Just Google, “10 greatest geniuses of all times,” and it is highly likely that two of the names on that list will be Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo Galilei.
Now, think about what you would do if you were put in charge of bringing their legacy into the 21st century, in all its complexity, as neither man can be reduced to one simple label, say “artist” or “astronomer.” Both were proverbial, intellectually omnivorous Renaissance men.
But that is the life’s work of Paolo Galluzzi, the longtime director of Florence’s Museo Galileo and former director of the Biblioteca Leonardiana, the research center dedicated to things Leonardo, who has successfully masterminded the conversion of the two analog geniuses into the digital age.
Even though Professor Galluzzi, 76, has considerable hands-on experience tinkering with Leonardo and Galileo’s manifold machines and instruments (from reconstructions of Leonardo’s mechanical contraptions to Galileo’s real-life telescopes housed in the museum’s collection), one of his greatest achievements has been to cement their presence online.
For the past two years, Galileo scholars and aficionados have been able to access all of the Tuscan prodigy’s manuscripts and the principal related scholarship through the search engine Galileo//thek@, a project developed through the museum. “It lets you find in seconds things that would take months to find by hand,” he said proudly. A similar search engine, Leonardo//thek@, is in the works for the other Tuscan genius and is expected to be in operation next spring.
The two search engines will exponentially magnify the global reach of both Galileo and Leonardo, embodying one of Mr Galluzzi’s driving aims: to widen access to knowledge.
“This is a patrimony that should be universally available,” he said.
When he was hired in 1982 as director of what was then known as the Institute and Museum of the History of Science, he inherited a staff of one and headquarters that occupied just one floor of the 11th-century Palazzo Castellani, adjacent to the Uffizi galley, one of Italy’s top tourist draws. By contrast, tourists merely trickled into the science museum.
Today, the Galileo Museum, as it was renamed after a 2010 restoration, has doubled its floor space, draws around 300,000 visitors a year and produces specialised multimedia exhibitions that tour the world.
For Mr Galluzzi, the dawn of the internet age brought an epiphany of sorts. “Compared to the Uffizi, this little institution just couldn’t compete,” he said in an interview in his wood-panelled office. “But I had the impression that using these novel instruments, it was possible to create a new playing field in which we could grow.”
Back in the 1990s he embraced what were then unfamiliar technologies with gusto (and not without some mishaps, he acknowledged, recalling the unreliability of the earliest data storage systems). The museum was the first in Italy to have its own website, in early 1995, “and not just a home page, there were contents too.” Today, it has more online viewers than the Uffizi, he boasted happily.
“It’s certainly unique in Italy, and rare elsewhere, for a museum to have such a powerful digital presence,” he said.
It strives to remain current. The catalog can be downloaded in PDF format and the museum can be ‘‘visited’’ by Google Street View, while an online virtual tour includes detailed descriptions of some 1,000 instruments. The mobile phone app does much the same, with the addition of videos on how things work.
A significant number of the books in the institute’s library, one of the best in Europe on the history of science, are also available online, including most of the rare volumes and manuscripts on the early modern history of science and technology.
In many ways, Mr Galluzzi and the museum were traveling in two orbits destined to cross.
After high school studies in the humanities, he studied philosophy at the University of Florence under the Renaissance scholar Eugenio Garin, obtaining a degree in the history of philosophy. He was one of the first students in Italy to specialize in the history of science, a discipline that had not been formally recognized at the time. His passion for Galileo dates back to then.
“I received my degree in 1968, the years of student unrest, and Galileo was seen as a hero because of his battle for the autonomy of reason from the control of the church,” he said.
His decades-old fascination with Leonardo, on the other hand, was a matter of “fate,” he said. After college, he was hired as director of the Biblioteca Leonardiana, in Vinci, the artist’s hometown.
“If I hadn’t gotten the job, I probably would never have become a Leonardo scholar,” he said. “Maybe I would have studied Newton, or some other thinker.” It worked out well, in the end. “Leonardo is a prey that’s hard to capture, but then he fascinates you and completely engages you,” he said.
Even as he navigated the Leonardo museum into a new era, he embarked on an academic career, teaching the history of science first at the University of Siena, then the University of Florence, interspersed with many short-term appointments at a number of universities: Harvard; Princeton; U.C.L.A.; the University of Hamburg; École des Haute Études in Paris; and the University of Toronto, to name a few.
Under his guidance, the museum embarked on a new venture, pioneering the era of multimedia, interactive exhibits. Leonardo’s intricate musings on a host of contraptions were a good fit for this burgeoning project, and his sketches and drawings were brought to life on computer screens to show how they operated.
“The first shows were very primitive compared to what we do today, but they were an indication of the path we were taking,” he said. The museum’s growing reputation began attracting young engineers. Currently, it invests a third of its budget, and a third of its staff, to information technology. One staff member’s sole task is guaranteeing long-term digital preservation, keeping up-to-date with new systems and moving data to new platforms when necessary.
“We want to ensure that our archives will be accessible in 300 years,” Mr Galluzzi said. “At first we thought that digital would last forever, but it turns out it’s much less durable than a book, which can last centuries,” he said, adding with a laugh: “Not to mention stone inscriptions.”
His own library consists of more than 20,000 volumes, forcing him and his wife, Lynne, to maintain a large home, even after his two daughters moved out. He also collects wine, mostly French, and produces olive oil from trees in the grove of his country house near Vinci.
From the start, the multimedia exhibits were crowd pleasers. “Engineers of the Renaissance,” toured the world’s major cities, while one Leonardo show in Tokyo drew around a million people in three months, he said.
Mr Galluzzi recently curated an exhibit of the Codex Leicester, Leonardo’s scientific writings, at the Uffizi Galleries. While he dismissed the knockoff exhibits of large-scale Leonardo machines now ubiquitous in Italian cities as commercial operations “done by people who couldn’t tell you when Leonardo was alive,” he conceded that the Uffizi show was rather, well, showy, with lots of scientific bells and whistles.
“An exhibit isn’t like reading a book; it has to be fun and create emotions,” he said. “Naturally, if along with the emotions we are able to transmit a concept or two, the game becomes more interesting.”
The director of the Uffizi, Eike Schmidt, described Mr Galluzzi as the world’s most eminent scholar of Leonardo’s scientific writings, though Mr Galluzzi admits his expertise does not extend to Leonardo’s artistic accomplishments. Authenticating paintings is “not my vocation,” he said. But he has collaborated with investigators trying to unmask the makers of fake copies of Sidereus Nuncius, Galileo’s observations on the cosmos.
For a man who preaches the digital gospel, he still pens his scholarly writings by hand, he said, a self-described “hyper-corrective” with an old-school approach to writing. Typing got in the way of reflection and meditation, he said. “One of my privileges is that I have secretaries who type up my handwritten notes,” he said, smiling.
After 36 years at the helm of the museum, Mr Galluzzi is thinking about retirement. “I want to leave when I am still of sound mind and body,” to pursue independent research and study, he joked.
His dance card is certainly booked. He serves on many committees, advisory boards and scientific commissions, and a year ago he was named president of the national committee marking the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, which falls in 2019.
But his true legacy is that of Leonardo and Galileo. “We are meteors that leave no trace,” he said, adding after a beat. “Unless you become Leonardo or Galileo.”