Thursday, May 13, 2010

Two fingers

Among the innumerable Christian relics of digits is a finger from the right hand of St. Teresa (1515-1582). I saw this first-class relic when I visited the walled city of Avila, Spain, where it is on display (2nd image) with the sole of one of her sandals, her rosary beads, and a cord she used to flagellate herself. Relics of St. Teresa enshrined elsewhere include her ring finger and a phial of her blood, her heart, and her incorrupt left arm.

In contrast, the finger of Galileo (1564-1642) is preserved in a museum. When the scientist's remains were being transferred from their humble resting place to an elaborate tomb within the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence on March 12, 1737, the middle finger of his left hand was stolen by Italian antiquarian Anton Francesco Gori (1691-1757). The finger was in the collections of Italian medical libraries and museums until it came to rest at Florence's Museo di Storia del Scienza.

Both remnants of anatomy - one belonging to a female saint and other to a man once considered a heretic - are encased in reliquaries and can be seen to this day. But Galileo's finger will soon be joined by 2 more. When the finger was snapped off by Gori in 1737, the thumb and middle finger of his right hand, along with a tooth, were snatched by an admirer and kept in private collection. As the reliquary - an 18th c. blown-glass vase - was passed from generation to generation, certainty about what it contained (even though its wooden case was topped by a bust of Galileo) was lost. It was acquired at auction by a buyer who contacted Italian cultural authorities, and they confirmed authenticity through historical documentation. These additional secular relics - long believed to be lost - are now on display in an exhibit celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo's observations. In addition to curating the anniversary exhibit, the director of the Museo di Storia del Scienza has applied to local authorities for permission to exhume the remains of Galileo - but the only relics he plans to retrieve are samples of DNA.

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