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A revelation in Florence

By Ajit Balakrishnan
October 26, 2007 14:07 IST
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Florence can overwhelm a visitor. Very few cities in Europe or even the world match it for its atmosphere. The buildings are striking, the churches are historic, its galleries stuffed with priceless objects, its skyline unique with its russet rooftops and lofty domes.

How could one city have accommodated so many gifted people? Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo… No wonder the Renaissance germinated here and spread to the rest of Europe. It's now the capital of Tuscany and at one time, for a brief period, was the capital of all of Italy.

Last summer I found myself strolling on a brightly lit morning along the banks of the Arno River that winds its way through the medieval centre of Florence. I pretended that it was not the year 2007, but the 1460's. Lorenzo Medici, also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent would be presiding over the affairs of Florence. Michelangelo would be busy working on his David. Botticelli would be painting his The Birth of Venus.

With a bit of luck I may even have encountered Leonardo in one of these little side streets. Maybe he would have invited me up to his studio and let me watch him paint his Mona Lisa or perhaps let me watch him make one of his visionary drawings of a helicopter or of a calculator or of a battle tank, all those objects that he foresaw but had to wait a few hundred years before mankind found the engineering skills to actually produce.

I was standing at the corner of the Ponte de Viccio, the oldest bridge over the Arno River when this thought struck me: if the Florentines were so far ahead of the rest of the world in the 15th- and 16th- century, how come the revolution in technology that happened at the end of the 17th century in Britain, the industrial revolution, did not first happen in Florence? How come Florence declined from its leadership in scientific and artistic thinking and became just another wine- and cheese-producing area?

At a distance, I could see the Museum of Science and Technology and I thought I may find an answer to this question there. So I quickened my pace but almost got run over by a strapping young Italian man driving his scooter at top speed as I crossed the street to get to the Museum.

I hurried to the fifth floor of the Museum, the one that had all of the telescopes. Wasn't it another great Florentine, Galileo, who brought rationalism to our world by peering through his telescopes at the Moon and the Saturn and Jupiter and suffered for that?

As I entered the room of telescopes, I immediately spotted the prize exhibit: Galileo's own telescope, nearly five feet long, made of two semi-circular tubes of wood, covered with paper and held together with copper wire. I looked at it in awe. It was with this simple gadget that Galileo had observed the hills and valleys of the Moon and the rings of Saturn. It was this simple gadget and what it revealed that shook the powerful Catholic Church and made them worried enough to imprison Galileo.

My sense of mystery deepened when I looked at the second telescope of Galileo: this one was three feet long and, like the first, was made of semi-circular tubes of wood. But unlike the first, which was wrapped in paper , this one was wrapped with multi-coloured, fine-grained leather and was topped with gold tooling. Was this really a scientific instrument, or a gadget to be possessed?

I pressed further into the room of telescopes. Here was another one, more recent than Galileo's. This one was covered with green velvet and decorated with white silk ribbons. And another one, this one covered with blue paper. Had Galileo made the telescope so popular that it had become in 17th-century Florence something like a watch today - less a tool for time keeping and more an object to possess and show off?

The final telescope I saw in that room confirmed this - an 18th-century telescope housed in an ivory column with an ivory box on top to hold beauty creams and powders! Obviously, a telescope for a fashionable lady of means.

Then it came to me in a flash. The telescope, in Florence, after Galileo's early discoveries, was not really a tool of science but what David Harvey, Professor of Anthropology at the City University of New York has called, in a different context, a "technological fetish". Florentine society had "fetishised" the telescope as some societies have done with technological objects since then and endowed them with mysterious and magical powers to shape the world.

Nathaniel Rosenberg of Stanford, in his book, How the West Grew rich, has pointed out that this is not very uncommon. For instance, in the 1950's, many newly independent countries, including India, rushed to equip themselves with factories full of whirring machines thinking that by merely spending money on these, you would achieve an industrial society.

"There is a fascination in the physical apparatus of giant factories, smokestacks, whirring machines," he says. But what really matters in industrial progress are not all these but the institutional system of change, "sometimes creating new markets and sometimes responding to them, adopting itself to changing sources of fuel and raw materials, reaching out for new technologies and sometimes creating them, and always modifying and reshaping its physical plant…"

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