Perhaps our planning process started with a tweet. Something along the lines of “see 100 documents from the Vatican Secret Archives – 12 centuries of history”. The exhibit would be on only until early September. I wanted to see this important exhibit, but what else could I see in Italy. I began seeking science even before we purchased the airline tickets.
One of the first stops I make prior to any trip is TripAdvisor. I know that there are numerous review sites, but TripAdvisor was an early adaptor of user-generated content, and I’ve been a member since 2007. I trust that when I look at ‘Things to do’, I will be able to create my own checklist of what I want to see. Next, I’m off seeking science in Rome.
List in hand, I purchase a 3-day Roma Pass, which allows me into the first two sites at no cost and all others at a reduced price. Now I am ready to be first in line at the Capitoline Museums to see “Lux in Arcana – The Vatican Secret Archives Reveals Itself”. It is billed as an event of unprecedented scientific, cultural and media importance, and is the first and possibly only time in history that these documents leave the confines of the Vatican City walls. Inside the museum there are no photos allowed, so I’ve made notes from the displays and from the exhibit catalogue.
Of the 100 fascinating documents on display I will focus on the six that moved me the most.
- Ten days were eliminated from the 1582 calendar
I first learned about calendars and their connection to astronomy when this was a topic included in Alberta’s science curriculum. Then, just prior to Y2K, I read a great book by David Ewing Duncan called Calendar which examined the history of calendars and how we measure the flow of time. In 46 BC, Julius Caesar directed the development of a calendar which made the equinoxes and solstices consistent and predictable. The Julian calendar had 365 ¼ days, but it was 12 minutes short per year. Thus, by the fourth century AD, the calendar was about 3 days behind at the equinox. In 1575, scientists were brought together by Pope Gregory XIII to solve this problem. On Feb 24, 1582, Gregory issued a bull* eliminating the days October 5 through 14, 1582 from the calendar, and removing three out of four century leap years. The copy I was seeing of this new Lunario Novo was among the first ones off the press.
- Nicolas Copernicus: A Canon who studied the stars
probably have a rather simplistic impression of the issues leading up to the acceptance of the heliocentric model of the solar system. Here was a papal bull issued in 1542 which indicates that Mikolaj Kopernik (Nicolaus Copernicus) was held in some esteem prior to the controversy of his revolutionary ideas. After years and countless hours studying the solar system, he was starting to lose strength in his old age. He hoped to dedicate his work De revolutionibus orbium celestium
(On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) to Pope Paul III. On June 1, 1542 he asked Pope Paul III for permission to have his 12-year-old nephew, Jan Loytz, appointed his permanent coadjutor. The papal bull was issued without apparent question. On March 24, 1543 Copernicus was shown a published copy of his work. It is said that he looked and smiled and then shortly afterwards passed away.
- A machine for sailing through the air
This story was new to me, and it’s a good one. An 18th century scientist named Bartolomeu Lourenco de Gusmao sent in his design for a Passarola - a flying machine. According to the display, this was either a “big bird” built to fly, or it was a hoax built to throw the curious off the results of his actual experiments. Regardless, the plans for this flying machine conceived in 1709 are part of this exhibit. In 1936, the airport in Rio de Janeiro was named Bartolomeu de Gusmão Airport after this early pioneer of flight.
- Proceedings of the trial of Galileo Galilei
Galileo’s story is one I think many of us are familiar with. There have been innumerable books and movies made about his life and contributions to science. When considering Galileo’s times, it is important to remember that Italy was not a unified country, and that some of the moving around is what kept him safe. He was born in Pisa on February 15, 1564. By 1588, he was teaching mathematics in Pisa, and then he moved to Padua in 1592. In 1604 he observed a supernova and in 1610, he described the moons of Jupiter. When he published Sidereus Nuncius
(Siderial Messenger) in 1611, some Dominican fathers started preaching against him. On February 26, 1616, Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino formally instructed Galileo not to advocate, defend or teach the Copernican Theory. Between 1616 and 1623, Galileo published a couple of additional books in Rome which continued to support Copernican Theory. He was confident that his friend Maffeo Barberini (now Pope Urban VIII) would understand the science and defend him. That was not to be, as his persecutor Bellarmino was a cardinal member of the Inquisition who held considerable power. Galileo’s book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems
, published in Florence in February 1632, provoked the indictment for heresy and forced him to stand trial. Galileo was subjected to four interrogations before the Inquisition Tribunal. On April 12 and 30, and again June 10 and 21, Galileo defended himself as well as he could, often citing his old age (70) and forgetfulness as his excuse. Ultimately he was pronounced guilty and forced to accept the verdict against him. I simply stared in amazement to see his actual signature at the bottom of these trial documents.
- Alexander VI Inter cetera bull – dividing up the world
When I was in school, I learned that the reason that people in Brazil speak Portuguese while the rest of South American countries speak Spanish was related to a line drawn by a Pope. The line was actually drawn by Pope Alexander VI and issued in a papal bull on May 4, 1493. Here was the actual document that divided up the world on a line one hundred leagues west of the Azores, and led to the Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal. This effectively portioned the new geographic discoveries being made, and marked a major transition between what was called the Middle Ages and the Modern Era.
- Papal recognition of the University of Cambridge
I was thrilled to find a document with a connection to DNA. Yes, it is a stretch but here is a document which predates Watson and Crick by 635 years, yet it indirectly allowed them to collaborate together to announce the structure of DNA. Here is what we know. In the twelfth century, teachers at cathedral schools and their students needed to join in a kind of association – these groupings became what we call ‘universities’. This academic initiative was quickly backed by Pope Innocent III. In the academic year 1208-09, an Oxford student accidently killed a woman with a dart. Local authorities could not arrest him as he was protected by the university status granted to students. The authorities then ruthlessly seized three other students outside of the city walls and hanged them. The rest of the students soon fled, thus disbanding Oxford University. Many escaped to Cambridge where Saint Giles Cathedral had a teaching tradition. Cambridge gradually acquired all the features of a university including a multiplicity of teachers and curricula. In March 1317, King Edward II asked Pope John XXII to formally acknowledge Cambridge as a University. On June 9, 1318 the pope issued the bull requested by the king. The original document which was stored at Cambridge has been lost. The copy transcribed for John XXII is thus the only evidence of the pope’s recognition of one of the world’s leading universities, the one where Watson and Crick did their work in the early 1950s.
Check back on my blog soon as I continue Seeking Science in Italy.
* A papal bull is a document issued by the Pope. The name comes from the distinctive lead ball (bulla) which is appended to the end of the document to authenticate it.
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