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Seven windows into the Scientific Revolution

Galileo exhibition brings history to life

The centerpiece of the current Baker Library corridor exhibition, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642): Searching for the Truth ... Transforming the World, is a rare first edition of Galileo's Opere, recently acquired by Rauner Special Collections Library. The Opere, or "Works," represent only a portion of the revolutionary astronomer's output, since the forbidden Dialogue on the Two New Sciences, in which Galileo presented his proof that the planets revolved around the sun, had been banned by the Catholic Church. But while the controversial writings are absent from the book, the artist responsible for the volume's frontispiece communicated, through art, what could not be included in words.

Alicia Turner '08
Alicia Turner '08 looks at a rare first edition of Galileo's Opere in the exhibition, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642): Searching for the Truth ... Transforming the World. (photo by Dennis Grady)

Stefano della Bella, a leading 17th century printmaker, created what today would be considered a political manifesto. Upon opening the Opere, the first thing the reader sees is an allegorical composition of the elderly Galileo presenting a telescope to his three muses (mathematics, astronomy and optics). With his other hand, he points to the heavens, showing the muses the heliotropic system theorized by Copernicus and proven by Galileo to be accurate. The artist also included the five spheres of the Medici coat of arms, representative of Jupiter and its four moons, which Galileo discovered and dedicated to the Medici in 1610.

"The acquisition of the Opere," said Miguel Valladares, Romance Languages and Latin American Librarian, brings Dartmouth's holdings of Galileo first editions to three, all of which are on display in the Baker corridor." Together with several other important books from Rauner and the Kresge Physical Sciences Library, where the current science collection is maintained, these books form the nucleus of a significant collection of volumes that were the principal texts of the Scientific Revolution, which took place between roughly 1550 and 1700. The collection also includes several earlier books that were fundamental to the development of Copernican theory, to Galileo's writings and to the development of the sciences as we know them today, built on mathematical proof and physical observation.

"Dartmouth students have the opportunity to interact with a wealth of rare books and manuscripts that few undergraduate institutions can offer," said Jay Satterfield, Special Collections Librarian at Rauner. And interaction is the key element, he observed. "We are not a museum. It is important for students to be able to hold these works in their hands: to feel the quality of the paper and examine how the books were bound. This is a critical part of the learning experience."

Other volumes on display include a 1488 printing of Flores Astrologiae by the 9th century Islamic scholar Abu Ma'shar, Euclid's Elementa Geometriae (1482), a 1485 edition of Sphaera Mundi, by the 13th century astronomer Johannes de Sacro Bosco, Liber Cronicarum (also known as The Nuremberg Chronicle) by Hartmann Schedel (1493), De Revolutionibus (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) by Nicolaus Copernicus (1543), The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy by Sir Isaac Newton (1729) and several others, including Galileo's famous Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican, published in 1632. The Dialogue, according to text from the exhibition, "was designed both as an appeal to the great public and as an escape from silence ... It is a masterly polemic for the new science."


Printmaker Stefano della Bella employed artistic allegory in the frontispiece of this rare first edition of Galileo's Opere to communicate Galileo's proof that the earth revolves around the sun.  Writings on the subject were banned from publication by the Catholic Church. (photo by Dennis Grady)

"Few students in the country have the opportunity to learn about significant historical moments such as the Scientific Revolution through exposure to primary texts," said Susan Fliss, who directs the Library's Education and Outreach Program. Fliss, Valladares and Dennis Grady, the Program's Graphic Arts Specialist, collaborated on this exhibition. "We work closely with faculty members to design exhibitions that complement the curriculum," said Valladares. Noting that students in Italian 10, Math 5 and Physics 7 have all used the volumes currently on display in Galileo Galilei he added, "these seven windows truly bridge the library holdings and the classroom." 

"My students in Physics 7 are preparing an exhibition of instruments from the Allen King Collection, one of the largest of its kind in North America," noted Rich Kremer, Professor of History. King, a Professor of Physics emeritus who joined the Dartmouth faculty in 1942, amassed a collection of scientific instruments dating back to the College's founding.

"We visited the Hood Museum, where Kathy Hart, the Barbara C. & Harvey P. Hood 1918 Curator of Academic Programming, talked about how to plan an exhibition," Kremer said. "Galileo Galilei provided an example of how each window presents a single theme. Each case in the student exhibitions will also provide a platform for presenting a single theme."

Dwight Lahr, Professor of Mathematics and Beatriz Pastor, Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature, teach an interdisciplinary course titled A Matter of Time. Using literature, the arts and mathematics through history, students learn about time as a concept and a reality and consider its centrality to the development of Western culture. "One of the greatest challenges in teaching a course like A Matter of Time, which goes back several thousand years, is to bring the past back to life, to turn archaeology into live experience," said Lahr and Pastor. "There may be no better way to accomplish this than to see with your own eyes, and to touch with your own hands, artifacts from that past. This is precisely what the Galileo exhibition has allowed our students to do."

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642): Searching for the Truth ... Transforming the World, will be on display until May 31.

By LAUREL STAVIS

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Last Updated: 12/17/08