In the winter of 1609-10, Galileo Galilei made a series of astronomical observations that added to the growing list of anomalies threatening the stability of the earth-centred Ptolemaic cosmos. His weak spyglass made mountains appear on the formerly pristine moon, resolved the Milky Way into innumerable stars, multiplied the number of objects in well-charted constellations and, most spectacularly, revealed four satellites orbiting Jupiter. Galileo swiftly published the narrative of these discoveries in the Sidereus Nuncius (ëStarry Messengerí), a quarto pamphlet of 60 pages, cramming in as many daysí observations of the Jovian satellites as he could without missing the deadline imposed by the most important opportunity for intellectual exchange in early modern Europe, the Frankfurt Book Fair. The pamphlet gestured to the possibility of using the satellites as a precise celestial clock, but relied on medieval merchant time to deliver its message. A fortnight before the fair, Galileo was still unsure of the title. On 13 March 1610, he sent the first, damp copy to his Tuscan patron and potential employer, Cosimo deí Medici. The same day, the English ambassador to Venice, Sir Henry Wotton, sent a copy to James I, describing it as ëthe strangest piece of news (as I may justly call it)í that he would ever have received ëfrom any part of the worldí. Most copies were probably sent over the Alps by Tommaso Baglioni, the bookís nominal publisher, or his boss, the excommunicated polemical printer Roberto Meietti, now in hiding behind various pseudonyms, after heíd acted as semi-official propagandist for Venice against Rome in a recent interdict controversy.
LRB 2 June 2011 | PDF Download