Prize-winning Galileo manuscript turns out to be a forgery, university says

For nearly a century, the University of Michigan library has proudly displayed the so-called “Galilean Manuscript” — a document believed to have been written by famed astronomer Galileo Galilei. Now, it has been revealed to be a fake.

The university recently announced that the one-page document, described as one of the “jewels” of its collection, appears to have been written in the 20th century, and not in 1609, as previously believed.

The library launched an internal investigation after Nick Wilding, a history professor at Georgia State University and author of a forthcoming biography of Galileo, expressed “serious doubts about its authenticity.” Wilding was known for exposing similar forgeries.

According to the university, the forged document was likely written by prolific Italian forger Tobia Nicotra. Nicotra spent two years in prison in 1934 for forgery, which included forging Galileo documents, the university said.

Wilding had specifically challenged the watermark and its provenance, and the school said his evidence was “compelling,” reaching a similar conclusion. Officials found no other documents with the same “BMO” watermark, mentioning the Italian city of Bergamo, before 1770. In addition, they found “no trace” of the manuscript’s existence before 1930.

The document contains drafts referring to Galileo’s presentation of a new telescope to the Doge of Venice on 24 August 1609 and his observations Zeus using a telescope in January 1610. It was these observations that led to the discovery of Jupiter’s moons, marking the first time that observational data showed celestial objects orbiting a body other than Earth.

The discovery dispelled the theory that everything in the universe revolved around our planet, laying the foundation for modern astronomy. “It reflects a pivotal moment in Galileo’s life that helped change our understanding of the universe,” the university wrote of the notes.

The final, original version of the first half of the manuscript is in the State Archives of Venice. The actual notes on Jupiter’s moon are part of the Sidereus Nuncius folder in the National Central Library of Florence.

This undated file image shows an engraving of the astronomer Galileo Galilei.  / Credit: AP Photo

This undated file image shows an engraving of the astronomer Galileo Galilei. / Credit: AP Photo

The forged manuscript was acquired by Detroit businessman and collector Tracy McGregor in May 1934 from the American Art auction house Anderson Galleries, the university said. The auction catalog noted that it had been authenticated by Cardinal Pietro Maffi, the archbishop of Pisa.

After his death, McGregor’s executors bequeathed the manuscript to the University of Michigan in 1938, where it has lived ever since.

The school is “now working to review the role of the manuscript in our collection”. In the future, it “may serve research, learning and teaching interests in the arena of forgeries, forgeries and hoaxes,” the library said.

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