Galileo’s Missing Fingers

Mar 29, 2017 2 comments

Everybody in Florence knows where Galileo Galilei lies buried. His mortal remains are in a crypt inside the famous Basilica di Santa Croce, the principal Franciscan church of the city. The 16th century scientist shares this space with several of his illustrious fellow Italians, such as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, the poet Foscolo, the philosopher Gentile and the composer Rossini.

When Galileo died in 1642, the Grand Duke of Tuscany wanted to bury him in this very place next to the tombs of his father and other ancestors. But because Galileo was declared a heretic, an enemy of the church, the plans were dropped and he was instead buried in a small room next to the novices' chapel.


Galileo's missing finger, found at last. Photo credit:

After his death, the Galileo affair was largely forgotten, until forty-five years later when an Englishman named Isaac Newton published a revolutionary and earth-shattering book—"Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy"—where he laid the groundwork for classical mechanics. Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation and the Laws of Motion decisively proved that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa, and that Galileo was right all along. In 1718, to rectify the error the church lifted the ban on Galileo's works, and in 1737, his body was exhumed and reburied in full honor in the main body of the basilica.

However, before Galileo’s reburial, some of his morbid admirers, seeking to keep a few souvenirs, dismembered the poor Italian and denied him of three fingers from his hand, a tooth and a vertebra, from his body. The vertebra went to the University of Padua, where Galileo taught for many years, while the tooth, and the fingers were passed down the generation from collector to collector until they went missing in 1905.

More than a century later, the fingers and the tooth turned up mysteriously at an auction held in 2009, along with other religious relics contained in a 17th century wooden case. The objects were being sold as unidentified artifacts, and Alberto Bruschi, a renowned Florence art collector bought the collection not knowing what they were.

When Mr Bruschi and his daughter noticed that the wooden case was topped with Galileo's bust, and learned that parts of the scientist's body had been cut off at his burial, they contacted the museum. Tests and studies confirmed that they had found Galileo's missing remains.

Today, visitors to Museo Galileo, conveniently located within walking distance from Galileo's tomb in Basilica di Santa Croce, can see his shriveled middle finger displayed in an ornate Easter egg-like pedestal. The museum also contains many artifacts of the scientist such as two extant telescopes, thermometers, and an extraordinary collection of terrestrial and celestial globes.


Photo credit: Oliver Quinlan/Flickr


Galileo's tomb in Basilica di Santa Croce. Photo credit: Anna Fox/Flickr

Sources: Guardian / Telegraph / Wikipedia


  1. Amazing story! Did he missed three fingers and here are only one recovered, right? Wonder what were the other artifacts in the case!

    1. News reports mention a thumb and a middle finger, so at least two were recovered. There is no mention about the third finger. The museum displays only the middle finger.


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