Reaching for the Stars (in Galileo’s Footsteps)

Tucked between the Arno River and the Basilica of Santa Croce, the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze serves as an architecturally stunning, early-twentieth-century landmark – the equivalent of the National Library in Washington DC.

Visitors to this impressive site who, following Tolstoy’s sound advice, look up at the sky for a minute to raise their spirits can notice two statues atop the neo-classical façade; one represents Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the other, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). The inscription under the former reads “Questo sarà luce nuova” (“This will shed new light”), referring to Dante’s innovative use of the Italian language in his literary texts. Under Galileo’s statue, the inscription alludes to his ground-breaking observations of the planets and the stars: “Più diritto cammino” (“A straighter path”).

While looking at Galileo’s statue (who is portrayed gazing heavenward with a telescope in his hand) visitors may recall the English poet John Milton’s verses on those ground-breaking astronomical studies in the early XVII century: “ … like the Moon, whose orb / through optic glass the Tuscan artist views / at evening from the top of Fiesole / or in Valdarno, to descry new lands.” In these lines from Paradise Lost (Book I, vv. 287-290) Milton refers to Galileo’s essays on the moon and the accompanying drawings.

It is precisely to see those pages and sketches in Galileo’s own hand that Prof. Luis Orozco took his University of Maryland students to the Biblioteca Nazionale on September 27th. His students, currently attending ISI Florence for the fall semester, were lucky to see both the original pages and the subsequent printed editions (such epoch-making books as The Starry Messenger and the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems).

Prof. Stefano Baldassarri (ISI Florence director and proud owner of a Biblioteca Nazionale reader’s card since 1988) introduced them to Dr. David Speranzi, head of the library’s manuscript reading room and long-time friend of ISI. Prof. George Sterman (Director, C.N. Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook, and 2004 UMD Physics Distinguished Alumnus) and Prof. Elise Rochelle Frank were also part of the group, listening to Prof. Orozco and Dr. Speranzi as they commented on drawings and folios from Galileo manuscripts and related early seventeenth-century editions at the Biblioteca Nazionale. These were all made available for this special occasion. Among them were the following codices and rare books: MS. Gal. 86 (Galileo’s famous letter to Belisario Vinta on Saturn), Magl. 3.2.406 (1623 edition of The Assayer), MS. Gal. 48 (drawing of the lunar phases), Post. 110 (editio princeps of the Sidereus Nuncius: Venice, 1610), MS. Gal. 49 (Galileo’s personal diary with his observations of Jupiter), and MS. Gal. 57 (his own drawings of the sunspots). 

We wish to thank once again Dr. Speranzi and his Biblioteca Nazionale colleagues, starting with the “direttrice” Dr. Anna Lucarelli, and including the manuscript reading room librarian Dr. Roberta Masini, who made this extraordinary visit possible for the ISI Florence/University of Maryland physics faculty and students.