The University of Michigan has discovered that one of the jewels in its collection is fake. After an internal investigation, the entity concluded Wednesday that the manuscript it guards by astronomer and engineer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is in fact a 20th-century forgery. The definitive evidence was the characters seen in the document’s watermark (the engraving that confirms its authorship and place of manufacture), proving that it cannot predate the 18th century, almost 200 years after the death of its presumed authors. The stamp features the letters BMO, which correspond to Bergamo. According to the University of Michigan, there are no watermarks associated with this city prior to the year 1770.
It is believed that behind this forged manuscript is the Italian professional forger Tobia Nicotra, who was sentenced to two years in prison in 1934 for similar works, including copies of other papers attributed to Galileo. The document contains a draft letter about Galileo’s official presentation of the telescope built for the Doge of Venice in 1609. There are also notes about his observations of the moons of Jupiter between January 7th and 15th, 1610, which challenged the old notion that everything in the universe revolved around the earth. The forgery was auctioned off in 1934 as part of the estate of philanthropist Roderick Terry. According to the catalogue, this sheet had been checked by Cardinal Pietro Maffi, Archbishop of Pisa, after comparing it with a letter from Galileo that he already had in his collection. The manuscript was acquired by a Detroit businessman named Tracy McGregor, whose endowment administered by his heirs donated it to the University of Michigan after his death.
The UM library’s Galileo manuscript was recently discovered to be a forgery. I got a “pre-fake” photo of it at a Special Collections astronomy event in 2019 pic.twitter.com/LnQKiKlMd2
— SW (@FogCount) August 17, 2022
Suspicions about the forgery of the document, which has been in the university’s collection for almost a century, were first voiced by American historian Nick Wilding. The expert noticed the detail of the monograms in 2020, when he was preparing a new biography of Galileo, which he has not yet published.
In 2012, Wilding identified the book Sidereus Nuncius, also by Galileo, kept in the National Library of Spain as a copy. In his documentary work for the biography, he also pointed out the falsity of a letter attributed to Galileo in the hands of the Morgan Library in New York, which in reality must also be the work of the forger Nicotra. “As soon as I met Nicotra, my spider sense was activated,” Wilding explained his investigation. The professor was struck by other details, such as the use of certain words in the text that he did not associate with Galileo’s style, and the fact that the ink in the opening and closing parts of the writing looked very similar despite the fact they were said to have months written apart. “It just draws attention. They should be two documents that happen to be on the same sheet. Then why are they the same brown color?” asked the expert.
Wilding also investigated the counterfeiter itself. He found the professional had also sold fake letters and sheet music to support seven lovers. In addition to Galileo, other famous figures such as Amadeus Mozart, Lorenzo de’ Medici and Christopher Columbus may have fallen victim to the Italian’s fraudulent works. Several experts, in an article in The New York Times, warn of the likelihood that more fakes will be found in the major collections.
The interim dean of the university’s bookstores, Donna L. Hayward, has spoken out about the fiasco. “It was devastating to learn that our Galilean wasn’t Galilean at all,” said the manager, who acknowledges that hiding this reality “under the rug” would go against her values. In the University of Michigan’s statement on the investigation, those responsible say they are “grateful to Professor Wilding for sharing his discoveries” and that they are working to “reconsider the role of the manuscript in their collection.”
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