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History of Italy's Celestial Studies Stars in Vatican Museums' Exhibit
Carol Glatz
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Saturday, October 17, 2009
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A globe of the heavens from 1567, showing the main constellations seen from Europe.
VATICAN CITY (CNS)—The Vatican and Italian observatories have teamed up to display for the first time numerous precious instruments and books documenting the birth and development of stargazing in Italy.

The Vatican Observatory, the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics and the Vatican Museums have pooled their collections of antique telescopes, astrolabes, celestial globes and manuscripts, such as Galileo Galilei's original handwritten notes detailing his observations of the moon. Many of the 130 items in the exhibit have never been displayed publicly.

The exhibit, called "Astrum 2009," runs at the Vatican Museums from Oct. 16 to Jan. 16, 2010, and commemorates the International Year of Astronomy.

The United Nations declared the special year to mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first use of the telescope to observe the cosmos.

The exhibit's curator, Ileana Chinnici, told journalists during a Vatican press conference Oct. 13 that Italy's unique patrimony of astronomical instruments is the richest in the world.

Popes and the divided Italian states all supported their own observatories and amassed a large number of historical instruments and valuable documentation, she said.

Some of the unique and valuable objects on display include Galileo's handwritten notes and his publication "Starry Messenger" from 1610, both of which detailed how he perfected the telescope to magnify distant objects 30 times the size they appear to the naked eye.

There is also a replica of one of Galileo's telescopes created by Massachusetts-based craftspeople Jim and Rhonda Morris. The original is in the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, Italy.

Also on display is the arithmometer, one of the first commercial calculating machines. Created in 1882, it helped scientists do complex additions, subtractions, multiplications and divisions as well as extract square roots.

A few sections of the 130-piece exhibit are dedicated to the Vatican's history of astronomical research, including its participation in the 19th-century international "Carte du Ciel" (Map of Heaven) project to catalog and make a map of the stars.

Between 1910 and 1921, the Vatican Observatory assigned three nuns to help with the map project. These Sisters of the Child Mary measured the coordinates of tens of thousands of stars reproduced on photographic glass plates.

Also on display for the first time are photographs of a papal expedition to Russia in 1887 to witness and document a total solar eclipse. Three Italian priests made the trip, which proved unsuccessful due to poor weather and viewing conditions.

Missing from the exhibit is any mention of the church's troubled history and dealings with Galileo.

The Italian scientist was condemned for suspected heresy in 1633 for maintaining that the earth revolved around the sun. He was "rehabilitated" in 1992 by a special Vatican commission established by Pope John Paul II.

The church has made significant overtures in recent decades to show that faith and science do not conflict.

Galileo opened up a brand new way of doing science, which wasn't accepted immediately, said Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, president of the commission governing Vatican City in a written introduction to the exhibit's catalog.

These groundbreaking scientific discoveries help people better understand God's creation, he wrote, and the exhibit shows how science "is an inescapable part" of the human spirit and the whole human experience.

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