Galileo's telescope stars in Philadelphia exhibit

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PHILADELPHIA -- The Italian museum's director pulled out a stack of letters and, one by one, laid them atop his desk at the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence.

It was late 2007 and appeals were pouring in from museums in China, Korea, Germany, New York, Chicago and a host of cities around the globe, although the International Year of Astronomy was still more than a year away.

If you go
"Galileo, the Medici, and the Age of Astronomy" runs until Sept. 7 at the Franklin Institute, 222 N. 20th St., Philadelphia. Phone is 1-215-448-1200. The Web site is

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Daytime pricing includes admission to the Galileo exhibit and general admission to The Franklin. Adults: $20.75, seniors: $19.75, children: $14 (ages 4-11). Groups must book in advance for discounted rates. To purchase tickets online call 1-877-TFI-TIXS (834-8497). For group sales, call: 1-800-285-0684.

"Tutti vogliono il mio telescopio," Paolo Galluzzi said. "Everyone wants my telescope," the only remaining functional telescope made by Galileo Galilei, whom Albert Einstein called "the father of modern physics -- indeed, of modern science altogether."

Martha McGeary Snider, a Philadelphia philanthropist and board chair of the Medici Archive Project, was in Florence that day, scanning the letter-filled desktop.

"It was intimidating," she recalled. But in the end, Philadelphia's Franklin Institute won exclusive rights to exhibit the telescope, along with artifacts that belonged to the Medicis, the powerful Florentine family whose prosperity and influence spanned the 14th through the 18th centuries.

It is the first instance since Galileo's time that the instrument, 3 feet long and looking like a weathered cardboard tube, has left Florence.

"Galileo, the Medici, and the Age of Astronomy," timed to coincide with the International Year of Astronomy and the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first "spyglass," opened earlier this month, marking the consummation of what Ms. Snider and Dennis Wint, the Franklin's president and chief executive, have called a long, and challenging, courtship.

When Mr. Wint met in Italy with Ms. Snider and Mr. Galluzzi in late 2007, he was coming off the Franklin's hugely successful leg of the traveling "King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" exhibition, which drew 1.37 million visitors. That, plus its reputation as a preeminent science institution, and Philadelphia's location in the Northeast Corridor, helped convince the Italians that the Franklin was prepared to host their revered artifacts.

Even before advancing to the exhibition's interactive playpen of optics, which might assuage those pining to press an eye to Galileo's untouchable 400-year-old lens, visitors will notice light glinting off brass tools, whose crisp inscriptions and hash marks belie their ages and utility. Their ornamental designs suggest that such tools were considered objects of art unto themselves, inanimate soldiers in an army of possessions the Medicis saw as symbols of their influence.

(After his late-1609 discovery of four moons orbiting Jupiter -- which he named after the Medicis -- Galileo successfully lobbied Grand Duke Cosimo II to sponsor his work. Celebrity followed. )

In March 1610, Galileo sent Cosimo II, the fourth grand duke of Tuscany and a Medici whom he had taught as a child, a treatise called "Starry Messenger." He wrote that he had devised a "spyglass" and had seen the face of the moon, fixed and nebulous stars, and the Milky Way. But his focus was "four planets flying around the star of Jupiter at unequal intervals and periods with wonderful swiftness; which, unknown by anyone until this day," he named "the Medicean Stars."


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