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  • Galileo’s Telescope: A European Story by Massimo Bucciantini, Michele Camerota, and Franco Giudice
  • Nick Wilding
Galileo’s Telescope: A European Story. By Massimo Bucciantini, Michele Camerota, and Franco Giudice (Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press, 2015) 352pp. $35.00

“This is a crime story” opens this impressively researched and enjoyable book (4). Readers might be forgiven for assuming that the criminal is Galileo, who was issued a warning by the Church in 1616 and charged with “vehement suspicion of heresy” in 1633. But in this whodunnit (plot-spoiler alert!), the detectives are not inquisitors but historians, and the crime is not Galileo’s but the Church’s.

Bucciantini, Camerota, and Giudice wrote their history like a film noir thriller: Sections often begin like police procedurals or movie story-boards (“Bologna, April 25, 1610, a Sunday”), and the crime itself unfolds [End Page 249] slowly and visually. Not until the final page does what was really at stake all along become clear—religion's restraint on modernity, understood as scientific liberty. The approach of Galileo’s Telescope to this familiar conclusion is, however, anything but teleological. The account is structured geographically. Each chapter charts the transformation, movement, and agency of its main actors—variously Galileo, the telescope, and his 1610 book the Sidereus Nuncius—all of them announcing to the world the terrestrial nature of the moon, the existence of satellites orbiting Jupiter, and (by an analogy doubtful to many contemporaries) the planetary nature of the earth.

The story moves from The Hague, where the first spyglass was demonstrated; to Venice and Padua, where Galileo assembled the skills to become an expert at grinding new kinds of lenses; to Bologna, where he failed to replicate his observations before a group of peers; to Prague, where Johannes Kepler accepted them without replication; to Wales and England, Paris, Provence, Milan, Florence, and Rome; and, ultimately, in a too-brief final chapter, to China. Central to this inquiry are the ways in which Galileo’s observations, mainly as described in the Sidereus, were contested in different places: Some people merely could not see what he saw; most people did not understand what they saw in the manner that he understood it.

The authors effectively use a wealth of new documentation to tease out the philosophical, political, and theological rivalries motivating the resistance against which Galileo had to maneuver and shove. They show us the impressive depictions of early telescopes by Pieter Breughels and shopping lists of lens-polishing equipment. They take us into archives that rarely have figured in previous accounts of this story and make new discoveries in those thought to be exhausted. But they also miss a few opportunities; for instance, they make no mention of Needham’s recent census of copies of the Sidereus that reveals much about its early distribution.1 They also make a few mistakes: William Gilbert does not praise Paolo Sarpi in his De Magnete (1600), which is erroneously ascribed to Sarpi in the index (35). Galileo’s account of demonstrating the telescope “reads more like the screenplay for a Chaplin comedy than an actual report” for good reason (38–39); it probably is not authentic. Most likely, the Sidereus did not “sell out” in six days (84); it was on its way, wholesale, to the Frankfurt book fair. The book contains no “engravings,” only etchings and woodcuts.

A larger problem concerns the book’s subtitle—A European Story (the authors report that they thought of calling the book Another World: Galileo’s Telescope: A European Story [5]). But what happened to the rest of this world? The final chapter gestures toward a larger context in its fine reconstruction of the Jesuit channels of information that led to the announcement of Galileo’s observations in China, the Tian Wen Lüe [End Page 250] (1615). Similar case studies, however, might have followed the telescope to Isfahan (1612?), Hirado (1613), Brazil (1614), Peru (1615), Jahangir (1615), Sumatra (1619), Bermuda (1620), Havana (1626), Istanbul (1631), Haiti (1635), Cairo (1635), and other destinations. Granted, some of these iterations were maritime, not astronomical, telescopes, but the point still holds that Europe is not an adequate framework within which to...


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pp. 249-251
Launched on MUSE
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