Galileo Museum (formerly the Science Museum) ☆☆

The room of Electrostatic machines, Galileo Museum, Florence, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Museo Galileo)
The room of Electrostatic machines

Galileo's telescopes and other relics from the early years of scientific inquiry live at the excellent (but rarely visited) Museo Galileo—which was, until 2010, called the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, or History of Science Museum

Trust the Italians of yore to take something as workaday as a scientific instrument and turn it into a work of great art, sublime craftsmanship, and exquisite beauty.

This small museum's display cases overflow with intricately engraved astrolabes, compasses, dials, and other mechanical calculators.

There are Renaissance barometers and cluster thermometers, Chinese compasses and 18th century surgical instruments (hey kids: nightmare time!), and the telescopes Galileo invented to discover the moons of Jupiter.

Picking a favorite is tough.

There's the "ladies' telescope set" disguised as a makeup kit, so that women of means could appear to be proper and prim yet still indulge their (very un-lady–like) passion for science and study.

The adolescent boy inside me is totally jealous of the astrolabe that, with a few twists and folds collapses into a dagger—an Enlightenment-era Transformer that's both useful (in an appropriately seafaring, piratey way) and wicked dangerous!

However, none hold a candle to Galileo's bird.

Galileo gets the final word: A quick discussion of Tuscany's most famous scientist

Everyone has heard of the famous Pisan physicist (and mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher) Galileo Galilei.

This is the man who brought us the compound microscope, who theorized that two balls of unequal weight would still fall at the same velocity in a vacuum, who posited the laws of kinetics that laid the foundation for Newton's Laws, who created the first truly useful telescope (with which he discovered the moons of Jupiter, the craters on our own moon, and the existence of sunspots), and who was called by no less than Albert Einstein "the father of modern science."

Most people also know that Galileo was tried by the Inquisition for his heretical view that the Earth revolved around the sun—rather than the official theory that the entire universe revolved around us (to be fair, he cribbed this idea from Copernicus)—that he was found guilty, and was excommunicated from the church.

Few know what happened after that.

Since Galileo had powerful patrons, the Medici (he prudently named those moons of Jupiter after them), his actual sentence was pretty light, at least in terms of the Inquisition's typical overreactions: He had to recant, then live out his life under house arrest.

However, being found guilty of "vehement suspicion of heresy" meant that, when he died in 1642, at the age 77, rather than receiving the marble monument he deserved in Santa Croce, the church of choice for burying Tuscan cultural giants, he got a grave in a modest corner of the attached convent.

Though the Vatican gradually allowed Galileo's books to be reprinted over the course of the 18th century (censored, of course), and quietly dropped its own opposition to the heliocentric theory in 1835, it wasn't until 1992 that Pope John Paul II actually apologized for the church's treatment of Galileo and cleared his good name.

By that point, however, Galileo had already had the last word—and I don't mean just that we now revere his rigorous methods and study his theories in our science textbooks to this day, or that Stephen Hawking once said that, "Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science."

I don't even mean the legend that holds that, after being forced to recant publicly his view that the Earth revolves around the sun, he supposedly muttered, "Eppur, si muove" ("And yet, it moves").

No, I mean that, in 1737, when his body was dug up to be moved under a proper funerary monument in the nave of Santa Croce (which proudly features an inlay of the Earth circling the sun), someone snipped off the middle finger of Galileo's right hand.

Since every church in Italy has its holy relics, why not its science museums?

Now with more Galileo!

Last year, Florence's Science Museum managed to acquire at auction two more of Galileo's fingers (plus a tooth), all of which are now on display in the revamped collections. I guess the critical mass for renaming a museum after a person is possessing three fingers... and a tooth.

Galileo's middle finger now stands proudly erect under a glass dome in a display case in the Science Museum (recently renamed after Galileo himself), eternally giving the bird in the general direction of the church that—for daring to question its blind authority with sound logic and ample evidence—once censored his theories, destroyed his good name, imprisoned him in his home, refused for nearly a century to give the man the decent burial he was due, and for 350 years neglected to grant him the honor he so richly deserved.

Given the delight Italians take in their vast catalog of vulgar gestures, the placement of this middle finger cannot be mere coincidence.

Photo gallery
  • The room of Electrostatic machines, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Museo Galileo)
  • Astronomical ring (c. 1650), Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Early 19C Amici II wooden telescopes crafted by Giovanni Battista Amici, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • 17C gilded copper astrological disk, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • A 16C gilded steel compass disguised as a dagger crafted by Benvenuto della Volpaia, which once belonged to late 17C mathematician and scientist Vincenzo Viviani, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Mathematical instruments (c. 1590) by Christoph Schissler, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The infamous Middle finger of Galileo
  • Brass Astrolabe by Thomas Gemini (1550–59), Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Museo Galileo)
  • 18C Chemistry cabinet, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Museo Galileo)
  • Nobili
  • 18C clock tower clockworks by Bartolomeo Ferracina, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Azimuth compass by George Wright (c. 1785), Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Museo Galileo)
  • Bust of Galileo Galilei (1674–77) by Carlo Marcellini, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Late 18C Brachistochronous fall by Francesco Spighi (left) and 19C inclined plane, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Various 17C telescopes, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Sundial (1578) by Carlo Plato, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Late 16C Nautical hemisphere by Charles Whitwell, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Museo Galileo)
  • Horary converter disk (1550–1600), which once belonged to late 17C mathematician and scientist Vincenzo Viviani, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Late 18C surgical instruments for obstetrical and gynecological procedures, made by Joseph Malliard and belonging to Giovanni Alessandro Brambilla, personal physician of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II and the first director of the Vienna hospital, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Museo Galileo)
  • Model of Lunar Orbits (1557), by Girolamo della Volpaia, which once belonged to late 17C mathematician and scientist Vincenzo Viviani, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Early 16C Calculating machine of gold plated brass, used for calculating finances, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Volta hydrogen lamp by Alessandro Volta (1790), Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Museo Galileo)
  • Compound microscope by Nachet & Fils firm (c. 1870), Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Museo Galileo)
  • Late 18C Model of Archimedean Screw or Cochlea, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • The room of Electrostatic machines, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • 18C Box for mathematical instruments, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Universal theodolite by Adolf and Georg Repsold (1839), Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Museo Galileo)
  • Glass scientific instruments dating from 1590 to 1650, Galileo Museum, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
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Get into Galileo Museum for free (and skip the line at the ticket booth) with:

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How long does Museo Galileo take?

The curious will only spend about 30 minutes; the intrigued maybe an hour (the joys of this museum lie in reading the placards by the displays and discovering all the little oddities).


The museum reopened in summer 2010 after extensive renovation works. Among other innovations, they have become the first museum to offer portable video guides featuring short films, 3D animations, hypertext pages, and biographies.

Though I get a kick out of this place, I realize it's far from a must-see in Florence, so it gets just a single "star" in its rating. Still, if you're in town for more than three days and have some extra time—or are just sick and tired of Renaissance art—it makes for quite an interesting diversion.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).