Home > NunciusNewsletter n.6 / December 10, 2012 > Book Reviews on the History of Science
Book Reviews on the History of Science

Horst Bredekamp (ed.), Galileo's O, vol. I: Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius. A Comparison of the Proof Copy (New York) with Other Paradigmatic Copies, edited by Irene Brückle and Oliver Hahn; vol. II: Paul Needham, Galileo Makes a Book. The First Edition of Sidereus Nuncius, Venice 1610, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2011, pp. 192, 249; ISBN 978-3-05-005095-9


Sidereus Nuncius, published in Venice in 1610, gathered Galileo's observations of the Moon and the Milky Way, showed that Jupiter had satellites, and created a new framework for questions of cosmology. As Galileo himself fully realized, it marked a sharp break: before the publication of Sidereus Nuncius, heliocentrism was a mere mathematical hypothesis, possibly more absurd and bizarre than others, and therefore not a dangerous one – so much so, that the Church did not even consider it worth condemning. After its publication, the reality of the Copernican hypothesis could nearly be "touched" by human hands, and heliocentrism achieved a public, and therefore political, dimension. With all that followed: the suspension of De revolutionibus, the trial of Galileo and, in the end, the affirmation of a new astronomy.

This revolutionary slim book presented five lunar etchings (from four plates, one repeated), showing a surface whose rugged, pocked appearance contradicted the teaching that heavenly bodies were smooth, ethereal spheres. Most of the 550 copies of the first edition had the etchings; around 30, however, never had them printed and present blank spaces in their stead. In 2005, a potentially extraordinary copy of the book appeared in New York. Labelled "ML" (after the initials of its owners, antiquarian booksellers Seyla Martayan and Richard Lan), it bore five bistre sketches instead of the lunar etchings. These five brown-coloured drawings "were created by a confident hand working rapidly, and are more complex in the technical details of their execution than the Florentine drawings" (p. 41).

For sure, the ML copy elicits attention, and from many points of view. Both historians of art and of books as material objects may profit form a careful examination of it; if its washes prove to be genuine, it may provide some clues as to the printing stages of Sidereus Nuncius; and whether it will be proved to be original or a modern forgery, it will remain a highly collectible object (even though its commercial value may vary considerably, of course). But it is of little significance for the historians of science: the extraordinary technological and financial means employed in its study, which the two volumes here under review beautifully display, do eventually convey little additional information to our knowledge of the role played by Sidereus Nuncius in the Scientific Revolution, and do – at least in part – give the reader an impression of losing the forest for a tree.

Horst Bredekamp provided a first, in-depth study of the ML copy as part of his Galilei der Künstler. Der Mond, die Sonne, Die Hand (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2007, pp. 101-216; revised edition, 2009). There, he argued that the sketches are in Galileo's own hand, and that the ML copy documents a stage in the printing process. Previously, the printed etchings were generally considered to be based on the figures in a letter to an unknown correspondent, dated 7 January 1610 (Le opere di Galileo Galilei, vol. 10, no. 259, pp. 273-278), and on the bistre drawings preserved in the National Central Library of Florence among Galileo's papers. One of Bredekamp's central claims, by contrast, is that the Florentine drawings were actually disconnected from the printing history of the book, and were done at a later stage, after more detailed telescopic observations, which led Galileo to partially correct his interpretation of the Moon surface (the drawings in the Florentine bifolium, in particular, do not show the emphatic and erroneous depiction of the crater Albategnius, in the lower part of the terminator, whose size appears exaggerated in both the printed etchings and the washes of the ML copy).

Bredekamp's conclusions were subsequently challenged by Owen Gingerich in "The Curious Case of the M-L Sidereus Nuncius" (Galilæana, 6, 2009, pp. 141-165), who questioned the authenticity of the illustrations, pointing out that the lunar phases depicted in the ML copy would not have been visible during the short period between the printing of the book and the making of the etchings. In a detailed rejoinder, William R. Shea examined Gingerich's extensive critique, arguing for the soundness of Bredekamp's arguments and the authenticity of the ML washes ("Owen Gingerich's Curious Case", Galilæana, 7, 2010, pp. 97-110). The detailed and richly illustrated books here under review present the latest contributions to the printing history of Sidereus Nuncius and the authenticity of the New York copy, supporting Bredekamp's earlier findings.

