Location and Tidy Penmanship Clued Experts to This Galileo Forgery

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For decades, the University of Michigan Library held an esteemed article. The precious paper was a letter penned by Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, which included sketches of Jupiter’s moons.

The library acquired the letter in 1938 and considered it a prized possession because it was evidence of Galileo’s thought process as he worked toward his understanding that the planets revolved around the sun.

But a historical detective sensed it was a fake and one of many manuscripts or documents that were intentionally misrepresented to collectors, libraries, or museums. 

The Intrigue Surrounding Galileo’s Mysterious Letter

When it came to the Michigan letter, the location was everything to historian Nick Wilding.

“I’m pretty deep into the world of Galileo. I thought, ‘Why does this document exist? And why is it in Michigan? Why not the main archives in Florence?’” says Wilding, a professor of history at Georgia State University.

Wilding thought the letter needed further analysis in case it was the work of Tobia Nicotra, an Italian counterfeiter who regularly sold his fakes in the U.S. In 1934, Nicotra was convicted in Milan for a forgery of Mozart’s autograph. He was fined and sentenced to two years in prison. But by then, Nicotra had already disseminated hundreds of realistic forgeries, including another Mozart autograph that fooled officials at the Library of Congress.  

How Galileo’s Manuscript was Analyzed

The letter was a one-page draft Galileo wrote in 1609 describing his newly built telescope. In 1934, it went up for auction during an estate sale and was purchased by a Michigan collector, who gifted it to the university library upon his death in 1938.

Wilding emailed the museum curator in May 2022 about how he suspected the document might be a forgery. Wilding had uncovered other Galileo forgeries in previous years, including the Martayan Lan copy of the Sidereus Nuncius, which was later traced to an Italian library director who was part of a forgery crime ring.

The museum leadership agreed to let Wilding analyze the document and then launch their own investigation based on his evidence.

Examining the Handwriting

Besides the letter’s odd home in Michigan, Wilding also thought there was something off about the handwriting.

During Galileo’s time, one couldn’t save a draft as GG_DRAFT1_1609 and then update the file name as the work advanced. Instead, Wilding says scholars like Galileo had different styles of handwriting designated for draft and final form.

The final copy of the letter is housed at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze as part of the Sidereus Nuncius Dossier. That copy was written in Galileo’s finest hand. So why, Wilding questioned, was the Michigan copy also written in the finest form if it was just a draft?

Investigating Clues in the Watermark

When creating forgeries, Nicotra went to libraries and ripped pages out of old books. He then used these papers to forge autographs of music legends like Mozart or Richard Wagner.

In his investigation, Wilding asked Michigan officials to send him an image of the watermark on the letter. Paper-making was a more laborious process at the time, and producers marked their work with a watermark.

“When they sent me the image of the watermark, I knew it was about 100 years too late,” Wilding says.

The watermark belonged to a paper maker that began producing in Bergamo in the eighteenth century. Wilding declared the letter was a fake and Michigan officials agreed. 

Read More: Cryptologists Decode Mary Queen of Scots’ Letters

Why People Forge Historical Letters

Nicotra was a long-time conman who profited financially from his forgeries, especially when he forged autographs or letters like the one in the Michigan collection.

“All you have to do is copy on paper. That’s much easier than the book-making process,” Wilding says.

In recent years, Wilding says that some forgeries often have both a political and a final motivation. The forgeries of Hitler’s diaries, for example, were an attempt to rewrite history. 

The Appeal of Questionable Letters

Scammers who forge historical documents might have financial or political motives, but why do people buy questionable items?

When the Michigan letter was sold to an art auction house in New York, it came with a letter of authentication from the Archbishop of Pisa, who had a letter from Galileo in his own collection. The archbishop compared the two documents and certified that they were legit. Collectors bought the letter in good faith.

But in other instances, Wilding says people don’t ask questions because they are too excited about having the object in their possession. For example, Guglielmo Libri Carucci dalla Sommaja was an obsessed collector who turned to hoarding and thievery. Wilding says Libri was the Inspector of Libraries in France. He used his authority to rob the libraries of tens of thousands of books, manuscripts, and rare documents.

Similarly, Wilding says that Denis Vrain-Lucas was a nineteenth-century forger in France who gave his customers exactly what they wanted.

 “It started out with letters from Pascal to Sir Isaac Newton so a mathematician would buy his letters,” Wilding says.

“After a while, he was forging crazy stuff. Letters from the Virgin Mary in French on paper. Letters from Julius Caesar in French on paper. He was a ghost forger realizing whatever fantasies this collector had,” Wilding says.

Read More: Anne Boleyn’s Letter May Have Been Written 70 Years After Her Death

How Forgeries Undermine Scientific Archives

Scammers like Nicotra or the crime ring behind the Sidereus Nuncius forgery damaged authentic documents when trying to create their counterfeits. Wilding says they stole books that were never recovered, or they ripped out library stamps or entire pages and permanently damaged the books.

To Wilding, destroying such documents or books is an attack on science because it erases their history.

“History is important because facts are important, now more than ever,” Wilding says. “Without historical documentation, we don’t really know anything.”

Read More: Was the World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript from the Middle Ages A Hoax?

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Emilie Lucchesi has written for some of the country’s largest newspapers, including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and an MA from DePaul University. She also holds a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Illinois-Chicago with an emphasis on media framing, message construction and stigma communication. Emilie has authored three nonfiction books. Her third, “A Light in the Dark: Surviving More Than Ted Bundy,” releases October 3, 2023 from Chicago Review Press and is co-authored with survivor Kathy Kleiner Rubin. Visit her website here: [http://emilie-lucchesi.com/](http://emilie-lucchesi.com/).

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