April 15, 2013

High Tech…

…Three Hundred Years Ago.

In recognition of today’s Google Doodle -

Spectacularly wrong: yesterday's model of the universe. 

Around the comer from the Uffizi, and somewhat in its shadow, stands a smaller, even older house of treasure-Florence'sMuseum of the History of Science (renamed Museo Galileo in 2010). This magnificent collection, refurbished in recent years, has at its thematic heart Galileo's telescope: the gilded wood-and-leather instrument, simple and revolutionary, that shattered the Age of Faith and changed the way the world thought.

Like Michelangelo, that other hero of the Renaissance, Galileo was sponsored by the Medici and censored by the pope. After his death, two Medici grand dukes, both former pupils, founded an academy to carry on the master's legacy of experimental science. Though it lasted just ten years, until 1667, the academy oversaw the design and manufacture of many innovative instruments, which became the property of the Medici; their collection was the nucleus of the present museum.

Representing what could be called Renaissance high tech, the state of the art circa 1650, many items here are treasures in themselves, precocious children of the Renaissance marriage between science and art. Here are optical and navigational instruments of all sorts-the telescopes, astrolabes, and compasses that made possible the charting of the heavens, the voyages of discovery, the mapping of "unmappable" continents and seas. Here are devices combining practicality and whimsy: a variety of "nocturnals," for telling time at night; a compass to be attached to a saddle bow, for navigation on horseback; flawless crystal thermometers in the shape of miniature frogs, which attach to the upper arm with silky gold threads.

The layman recognizes, in a formal way, what these instruments are but experiences still another response: a sense of the weirdness, the eccentricity, the marvelously idiosyncratic nature of these artifacts. Touring the museum's fifteen rooms, the visitor may feel he is wandering down the stranger, though necessary, byways of scientific investigation.

The calculating machine (Ciclografo) of Tito Livio Burattini from 1658 (© Museo Galileo, Firenze)

The craftsmanship is consummate. Every celestial globe, every sundial, every brass sextant, quadrant, and compass, is covered with tiny etchings-heraldic emblems, plumed helmets, decorative flowers. Early microscopes sit on carved-ivory bases. Precision mathematical instruments repose in fitted cases lined with red velvet. A brass odometer is bedecked with a filigreed border. The creators were obviously skilled cabinetmakers, and as much attention was paid to aesthetic appeal as to the engineering of the instruments themselves. One item, with miniature ebony horses prancing around a wooden "floor," suggests a Victorian toy circus, jointly crafted by Escher and Calder.

We also see history's grander mistakes. A sixteenth-century armiliary sphere, bearing a royal seal, depicts Ptolemy's view, the "theologically correct" concept of an Earth-centered universe. At eleven feet in height, nearly large enough to fill the room, it is gorgeous, gilded, and spectacularly wrong.  One gaze at its weighty, opulent authority suggests how much it cost Galileo to say, "I disagree." It reminds us that skepticism and doubt are scientific virtues.

The museum is housed in one of Florence's oldest buildings, the Castellani (1180); and in the renovated cellar we see, in medieval, vaulted rooms, an alchemist's laboratory and, slightly to the left, a laser display. 

Galileo Galilei’s finger  :*)


asterix said...

thank you fine post, especially the last image. message?

Tartanscot said...

A YES love the finger. And the post, of course.

frenchtoast said...

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.
Fine finger.

Dr, Bunsen said...

And yet it moves!

Syl v O said...

It is surely harmful to souls to make it a heresy to believe what is proved.
-Galileo Galilei