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Mysterious Books: Investigating Historical Forgeries

In January of 1610, Galileo Galilei observed three stars near Jupiter shift their position over the course of several days. His observations, and implications of proof that the Earth was not the center of our solar system, were published two months later in a booklet titled “Sidereus Nuncius,” or “Starry Messenger.”

This book launched Galileo’s career and remains one of the most significant works of early modern astronomy, forever changing our understanding of earth’s place in the solar system. Some 500 years later, it embroiled Nick Wilding, an associate professor at Georgia State, in a mysterious drama over book forgery, corruption and organized crime in Italy so thrilling and byzantine that it begs for film adaptation.

Wilding spotted a forgery of the text produced by a man named Marino Massimo De Caro that had fooled dozens of experts in the field, and been established as Galileo’s own “proof copy” of the text- his personal copy produced for later reproductions- making it both a major historical find and extremely valuable.

Uncovering this forgery opened up a spiralling and still-unfinished investigation into De Caro’s criminal involvement with historical books, covered in an excellent article in the New Yorker everyone should take a minute to read here.

As a historian of early modern Europe, Wilding joked at a talk he gave as part of the Early Science Workshop, a DHI Research Cluster, at UC Davis on Wednesday, December 6, he doesn’t often get involved in stories like this. Or even talk to people very often, he added with a laugh. This remarkable story was the beginning of “something of an obsession” for Wilding with book forgery, one he discussed at length with students and faculty members across disciplines at this event, the second session of the workshop series.

Wilding is an expert in Galileo, and was just finishing his second book, titled Galileo’s Idol: Gianfrancesco Sagredo and the Politics of Knowledge when he was invited to investigate De Caro’s forgery. Wilding discovered the dupe by examining minute details of the text. He has since been focused on other cases of book forgery, and on the topic generally, which is remarkably under-studied and inconsistently recorded. There is no catalogue that lists all books known to be forgeries, and the bibliographic data which does identify certain texts as known forgeries is often ambiguous. Many works list erroneous dates or locations of printing, either to evade censorship or add value.

Wilding is not focused on the forgery of printed text, or the piracy of printed works, but on the forgeries of books themselves, like De Caro’s attempt to pass off a copy of Sidereus Nuncius he produced himself as one painted by Galileo himself. There are several methods of producing such forgeries or facsimiles: pen, photochemical, woodblock, digital, or chemical transfer, all with their own forms of evidence. Wilding discussed work done recently at the New York Public Library with forged books, discussing the many ways one could spot an inconsistency (in the grain of paper, for example).

One of the most compelling points of Wilding’s talk was his discussion of grappling with the question of what “counterfeiting” meant in early modern culture. There certainly wasn’t the same notion of intellectual property which today makes the forgery of a book into a crime. How did people in early modern Europe conceptualize “authenticity” in regard to texts?

Wilding’s talk was a work-in-progress, engaging freely with audience members in the Q&A over these difficult questions. One anecdote, however, seemed particularly intriguing.

We don’t know much about Johannes Gutenberg, printer of the Gutenberg bible in Germany in the 1450’s, before this momentous turning point in modern history. Wilding did describe, however, Gutenberg’s work before printing with the mass production of pilgrim badges, which provide a tantalizing analogy to modern theories of knowledge reproduction.

Pilgrim’s badges are small charms worn by pilgrims who walked long distances to view holy relics. Inside the badges were fitted small mirrors which, when the holy relic was revealed, would capture this sacred image. Pilgrims would then cover these mirrors and return home with them, where they were then capable of “re-exposing” the sacred image to others unable to make the long journey.

What parallels can we see between these two self-replicating objects produced by Gutenberg, and the indigenous theories of image and information implied by each? Wilding’s talk continually destabilized our certainties about the significance of certain objects for early modern peoples- significances which can often be clouded by modern cultural associations.

Mass production of text using the printing press, for example, was probably not seen by people of the time as “less authentic” than hand-written manuscripts, an association we tend to make today in the context of ubiquitous mass-production, following Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Rather, commentators of the period were more likely to remark upon the machinic nature of this mode of production as semi-miraculous in its own right. Nonhuman intervention in mechanical reproduction was, for early modern Europeans, more likely associated with a purity from sinfulness and the error of humanity carried into the work by human hands.

For anyone interested in science of the early modern period, the Early Science Workshop has upcoming events in January and February, in which professors from UC Davis and other universities will discuss works-in-progress.

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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