It is four hundred years since the Pisan-born Galileo Galileo found an object being sold as a toy in Venice which rather intrigued him. It consisted of a long tube with two magnifying lenses, one at either end. The possibilities which Galileo saw in this device led to the development of the telescope, and to accurate sky-gazing for the very first time – and, finally, to his condemnation by the Catholic Church for heresy, and house arrest until the end of his life.
Galileo’s own story is told in the final two galleries of this exhibition, which is being displayed in one of those ferociously indomitable-feeling Florentine palazzi. The rest of the show tells the story of the relationship between man and the heavens, from antiquity onwards. It is a vast exercise in brilliant, but slightly chilly and brain-numbing, no-holds-barred pedagogy, from first to last. There is always another wall text to read, and always another theme to wrestle with. Every room is crammed to the gills with objects: maps, books, cuneiform tablets, paintings, scientific instruments, star charts, astrolabes, orreries. The real rubs shoulders with the virtual. There are about two hundred and fifty objects here in all, but you wouldn’t know that from the arcane system used to number each one of them – which, incidentally, doesn’t seem to match the numbering system of the catalogue. Projections of the sky are projected onto ceilings. In spite of the fact that this is a sixteenth-century building, the show itself is contained – more constrained than contained - within a labyrinthine series of windowless, relatively low-lit and low-ceilinged rooms. Floors and walls are a glittery black. Everything feels pent and cornered and thrust forward, a-throb with scientific significance – like an unopened can of beans above a naked flame. The effect is dazzling - but also rather strangulatory. In spite of the fact that the spaces of the buildings itself have great processional possibilities – that was demonstrated quite recently in a show here devoted to objects from the T’ang Dynasty –here there is no sense of pacing at all, and when we do finally come across Galileo and evidence of his astonishing achievements in those final rooms, it comes as something of a shock – like suddenly meeting a human being on a corner in the middle of the night. We hadn’t known it was about to happen. And then, all of a sudden the exhibition ends, and you feel you have hit a brick wall, and are being kicked out into the street.
So, yes, Galileo himself is what, finally, sticks to us, and the objects associated with him, and his story, all of which are of enduring fascination – how he got the Medicis on his side, and then was finally forced to foreswear everything that he had ever done at the hands of the church. Here is the letter which describes his discovery of spots on the sun’s surface, and here is his objective lens, set within a wonderfully fussy frame of ivory, gilded brass and ebony. There is a touching element of bathos about this particular exhibit – the lens itself was dropped during Galileo’s own lifetime so, though stunning enough, you can see that it is in bits.
And yet, and yet, within a little over one hundred years, he was virtually a secular saint. A genius, when he falls, must rise again, some time. In 1737 his remains were exhumed, and his body moved to a monumental sepulchre in the Florentine church of Santa Croce. And his finger was placed inside a small glass reliquary. We can see that finger here, long, pointing upwards, leaning (like the tower of his natal place) and, understandably enough, somewhat shrunken. And then there is the telescope he used, beautifully embellished, and somewhat resembling a stout walking stick, and his letters and small, fussy, feverish calculations too, all in a quite dense brown ink. Undeniable traces of the real man. And then, on the wall, the text of what he said when he was finally forced, in 1633, to turn his back on himself, and everything that he had achieved in the name of knowledge, science and human understanding.
What could he have been thinking to himself when he read those words out loud to those stern-faced men who were so firmly faced away from the future?