Florence, Museo Galileo - June 7, 2013


F for Fakes - Hoaxes, Counterfeits and Deception in Early Modern Science

Organized by Marco Beretta and Maria Conforti

The forgery or falsification of objects, as well as the creation or invention of artifacts consciously – if deceitfully – attributed to the remote or recent past, has long been an object of enquiry for historians, and especially for philologists and art historians. Images and texts are in fact among the most common hoaxes.


On the contrary, the role of ‘falses’ in the history of science, while anecdotically known for specific cases, has hardly been addressed as a general question, especially as regards the early modern age. Fakes and forgeries, as well as the alteration of data, have probably been perceived, especially by Whiggish narratives of science, as a shattering infringement of the tacit assumption that science is constant pursue of truth. While sciences dealing with mathematical methods, such as astronomy or physics, are seemingly more easily protected from the dangers and incursions of conscious or interested producers of false instruments or results, hoaxes have been frequent, even common, in fields such as zoology, botany, earth sciences, anatomy – and obviously in the disciplines broadly or loosely connected with antiquarianism. ‘False’ artifacts have been bought, collected, displayed and have often contributed to myths and legends, as well as to scientific ‘mistakes.’


The production of false objects (including texts) represents an answer to different needs, and their quality and number arguably may tell us many things about social contexts, artisanal practices, the construction and sharing of knowledge and the notion of creativity in different periods and places. The notion of expertise has recently become a focus for science historians, especially as concerns the medical and pharmaceutical disciplines, but it is still to be addressed as a central notion even for sciences and knowledge where expert learning and experience are seemingly subject to normative and more stringent laws, such as mechanics, engineering, chemistry.


A special attention will be given to the use of fakes both for ideological or religious purposes and for the building and enforcing of ‘scientific’ theories. Questions of trust and of the social value of science and learning are obviously crucial for the evaluation, acceptance, and exposing of hoaxes, fakes and false results. However, far from endorsing a simplistic ‘constructivist’ notion of the sciences in the early modern age, the workshop (following Nuncius’ line of enquiry) will specifically address questions such as the conditions and techniques of production, in general the ‘material’ history of false objects. One of the questions to be addressed will be the role played by ‘fakes’ in shaping learning and knowledge.


The topics will be chosen so as to cover a chronology spanning from the Renaissance to the early modern age and the scientific revolution, and a broad range of scientific fields and disciplines, with a special attention to specific case-histories.