Planet Earth exists at the center of the solar system, the sun and other celestial bodies revolving around it. That was the “geocentric” model of the solar system, the common understanding during the Renaissance. In the 15th century, Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a radically new model. Copernicus described a “heliocentric” model of the universe, placing the sun at the center, with the earth and other bodies revolving around the sun.
Copernicus resisted the publication of his ideas until the end of his life, fearing that they would offend the religious Interests of the time. Legend has it that he was presented with an advance copy of his “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) as he awakened on his death bed from a stroke induced coma. He took one look at his book, closed his eyes, and never opened them again.
The Italian physicist, mathematician, and astronomer Galileo Galilei, came along about a hundred years later. Galileo has been called the “father of modern observational astronomy”, the “father of modern physics”, and “the Father of Modern Science”. His improvements to the telescope and resulting astronomical observations supported Copernicus’ heliocentric view. They also brought him to the attention of the Roman Inquisition.
Biblical references such as, “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” (Psalm 104:5) and “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5) became the basis for religious objections to the heliocentric view. Galileo was brought before inquisitor Vincenzo Maculani for trial in 1633. The astronomer backpedaled before the inquisition, testifying in his fourth deposition of June 21, 1633, that “I do not hold this opinion of Copernicus, and I have not held it after being ordered by injunction to abandon it. For the rest, here I am in your hands; do as you please”.
The Inquisition forced Galileo to “abjure, curse, & detest” his Copernican heliocentric views, returning him to his villa in 1634 to spend the rest of his life under house arrest. Galileo died on January 8, 1642, wishing to be buried in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and ancestors. His final wishes were denied at the time, though they would be honored 95 years later. Galileo Galilei was re-interred in the basilica, in 1737.
Often, atmospheric conditions in these burial vaults lead to a natural mummification of the corpse. Sometimes they look almost lifelike. When it came to the saints, believers took this to be proof of the incorruptibility of these individuals, and small body parts were taken as holy relics.
The custom was quite old when Galileo was reinterred in 1737. Galileo is not now and never was a Saint of the Catholic church, though it’s possible the condition of his body made him appear thus “incorruptible”. Anton Francesco Gori removed the thumb, index and middle fingers on March 12, 1737, an act which would have been very much in keeping with the customs of the times. The digits with which Galileo wrote down his theories of the cosmos. The digits with which he adjusted his telescope.
Be that as it may, the middle finger from Galileo’s right hand is on exhibit at the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy, to this day. The only human fragment in a museum otherwise devoted to scientific instruments.
There is symbolism there, if only I could put my finger on it.