For nearly a century, the University of Michigan possessed a piece of paper that it considered “one of the jewels” of its library. Believed to have been written in 1609 and 1610 by astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei, it features a letter signed by the scientist describing a new telescope and sketches of moons orbiting Jupiter. The university held that it was the “first observational data that showed objects orbiting a body other than the earth.”
Galileo did use a new telescope in 1610 to discover that moons orbit around Jupiter—a finding that helped substantiate Nicolaus Copernicus’ heliocentric theory—but he did not write the manuscript, the university announced last week following an investigation. Rather, the document was forged in the 20th century, most likely by a man named Tobia Nicotra.
“It was pretty gut-wrenching when we first learned our Galileo was not actually a Galileo,” Donna L. Hayward, the interim dean of Michigan’s libraries, tells the New York Times’ Michael Blanding.
Doubt first arose when Nick Wilding, a Georgia State University historian and Galileo scholar, looked at an image of the Michigan manuscript, per the Times. “It just kind of jumps out as weird,” he tells the Times, citing peculiar handwriting, word choice and ink color.
Wilding has an eye for this sort of thing. He teaches a class titled “Forgeries, Facsimiles and Sophisticated Copies” at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School, and he has uncovered forgeries before—namely, the forgery of a copy of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius that purportedly included Galileo’s original watercolors of the moon.
Through his work, Wilding has made quite the name for himself—so much so that Pablo Alvarez, curator at Michigan’s Special Collections Research Center, recalls to the Times the “sinking feeling” he got when Wilding contacted him, requesting provenance information and an image of the Galileo manuscript’s watermark. Document watermarks can appear when held up to the light and may reveal when and where a paper was made.
Provenance information in hand, Wilding continued his investigation into the manuscript and found that it had been in the hands of Nicotra, a well-known 20th-century forger. He also traced the watermark back to the Italian city of Bergamo, and he found that it could be cross-referenced with a book called The Ancient Paper-Mills of the Former Austro-Hungarian Empire and Their Watermarks. Michigan’s library happened to be in possession of the book, so Wilding contacted the library and encouraged them to take a look.
Alvarez did, and he was only able to find watermarks similar to the one on the manuscript from after the year 1770—160 years after the document was supposedly created. That was the nail in the coffin: Following this piece of evidence, the university concluded that the manuscript is, indeed, a 20th-century forgery.
Though Hayward finds the discovery gut-wrenching, she tells the Times that it’s also enthralling: “The forgery is a really good one … The discovery in some ways makes this a more fascinating item.”
In a statement, the university says it is undergoing a “reconsideration of [the manuscript’s] place in the collection,” and that it “may come to serve the research, learning and teaching interests in the arena of fakes, forgeries and hoaxes, a timeless discipline that's never been more relevant.”
Timeless indeed: Last year, a technical analysis revealed that Yale University’s treasured Vinland Map, formerly believed to be a Viking map of North America from the 1440s, was actually forged in the 20th century. In 2020, Germany’s Museum Ludwig exhibited a collection of fake and misattributed paintings in a bold approach to the taboo subject of forgery.
“Museums are the right institutions to be advancing this research, because for us it’s about scholarship, not commercial interests,” Museum Ludwig director Rita Kersting told the Times’ Catherine Hickley in 2020. “We are open to scholarly contributions and new findings. The research is never finished.”
Per the Times, the University of Michigan is considering taking a similar approach to the fake Galileo. Rather than tuck it away, the university may make it the centerpiece of a future exhibition on the art of forgery.