The University of Michigan has revealed that a handwritten document thought to have been written by Galileo Galilei is a forgery.
According to a statement from the library, the single piece of paper was a jewel of collection of the University of Michigan Library. However, an internal investigation by a history professor revealed that it is a forgery: Watermarks in the paper date no earlier than the 18th century, more than a century after the famous astronomer’s death.
“It was pretty gut-wrenching when we first discovered our Galileo wasn’t actually a Galileo,” said Donna L. Hayward, interim dean of Michigan’s libraries, to the New York Times last week.
The manuscript has been at the university since 1938, when it was donated by the trustees of Tracy McGregor, a Detroit businessman who bought it at an auction from another collector in 1934. According to the University of Michigan Library, the 1934 auction catalogue claimed that Cardinal Pietro Maffi (1858-1931), Archbishop of Pisa, authenticated the manuscript by comparing it to other Galileo letters in his collection.
The top of the manuscript is a draft of a letter written by Galileo before presenting a new telescope to the Doge of Venice in 1609. The famous astronomer did, in fact, write a version of this letter; a final draught can be found in the State Archive in Venezia, Italy. The lower half of the document is a collection of notes on Jupiter’s moons, based on actual notes taken by Galileo. The final draft of those notes can also be found in Florence National Central Library, Italy.
However, when Nick Wilding, a historian at Georgia State University, saw an image of the document, he became suspicious. According to the New York Times, the ink, handwriting, and some of the word choices seemed unusual for a 17th-century document. Wilding expressed his concerns in an email to University of Michigan Library curator Pablo Alvarez in May 2022, prompting the university to launch an internal investigation. Wilding was correct, according to the university, three months later. The document was most likely by Tobia Nicotra, a prolific Italian forger who operated in the 1920s and 1930s.
The watermark in the paper sealed the deal. According to the University of Michigan Library, watermarks on old paper often identify the maker and location of production. The watermark on the Galileo paper is “AS,” the papermaker’s initials, and “BMO,” an abbreviation for Bergamo, Italy. The earliest known papers with the BMO monogram date from 1770, implying that the document cannot be older.
Furthermore, the university discovered no evidence that the Galileo document existed prior to the 1930s. Worse, Maffi claimed to have compared the manuscript to two documents in order to authenticate it, but they turned out to be Nicotra forgeries. Wilding also discovered a similar Nicotra Galileo forgery (a letter allegedly from 1607) in the collections of The Morgan Library in New York City, according to a university statement.
The University of Michigan Library is currently rethinking how to present the Galileo document. It’s possible that the hoax itself could became as a lesson.
The library claims that in the future, the book “may come to serve the research, learning, and teaching interests in the field of fakes, forgeries, and hoaxes, a timeless discipline that’s never been more relevant.”