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The Masks of Famous Men: Controversial Comparisons

Sat, March 24, 11:00am to 12:30pm, Hilton Riverside Complex, Chart Room C

Abstract

From the start of his career, but especially after his breakthrough in 1610, Galileo Galilei’s contemporaries repeatedly compared him to other famous men, calling him ‘the Columbus’ or ‘Vasco da Gama of the heavens’, ‘as good as Archimedes’, or ‘a true Michelangelo’. This paper explores these comparisons and the various textual contexts – poetry, correspondence, dedications – in which they arose, arguing that different groups and individuals used these comparisons to simultaneously celebrate his uniqueness and cast him into exemplary, reproducible moulds. These authoritative moulds, I will show, could serve at least three functions: first, to claim suitable fame for Galileo, placing him in a tradition of truly great men, second, to appropriate his image to promote patriotic causes or scholarly disciplines, and third, to enhance his status by highlighting the controversial nature of his discoveries as well as his person, placing him in a tradition of eccentric geniuses.

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