Eppur Si Muove Hoax

Campo and Campo Galileo in Prison

The "Eppur Si Muove" Myth is alive and well on the web and in media. It may have died long ago if the painting above (photo from Campo and Campo Auctioneers) had not been found in 1911. Historians of the time doubted the story because it originated more than a century after Galileo's death from a dubious source. What is now looking like an art hoax breathed life back into the legend. Proof was needed that the legend was circulating around the time of Galileo, ideally by people connected to Galileo. The painting falsely delivered on both.

Giuseppe Baretti and the Eppur Si Muove Myth

The first reference to Galileo uttering "Eppur Si Muove" seems to be the text below in the Italian Library by Giuseppe Baretti, published in 1757. This was more than a century after Galileo's death in 1642. According to Wikipedia, Giuseppe Baretti was a literary critic, linguist and poet,not a historian.

This is the celebrated Galileo, who was in the inquisition for six years, and put to torture, for saying the earth moved. The moment he was set at liberty, he looked up to the sky and down to the ground, and, stamping with his foot, in a contemplative mood, said, Eppur Si Muove ; that is, still it moves, meaning the earth
Giuseppe Baretti and the Birth of a Myth

It is surprising that anyone took the passage seriously since so much of it is wrong. He wasn't "in the inquisition for six years". He spent 18 days in a 5-room suite of the Palace of the Holy Office (see Galileo's Dungeon Myth). If you want to count the entire time Galileo spent in Rome during his trial it would be about 4 months. Most of this time was spent in comfortable quarters inside the Tuscan Embassy. Galileo was never tortured. Baretti doesn't state where he got his (mis)information.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the story was being dismissed. It could be revived, but it would need proof that the story was circulating nearer to Galileo's time, ideally by people connected to Galileo.

The Eppur Si Muove Art Hoax

If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

For believers in the Eppur Si Muove legend, the events of 1911 were almost too good to be true. A Belgian art collector, Jules van Belle, approached Antonio Favoro, an important historian of Galileo's works, reporting that he had a painting of "Galileo in Prison" (image at top of article). It showed "E pur si muove", scratched with a nail, on the wall. The signature, though not clear, was that of Bartolome Murillo, a famous Spanish painter. Shortly afterward, Eugene Lagrange, a famous Belgian physicist, went to view the painting in Roeselare, Belgium. He reported that the frame carried a dedication to Ottavio Piccolomini and that the painting was dated either 1643 or 1645 [_1_] . Ottavio Piccolomini was the brother of one of Galileo's best friends, Cardinal Ascanio Piccolomini. Ottavio, an avid art collector, had served as a general for Spain. We had our smoking gun..or a hoax.

Those familiar with the art world would be surprised by what didn't happen next. It seems that proper due diligence was not performed to confirm that the suggested attribution, date, and dedication were plausible. In the art world, if attribution and dating of an artwork are considered important, experts would be consulted...even if you have a signature and date.

Due diligence on the claims about "Galileo in Prison" was not performed until more than a century after its discovery. Recently, Mario Livio (a physicist and science writer) decided to do a deep dive on the Eppur Si Muove legend (see Did Galileo Truly Say, ‘And Yet It Moves’? A Modern Detective Story). He sent copies of early photographs of "Galileo in Prison" to 4 experts on Murillo. All agreed that the painting was not a Murillo. One of these experts even placed the painting in the nineteenth century. Although knowledge of the painting's whereabouts was lost for many decades, Livio discovered that a painting matching "Galileo in Prison" had been sold by the Campo and Campo auction house in 2007 for a descendant of Jules van Belle. The auction house's expert had placed the painting in the nineteenth century. Campo and Campo reported that there was no date or signature on the painting when sold.

If these experts are right, back in 1911, Eugene Lagrange viewed a nineteenth century painting with a counterfeit signature of Bartolome Murillo, falsely dated back to the seventeenth century, with a dedication to a Tuscan mercenary who had died about two centuries before it was painted. Hmmm?

Murillo Beggar Boy

It shouldn't have taken a century to realize that "Galileo in Prison" couldn't breathe life back into Barretti's myth. There were reasons for suspicion from the beginning. Murillo rarely signed or dated his paintings. Murillo's art is important. The Young Beggar, above, sits in the Louvre. Many others sit in the premier galleries of the world. If "Galileo in Prison" really was a Murillo, why was news of its discovery ignored by the art community. The theme of "Galileo in Prison" would have been a consideration for Murillo. In seventeenth century Spain (excluding Madrid), the church was the most important patron of the arts. Beyond the monetary considerations, Murillo was a devout Catholic, having once considered becoming a priest.

There are even questions about why Ottavio Piccolomini would want a Spanish portrait of his Florentine compatriot. By 1643 or 1645, Murillo had not yet established his reputation. Ottavio had a more credible connection with a Flemish artist who had painted Galileo's portrait from life, Justus Sustermans. Justus Sustermans was based in his birthplace, Florence. The portrait of Ottavio Piccolomini, below, is attributed to Justus Sustermans.

Ottavio Piccolomini Portrait by Sustermans

Galileo and the History Deniers

Without "Galileo in Prison", the "Eppur Si Muove" Legend would have died long ago. It remained sketchy, even with it. So how did the myth become so popular? It wasn't because of historians. A consensus was never reached amongst historians of science as to whether the legend was true or not. Many simply ignored it. The legend is not important to any understanding of Galileo's science. It also wasn't important in establishing Galileo's character (e.g. independence of thought, etc.) because there was plenty of verified correspondence and documents to do that. No need to depend on an event that may have never happened. A more likely reason for the popularity of the "Eppur Si Muove" Myth is not historians, but history deniers.

Some historians believe that it was upon his transfer that Galileo actually said ‘Eppur si muove,’ rather than at his public abjuration following the trial
On the Shoulders of Giants, Stephen Hawking

It is easy to understand how history deniers can carry more weight with the public than historians, especially if these deniers are famous scientists or science writers. Notice in the quote above, how Stephen Hawking doesn't question if the "Eppur Si Muove" narrative happened, just how it happened. Scientists, in and out of academia, repeated the myth over the last century. The historians of science who voiced scepticism about the story were ignored.

The Eppur Si Muove myth is only one of many myths about Galileo. The Galileo Myths page details more than 20 of them. These myths have been repeated by Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson,Stephen Hawking, Bertrand Russell and award-winning science documentaries. Once you get beyond the Galileo Myths, you will still have to winnow out what is fact and what is hyperbole. The Renaissance Mathematicus blog discusses the hyperbole so common in Galileo narratives here . In short, when you enter a discussion on the historical Galileo, you are entering a minefield. One that is better navigated with the help of historians, or by at least consulting current historical thought.

This brings us back to the science writer (Mario Livio) who had the good sense to apply due diligence to the "Galileo in Prison" discovery. He is one of the latest to enter the Galileo minefield with his book, Galileo and the Science Deniers. According to Renaissance Mathematicus, he didn't fare well (see here). The minefield doesn't choose its victims.

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Copyright Joseph Sant (2020).

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1. Lagrange,Eugene, Ciel et Terre, Volume 33, ,
Ciel et Terre was a Belgian periodical that dealt with Astronomy,Meteorology and Physics. Eugene Lagrange published an account of his visit to Roeselare to see "Galileo in Prison" in early 1912.