For nearly a century, the University of Michigan library has proudly displayed the so-called “Galileo Manuscript” – a document believed to have been written by the famous 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 “gems” in its collection, appears to have been written in the 20th century rather than 1609 as previously believed.
The library launched an internal investigation after Nick Wilding, a professor of history at Georgia State University and author of a biography of Galileo, expressed “serious doubts about its authenticity”. Wilding was known for exposing similar forgeries.
According to the university, the fake document was likely written by the prolific Italian forger Tobia Nicotra. Nicotra spent two years in prison in 1934 for forgery, which included forging Galileo documents, the university said.
Wilding specifically questioned its watermark and provenance, and the school said its evidence was “compelling”, reaching a similar conclusion. Officials found no other documents with the same “BMO” watermark, referencing the Italian city of Bergamo, before 1770. Furthermore, they found “no trace” of the manuscript’s existence before 1930.
The document contains drafts that refer to Galileo’s presentation of a new telescope to the Doge of Venice on 24 August 1609 and his observations ofusing a telescope in January 1610. It was these observations that led to the discovery of Jupiter’s moons, marking the first time observational data showed celestial objects orbiting a body other than Earth.
The discovery debunked the theory that everything in the universe orbited our planet, laying the groundwork 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 and genuine version of the first half of the manuscript is located in the State Archives in Venice. The royal notes on the moon of Jupiter are part of the Sidereus Nuncius Dossier in the National Central Library in Florence.
The forged manuscript was acquired by Detroit businessman and collector Tracy McGregor in May 1934 from the American Art Anderson Galleries auction company, the university said. The auction catalog said it was authenticated by Cardinal Pietro Maffi, Archbishop of Pisa.
After his death, McGregor’s trustees bequeathed the manuscript to the University of Michigan in 1938, where he has lived ever since.
The school is “now working to reconsider the manuscript’s role in our collection”. In the future, “it may come to serve the interests of research, learning and teaching in the arena of forgery, forgery and fraud,” the library said.
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