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4th Watson Seminar in the History of Material and Visual Science
Savant Relics: Brains and Remains of Scientists
4th Watson Seminar in the History of Material and Visual Science

Organized by Marco Beretta, Maria Conforti, Paolo Mazzarello in cooperation with the Museo Galileo
University of Pavia, Pavia, September 4th, 2015

Well known stories such as Cicero’s discovery of Archimedes’ tombstone in Syracuse and Pliny the Younger’s report of the heroic death of his uncle near the Vesuvius during the 79 AD eruption, illustrate the efforts of the ancients to portray natural scientists as heroes. However, it was much later, well into the Renaissance, that the aura surrounding a distinguished scientist was translated into the collecting of his bodily relics. Mostly treated as curious oddities by historians, the meaning of the display of the relics of scientists are quite difficult to decipher. In the European culture, the preservation and cult of relics (of the Cross, of Christ, of the martyrs and the Saints) have been a substantial part of Christian worship and are to be seen against late antique and early medieval fears of dismemberment and narratives on resuscitation and recomposition of bodies. Their role was both to perpetuate the memory of a Saint and to emanate the power of healing the souls and bodies of the pilgrims. The tension between memory and miracle, embodied in the material presence of the relic, conveyed a hypnotic authority which alluded to the pervasiveness of the spiritual dimension. During the Reformation, Protestants reacted against the cult of relics as to a sign of superstition and irrationality. As also happened to the cult of Saints, this was undermined and condemned. By all accounts, then, the intellectual context of religious relics could have not been more alien to the way of reasoning of the natural scientists. The magnificent reliquary of Galileo’s finger, identical in shape to those in use in Catholic rites and exhibits, shows that this was not the case. In fact, a parallel culture of ‘lay’ relics was created, where the remains of the scientists were revered as physical symbols of a new ritual mostly aimed at celebrating the immortality of scientific genius.

In contrast to what we may assume, relics of scientists are numerous and the practice of preserving and studying them covers a surprisingly long period, from the late Medieval time to the mid- Twentieth century. What inspired then natural scientists or the public of the curious and savants to preserve the bodies of their ancestors or scientific heroes as relics? Which was the role of these relics within scientific culture? Motivations varied and included commemorative rituals; strategies to perpetuate memory; establishing the superiority of eminent scientists by investigating the size and anatomy of their brains phrenology onwards; the institutionalization of the offering to the fellow scientists the corpse for scientific purposes; last but not least the fear of being buried alive, that had become an obsession in 18th century Europe.



9 Welcome addresses

9.15-9.30 Marco Beretta (Università di Bologna): Opening remarks

9.30-10.15 Matteo Martelli (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin): Tombs of Ancient Alchemists, Physicians, and Natural Philosophers between East and West. Commentator Brigitte Van Tiggelen (Chemical Heritage Foundation – Europe)

10.15-11 Stefano Gattei (IMT Lucca): From Banned mortal Remains to Worshipped Relics of a Martyr of Science: The Beginning of the Galileo Myth. Commentator John Heilbron (Oxford University)

11-11.30 Coffee break

11.30-12.15 Rob Iliffe (University of Sussex): The Mask of Isaac Newton: Secular Hagiography and the Creation of Genius. Commentator Rebekah Higgitt (University of Kent)

12.15-13 General discussion

13-15 Pause

15-15.45 Ludmilla Jordanova (Durham University): Science, Memory and Relics in Britain. Commentator Anna Maerker (King’s College London)

15.45-16.30 Valentina Cani (Università di Pavia): Pavia’s Relics of Notable Scientists: A Journey between Science and Scientific Mythology. Commentator Francesco De Ceglia (Università di Bari)

16.30-17.15 Silvano Montaldo (Università di Torino): Between Positivism and Nationalism: The Relics of 19th century Scientists. Commentator Maria Carla Gadebusch Bondio (Technische Universität München)

17.15-18 General discussion and conclusive remarks



Admission is free. For registration and other information contact Mrs Marta Daffara marta.daffara@pragmacongressi.it