When I hear the phrase scientific relic I think of obsolete technology, not actual human remains belonging to prominent scientists. But the bones of Galileo on display in a reliquary in a museum in Florence Italy are given the same reverence the relics of any saint or martyr shown in a church.
In 1633 Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was convicted of heresy for his support heliocentrism (the observation that the earth and planets revolve around the sun) and sentenced to imprisonment for the rest of his life. The conviction by the church devastating to Galileo because he was a believer. When Galileo died he was not given a proper church burial because he was branded a heretic.
Instead of being buried in the main body of the chapel at Basilica of Santa Croce in Tuscany with the rest of his relatives, Galileo was entombed in an obscure, small room at the end of a hallway. In 1737, the scientist’s remains were unearthed in a ceremony, during which the historian Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti cut off three fingers from his right hand, a tooth, and a vertebra from his body. Then Galileo’s body was reburied in a prominent marble tomb and monument in the chapel of the Basilica. For Tuscan nobility, this ceremony proclaimed the independence of the civil government from the church, and celebrated the famous scientist as a martyr to science. The church at Santa Croce had long been a shrine to humanism, which is illustrated by the other famous burials such as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Rossini.
Galileo’s middle finger ended up in an egg-shaped reliquary in the collection at the Galileo Museum, a museum of science in Florence, and his vertebra wound up at the University of Padua. His tooth and other two fingers disappeared in 1905, but reemerged at an auction of reliquaries in Italy in October of 2009. The relics were inside a wooden case with a wooden bust of Galileo. After a Florence collector purchased the missing fingers and tooth, he returned the items to the Galileo Museum after they were authenticated.
Today the middle finger and index finger are on display at the Galileo Museum with other scientific instruments. The inscription on the reliquary reads:
This is the finger, belonging to the illustrious hand
that ran through the skies,
pointing at the immense spaces, and singling out new stars,
offering to the senses a marvelous apparatus
of crafted glass,
and with wise daring they could
reach where neither Enceladus nor Tiphaeus ever reached
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