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Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) visits National Air and Space Museum

Galileo Galilei, Sidereus Nuncius Magna, Longeque Admirabilia Spectacula Pandens, Suspiciendaque Proponens Unicuique [The great starry messenger], 1610

On September 30th, 2009 the new Public Observatory of Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) opened. Secretary of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough recently cited the observatory  project as an example of  the power of collaborations among Smithsonian units including The Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, NASM and the Libraries. Dr. Clough praised Libraries Director Nancy Gwinn and her staff for their hard work and willingness to show the public a truly rare treasure.  

The Sidereus nuncius (The Starry Messenger) by Galileo Galilei represented in two volumes temporarily resides in a highly secured exhibit case as part of NASM’s Explore the Universe. The books are highly valued in the circles of astronomers, book collectors, and historians. After the telescope’s invention in 1608, Galilei used it to look at the heavens. His discoveries were first announced in his famous work Sidereus nuncius (The Starry Messenger) printed in Venice by Baglionus in 1610. The depictions in the book about craters on the Moon, stars making up the Milky Way, and the moons of Jupiter caused great excitement across seventeenth-century Europe. A handsome quarto-size volume printed on good rag paper, the Venice Sidereus features high quality typography and fine copper plate illustrations. 

A second edition of the Sidereus nuncius was published in Frankfurt in the same year as the first. The book’s small size and its lower quality materials make it an inexpensive “street” version of its Venice predecessor. It contains some inaccuracies in content and lesser quality woodblock illustrations. Based on these features some bibliographic sources propose the opinion that the Frankfurt Sidereus is a so-called “pirated edition.”—David DeVorkin & Lilla Vekerdy

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