The first volume opens with an account of Federico Cesi's library, which the team of experts coordinated by Bredekamp believe originally housed the ML copy. This initial essay sets the stage for the following chapters, which assemble the results of the interdisciplinary work conducted by a research team of German, Austrian, Italian and American scholars. The various contributions divide into six parts. The first deals with details of the ML copy, particularly the signature inscription ("Io Galileo Galilei f[eci]", "I, Galileo Galilei, [made this]") written at the bottom of the title page, the ink used for the signature and the washes, and the drawing process. Bredekamp's conclusions are clear-cut: the signature inscription "is so inseparably connected to Galileo's style of writing that its authenticity is beyond doubt" (p. 38); and the resemblances between the ML copy and the Florentine drawings "are so many and so subtle that they are evidence that the two series are depictions from Galileo's own hand" (p. 54). The second part of the book presents photographs of the individual pages of the ML copy; the third discusses the function of the drawings in relation to the printed etchings; the fourth examines a number of pertinent features in the printed copies (the paper, the letterpress printing inks, the page layout and the watermarks in selected copies); the fifth, Bredekamp's afterword, embeds the foregoing analyses into a broader picture. Finally, a few appendices provide selected information.

The second volume is the description of the composition and printing of Sidereus Nuncius, from the point of view of the material history of the book. The body of information and documentation on Galileo's masterpiece is unusually extensive for an early-modern printed text, and much of what is known comes from Galileo's own pen. In a few letters he states the edition size and describes his hopes that the dedication to Cosimo II would procure him a well-rewarded and prestigious appointment as philosopher and mathematician to the Tuscan court. Also, we possess Galileo's heavily reworked autograph draft of Sidereus Nuncius (allowing, in principle, a detailed comparison between the original text and its printed version); an incomplete autograph "fair copy" (so-called), whose role in the transmission of the text has not hitherto been analyzed; and the autograph notes of Galileo's daily telescopic observations of Jupiter. Taking all this material into account, Paul Needham, librarian at the (privately-owned) Scheide Library, associated with the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of Princeton University, provides an exceptionally detailed and in-depth picture of Galileo as author and maker of books, laying considerable emphasis on the physical production of Sidereus Nuncius – an aspect which remained rather neglected in the huge and ever growing literature on Galileo. In particular, Needham considerably develops previous accounts of the making of the book, especially Owen Gingerich and Albert Van Helden's ("From Occhiale to Printed Page: The Making of Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius", Journal for the History of Astronomy, 34, 2003, pp. 251-267), by deepening the physical evidence provided by various copies of the printed book and by a close scrutiny of the relation of the printed text to Galileo's preceding draft, "fair copy" and sketches.

"A printed book is, scale apart, a structured material object in much the way that a building is. Without some knowledge of the materials and human actions that produced (in multiple copies) the structure of a printed book, theories about the textual interrelations and peculiarities of that book have a high probability of going wrong, even of being physically impossible" (p. 19). Prompted by this consideration, Needham takes the reader into a tour de force through the different papers with which different copies were produced and their respective watermarks, the printing materials, the book design and layout. He examines the extensive autograph papers documenting Galileo's preparation and illustration of the text, carefully considering each and every quire of the book through the composition stages. The extraordinary breadth of the author's knowledge of the material history of books makes this second volume a fascinating and compelling reading to anyone interested in the history of early-modern science and its circulation.

Various studies (further to the above-mentioned ones, Guglielmo Righini's "New Light on Galileo's Lunar Observations", in Reason, Experiment and Mysticism in the Scientific Revolution, edited by Maria Luisa Bonelli and William R. Shea, New York: Science History Publications, 1975, pp. 59-76; Gingerich's "Dissertatio cum Professore Righini et Sidereo Nuncio", ibidem, pp. 77-88; Stillman Drakes' "Galileo's First telescopic Observations", Journal for the History of Astronomy, 7, 1976, pp. 153-168; and Ewan Whitaker's "Galileo's Lunar Observations and the Dating of the Composition of Sidereus Nuncius", Journal for the History of Astronomy, 9, 1978, pp. 155-169; not to mention David Wootton's recent "New Light on the Composition and Publication of Sidereus Nuncius", Galilæana, 6, 2009, pp. 123-140, which, according to Needham, conflicts at several points with the physical evidence of Galileo's draft) have disputed and refined the presumed dates of the lunar images in the Florentine bifolium, but all agreed that these represent the Moon as Galileo viewed it through his telescope on specific evenings, and that such drawings were the sources for the etchings in the printed book. By Bredekamp's analysis, however, the Florentine drawings – which are authentically by Galileo's hand, a question Bredekamp was the first to pursue in detail, whereas other scholars simply took it for granted – are unrelated to the making of the printed Sidereus Nuncius, having been made some time after its publication, when Galileo had already moved to Florence from Padua.

