Issue: Spring 2015

Adventures in Bibliography!


On the 1st of April, Saint Louis University Libraries Special Collections hosted a guest lecture on how to fake a rare book—or, rather, how one very famous rare book was faked. This was no April Fool’s joke. Nick Wilding, PhD, Associate Professor of Early Modern History at Georgia State University, works on the history of early modern science, and beginning in 2011 became involved in uncovering one of the most sophisticated and bizarre episodes in the history of forging cultural artifacts. His talk, “Forging the Moon; or, How to Spot a Fake Galileo,” told the fascinating story of his work in revealing how a supposedly unique copy of Galileo’s Sidereus nuncius (or “Starry Messenger”) was actually a modern forgery.

The Sidereus nuncius by Galileo Galilei is a landmark in the history of astronomy. Published in Venice in 1610, it is the first book to record astronomical observations made with the aid of a telescope. In it, Galileo described the cratered surface of the moon and postulated the presence of mountains in the lunar terrain; he reported the existence of a wealth of new stars; and he announced his discovery of the moons of Jupiter, which he named the “Medicean stars.” It is a very rare book, of which only about 150 copies are known to survive. In 2005 a hitherto unknown and very special copy of the Sidereus nuncius came to light that purported to be a signed proof copy illustrated by Galileo himself.

Suspicions were raised by scholars and rare book dealers at the time this book came on the market, but many believed it to be genuine nevertheless. It represented the kind of touchstone historical artifact that people hope might exist, playing upon the wish to believe and to possess a relic of original creative genius. As Nick Wilding demonstrated, in actuality this copy was the product of a very clever forgery by a group led by Marino Massimo de Caro, former director of the Girolamini Library in Naples who is now under house arrest for having looted his own library of thousands of rare books and placing them for sale or auction. De Caro’s approach elsewhere was to visit and gain access to rare book libraries—easily done, since he possessed credentials as an official of Italy’s ministry of culture—and to steal genuine books of value but to replace them with fakes. These fakes became increasingly sophisticated, until he launched a forged Galileo onto the market instead of a stolen genuine copy and questions were raised.

For more background, see Nicholas Schmidle, “A Very Rare Book: The Mystery Surrounding a Copy of Galileo’s Pivotal Treatise,” The New Yorker (December 16, 2013).

Nick Wilding’s discovery has had repercussions not only for the history of science, but also for the authenticity of historical artifacts and the rare book trade. New forgeries of hand press era books are easier and cheaper to make than ever before and closer to perfect in their ability to deceive. How are they made, and how can we detect them? Paper can be forged. Ink can be made up using a contemporary recipe. A period binding can be “repurposed.” Even the effects of letterpress printing can be replicated. Today’s technology allows us to turn a photograph into a relief printing surface by using photopolymer plates, which will result in the same impression of letters into paper as letterpress printing creates using metal type. Focusing on the now‐exposed fraudulent copy of Galileo’s Sidereus nuncius, Nick Wilding’s lecture examined the tests these forgeries may pass and described new ones that—at least until now—they have failed. De Caro’s activities, not only his thefts but more importantly his falsification of historical evidence, seriously compromise our cultural heritage. In exercising skills in the analysis of typography and printing, paper and binding, and in tracing the history of libraries and their collections, Wilding brilliantly and entertainingly demonstrated the continued importance of bibliography as a vital tool of scholarly research.

Contact the Author

Gregory A. Pass, PhD, MALS
Assistant Dean for
Special Collections
Director, Knights of Columbus
Vatican Film Library

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