Reconciling Science and Faith: Overall, Galileo Did Pretty Well for a College Dropout
A right thumb, a finger, a tooth. These were the contents of a reliquary acquired several years ago by a collector at an auction in Florence. Little did he know that for centuries the remains had been objects of profane devotion. Last seen in 1905, they had been sliced from the corpse of Galileo, along with another finger and a vertebra, during his highly publicized reburial in the Basilica of Santa Croce in 1737 almost 100 years after his death, and preserved in a slender case fashioned of glass and wood and crowned with a carved bust of the scientist. The reliquary’s new owner consulted Galileo experts about his find, and after the authenticity of its contents had been verified he donated it to the Museo Galileo, which is tucked behind the Uffizi in a quiet piazza overlooking the River Arno. (A dentist asked by the museum to examine the tooth concluded that Galileo suffered from gastric acid reflux and ground his teeth in his sleep.) The rediscovered reliquary is displayed adjacent to a smaller one containing Galileo’s other finger, a prized museum possession since 1927. Nearby are several artifacts of Galileo’s scientific genius: a telescope presented to the Medici and the broken objective lens of the original device with which Galileo sighted Jupiter’s four satellites in 1610.
Galileo was not the first scientist whose corpse was as revered as his corpus. That honor belongs to René Descartes, who was reburied numerous times after his death in 1650, initially to secure the return of his body to French soil and subsequently to install him in the pantheon of French genius. Yet Galileo’s remains in Florence have an added meaning. In 1633 the scientist was tried for heresy, having been accused of violating a 1616 papal decree condemning as contrary to Scripture the idea of a heliocentric universe, first described by Copernicus in On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543). The Florentines who snatched a few of Galileo’s bones in 1737 sought to canonize the scientist as a counter-saint, even as the Roman Catholic Church, with a century of hindsight, relented on its decision to deny Galileo a public burial and monument worthy of his fame when he died. Times were changing, but not rapidly enough for Galileo’s most ardent disciples. Their veneration of a few body parts privately commemorated his martyrdom for the cause of science. The church’s interment of his other remains in a sepulcher adjacent to Michelangelo’s in Santa Croce designated him a heroic embodiment of Tuscan genius and creativity.