Anyone who has ever been in Florence knows, the Tuscan city abounds in all kinds of “traces” left by Italian geniuses of the past. One such genius was the great scientist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who lived here for most of his life and died in his villa of Arcetri, a location on the hills of southern Florence where he was confined by the Inquisition. Today, Galileo rests in the Basilica di Santa Croce, alongside many other “Italian glories”. But there are some less crowded places in which his works and memories are also kept alive.
The first door you should knock on, if you are searching for some visible marks of Galileo’s enormous impact on the city, is the museum named after him. Situated just behind the Uffizi Gallery, in a charming square overlooking the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio, the entrance to Palazzo Castellani (which houses the Museo Galileo) is marked by the presence of a Monumental Sundial.
Formerly known as the “Institute and Museum for the History of Science”, it provides an extensive look at virtually all of the fields in which Galileo expressed his scientific genius, be it astronomy, physics, engineering, or mathematics. Each room includes ancient instruments and artifacts belonging to either the Medici Collections (16th–17th century) or the Lorraine Collections (18th–19th century), so as to carefully display the historical turning points in world science and especially Galileo’s leading role in it.
The central room of the museum is wholly devoted to him, with modern reproductions of some of his experiments on the concept of motion and on magnetic attraction. And yet Galileo did not become famous just for his revolutionary theories, but also because of his excellence in inventing new instruments, such as the geometric and military compasses, the telescope, or the thermoscope (hence the modern thermometer). Some of these objects – the only surviving ones by the scientist himself – are exhibited in this room, most notably two of his own telescopi and the original objective lens with which Galileo managed to discover the moons of Jupiter.
The genius quite literally left something of himself in this museum; a display case in the same room presents all visitors with the macabre but still somehow ironic sight of Galileo’s bony middle finger. Next to it, two other fingers and a tooth of his to complete this set of real “scientific relics”; a reminder of the saintly admiration with which Galileo has been adored by the scientific community since he first pointed those fingers to the sky.
As you leave the museum by way of the rooms showcasing virtual reproductions of Galileo’s theories and experiments, you’ll find how the sundial on the outside signals that much time has passed, but no matter the hour of the day, there is surely time enough to keep on searching for the traces this great genius left. In fact, cross the Arno and go for a ten-minute walk on the uphill lane called Costa di San Giorgio to find a little house in which Galileo lived for a short time.
Unfortunately, the interior is not available for visits, but you can nonetheless take a look at the pictured facade of the house, on which a portrait of the scientist appears.
For those who would like to learn more about Galileo, the best choice at this point would be to take a bus to Arcetri. Here, you will find another, more refined dwelling known either as Villa Il Gioiello (literally, “The Jewel”) or as Villa Galileo: it is the place where the great scientist served his house arrest during his last ten years. In this simple-facaded, U-shaped building – now belonging to the University of Florence – Galileo kept on writing about his scientific theories until his death, even though he had by then become blind; it was from here that he probably last looked up to the sky!
It is not by chance that on the same hill, not far from this awe-inspiring sight, now stands the ultimate modern tribute to the Tuscan scientist; by 1872, an important astrophysical observatory had been built here. Surrounded by a quiet park in which a scale model of the solar system has also been reconstructed, the Arcetri Observatory thus offers the best place to pay homage to Galileo’s genius with a simple visit and a closer look at the stars.
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Tony Moglia's grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's. He's a dual citizen who has traveled extensively throughout Italy for 40 years. He's happily married to a vibrant dancer who together have two children and three grandchildren. Tony has dreamed of Villas of Italy since his first trip to Italy, and now he shares his dream with you.