Near the Uffizi Art Museum in Florence stands the Museo Galileo. It is housed in an 11th century castle, which is one of the oldest buildings in Florence. I came here during a month-long sabbatical in 2011, and was eager to see how this museum compared to the Islamic Science Museum that I planned to visit in Istanbul later in the month.
Cosimo Medici collected many of the early scientific and medical works during the 1500's. The collection was moved to the Uffizi Museum in about 1600, and then to the Accademia del Cimento in 1657. It was moved once again to its current location in 1930.
Photography was not allowed the year I was there. What follows is a list of some of my favorite pieces, with links to the museum’s excellent online catalog, which I found most useful to browse by room.
The Armillary Sphere, which took up an entire room, was created in 1564 by Girolamo della Volpaia and is based on a Ptolmaic model of the universe. Ptolemy's Geography (written during the 2nd century AD) was a founding text, which was rediscovered in Florence during the 14th century. It is thought to have launched extensive study in that field.
The Celestial Globe by Ibrahim 'Ibn Said as Sahli, circa 1085 was one of the very few original Islamic instruments here, which I found a little surprising. It is believed to be the oldest Arab celestial globe in the world.
Another Celestial Globe in this room, this one of Italian make and dating to 1692, accurately depicted the constellations, which were labeled in Italian, Latin, Greek and Arabic. The wedge at the lower right of this page from page 37 of the printed guide to the collection shows one of 26 sheets of paper printed in modern times from the original copper plates. A video showed the process for constructing globes, which included mathematical formulas and drafting instruments specific to the production of the map sections that would be glued to the surface of the wooden sphere. I was fascinated by the complexity of the process and how seamless the sections of paper went together in the completion of each globe.
I am obsessed with astrolabes and somewhat distraught that I could not find this one in the online catalog. This 16th century astrolabe by Egnazio Danti, is on page 30 of the printed guide to this collection.
Spiral Thermometers dating from the 17th century were pretty curious; with their enamel dots on the spirals indicated the temperature. A Table of Chemical Affinities was commissioned around 1766 for the Grand Ducal pharmacy, executed in oil on canvas. A Compound Microscope circa 1765, made in Germany was one of several microscopes in this room.
The Chemistry Cabinet belonged to Grand Duke Leopold, who performed experiments as a hobby. When closed, it took the form of a trunk about the size of a Volkswagon Bug. When open, it revealed a slate work surface with a hole in the center for a brazier, a foot-operated bellows underneath, and a brass melting oven. Among the vials in the many cabinets and drawers was one filled with phosphorus, collected by Duke Leopold himself from the urine of the soldiers stationed at the Belvedere Fort.
One of my most favorite pieces was a Dagger Compass, which marked the shift of mathematics from the art of science, to the art of war. Soldiers during the 16th century needed a working knowledge in arithmetic, geometry, surveying, perspective, mechanics and military architecture. This one dates to the 17th century. I suspect it could have been used as a weapon as easily as it’s primary purpose as a scientific instrument.
A model of an Archimedean Screw showed a technology used to transport water uphill during building projects. I would see a more refined model in the Islamic Science Museum in Istanbul.
There were rooms of medical devices and realistic sculptures of unborn children in various positions in the womb, which were pretty ghastly. I found the Italian medical tools pretty primitive compared to those I saw in the Islamic Science Museum. If I had lived in Italy during the time of the Medicis, I would have opted to travel to Turkey for any significant surgeries I might have required…
Museo Galileo is open Friday through Monday from 9.30 AM to 6.00 PM. A map and ticketing information can be found at their Visitor's page. This museum has a gift shop, although I was disappointed to not find a replica astrolabe there, or in fact any replicas or even paper models of the scientific instruments from their collection. I did bring home an abbreviated catalog and a postcard booklet, small recompense for the singular souvenir I had hoped to bring home from this trip.
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Heather Daveno is from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day
and a self taught hatmaker by night. She spent most of her pandemic lockdown in 2020-2021 creating 800 masks for the Masks4Millions project.
In a normal year, her travels inspire her hats, which she handcrafts from reclaimed textiles and found objects. You can find her hats and masks for sale at August Phoenix Hats. She is currently reissuing her original journals as “Director’s Cuts” with expanded text and previously unpublished photos, which you can read for free at Daveno Travels.