefs ran afoul of the Church, because he was tried and condemned for heresy, or because he died while under house arrest. No, pity him because for centuries schoolchildren have been snickering at his right hand. Since 1737, Galileo has been giving us all the finger.

The gesture may seem apt. But it wasn’t his choice: he didn’t go to his grave with one wizened middle digit pointed skyward in an everlasting curse at the universe. Someone arranged it that way, severing his key digit during an exhumation and preserving it an urn, where it has been flipping off tourists at Florence’s Institute and Museum for the History of Science since 1927 (and at other sites before that).

Recently, the Institute announced that two more of Galileo’s severed fingers have been found in a jar, along with a tooth. The revelation means that all the Galileo parts known to have been separated from his corpse are in the hands of the Italian authorities. But how, you ask, did they come to be severed in the first place? Read on.

Galileo died in Florence in 1632. His will called for him to be buried in the magnificent basilica of Santa Croce, where his ancestors rested alongside other eminent Florentines like Michelangelo. But no sooner were plans for his tomb underway than word got back to the Pope, who put the kibosh on them. Not surprisingly, His Eminence decided that honoring a man the Inquisition had found “vehemently suspect of heresy” would be setting a bad example.

Instead, Galileo’s coffin was stuffed inside a tiny chamber beneath Santa Croce’s bell tower, far from the huge marble monuments of the other prominent local citizens. He lay there in an unconsecrated grave for over a hundred years.

In 1737, after years of pleading by Galileo’s devoted student Viviani, the political climate changed. The Church decided that reburying Galileo would be a good thing for Florence, then suffering from a decline in power as the years of the Medici family ended. At last local officials were allowed to move Galileo to a sumptuous new tomb opposite Michelangelo.

Unfortunately, during the exhumation three of the assembled men — Antonio Cocchi, Anton Franceso Gori, and Vincenzio Capponi — decided to take some souvenirs. Here’s how John Joseph Fahie describes it in his 1903 book Galileo, His Life and Work:

During the work of exhumation and identification Canon Gio. Vin. Capponi, President of the Sacra Accademia Fiorentina, took an opportunity of removing with a knife the thumb and forefinger of Galileo’s right hand! Because, as he said to Targioni-Tozzetti, they held the pen with which so many fine things were written; but… Targioni-Tozzetti tapped the skull, and said he would rather have some of the brains which conceived the grand thoughts.

Soon after, Anton. Francesco Gori, Professor of Ancient History in the University of Florence, removed the index finger of the left hand, which, at his death, passed to Canon Angelo Bandini. At his death in 1803, it came into the custody of the Laurenzian Library (of which Bandini had been Keeper), and in 1841 it was transferred to its present place in the Tribuna di Galileo in Florence. …

At the same time, yet another idolater, Dr Antonio Cocchi, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Anatomy, took away the fifth lumbarvertebra, which, after passing through many hands, came into the possession of Dr Thiene. In 1823, he presented it to the University of Padua, where it is now preserved in the museum attached to the physical science laboratory.

Fahie’s text describes the thumb and forefinger as lost, and these are the relics the Institute says have just been re-discovered. There’s no record of a tooth extraction, although the official record does state that at this point the corpse didn’t have many teeth anyway.

What would motivate dignified men of science to spirit away bits of a rotting carcass? It’s hard to say exactly, but they were coming from an era fascinated by the relics of saints. The bodies of saints weren’t seen as inviolable, but as material to be harvested for supernatural power and prestige. Galileo’s admirers probably didn’t think his bones would bring miracles, but they have been influenced by the idea of carcass as trophy and talisman.

Source: Galluzzi, Paolo. “The sepulchers of Galileo“. The Cambridge Companion to Galileo. Ed. Peter Machamer. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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