Here’s what I knew about Galileo before I went to Italy: astronomer, heretic, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Then I went to Florence and learned that you can visit Galileo’s middle finger on display in a museum. Suddenly, I became very interested in the death of this infamous scientist.
Galileo Galilei died January 8, 1642 – age 77, blind, under house arrest for daring to declare that the Earth revolved around the sun. And it appears that in the 380 years since then, Galileo’s body has been on a rather interesting journey. If you’re looking for macabre or unusual things to do in Florence, Italy, you can be a part of that history by visiting Galileo’s burial, and body parts.
Where is Galileo buried?
It surprises many to learn that a man who ran afoul of the Catholic church in life is buried in Florence’s glorious Santa Croce Basilica.
Galileo after all is the guy famously brought to trial for going against Church orthodoxy that the Earth was an immovable centre of our universe, and condemned for “vehement suspicion of heresy.” And so when Galileo died in 1642, the Pope protested plans to bury him in the Basilica near his father and in the company of other beloved Italians such as Michelangelo. There would be no fancy tomb or place of honour for one of Italy’s greatest thinkers. Instead, Galileo’s body was initially buried sort of next to Santa Croce, in the modern equivalent of the broom closet – a small room down the end of a long corridor.
Fast forward about 100 years. There’s a new Pope and renewed interested in paying tribute to Galileo. So they decide to move his remains and build a proper monument in the main space at Santa Croce. That’s sort of strange, but not that strange. However…..
What you can’t see when you’re looking at Galileo’s tomb in Santa Croce is that he’s not alone in there.
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Who else is buried with Galileo?
Vincenzo Viviani was one of Galileo’s biggest fans. A former pupil, he became his biographer, and one of the loudest voices calling for a proper burial monument, so much so that he left money in his will towards the project. Viviani died in 1703. I’m not entirely clear how his own remains were moved into the new tomb built in 1737 to rest for all eternity with Galileo.
There’s also rumour that Galileo’s daughter, Suor Maria Celeste, was buried with him as well.
So when you visit Santa Croce Basilica—and you will because it’s glorious–be sure to admire the monumental opulent marble sarcophagus, flanked by feminine statues representing Astronomy and Geometry and a bust of Galileo holding a globe and a telescope. Then think about having to wait 95 years after your death for a final resting place—then having to share it!
So where is Galileo’s finger?
Right. The finger.
When Galileo’s remains were moved in 1937, local scientists and historians decided to help themselves some parts of his body. Physical remains of Saints are all over Italy – preserved and presented as relics for worshippers in many of the churches we visited. But as noted, Galileo was no saint. Still, some, such as Florentine antiquarian and author Anton Francesco Gori, apparently, did worship him. Snip, snip.
The body of Galileo inside his tomb in Santa Croce is missing: three fingers, a tooth, and a vertebrae. I did read that the three fingers chosen were those he would have used to hold a pen. (Why they didn’t also take the skull I have no idea!)
The vertebrae went to the University of Padua in Northern Italy, where Galileo once taught. It’s still there today. One of the fingers went to the local library, where it was exhibited for many years until finding a home at a new science museum in Florence. What about the rest? Private collection, passed down through family members for generations. Until around 1905, when the relics simply “disappeared.”
A visit to the Galileo Museum in Florence
In 2009, two fingers and a tooth turned up at auction. Turns out, they were the missing pieces of the famed astronomer. (Perhaps being in wooden case topped with a bust of Galileo was a hint?) It’s a bit like a creepy episode of Antiques Roadshow. The found body parts were acquired by what was then called The Institute of the History of Science, soon to be renamed The Galileo Museum, or, in Italian, Museo Galileo.
Museo Galileo is located steps from the famed Uffuzi Gallery of art and scenic Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence. Its collection includes historic maps, navigational instruments, key inventions in maths and physics, plus the only surviving tools actually designed by Galileo, including two telescopes and a lens he used to discover Jupiter’s moon. It’s all quite wondrous, and will set the imaginations of all ages alight.
It’s also one of the creepiest things you can do in Florence, Italy.
On the second floor, you’ll find the room called Galileo’s New World filled with all kinds of artifacts. My more scientifically minded friend was stoked to see things like a 17th century lodestones, and something called “Apparatus to Demonstrate the Isochronism of Falls Along a Spiral.” Which admittedly I found hard to concentrate on with Galileo’s finger just hanging out over there!
In the middle of the room, you’ll find a case with two small but powerful objects. (OK there’s also a small medallian and a mystery item in some kind of velvet cape.)
The first is simply titled “Index Finger and Thumb of Right Hand and a Tooth of Galileo” and is displayed in a wood and glass bell jar. Beside it is “Middle Finger of Galileo’s Right Hand,” in a marble and glass case with an inscription by astronomer Tommaso Perelli. One translation I found reads:
This is the finger with which the illustrious hand covered the heavens and indicated their immense space.
It pointed to new stars with the marvellous instrument, made of glass, and revealed them to the senses. And thus it was able to reach what Titania could never attain.
My friend likes to imagine the mummified middle finger is pointing to the sky. I think it could also be giving a rude gesture. Either way, it’s easy to look at these desiccated body parts and imagine the genius DNA that runs through them, and the ways they were used to change our understanding of the universe.
Visiting Galileo’s fingers and his tomb were absolutely two highlights of my first trip to Italy. They taught me more about the man and his times. They made me furious that it wasn’t until 1992 that Pope John II admitted the Church made a mistake in condemning him. And considering we visited during a global pandemic, at a time when science couldn’t be more important, and yet also under threat, it reminded me to cherish the great minds of our own time while they are still alive!
How to visit Galileo from home
Can’t get to Italy right now? Both the Galileo Museum and the Basilica of Santa Croce have excellent apps that you can use to learn and explore from home. I used them both while wandering, and revisited favourite pieces after my trip.
Know before you go
The Museo Galilo is open every day except Christmas and New Year’s Day, and costs 10 Euro. For current opening hours, visit their site.
Galileo’s tomb can be seen with admission to the Santa Croce Basilica. The church is open daily to 5:30pm and costs 8 Euro. Updates and online tickets here.