Authentic letters, fake ones: this is how you can change history

Oct 2, 2022 | Authentications & attributions, Cutural Heritage, Discoveries, Fakes

The reason why Galileo Galilei, the famous Italian mathematician and astronomer, was condemned by the Church was a book, not the telescope. But even before the book, it was a letter to Benedetto Castelli, his pupil and close friend, to get him into trouble. A fraudulent letter, which, according to Galileo himself, had been falsified by an enemy and sent to the Pope to incriminate him and his ideas.

In reality, the letter had not been forged, it was instead a faithful copy. The problem was that it was just too subversive. It was Galileo himself who wanted to muddle the waters once he realized that his letter had circulated, and he had gone too far.

Detail of Galileo’s original letter to Castelli, found in the archives of the Royal Society of London

To re-establish the truth was the discovery of the original: the autographed manuscript, which was believed to be lost, was miraculously found in the archives of the Royal Society of London, although it is not known how it got there.

The letter was a sort of short treatise in response to Aristotelian theologians who considered Copernican astronomy, whose ideas were supported by Galileo, heretical because it was incompatible with some passages of the Bible. Copernicus argued about a century before Galileo, that it was the earth that revolved around the sun, and not vice versa.

Galileo, convinced by his own observations that this was the reality of the facts, argued in the letter that a clear distinction should be maintained between the realm of faith and that of scientific knowledge, and that the statements of the Bible on natural phenomena did not constitute valid reasons to draw scientific conclusions.

The problem is that Galilei, sure that the letter would not have “escaped” from the narrow group of his pupils and supporters, had not used cautious language, and had written verbatim: “in the Holy Scriptures there are many false propositions“. A statement clearly worth excommunication and inquisition.

When he realized that somehow a copy had reached the Dominican friar Lorini, and that had transmitted it to the Pope as incriminating evidence, Galilei was quick to spread the news that this was an artfully modified copy, and to produce one to be exhibited as an original, where for example it was said: “in the Holy Scriptures there are many propositions which, as regards the naked meaning of the words, have a different aspect from the truth“. Same concept but a little more conciliatory.

And Galileo’s version had been taken for good for centuries, until a few years ago, when unexpectedly the original re-emerged, and history was rewritten.

Detail of the fake manuscript belonging to the University of Michigan (USA)

It goes without saying how important it is that the documents on which we base our knowledge and our judgments are original.

Galileo wrote a great deal in his life. Even in the years after the abjuration, forced to live in the prison-house of Arcetri, and despite the blindness that struck him in old age, he continued to work, and to write, to redo the experiments and for each statement to record as he came to say it. It is a new method that was hugely successful. His last book “Discourses and mathematical demonstrations around two new sciences” was published in Holland, to avoid problems with the Church of Rome, and was immediately sold out.

Galileo’s writings revolutionized science and continued to interest scholars and collectors over the centuries.

To the point that some forgers did not miss the opportunity and introduced a series of false letters onto the market, which have deceived specialists for years. A few days ago, for example, the news came that the manuscript, considered one of the pearls of the University of Michigan Library, turned out to be a fake. In this case it was the forger who copied part of the originals which are kept in the National Central Library of Florence. And therefore, despite the fact that the paper was taken for granted, the story was not totally rewritten.

From a page in the New York Times reporting the conviction of the forger Nicotra

It was the analysis of the watermark that showed that the paper was produced after the death of Galilei (to learn more about how to date the paper, find this article).

The watermark on the “Galileo manuscript” contains the monograms “AS” and “BMO”. No other BMO watermarked documents have been dated before 1770, while many are found after this date.

The previous authentication was signed by Archbishop Maffi, who was based on a comparison with two other autographed documents kept in Pisa. But they also turned out to be false. Probably the work of the same forger, Tobia Nicotra, who had cleverly donated them and made them enter the collection.

Nicotra, moreover, was not new to this type of counterfeiting. He is known to have produced documents in imitation of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Luther but also George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

And who knows how many still remain to be discovered! Who knows how many times scientific investigations will still help rewrite history.

Anna Pelagotti
Anna Pelagotti