Unmasking a Forgery

When a curator at the University of Michigan Library received the email, he was more than a bit apprehensive.  The email was from Nick Wilding, an historian at Georgia State University, who is a Galileo scholar and an expert on forgeries.  He was asking for provenance information on one of the library’s most prized possessions.

For almost a century, the “Galileo manuscript” was the jewel of the library’s collection.  At the top is a letter supposedly signed by Galileo in 1609 describing his new telescope, and at the bottom are sketches plotting the positions of Jupiter’s moons around the planet.  If authentic, it represented the first observational data that showed objects orbiting a body other than the earth.

Wilding has uncovered forged Galileo works in the past: he found evidence that a copy of Galileo’s 1610 treatise Sidereus Nuncius (“Starry Messenger”) was a fake.  He teaches a course on forgery at the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia.  He is currently writing a biography of Galileo and was examining several images online, including the manuscript held by the University of Michigan.

His suspicions began when he noted some of the strange letter forms and word choices.  Then he questioned why the ink seemed identical at the top and the bottom of the page when it was actually two documents on one sheet written months apart.  “Why is it all exactly the same color brown?”  Then Wilding began his research on provenance.  He found no record of the document in Italian archives.  Its first appearance was at auction in 1934 when it was purchased by a Detroit businessman and later bequeathed to the university following his death in 1938.  The auction catalog said that it had been authenticated by Cardinal Pietro Maffi, an archbishop of Pisa who died in 1931, who had compared it to two Galileo autograph documents in his collection.  Those documents, Wilding discovered, had been given to him by Tobia Nicotra, a notorious 20th-century counterfeiter in Milan.

Wilding asked the University of Michigan for an image of the document’s watermark, which was a circle with a three-leafed clover and the monogram, “AS/BMO.”  Wilding’s search for the monogram led him to a 1607 Galileo letter at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, which almost exactly matched the presumed original letter in Italian archives.  He subsequently discovered that “BMO” was the abbreviation for the Italian city of Bergamo.  From a reference book on ancient paper and watermarks, Wilding, the University of Michigan, and the Morgan Library discovered that the watermarks could not have appeared before 1770, more than a century after Galileo supposedly created the manuscripts.

The discovery of these forgeries does not fundamentally change Galileo’s discovery.  In 1610 Galileo wrote a book based on discoveries with his new telescope that supported the Copernican thesis that the earth was not the center of the universe but rather that the planets orbited the sun.  For his efforts, the Inquisition summoned Galileo to Rome to stand trial for heresy.  He was lucky that he wasn’t burned at the stake; his prison sentence was commuted to house arrent, under which he spent the last nine years of this life.  Galileo is also credited with writing the first secular manifesto to call for the freedom of science from religious interference.

As for Nicotra, Wilding learned that he started selling fake letters and musical manuscripts to support seven mistresses.  To investigate a suspicious Mozart manuscript, the police raided his Milan apartment in 1934, finding a virtual “forgery factory” with endpapers ripped from old books and fakes from Lorenzo de’ Medici, Christopher Columbus, and other historical figures.  He received a two-year jail sentence.

The University of Michigan and the Morgan Library are making the best of Wilding’s revelations on their fake documents. They are updating attributions to note that the document was “formerly attributed to Galileo.”  And they are considering ways to highlight the methods and motivations behind forgeries, potentially making them highlights of a future exhibit or symposium.

This entry was posted in Arte, English, Foto, Italia, New York, Storia. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Unmasking a Forgery

  1. Marie Panzera says:

    Bravissima, Barbara.

    Sent from my iPhone


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  2. Mary Smith says:

    Really interesting!

    Sent from my iPhone

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