By Michelle Graff

Two nights ago, I was whisked off to Philadelphia for a private tour of “Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy,” a fascinating exhibit opening tomorrow at the Franklin Institute science museum. More than 100 artifacts, including gilded 16th century sundials and delicately engraved compasses, on loan from the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence will be on display through Sept. 7. The highlight, without doubt, is a 400-year-old telescope used by Galileo Galilei, the man whose observations of the sky revolutionized the study of astronomy and, it’s safe to say, changed the course of science.


Following the guided tour, I sat down to a sumptuous meal of Renaissance-era Tuscan cuisine prepared by a chef flown in from Florence, all generously underwritten by Officine Panerai, the Swiss watch brand sponsoring the exhibit.

Citing the brand’s origins in Florence, Galileo’s adopted city and the cradle of the Renaissance, Panerai CEO Angelo Bonati said that his precision watches, once used by the Italian navy’s elite frogmen, are the product of scientific knowledge derived from Galileo.

“This man made a study of time measurement, invented the modern telescope and contributed decisively to the definition of terrestrial longitude,” Bonati writes in the introduction to the book accompanying the exhibit. “By studying the isochronism of the pendulum he opened the way to precision in the art of horology. It is to this genius that we are proud to pay tribute…”

Panerai chronometer

What I found so remarkable about the evening—beyond the distinguished setting, delicious and unusual cuisine and the historical significance of seeing Galileo’s rather humble-looking wooden instrument on its first trip outside of Florence—was the idea the Italian curators impressed upon us throughout the tour: during the Renaissance, inventors such as Galileo and his patrons, the Medici family, made no distinctions between the disciplines of art and science. Fine art and valuable scientific discoveries went hand in hand.

It’s helpful to remember this in the context of today’s high-end watch business. While the technically advanced, über-complicated timepieces manufactured in workshops around Switzerland may bear the imprimatur of pure science, they also satisfy the most basic definition of art: the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.

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