When most people think of the Vatican and astronomy, they usually remember Galileo Galilei, the Italian scientist condemned for suspected heresy in 1633 for maintaining that the earth revolved around the sun (and who was "rehabilitated" in 1992 by a special Vatican commission established by Pope John Paul II).
Less well-known are the centuries-old contributions of Italy and the Vatican to astronomy. This history is the subject of a new exhibition, "Astrum 2009," running at the Vatican Museums from October 15, 2009 to January 15, 2010, said a Catholic News Service article by Carol Glatz.
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. Many of the 130 items in the exhibit have never been displayed publicly.
Some of the exhibit is 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 map 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.
There are even some Galileo-related artifacts, like his original handwritten notes detailing his observations of the moon and his publication Starry Messenger from 1610, which detailed how he perfected the telescope to magnify distant objects 30 times their appearance to the naked eye.
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.
A video about the exhibit: