Nick Wilding – Reviews of Galileo’s O (3 Volumes)

1 December, 2017 - MA Coursework


For this week, in addition to the “Making of a (Forged) Book” video, the Anatomy of a Book exercise, and the introduction to A Galileo Forgery: Unmasking the New York Sidereus Nuncius, I read Nicholas Schmidle’s New Yorker piece “A Very Rare Book,” Sean Richards’s “Between the Covers: Reflections of a Book Artist” in World Literature Today, Dwyer Murphy’s “A Visit to the Shadowy World of Rare Book Theft” on Literary Hub, and, all by Nick Wilding, a letter to the editor in Isis, and his reviews of the three volumes of Galileo’s O. Since we’re all on the same page, I thought I might skip the typical grad school response protocol of summarizing and just gloss over the details of the SNML controversy when relevant; I would instead like to focus on Nick Wilding’s reactions to the controversy.

Wilding’s review of A Galileo Forgery reads like the frustration of a person who spent years of his life shouting well-reasoned evidence against the authenticity of SNML from down Georgia State University way only to be ignored and left unacknowledged throughout and especially so in a grudging “nonapology” that is A Galileo Forgery, the third volume of Galileo’s O. It is perhaps the most entertaining book review I have read. Wilding was hoping, not for another review of the SNML, which had already been done in Galileo’s O 1 and 2, but for a review of those first two volumes themselves. For him, the central questions of the third volume should have been “under what conditions was it possible for such a clamorous error to have been made? Were the scientific tests correctly conceived or executed? Was the evidence well selected? Was the expertise in and between each discipline of a high enough standard?” These questions cut right to important issues of materiality. It is the (seventeenth-century) materiality of the text which makes it valuable, and thus worthy of scrutiny, in the first place. The materiality of the book defines the ways in which its value, both monetary and scholarly, might be determined. The materiality of the book makes physical scrutiny possible. The paper, ink, stamps, widths of the margins, the residues of age — the very properties of its physicality — are the subject of scrutiny, and the determinants of the procedures of scrutiny. They invite and necessitate forensic examination. And as with forensic science in criminology, the physicality of the research and laboratory setting create the seemingly incontrovertible illusion of “scientificality.”

The SNML created a controversy in forensic methods and in the hierarchy of scholarly reputation as much as in the antique book trade. Wilding makes a rousing call for the involvement of dealers, collectors, librarians, and criminals (and, from my perspective, even scholars at less historically venerable institutions like Georgia State) to participate in the process of authentication. Wilding insists that the illegitimacy of the SNML was made possible as much by the cloistered elitism of Bredekamp as the nefariousness of Massimo De Caro. Had other stakeholders been allowed in the process, the forgery would have been detected much more rapidly and with much less fanfare. I think this lesson is applicable on a much larger scale than book forgery. Wilding calls these problems “local cults of academic elitism.” He calls for, what might be “perhaps an unhelpful tautology,” “adequate contextualization” when he says that the “dictum of historians of science that knowledge is socially embedded is prescriptive as well as descriptive.” I call it “meta-analysis.” In their attempt to authenticate the SNML, some historians of science lacked the introspection and self-reflection to consider that their own scientific undertaking might itself have been socially-constructed. The irony is accentuated by all of the times we have argued for the social constructivism of Galileo’s own work.

Now to infuse a brief bit of controversy of my own into the subject: I am curious as to why none of the players involved felt it necessary to demonstrate the scholarly value of SNML. I am not suggesting there would not have been any added value, if it were authentic. What I notice, however, is that this book was initially imparted value not by scholars for scholarly reasons, but by collectors for pecuniary reasons. It seems initial interest in the book was driven by the fetishization of the old, and a hierarchy of particular individuals within that fetish. (I do not mean this pejoratively; as an historian and bibliophile, I fetishize the old as much as the next person). But the insistence that the appearance of a heretofore unknown book is more arousing if that book be by Galileo is predicated on the assumption that the contributions of some personages to science are necessarily more valuable than those of others. This is a common assumption in our field, if an increasingly contentious one. It is not one I myself uphold. But it has a cultural logic of its own and if we are going to infuse those priorities into our work then we must be ready to take account of them, and reconcile them with our overarching narratives. The point is this: the scale of the SNML controversy was made possible by the a priori assumption of both scholars and collectors that a newly discovered Galileo is more important than a newly discovered work by most anyone else. I can stomach this assumption from the collectors. They have a strong financial incentive to prioritize the heroes of historians’ of science stories — they generate more excitement in buyers and sell for higher at auction. This ties into the materiality of the book. The text of the Sidereus Nuncius itself, thanks to those same tech entrepreneurs who shark and spike the antique book market, has no monetary value whatsoever — I can find it for free online in a matter of seconds — it is the physicality of book, binding, paper, and all, that imparts value on a copy of SN, specifically, if that material stuff was made and assembled in the time of the author and touched by the author. I understand the enchantment and allure of this palpable connection to the past, the physical embodiment of Galileo as a corporeal being in the form of an object he crafted. The spiritual impact of this connection for both scholars and collectors is invaluable. What is less clear to me, and what provokes larger questions about the priorities of the history of science, is what the SNML would have contributed to scholarship had it been authentic. Perhaps a great many things but they were more assumed than explained in the reading I did and I think the reasons need to be interrogated.


Nick Wilding – Reviews of “A Comparison of the Proof Copy (New York) with Other Paradigmatic Copies by Bruckle, Hahn and Bredekamp; Venice 1610 by Needham and Bredekamp


Nick Wilding – Letter to the Editor – Isis 103 : 4


Nick Wilding – Review of A Galileo Forgery: Unmasking the New York Sidereus Nuncius Sidereus Nuncius by Needham, Bredekamp, and Bruckle










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