Great Men and gruesome mementos

A few weeks ago, Stewart talked about relics in our collections – often mundane objects that have gained mystique through association with famous historical characters. Recently, I got a close-up look at what’s possibly the ultimate scientific museum relic: Galileo’s body parts.

The middle finger of Galileo’s right hand has been on display at Florence’s history of science museum for many years. The museum’s recently been refurbished and (in what’s possibly a cunning marketing tool to entice visitors from the Uffizi around the corner) renamed the Museo Galileo. A gallery which contains the only surviving instruments made by Galileo himself has the finger in pride of place – and also another finger, thumb and tooth that were recently found.

Galileo's fingers on display (Alison Boyle).

The display stands, made in the 18th and 19th centuries, reinforce the idea of saintly reliquaries. It’s questionable whether these remains can tell us much about Galileo and his work – certainly less than studying the instruments he made, or his books and papers in the Museo’s archives. But during my visit they were by far the most popular objects in the gallery.

There’s an enduring fascination with the relics of ‘Great Men’.

Several apple trees around the country are claimed to be descended from Newton’s inspiration for the laws of gravitation, despite the story being almost certainly apocryphal: he only related the tale of watching an apple drop a few years before his death (possibly with a view to furthering his posthumous fame) and the story only gained wider currency centuries later.

It’s now unstoppable – a fragment of ‘that tree’ has even been taken into space. But if you prefer something a bit closer to the man himself, a number of Newton’s death masks survive.

An engraving based on Newton's death mask (Science Museum).

Almost anything associated with Einstein is highly collectible – his brain, removed during autopsy, had its own adventure, including a road trip across the US in the boot of a rental car. You can read more about the strange story of Einstein’s brain on our Ingenious website, or in Carolyn Abrahams’ book Possessing Genius.

We seem to crave such relics of genius – and the more gruesome the better.

Could studying Einstein's brain ever reveal his reasoning? (Associated Press / Science & Society)

2 thoughts on “Great Men and gruesome mementos

  1. Michael D. Barton, FCD

    I’ve read too that Einstein’s eyes were saved as well.

    The 3 or so studies of Einstein’s brain that have been published all have very small sample sixes (in one, Einstein’s brain was compared to only 4 others), so any statements made as to what made Einstein’s brain any different should be taken critically.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Stories from the stores » A rogues gallery

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