Fragments of Secular Sanctity

Something strange is afoot in Italy. Last week I reported on the recent discovery and reinstallation of Copernicus’ head in the Frombork Cathedral in Poland. Signaling its accommodation to modern science, the Church installed Copernicus’ remains with great ceremony, and a new grave marker displaying an image of his heliocentric solar system. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), so it would seem, is now a dear friend of the Church.

Now a similar-sounding story has surfaced, this time involving Galileo (1564-1642). Two of his fingers (three, actually) are to be placed on public display, along with one of his teeth, in the newly refurbished Museum of the History of Science in Florence.

How did that happen?

It would appear that when Galileo’s remains were moved from their temporary resting place to a permanent tomb in 1737, then three of his fingers (allegedly the same ones he used to hold his heretical pen) were removed, along with the last tooth in his lower jaw. This strange imitation of the Late Antique and medieval Christian practice of collecting body parts of the saints poses several eminently modern questions.

One of these fingers went on display in the Florence museum in 1927, but the rest of these weirdly secular relics went missing, apparently, so that all trace of the glass reliquary that held them was lost after 1905.

The jar containing two fingers and a tooth were allegedly rediscovered recently and purchased anonymously at auction, by someone who did not recognize their significance, then donated them to the Florentine museum.

Now the questions posed by such a story are legion. Why were the fingers separated? Why also steal a tooth? How did they come to be lost, and how were they found? Who put them up for auction, and why? Why would anyone buy them? And how do we know them to be Galileo’s? Unlike the situation with Copernicus’ remains, there does not seem to be enough material in these poor relics to perform a DNA analysis. Yet the museum’s director, Paolo Galluzzi, has faith; he insists that “all the story is so convincing I cannot think of a reason not to believe it.”

The director might be encouraged to think a bit harder.

Now there are easy cynical interpretations of what is going on here. The beleaguered Catholic Church is trying desperately to show itself fully in step with modern values, despite the recent scandals. That is why Galileo was originally rehabilitated by Pope John Paul II in 1992. And in times of economic crisis, any way to create a new pilgrimage site provides a welcome boost to the local economy, whether in Poland or in Tuscany.

But the Church is not doing it, this time; a museum of modern science is. Galileo’s relics are to be housed, not in a cathedral, but in a public museum. That is why I am not sure whether this is a story about religion, or about science, or about art. Perhaps it is a story about something else entirely, a curious and half-hidden alternation between the sacred and profane.

This is partly a story about the modern museum.

The first modern public art museum in the world was opened to the public in 1734, in Rome, just three years before the alleged theft of Galileo’s suspect digits. This was the Capitoline Museum, funded by the Vatican and created by order of Pope Clement XII. It was a museum in our sense of that word—anyone, male or female, could purchase a ticket on any day the museum was open, and wander freely among the nude statues of pagan deities. Then, just twenty years later in 1754, Pope Benedict XIV created the “Naked Academy” (l’Accademia del Nudo) inside the very palace where the Capitoline collection was housed. The idea was to promote the fine arts, by providing a space in which contemporary artists could sketch the naked human form, both from  Classical statues and live models. But that was all taking place near the old Roman Forum, the heart of the ancient profane city on the other side of town from the sanctity of Saint Peter’s.

Less than a decade later in 1761, Benedict’s successor, Clement XIII, ordered the creation of a Profane Museum (Museo Profano) inside the Vatican itself. This is all very early, fully a generation before the explosion of Classical art museums in other European capitals, and virtually all of these later museums were modeled on their Vatican predecessor.

Two things are worth noting about this novel creation at the Vatican. First, there is the matter of the Greek name: museum. A mouseion is a “shrine to the Muses,” and this casual flirtation with pagan form was actually central to the Church’s bold new plans. If they worried about the images of the universe that modern science was painting, they expressed no such concern about pagan images of the human and divine form. Art had become a matter of inspiration, pure and simple, well before science also began to serve that same need.

The modern public art museums that were soon to change the European brainscape had another interesting feature. They very quickly became the places where statues were placed on display as if they were real bodies, and real human bodies were placed on display as if they were statues.

Visual materials were detached from textual materials, public museums were detached from private libraries, the profane was detached from the sacred, and Art declared its independence from Religion.

This created a whole new way of seeing, a new and distinctively modern culture of display, and a subtly religious perspective where the line separating real bodies from visual imitations began to blur. We live in that world of hybrid forms still today. The body is a site of conflict as well as a source of uncanny cultural production.  

So the body parts of the paradigmatic “man of science” are to be placed on public display, not in a church, but in an eminently modern and entirely new kind of gazing house, a museum. This is not to suggest that religion, like Galileo’s fingers, has gone missing in the modern period; it just went elsewhere. Religion’s inspirational energies have been dispersed into novel institutions, like public art museums.

So Galileo’s seesaw career takes us from his creation of a new way of seeing ourselves in space, to the Church’s demand that he recant those troubling world pictures, to the papal reversal that rehabilitated the man and his theories just two decades ago. In the Church, out of the Church, and halfway back again.

The seesaw story of Galileo’s body takes us from the house arrest in which he died, to a temporary burial in 1642, to his disinterment a century later when three fingers and a tooth were removed, to their eventual placement on display in a public museums. In a tomb, out of a tomb, and halfway back again.

If you want to understand the strange story of religion, science and art in the modern period, then public museums may well be the thing to put our fingers on.