Needham's analysis – careful text exegesis combined with the study of the physical features of the book (the paper stock(s) of the copy, its typographic settings, and the manner in which its settings were printed on its paper supply) – fully supports both Bredekamp's theses, on the role of the Florentine sketches as well as on that of the ML pen and wash drawings: "Regardless of when it was made – a question that perhaps has not been exhausted – the Seven-Moon Bifolium does not figure directly in the creation of Sidereus Nuncius. Much closer to the Sidreus Nuncius etchings are the sketches, unfortunately not preserved in their originals, that Galileo supplied in his 7 January letter" (p. 99). The ML copy, Needham continues, "is a proof copy: that is, it was assembled from a series of proof printings" (p. 173).

It would be extremely interesting to go into some details of Bredekamp's, Needham's and the group of experts' arguments. A lot may indeed be learned – on Galileo, on his masterpiece, as well as on the material history of science – from this extraordinary meeting of scholars with expertises as different as the history of science, the history of art, and the history of book and printing. However, a sword of Damocles hangs over these two beautifully produced and carefully argued volumes. For, in the past few months, Nick Wilding (Department of History, Georgia State University) has convincingly argued that the ML copy of Sidereus Nuncius, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, is, in fact, a modern forgery. Minor details – he said in an interview to The New York Times on August 11, 2012 – made him question the authenticity of the ML copy. Indeed, Wilding noticed striking similarities between the title pages of the ML copy and that of another copy of Sidereus Nuncius published in a 2005 catalogue from Sotheby's. What should have been random ink blots were identical to deeply impressed marks in the New York ML copy (in fact, its very deep impression was one of the features that encouraged Bredekamp and his team): one hovers over the body of the second letter "L" in Galileo's name, where a misplaced type full-stop could not physically exist. In addition, one of the words of the title page, "periodis", was changed into "pepiodis", as though the pages of the ML copy were uncorrected proof copies; but the body of a letter "p" is wider than an "r", so the "p" touches the "i" in a way impossible with types (the only way in which printers could make letters touch was to cast ligatures, but this is no standard ligature at all). Furthermore, the (fading) oval stamp printed in black, with a spotted lynx in the centre facing left, surrounded by a legend in a double frame – the stamp, that is, indicating that the book belonged to Prince Federico Cesi's library – shows at least a couple of tiny but relevant differences from other stamps, recognized as genuine, to be found on various other books. And there is something even more wrong, so to say. One letter in both copies had the same blotch on its foot: this blotch is not to be seen in any genuine copy, but can be found in a facsimile edition published in 1964, which was produced from a copy that had a brown mark on paper next to the foot of the letter; this was later transformed, by a black-and-white photograph, into a printed blotch – thus proving to Wilding that the ML and the Sotheby's copies were both forgeries based on the 1964 facsimile. On the basis of such material evidence – as well as on several other elements Wilding has been gathering in the past few months and first publicly presented at a conference in Menaggio, on the lake of Como, on September 5, 2012 – the authenticity of the ML copy and its washes, the careful analysis described in the two-volume set notwithstanding, is far from "beyond doubt" (what is certainly beyond doubt, of course, is Bredekamp's, Needham's and all other experts' honesty and good faith, as well as their being totally unaware of the forgers' fraudulent manoeuvres).

Even more sad and disturbing – especially for an Italian like myself – is the fact that the ML copy, along with Sotheby's copy and at least two copies of another exceedingly rare Galileo book, Le operazioni del compasso geometrico, et militare (1606), all of which suddenly appeared on the antiquarian book market a few years ago and proved to be modern forgeries, apparently share an Italian provenance, and a connection to the scandalous despoiling of the Girolamini Library, in Naples, by the very people who had been charged with keeping it safe.

Stefano Gattei
IMT Institute for Advanced Studies, Lucca