Visitors to Florence, Italy, invariably line up in droves to tour the world-famous Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower, most notable for its soaring dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in the early 15th century. The lines frequently snake around the block, even in sweltering summer heat. For those who find the lines a bit too daunting, Florence is also home to another priceless gem: the Museo Galileo, housed in the 11th century Palazzo Castellani along the River Arno.
As the name implies, the museum is dedicated to Galileo Galilei, but the vast collection features all manner of historical scientific instruments and experimental apparatus from the Medici Collection, as well as later artifacts donated by the Lorraine dynasty. Many of them are so expertly made, they qualify as genuine works of art.
The first floor displays all the Galileo artifacts; most notable are two telescopes and a framed objective lens from the telescope through which he first observed the moons of Jupiter. There are also lots of smaller instruments—thermometers, sextants, astrolabes—and plenty of globes, as well as an enormous armillary sphere, designed and built by the Italian astronomer Antonio Santucci.
Among the more fascinating, albeit morbid, artifacts are two of Galileo’s fingers, removed from his corpse (along with a tooth and vertebra) by Galileo fans sometime in the 18th century. The two fingers were rediscovered when they turned up at an auction in 2009. Legend has it that after Galileo was forced to recant his views regarding the Copernican system, he defiantly muttered, “E pur si muove“ (“And yet it moves”). The story is probably apocryphal, but the phrase pairs nicely with the display of the scientist’s middle finger.
The Lorraine Collection is housed on the second floor, with a wide array of instruments and apparatus showcasing the explosion of research into electricity, electromagnetism, and chemistry. Here, one can find beautifully constructed machines illustrating various fundamental physics principles. For example, there is a model of a device known as an Archimedes screw. The concept dates back to ancient Egypt, where it was used to move low-lying water into irrigation ditches. Today the device is used in chocolate fountains, among other applications.
One of my personal favorite items is a so-called Brachistochronous fall from the mid to late18th century, because it illustrates a knotty mathematical conundrum. Assuming two fixed points, one higher than the other, what shape would a curved path between those points have to be for a rolling ball to reach the lower point the fastest? The solution is a cycloid, which is the curve created by a rolling wheel in a circle. Turn that path upside down and you will get the path of fastest descent. The model on display in the Museo Galileo allows one to test this result by building two tracks: one shaped like a cycloid, the other shaped like the arc of a circle, for comparison. If you roll two balls down each track simultaneously, the one on the cycloid path will reach the bottom first, regardless of where one starts the ball along this curved path.
There is so much to savor in the Museo Galileo collection: a model of a Gravesande column (an intricate pulley system to lift a weight six times greater than the effort applied); a lens-grinding lathe; and several large machines designed for experiments with electricity. There are also several wax models of a baby in the womb in various positions, the better to train doctors to deal with birthing complications, and an elaborate chemistry cabinet that belonged to Grand Duke Peter Leopold. These galleries should give you a taste of what’s on offer, until it’s once again safe to travel to Florence to see the exhibits firsthand.
Listing image by Jennifer Ouellette