Think of Florence and great Renaissance artists jump to mind—Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael (also Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), but the Renaissance encouraged scientific exploration, too. A fun place to see this aspect of the era is the Galileo Museum (Museo Galileo) on the Arno River just a little ways down from the famed Ponte Vecchio. Look for the astrological signs and monumental sundial in the piazza out front to find the arched doorway to the museum.
Galileo Galilei was a child of the area—born in 1564 in Pisa and moving to Florence in the 1570s. He was the son of a musician and minor noble, but his nobility was not the wealthy type. Galileo studied at the University of Pisa although he didn’t finish a degree. Numerous fields intrigued him—mathematics, astronomy, geometry, mechanics, and physics. While in school, Galileo learned of ancient Greek approaches to physics and questioned the validity of heavier objects falling faster than light ones. He refuted Aristotelian ideas in his work, De Motu (On Motion).
Throughout Galileo’s career, he taught at the University of Pisa and the University of Padua. Inside of academia and out (he was hired by the Medici family in 1610), he made many scientific advancements. Galileo invented mechanical devices such as the pump and the hydrostatic balance, but he is probably best known for his telescope and the discoveries that he made with that device proving Copernican theory. It was his support of a heliocentric system that got him in trouble with the Catholic Church. After a century of revolutions and theological unrest (people were converting to Protestantism), the Vatican was reasserting its authority with force by hauling those whose ideas seemed heretical before an Inquisition tribunal. In the 1620s, Galileo was warned by the Church that he shouldn’t discuss or defend the sun-centered model of planetary revolution. When he published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, he was called to Rome again to face punishment. Found guilty of heresy, Galileo was placed under house arrest where he covertly published further dialogues until his death in 1642.
The Museo Galileo tells the story of the great scientist’s accomplishments and shows off Italian advancements in mathematics, astronomy, navigation, physics, biology, optics, cosmography, cartography, chemistry, and much more! Eighteen rooms are filled with inventions and even some hands-on gadgets. Short videos do a good job telling about what you’re seeing (which is sometimes not the case in Italian museums). There are rooms filled with gigantic globes, antique telescopes, pendulums, and other scientific devices. From macabre cases—like the one holding Galileo’s fingers and a tooth—to giant inclined planes, the museum interests adults and children alike. It’s a fascinating place to visit when in Florence.
To help you explore, I’ve provided the names of the rooms and one or two artifacts that can be found there. There are over 1000 instruments and scientific devices in the collection, so this list is by no means comprehensive. For more information, go to: Museo Galileo
- I—Medici Collections (compasses and telescopes)
- II—Astronomy & Time (quadrants and astrolabes)
- III—The Representation of the World (huge metal sphere)
- IV—Vincenzo Coronelli’s Globes (four massive globes)
- V—The Science of Navigation (maps & nauticual instruments)
- VI—The Science of Warfare (mathematical instruments)
- VII—Galileo’s New World (Galileo’s telescope, his inclined plane, & his fingers)
- VIII—Art and Science of Experimentation (thermometry & barometry)
- IX—After Galileo: Exploring the Physical & Biological World (microscopes)
- X—The Lorraine Collections (medical science)
- XI—The Spectacle of Science (electrostatic machines)
- XII—Teaching and Popularizing Science: Mechanics
- XIII—Teaching and Popularize Science: Optics, Pneumatics, Electromagnetism
- XIV—The Precision Instrument Industry (surveying tools)
- XV—Measuring Natural Phenomena: Atmosphere & Light
- XVI—Measuring Natural Phenomena: Electricity & Electromagnetism
- XVII—Chemistry & the Public Usefulness of Sciences
- XVIII—Science in the Home
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