Michelangelo's David is just a big naked guy carved in marble. This may sound dismissive but poor David has the misfortune of sharing tourists with a truly spectacular relic of the renaissance. The travel agents won't tell you about it but in a tiny brick building a few blocks away they've got Galileo's finger in a jar.

Only the bone remains after 360 years so it's not as nasty as it sounds but the morbidity of the memento has kept it out of the tourist brochures. The finger is on permanent display at the Museo di Storia del la Scienza (Museum of History of Science) in Florence, Italy. The middle digit of the great man's right hand points heavenward from its marble pedestal next to a display of his rudimentary leather telescopes.

A scientific cult had formed around Galileo during his life and grew with his passing. He became a symbol of defiance to the Roman Catholic Church's divine authority in general and the Spanish Inquisition in particular. It is sad to note that in his last brush with Papal authority he was made to recant his beliefs to avoid being burned at the stake for heresy. He was sentenced to live out his days in shame, under house arrest in his own home.

Controversy over his various heresies prevented his burial within the church for nearly a century after his death. His body was kept in a small closet next to the chapel until the church granted him partial forgiveness and a mausoleum was built in the main body of the church of Santa Croce. Anton Francesco Gori snapped the finger off Galileo's body when his remains were transferred to the permanent crypt.

In 1979 Pope John Paul II requested that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences conduct an investigation into the case against Galileo. On October 31, 1992 the Roman Catholic Church lifted the verdict of heresy against the man who had been dead for more than 350 years.

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Hand tooled leather telescopes sitting next to the actual finger that created them will captivate the casual observer. The poet will be moved to tears watching the great man point posthumously toward the heavens that he himself first revealed. Galileo's finger holds the greatest appeal, however, to the student of history. The modern symbolism of the extended middle finger predates Galileo by more than a hundred years so the macabre exhibit is really bawdy historical subtext.

The curator of the museum gave me a sly smile when I asked whether the finger was intentionally aimed toward Rome.



A photograph of Galileo's finger can be found here


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