University of Michigan Libraries announced in August that the prized gem of its astronomy collection, an original manuscript by Galileo Galilei, was actually a forgery following an investigation by Georgia State University professor Nick Wilding.
The manuscript contained writings on Galileo’s telescopic observations of celestial bodies orbiting Jupiter, which reversed a common 17th century belief that Earth was at the center of the universe. Galileo’s observations went on to have major implications in the field of astronomy.
Wilding, who is currently writing a comprehensive biography on Galileo’s life and work, made a similar discovery in 2012 when he determined that a rare 17th-century book written by Galileo was also an elaborate forgery. Pablo Alvarez, U-M Special Collections Research Center curator, told The Michigan Daily that this discovery made him apprehensive about other forgeries when he was first contacted by Wilding.
“I was very concerned because I knew that (Wilding) was somebody with a lot of expertise in this field, not somebody simply asking very general questions but somebody who already probably had some very strong grounds to express those doubts,” Alvarez said.
Wilding told The Daily that his prior experiences in identifying forgery motivated him to examine the U-M manuscript even closer.
“I’ve had to look really, really careful and kind of invent new tests to find those forgeries,” Wilding said. “It made me hyper acute to looking for forgeries, when most people would just say, ‘There’s no problem with the sources.’”
Wilding said he generally looks into the background of a source before deciding whether or not to trust it. Most of Galileo’s works reside in a single archive in the National Central Library of Florence, and Wilding said he found it suspicious that the University would end up with such a valuable piece of work so far away from the others.
“There are like five Galileo documents in all of North America,” Wilding said. “I’m not saying that everything in America is fake, but you have to look a lot harder at those objects.”
While the location of the manuscript was the initial red flag, it took a much closer look for Wilding to determine the manuscript was a forgery. Wilding explained that, typically, Galileo would have one stack of papers all with a single watermark and use that stack until he was out before getting a new stack with a different watermark. In the 17th century, watermarks were often used on hand pressed paper for the manufacturers to identify the paper that they made. Therefore, paper can be dated using watermarks, as was the case in the U-M manuscript.
Though the appearance of the paper itself immediately stuck out to Wilding as being odd, once he noticed the two sets of letters, AS and BMO, he knew this manuscript was most likely inauthentic because the watermark was not typical for the time in which it would have been written.
“I just realized, because I’m kind of a book nerd, that it was weird for (an) early 17th century paper. Usually you get two sets of letters way later, like the 18th or 19th century,” Wilding said.
After comparing the manuscript to another well-known forgery with similar watermarks, Wilding determined the document was indeed a fake, and most likely created by a prominent 20th century forger, Tobia Nicotra.
“As far as I can understand the motives of Nicotra, it seems like he was driven by a mixture of money needs and possibly trying to prove himself against his failed career as a musician,” Wilding said.
Alvarez said he was shocked to learn the manuscript was inauthentic, and that in the 12 years he had served as curator, he never considered the document could be forged.
“This manuscript is already something that I would say is part of the history of the University of Michigan,” Alvarez said. “Very important scholars on the history of science included these manuscripts in articles, so it had been sort of approved by the scholar community.”
Going forward, Alvarez said transparency is extremely important as the University navigates the aftermath of the discovery and hopes this situation will be a learning experience.
“For me, it’s very much emotional, but I think this is going to be a positive step for us, not only in addressing what happened … but people could learn about paleography, about paper making, about ink in the 17th century, and I think that’s a positive thing,” Alvarez said.
LSA junior Nina Naffziger, co-president of the U-M History club, said although she was disappointed the document was a fake, she hopes this experience will encourage students and other community members to view the other historical artifacts that the University has access to.
“Just because it is fake, it’s still something that’s really cool that we’ve discovered, and we now know and are questioning why this guy made it,” Naffziger said. “I think it’s hopefully making people more aware of a lot of the cool stuff that’s on the Michigan campus, both in the Bentley Library and the Clements Library.”
Daily Staff Reporter Isabella Kassa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.