It was the first time in history that anyone had documented a celestial body orbiting a planet that wasn’t Earth, and for nearly a century the University of Michigan boasted Galileo’s Jupiter sketch as one of its “jewels.”
“This one-leaf manuscript is one of the great treasures of the University of Michigan library,” the university wrote in a description of the document. “It reflects a pivotal moment in Galileo’s life that helped change our understanding of the universe.”
In May, a university curator received an email from Nick Wilding.
Wilding, a professor of history at Georgia State University, wrote to express “serious doubts” about the authenticity of the Galileo manuscript, library officials wrote in a new description of the manuscript’s origins. The university’s experts found Wilding’s findings “compelling evidence,” reexamined their gem, and came to the same conclusion he did.
It was a forgery, written not in the early 1600s by the father of modern astronomy, but more than 300 years later by a notorious forger.
“We are grateful to Professor Wilding for sharing his findings and are now working to rethink the manuscript’s role in our collection,” the university wrote in its online update.
Neither Wilding nor the university library responded late Sunday to a request for comment from The Washington Post.
The manuscript hit the public’s radar in May 1934 when an auction house sold the library of the late Roderick Terry, a wealthy collector of antiquarian books and manuscripts. According to the auction catalogue, the Archbishop of Pisa authenticated the document by comparing it to a Galileo letter in his personal collection.
Tracy McGregor, a Detroit businessman, bought the manuscript. After his death, a trust established in McGregor’s name bequeathed it to the University of Michigan in 1938 in honor of one of the astronomy professors.
It has been there ever since and during its 84 year stay it was believed to be real.
Then Wilding, author of an upcoming biography of Galileo, explored it. The university mentioned two things that led to “serious doubts” from the historian.
The first: A watermark on the paper — “BMO,” a reference to the Italian city of Bergamo — suggested the document was much newer than experts had thought. No other document with that watermark predates 1770, more than 150 years after Galileo supposedly wrote the manuscript mapping Jupiter’s moons.
The second: experts could find no trace of the manuscript’s existence before 1930, despite the “extremely thorough” documentation of Galileo’s works. Cardinal Pietro Maffi, the Archbishop of Pisa who authenticated the manuscript, did this by comparing it with two other works that he believed Galileo had written, but were later determined to be forgeries.
Both forgeries were donated to the archbishop by Tobia Nicotra, the man Wilding believes has forged the university manuscript. Described as a “known forger” by university officials, Nicotra was convicted in 1934 of selling a fake Mozart autograph to the son of a conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, according to a Nov. 10, 1934 article in the New York Times. . During the Nicotra trial in Milan, police said they had found evidence that Nicotra was preparing forged signatures of the likes of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Nicotra created his forgeries by going to the library of Milan, tearing blank pages from old books, and then using them to make “signatures” of famous musicians, according to the 1934 Times article. Librarians in Milan testified that the forger had destroyed dozens of books.
Last week, University of Michigan library officials said Wilding’s discovery will force them to reconsider the value of the forged manuscript. They ended their announcement on a positive note, saying such a rethink could make it more important than ever.
“In the future, it could serve the research, learning and teaching interests of counterfeits, counterfeits and deception, a timeless discipline that has never been more relevant.”