Last week, the University of Michigan released a surprising statement, saying that one of the highlights of their collection is, in fact, a fake. They have realised that a single manuscript leaf, which entered their collection in 1938 and has been presumed, since then, to be an authentic work by the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), was likely made in the early twentieth century by the infamous and prolific fraudster Tobia Nicotra.
Until now the manuscript has been considered to be one of the most exciting and important pieces of evidence in Galileo’s discovery that the sun is at the centre of the universe not, as had previously been thought since antiquity, the Earth. Galileo observed through his telescope in 1610 that bright lights around Jupiter were changing positions nightly, suggesting that the planet had orbiting moons, thus indicating that the whole universe did not revolve around the Earth. The document in the University of Michigan’s library has a letter on the top half in which Galileo reflects on the use of the telescope and underneath, dated a couple of months later, are some drawn observations he made with the instrument, which show the nightly position of Jupiter’s moons. The University described the document as one of the first pieces of “observational data that showed objects orbiting a body other than earth.”
The authenticity of this document has been unquestioned until recently. A historian at Georgia State University, Nick Wilding, contacted the university expressing his doubts about the manuscript. Wilding is researching for a biography on Galileo, and contacted the library earlier this year asking for more provenance information and a photograph of the paper’s watermark, which would reveal more about where and when the paper was made. Wilding immediately noticed peculiarities about the document, telling the New York Times that “it just kind of jumps out as weird […] This is supposedly two different documents that happen to be on one sheet of paper. Why is it all exactly the same color brown?”
Pablo Alvarez, a curator at the Special Collections Research Center at the library recalls a “sinking feeling” when he received the email from Wilding, who is known for uncovering forgeries and even teaches a summer course on forgery at the Rare Book School of the University of Virginia. Alvarez immediately sent the information to Wilding and photographed the watermark. The provenance alone raised alarm bells for the library: the manuscript was sold in 1934 and the auction catalogue revealed that it had been authenticated by Cardinal Pietro Maffi, who had compared it to other Galileo documents in his collection. Wilding discovered that those other documents in his collection had been given to him by Tobia Nicotra. Nicotra apparently ran a workshop producing numerous fake autographs by historical figures including Christopher Columbus and Lorenzo de’ Medici.
Research on the watermark confirmed the university’s fears: the watermark could not be found on any document before 1770, making it extremely unlikely Galileo was using this paper in the early seventeenth century.
Donna L. Hayward, the interim dean of the university’s libraries, said “it was pretty gut-wrenching when we first learned our Galileo was not actually a Galileo”, but she hopes to use it as an example for future research or a symposium around forgeries, saying that “the forgery is a really good one […] the discovery in some ways makes this a more fascinating item”.
Wilding’s research has also cast doubts on the authenticity of a 1607 Galileo letter in the Morgan Library & Museum, who have updated their cataloguing of the item to read that it was “formerly attributed to Galileo”.