University of Michigan library declares Galileo manuscript fake

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Looking up at the sky with his newly built telescope in January 1610, Galileo Galilei spotted several bright objects around Jupiter, and spent weeks mapping how they changed position each night. As he sketched what he imagined these moving objects to look like above Jupiter, he realized they were moons.

For the first time in history a celestial body has been recorded orbiting a planet other than Earth, and for nearly a century the University of Michigan boasted Galileo’s sketch of Jupiter as one of its “jewels.”

“This single-page manuscript is a treasure trove of the University of Michigan’s library,” the university wrote in a description of the document. “It reflects a pivotal moment in Galileo’s life that helped change our understanding of the universe.”

Then, in May, a university curator got an email from Nick Wilding.

Wilding, a Georgia State University history professor, wrote to express “serious doubts” about the authenticity of Galileo’s manuscript, library officials wrote in a new description of the source of the manuscript. Experts from the university found Wilding’s findings “compelling evidence”, re-examined their gems and came to the same conclusion as his.

This is a fake, written not by the father of modern astronomy in the early 1600s, but by a notorious forger more than 300 years later.

“We thank Professor Wilding for sharing his findings and are now working to reconsider the manuscript’s role in our collection,” the university wrote in its online update.

Neither Wilding nor the university library immediately responded to The Washington Post’s request for comment late Sunday.

In May 1934, when an auction house was selling the library of the late Roderick Terry, a wealthy antique book and manuscript collector. According to the auction catalog, the archbishop of Pisa verified the document by comparing it to Galileo’s letters in his personal collection.

Detroit businessman Tracy McGregor bought the manuscript. After his death, a trust fund in McGregor’s name bequeathed it to the University of Michigan in 1938 in memory of one of the astronomy professors.

It has been around ever since and, during its 84-year stay, was considered authentic.

It was then examined by Wilding, author of a forthcoming biography of Galileo. The university cited two things that led to the historian’s “serious doubts.”

The first: A watermark on the paper — “BMO,” referring to the Italian city of Bergamo — suggests the document is much newer than experts thought. There is no other document bearing this watermark before 1770, more than 150 years before Galileo wrote the manuscript of Jupiter’s moon map.

Second: Despite the “extremely thorough” documentation of Galileo’s work, experts have been unable to find traces of the manuscript’s existence prior to 1930. The manuscript was authenticated by Cardinal Pietro Maffi, Archbishop of Pisa, who compared it to two other works he believed to have been written by Galileo but were later determined to be fakes.

Both forgeries were donated to the archbishop by Tobia Nicotra, who Wilding suspects forged the university manuscript. According to a New York Times article of November 10, 1934, Nicotra was described by university officials as a “famous forger” who was arrested in 1934 for selling fake Mozart signatures to the son of the New York Philharmonic conductor. conviction. In Milan’s trial of Nicotra, police say they found evidence that Nicotra was preparing for Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Fake signatures of others.

According to a 1934 Times article, Nicotra created his forgeries by going to the Milan library, ripping blank pages from old books, and using them to create “signatures” of famous musicians. Librarians in Milan testified that counterfeiters destroyed dozens of books for it.

Last week, University of Michigan library officials said Wilding’s discovery would force them to reconsider the value of forged manuscripts. They ended their statement on a positive note, saying such a reconsideration could make it more important than ever.

“In the future, it may serve research, learning and teaching interests in fakes, counterfeits and hoaxes, a timeless discipline that has never been more important.”

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