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Finding Galileo's Loss Is My Gain

November 09, 1986|NINO LO BELLO | Lo Bello, author of "Nino Lo Bello's Guide to Offbeat Europe" (Chicago Review Press), is an American living in Vienna.

VIENNA — By not shackling myself with the handcuffs of a timetable and by nosing into obscure corners of Europe, I have probably logged upward of almost half a million fun miles in my hunt for the not-to-be-believed sites and sights, unusual places that are hardly mentioned in standard guidebooks, not even in fine print.

During two decades of digging out the stuff of which these tourist treasure hunts are all about and from which some travel articles are born and see the light, I have amassed a rubberneck's collection of curiosities--some weird, some fantastic, some unparalleled, some obscure, some incredible.

How It Started

The bug that bit and infused me with this hang-up for oddball travel targets was Galileo's finger. In the early '60s I worked as a free-lance writer in Rome, writing special economic reports for newspapers and magazines. Busy, I managed to find time to unwind in the gallery of the Rome Opera House where in time I became a member of the claque, a job that paid off in free tickets if you clapped for good singers--and bad singers.

This you did when the capo-claque let us all know the moment to start applauding by cuffing his hands (which were the size of a catcher's mitt) and producing a loud-decibel cue.

In the gallery during an intermission I met one of the ushers, Luigi Gasperini, who, though he had only gone as far as third grade, had educated himself by voracious reading. One night he dispensed a bit of trivia when he said that the astronomer Galileo had several fingers cut off from his right hand on the day he died in 1642. One of the fingers was on public display, said Gasperini, but he was not sure whether it was in Pisa or Florence.

"Think of it," Gasperini said, drawing a deep breath, "the finger that belonged to the hand that belonged to the body that had the brain that conceived those great experiments in physics and astronomy over 300 years ago!"

No Easy Task

The thought fascinated me, too. This was one finger I simply had to put the finger on, but finding what is probably the least-known tourist sight in Italy was no snap. An initial inquiry was made at the National Tourist Office in Rome, where the man in charge behaved as if my quest were the figment of an unhinged mind.

"The finger of Galileo?" he muttered, his hoax-proof radar painfully on the alert. " Ammazza! Where did you get such a fantastic idea?" He summoned a trio of colleagues who, upon being told of Galileo's finger, collectively shook their heads and had everything they could do to keep discreet, straight faces. Obviously, I was one of those crazy Americans. . . .

My next stop was Pisa, where Galileo had taught at the famed university and where he had angled himself out of the Leaning Tower to drop objects of different weights to prove that they would fall with the same speed.

When apprised of Galileo's missing digit, several of the city officials screwed up their faces in bureaucratic skepticism, Italian style. Obviously, I was one of those crazy Americans, etc., etc.

Turn of Events

On my way to Florence, the scent of the finger seemed to weaken, but Lady Luck beckoned with a finger of her own. At the Church of Santa Croce, where Galileo is buried and where also rest the bones of Michelangelo and Machiavelli, an attendant said: "Yes, I know the finger. Funny, you're the second person in 10 years who's asked about it. Last I heard, it was in the National Library. Try there."

The library people said they had the finger for many years but hadn't quite known what to do with it, so they gave it to the Museum of the History of Science on the flank of the Arno River. At the museum a custodian with a hacking cough sold me a ticket for 200 lire, made me sign the tourist register and sent me up a flight of stairs to Room 6.

Aha, there in the musty labyrinth of crammed exhibits that included some of Galileo's personal possessions, such as a compass, two telescopes, several thermometers, an array of lenses, a chair and four wooden bed legs, I came upon the finger--Galileo's finger, the middle finger from his right hand.

In Glass Container

There it was, in a showcase on an eye-high shelf, enclosed in an egg-shaped, gold-decorated glass container placed atop a piece of marble on which a Latin sentence by Thomas Prellius, an astronomer of the University of Pisa, had been inscribed.

Mesmerized by Galileo's withered phalanx, indeed a curiosity that both amused and amazed me, I wanted more. So the hunt for oddities began. And it has been going on keenly ever since.

Pursuing my quixotic quest for queeriosities that has taken me to many offbeat pockets of Europe, I have played eeny-meeny-miney-mo with the map, traveled where Baedeker left off and poked into the gee-ography of the Old World by every known means except ox cart and pack mule.

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