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  • Writer's pictureArchie Cornish, PhD

A Brief History of Museo Galileo in Florence

What is Museo Galileo?

Museo Galileo is one of the world's major collections of scientific instruments, particularly those of Galileo Galilei.

Museo Galileo

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Museo Galileo History

The Florentine Renaissance always concerned science just as much as art and architecture. In fact, the hard modern distinction between science and art would have puzzled intellectuals like Ficino and Leonardo, for whom art, philosophy and science – and all branches of academic knowledge – were intimately linked. As of 2010, when it changed its name, this astounding collection of scientific instruments pays tribute to Florence’s most famous scientist, Galileo Galilei. Before that, it styled itself as the Institute and Museum of the History of Science. Like so many of Florence’s institutions, its story begins in the house of the Medici.

Cosimo I, who inherited (somewhat shakily) political control of Florence in 1537, wanted to see the world beyond. Repointing the interior of the Palazzo Vecchio, Cosimo commissioned a guardaroba – less a ‘wardrobe’ and more a ‘collection room’, a place for displaying curiosities. Designed by Giorgio Vasari, the guardaroba features more than 50 walnut panels, each beautifully painted by Egnazio Danti with maps of the known world, based on the work of ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy. Accompanying these maps was an array of three-dimensional cartographic instruments.

In 1600, the collection was moved to the recently built Uffizi, in the Mathematics Room. Outside on the terrace stood Antonio Santucci’s monumental armillary sphere – a multi-layered globular model of the known universe, carved from wood and adorned with gold leaf. Among the growing number of smaller instruments were those bequeathed by one Robert Dudley, better known in England as the Earl of Leicester, Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite suitor.

The collection moved again, first in 1657 when it was absorbed by the Galilean Accademia del Cimento, and then onto further locations, becoming gradually dispersed. By 1799, with Florence under French occupation for 15 years, its disappearance looked inevitable. 30 years later, however, Vincenzo Antinori came to its rescue, proposing not only to reintegrate the collection but to update it with examples of contemporary Florentine scientific innovation, such as evidence from Leopoldo Nobili’s successful experiments in electromagnetism. This was curious amateur science at its best, the great Renaissance experimental tradition exemplified by the motto of the Accademia del Cimento: provando e riprovando (‘trying, and trying again’).

Today, the museum’s permanent collection comprises more than a thousand objects. Curation is clear and pluralistic, organising by theme (instruments of warfare, of navigation, of astronomy) as well as historical period, with separate rooms focussing on the collection’s growth under both the Medici in the 16th century and the Lorraine dynasty in the 18th. Imaginative temporary exhibitions, similarly, take novel and multiple approaches: shows have focused on the figure of Archimedes, and, more quirkily, on the pre-modern history of the automobile.

Since 1930, the collection has been housed here in the Palazzo Castellani, one of Florence’s oldest buildings, whose earliest parts date to the 11th century. Its age didn’t spare it the calamitous effects of the flood of 1966, and much of the collection on the ground floor was damaged. But the building and its precious objects survived, thanks to the heroic efforts of director Maria Luisa Righini-Bonelli. No doubt the inventors and users of the marvellous devices she helped to restore would have devoted themselves to understanding the flood – and, today, to the great challenge of combatting the disasters of extreme weather.

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