Prized Galileo manuscript turns out to be fake, university says

Prized Galileo manuscript turns out to be fake, university says

Prized Galileo manuscript turns out to be fake, university says

For nearly a century, the library at the University of Michigan had proudly displayed the so-called “Galileo Manuscript” – a document believed to have been written by the famous astronomer Galileo Galilei. Now it has been revealed to be a fake.

The university recently announced that the one-page document, described as one of the “jewels” in the collection, appears to have been written in the 20th century, rather than 1609, as previously thought.

The library launched an internal investigation after Nick Wilding, a history professor at Georgia State University and author of a forthcoming biography of Galileo, expressed “serious doubts about its authenticity.” Wilding was known to expose similar forgeries.

According to the university, the fake document was likely written by prolific Italian forger Tobia Nicotra. Nicotra spent two years in prison in 1934 for forgery, which included forging Galileo documents, the university said.

Wilding had specifically questioned the watermark and provenance, and the school said his evidence was “compelling”, reaching a similar conclusion. Officials found no other documents with the same “BMO” watermark, which referred to the Italian city of Bergamo, before 1770. In addition, they found “no trace” of the manuscript’s existence before 1930.

The document contains drafts that refer to Galileo’s presentation of a new telescope to the Doge of Venice on 24 August 1609 and his observations of Jupiter using a telescope in January 1610. It was these observations that led to his discovery of Jupiter’s moons, and marked the first time observational data showed celestial bodies orbiting a body other than Earth.

The discovery disproved the theory that everything in the universe orbited our planet, and laid the foundation for modern astronomy. “It reflects a pivotal moment in Galileo’s life that helped change our understanding of the universe,” the university wrote of the notes.

The final, genuine version of the first half of the manuscript is in the State Archives in Venice. The real notes on Jupiter’s moon are part of the Sidereus Nuncius Dossier at Florence’s National Central Library.

This undated file photo shows an etching of the astronomer Galileo Galilei.  / Credit: AP Photo

This undated file photo shows an etching of the astronomer Galileo Galilei. / Credit: AP Photo

The forged manuscript was acquired by Detroit businessman and collector Tracy McGregor in May 1934 from the auction firm American Art Anderson Galleries, the university said. The auction catalog had noted that it was authenticated by Cardinal Pietro Maffi, the Archbishop of Pisa.

After his death, McGregor’s trustees bequeathed the manuscript to the University of Michigan in 1938, where it has resided ever since.

The school is “now reassessing the manuscript’s role in our collection”. In the future, “it may come to serve the research, learning and teaching interests in the arena of forgeries, forgeries and fraud,” the library said.

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