F for Fakes

Hoaxes, Counterfeits and Deception in Early Modern Science

2nd Watson Seminar in the History of Material and Visual Science
(Museo Galileo – Florence, June 7, 2013)

Organized by Marco Beretta and Maria Conforti

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The forgery or falsification of objects, as well as the creation or invention of artifacts consciously  – if deceitfully – attributed to the remote or recent past, has long been an object of enquiry for historians, and especially for philologists and art historians. Images and texts are in fact among the most common hoaxes.

On the contrary, the role of ‘falses’ in the history of science, while anecdotically known for specific cases, has hardly been addressed as a general question, especially as regards the early modern age. Fakes and forgeries, as well as the alteration of data, has probably been perceived, especially by Whiggish narratives of science, as a shattering infringement of the tacit assumption that science is constant pursue of truth. While sciences dealing with mathematical methods, such as astronomy or physics, are seemingly more easily protected from the dangers and  incursions of conscious or interested producers of false instruments or results, hoaxes have been frequent, even common, in fields such as zoology, botany, earth sciences, anatomy – and obviously in the disciplines broadly or loosely connected with antiquarianism. ‘False’ artifacts have been bought, collected, displayed and have often contributed to myths and legends, as well as to scientific ‘mistakes.’

The production of false objects (including texts) represents an answer to different needs, and their quality and number arguably may tell us many things about social contexts, artisanal practices,  the construction and sharing of knowledge and the notion of creativity in different periods and places. The notion of expertise has recently become a focus for science historians, especially as concerns the medical and pharmaceutical disciplines, but it is still to be addressed as a central notion even for sciences and knowledge where expert learning and experience is seemingly subject to normative and more stringent laws, such as mechanics, engineering, chemistry.  A special attention will be given to both to the use of fakes for ideological or religious purposes as well as for the building and enforcing of ‘scientific’ theories. Questions of trust and of the social value of science and learning are obviously crucial for the evaluation, acceptance, and exposing of hoaxes, fakes and false results. However, far from endorsing a simplistic ‘constructivist’ notion of the sciences in the early modern age, the workshop (following Nuncius‘ line of enquiry) will specifically address questions such as the conditions and techniques of production, in general the ‘material’ history of false objects. One of the questions to be addressed will be the role played by ‘fakes’ in shaping learning and knowledge.

The topics will be chosen so as to cover a chronology spanning from the Renaissance to the early modern age and the scientific revolution, and a broad range of scientific fields and disciplines, with a special attention to specific case-histories.


F for Fakes:
Hoaxes, Counterfeits and Deception in Early Modern Science

Preliminary program

Owen Gingerich (Harvard University): The Greatest Myth in the History of Astronomy. Respondent Giorgio Strano (Museo Galileo)

Didier Kahn (Université Paris-Sorbonne):  A Tale of a Nail. Leonhardt Thurneisser’s Transmutation in Rome (1586?). Respondent Antonio Clericuzio (University of Cassino).

Valentina Pugliano (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science – Berlin):  Leone Tartaglini’s Basilisks: Fake Specimens and Explorations in the Boundaries of Scientific Connoisseurship. Respondent Alessandro Tosi (University of Pisa)

Marjolijn Bol (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science – Berlin): Coloring Topazes, Crystals and Moonstones. The making and meaning of factitious gems, 300-1500. Respondent Maria Conforti (La Sapienza – Rome)

Daniel Margocsy (Hunter College): “Of Outlandish Creatures of a Doubtfull Kind”: Imagination and Forgery in John Jonston. Respondent Alexander Marr (University of Cambridge)

Ingrid Rowland (University of Notre Dame): Athanasius Kircher’s Palingenetic Plant. Respondent Sven Dupré (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science – Berlin)