A Quiet Corner In Florence
On the banks of the Arno, close to the Ponte Vecchio, stands a small and often missed museum. Hidden from the crowds milling outside the nearby Uffizi, the Museo Galileo – Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza sits undisturbed in the quiet of the Piazza de’ Guidici, a tranquil backwater in the heart of Renaissance Florence. The Ponte Vecchio is a few minutes away, as is the Uffizi and the Palazzo Vecchio. In the Piazza del Limbo stands the Santi Apostoli, founded by Charlemagne and one of the oldest surviving churches in Florence.
The museum’s origins are centuries old. It is housed in the 12th century Palazzo Castellini, which was known to Dante as the Castello d’Altafronte. (The Altafrontes were an important Florentine family involved in establishing the cloth trade, fundamental to the city’s growing economy.) In 1657, in memory of the recently deceased Galileo Galilei, the city of Florence founded the world’s first scientific institution, the Accademia del Cimento – The Academy for Experimentation. This beginning fostered a passion not only for the discovery of scientific knowledge and principles, but also for their application in all areas of human understanding.
The Institute of The Story of Science
The Museo Galileo may have begun as a shrine to the works of Galileo, but has grown to become both a record of, and a tribute to, the works of those scientists of a few centuries ago. Even when standing in the heart of Florence, the nuances of the Renaissance mind are difficult to fully grasp. This was a time when men of science were often men of letters, art or philosophy, dabbling equally well in music, poetry, science and politics. Consequently, many beliefs from this time permeated through the explosion of knowledge and achievements occurring in a variety of fields. It is impossible to wander through the Palazzo Castellini without becoming infected by the enthusiasm and creativity so apparent in these inventions and discoveries.
A part of the museum is dedicated to the life and works of Galileo, with many of his experiments faithfully reproduced. A display of his original instruments includes those telescopes by which he revolutionised astronomy and validated the theories of Copernicus (which led to him being summoned before The Inquisition). The objective lens Galileo used when discovering Jupiter’s four largest satellites (now named the Galilean moons) is also displayed, as are some of his notebooks.
An avid amateur chemist, Pietro Leopardo not only founded the new institution, he also modernised the Museum, designing a workshop for the building of scientific instruments, as well as rooms for experimentation. Until the mid-19th century, much of the best scientific equipment in Europe was either built here, or brought to the Museum from abroad. The Lorraine collection includes apparatus from the Grand-Duke’s personal laboratory, as well as ornaments from his pharmacy.
In a room dedicated to medicine are housed a range of terracotta and wax models from the former Florentine hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. Those displaying abnormal foetal positions were once used for teaching obstetrics. Beside them is an extraordinary collection of late 18th century surgical instruments.
One of the outstanding features of the Accademia is its elegance. Even the more mundane of instruments have, at the very least, a refinement of style, reflecting a munificence of patronage. Scalpels and blades of dissection glisten, encrusted with diamonds and rubies; metal is inscribed with flowing script and entwined with patterns. Lions and unicorns engage in unending battle; dolphins and mythical sea-creatures frolic in rolling waves under billowing clouds. It is fascinating to remember how the foundations of modern knowledge were laid with these beautiful and delicate implements.
The Medieval and the Modern World
Medieval, Renaissance and Modern Florence surround this museum. Cobbled streets lead away form the Piazza de’ Guidici, peopled by locals intent on daily life. Elderly women in black pass carrying bags of vegetables from the local market while equally aged men sit, and over a cup of coffee and a glass of something a little more potent, solve the problems of the world. In the backstreets around the Uffizi, and across the Arno in the Oltrano, artisans continue practicing their craft as they have done for centuries.
In the midst of this eclectic mix, on the Via Vaccereccia lies the Erboristeria. An ancient herbalist shop, it specialises in soaps, perfumes and cosmetics made to ancient recipes still used by religious orders throughout Tuscany. With its fragrances and small pots, the shop conjures up images of monks and nuns brewing their potions, using herbs and plants to make medicines which were used for centuries. These religious orders played a vital role in the fostering of scientific growth from the Middle Ages through to the Renaissance, for their writings and studies helped preserve many works of the Ancients which might otherwise have been lost to the West. Their rediscovery help foster the rebirth of scientific thought, allowing men such as Galileo to open their minds and take the first steps towards the knowledge we possess today.