Galileo Galilei, who famously risked his life for his celestial beliefs, has three fingers that still point triumphantly toward the sky. The astronomer was put under house arrest in 1633 by the Catholic Church for supporting the Copernican model of the universe.
When Galileo died in 1642, he was denied a burial at the church of Santa Croce in Florence, where other family members and many of history’s great minds have been entombed, including Michelangelo and Dante. The Grand Duke of Tuscany had wished to give the great scientist a proper burial and monument, but Pope Urban VIII considered such an action to be a dreadful insult. The Pope, however, allowed a burial in a crummy unmarked corner of the basement. It wasn’t until 1737 that attitudes shifted and money was donated allowing a proper mausoleum to be built for him within Santa Croce.
That’s when opportunity stuck for several eager admirers. During the transfer of his body, three fingers and a tooth were taken. This practice was commonly done with saints, whose Catholic followers believed the sacred relics held powers.
Two of the fingers (the index finger and thumb of his right hand) and a tooth were kept by the Marquis Capponi. He placed them in a lovely glass container encased in a wooden box with a carving of Galileo’s head atop it. The relics were passed down through several generations.
They didn’t resurface in public until 1905, when they were put up for auction. An article with the headline “Galileo’s Finger for Sale” from the April 5, 1906 Christian Advocate, spoke of the event:
There are no reports of the final price of sale or who bought them. The fingers and tooth disappeared once again, until another auction in 2009. The buyer contacted officials in Florence and the fingers were returned to the city where the rest of Galileo is entombed. However, they remain about 500 meters apart. The fingers are now on display in the Museo Galileo, along with the one other finger taken in 1737 by Anton Francesco Gori. That digit, the middle finger, sits beside the others in a separate glass egg display and has been in the museum’s possession since 1927. Previous to that it had been exhibited in Florence’s Biblioteca Laurenziana and the Tribuna di Galileo.
What is the finger of a dead scientist worth? This question has been stirring all Florence, the thumb and index finger of the right hand of Galileo having recently been offered for sale in that city, by an old woman, Laura Joni. Being in straitened circumstances, she tried to obtain the highest offers for her strange property. The government, getting wind of the affair, caused an investigation to be made, and ascertained that these relics of the great astronomer were genuine. … The only question still to be discussed is the matter of price. Upon this point experts will undoubtedly be called in.
In 1992, Pope John Paul II formally acknowledged the Church had mishandled things with Galileo. He issued a declaration admitting the church’s erroneous views regarding Galileo’s scientific observations and beliefs.
Still, while all three fingers point to the sky, perhaps the middle finger can be interpreted with a different message.