Faking Galileo
July 9, 2014 3:33 PM   Subscribe

Art forgeries have long been the stuff of thrillers, with fake da Vincis or Vermeers fooling connoisseurs, roiling the art world, and moving millions of dollars. We don’t think of ancient books driving such grand forgery, intrigue, and schadenfreude. This is changing thanks in part to a clever forgery of Galileo’s landmark book Sidereus Nuncius, published in Venice in 1610. Arguably one of the most extraordinary scientific publications of all times, Sidereus Nuncius turned Galileo into the brightest new star of Western science. Four centuries later, a faked copy of this book has disarmed a generation of Galileo experts, and raised a host of intriguing questions about the social nature of scholarly authentication, the precariousness of truth, and the revelatory power of fakes.
posted by whyareyouatriangle (9 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

The novel The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte did a convincing job of explaining how much more difficult it is to forge a book than a painting. He also did a nice job of explaining how, despite the difficulty, such a thing could happen (No spoilers. Oddly, the film version, The Ninth Gate, sort of missed the point on this.)
posted by SPrintF at 3:37 PM on July 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

William Henry Ireland was the Shakespeare forger par excellence. No movie on him, alas.
posted by BWA at 3:48 PM on July 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Looking forward to reading this - I found the New Yorker article from late last year extremely interesting. I think I may have a thing for forgery. After reading that one story of how the Mona Lisa was likely stolen and used as a model for forgeries, which were then sold before returning the original to the Louvre, I have yearned for a more amazing crime. This one's up there!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:54 PM on July 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thanks for this - it was a really fascinating description of the ways in which we view the world to satisfy our own expectations, even when we are acting as expert evaluators. The article makes some very nice points, including:

-how do we handle evidence and proof in our own work, and in that of our respected colleagues? How do our expectations impact our interpretations? How do we monitor our own projections?

-What does the ML forgery tell us about the way we see Galileo and the making of early modern science?

The overall story seemed fairly balanced as far as evaluating those who were taken in by the forgery, and is less of a detective or sensational story and more of a reflection on the ways "in which knowledge, including scientific knowledge of the most sophisticated kind, is routinely produced and validated."
posted by ianhattwick at 4:01 PM on July 9, 2014

It's remarkable how our desires for a particular outcome can blind us to obvious contrary facts. Thanks for this.
posted by Atrahasis at 4:07 PM on July 9, 2014

Wow. I was looking at a web page about the Sidereus Nuncus just hours ago. Now I have to check it out closely:

Looking for further hints, Wilding noticed that a word on ML’s title page contained a strange mistake: it read “pepiodis” rather than “periodis.” No other copy he had seen contained that mistake.

Nope, the MAA edition is authentic, it does not contain the forger's error. You can download a moderately high rez image of the lunar illustrations too.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:13 PM on July 9, 2014

Great article, thanks.
posted by bq at 5:43 PM on July 9, 2014

Thanks for posting this excellent piece, which tells the story of this extraordinary forgery more clearly than any other article I've read. However, it's not just about 'the social nature of scholarly authentication, the precariousness of truth, and the revelatory power of fakes', it's also about the asset-stripping of Italy's cultural heritage during the Berlusconi era. For further background, see the links in this previous post.

It's also a fascinating example of how we see what we expect to see:
During his first inspection of ML — and knowing that Bredekamp had authenticated the drawings — Needham noticed anomalies and differences between ML and other known copies, but he “formed a fantasy”: that ML was a collection of proof printings of Sidereus Nuncius. He did not even consider the obvious alternative: that ML was a forgery. He only saw ML “truly” and with “better schooled” eyes four years later, “on a brilliant day in late spring,” thanks to the “persistent skepticism” of Nick Wilding.
This completely chimes with my own experience. In my time in the antiquarian book trade there were two or three occasions when I handled really sophisticated fakes. (Two or three that I'm aware of, that is; there may well be others that I never even noticed ..) At first you see nothing wrong. Then you notice some small detail that just seems .. peculiar. ('Strange that such an ordinary book would have such a fancy binding', was my thought on one occasion.) Suddenly it feels like a picture sliding into focus. You see the book with completely new eyes, and after that -- just as Needham says here -- the forgery becomes so obvious that you can't understand how you ever failed to see it.
posted by verstegan at 12:14 AM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

It sounds like falling out of love - the object of one's passions is perfect, at first, and those? They are nothing. Delightful quirks at worst. Later, perhaps, one allows that it would be a little nicer if they weren't quite so insistently present... the cracks grow and then, one brilliant spring day, my god, what am I doing with this person?
posted by Devonian at 5:30 AM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

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