Out of Obscurity

Ornate Ptolemaic armillary sphere in the Museo Galileo.

Between 1588-1593, Antonio Santucci built this ornate Ptolemaic armillary sphere for the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Image courtesy Robert Hicks.

At any time of year tourists in Florence, Italy, are easy to spot. Visitors throng the narrow streets that front the River Arno, maps in hand, careful not to miss some milestone of the High Renaissance. Yet tourists queuing to enter the Uffizi Gallery seem unaware that one of the world’s most significant historical-science collections resides only yards to the east.

The Museo Galileo dazzles with a collection of European instruments, models, images, and even furniture employed in philosophical inquiry between the 16th and early 20th centuries. Installed in a building with a Quattrocento origin, the Museo Galileo beckons with an unusual signpost: a large sundial with a bronze gnomon. The contemporary design of the sundial and the museum’s new name connote a shift in purpose. For decades the Museo di Storia della Scienza di Firenze drew scholarly interest for its preeminent collections, but following a renovation the museum reopened in 2010 with its new name, intended to capitalize on Florence’s best-known scientific son. Gone are the 19th-century-looking museum cases and old-fashioned displays; present are modern features like climate control, contemporary furnishings, and art-gallery presentation, all designed to attract a broader audience.

Two primary epochal and cultural landscapes of science are on display in two separate galleries. The first is the older Medici Collection, which includes a room devoted to artifacts associated with Galileo. In addition to his early telescopes and experimental apparatus the gallery includes bits of the man himself: some of his fingers that gesture, many visitors say, in defiance of church authority. The museum’s collecting impetus originated with Cosimo I during the 16th century, reflecting the Medici interest in early-modern scientific instruments and investigations. This collection first resided at the Palazzo Vecchio less as a cabinet of curiosities than as a theater of achievement—instruments exhibited alongside maps and portraits of princes. Cosimo’s successor, Francesco I, installed the paraphernalia of early science in the Uffizi alongside works of art. This temple to scientific investigation included one of the largest (and possibly most ostentatious) Ptolemaic armillary spheres, built by Antonia Santucci in 1593. This object, which shows the organization of the cosmos, has been conserved and cleaned and now occupies a showplace at the Museo alongside important early globes.

The Medici Gallery features scores of instruments that illuminate Galileo’s era, organized topically: the world, astronomy and horology, navigation, and warfare. Tools made or used by Galileo highlight a section on the nature of inquiry and experimentation during the Renaissance, with a description of the Accademia dei Cimento, Europe’s first scientific society, intended to promote Galilean experimental philosophy. Early surveying tools, telescopes, demonstration devices, calculating machines, sundials and astrolabes, and devices for designing fortifications furnish the galleries on the Medici floor.

The Lorraine collection occupies the other main exhibit gallery. Named for the 19th century’s Ferdinand II of Lorraine, the instruments here attest to a very different spirit of scientific inquiry and application from the 18th century onward, one that embraced broad scientific interests (at least by the literate classes) and state sponsorship. The gallery presents science as spectacle with electrostatic generators and mechanical models of the universe (orreries), traces the rise of the precision instrument-making industry, depicts science in the home, and highlights chemistry as a popular science of endless utility. Two artifacts of chemistry deserve particular notice. At the entrance to the Lorraine galleries visitors witness the most elaborate chemistry set imaginable. This chemistry cabinet, once owned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany Peter Leopold (1747–1792), is a large Baroque wooden construction that opens to reveal a slate working surface, part of which connects to a concealed pedal-operated bellows to aid combustion and calcinations. Flanking the work area are shelves and drawers to store apparatus and bottled chemicals, mortars, and an inkstand. Peter Leopold clearly did more than dabble as one bottle contains phosphorus that the good duke processed from the urine of soldiers.

A second stunning object is a wall-mounted, hand-painted “table of affinities”—an 18th-century forerunner of the periodic table. Commissioned in 1766 for an apothecary shop, the table was meant to be a reference for pharmacists in preparing medicines. Modeled on Étienne-François Geoffroy’s Table des differents Rapports observés entre differentes substances (Paris, 1718), the chart’s appealing alchemical symbols attest to the organization of substances during that era but also reflect rationalizations about—and frustrations with—how best to classify substances.

Unlike the Uffizi, which requires advance tickets, the Museo Galileo provides a contemplative space accessible on impulse, which involves navigating no snaking lines of tourists. Visit this museum as an embarkation point to explore Florence’s extensive scientific collections, dispersed throughout the city.

Robert D. Hicks is the director of the Mütter Museum and Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.