It's a beautifully crafted show of astronomical photos, meteorite samples (including pieces of the Moon and Mars), modern artifacts, historical instruments and books, and interactive educational experiences. In a series of twelve rooms, one is led through a collection of displays that illustrate what is in our universe and how it works... and how we know what we know about it all. In less than two hours, one can receive an introduction to astronomy that would be the pride of any university course – perhaps better, since the assembly of so many different artifacts and indeed the sheer beauty of how they are all presented is better than any classroom experience.
But two things in particular make this exhibit stand out from other astronomy shows.
First, it is being co-sponsored by an interesting group of collaborators, which include the Vatican Observatory; the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics; the Department of Physics at the University of Pisa; and the Archdiocese of Pisa. As one might expect of such a gathering from the worlds of science and church, this collection celebrates the intellectual and the historical role of astronomy in our human yearnings to know who we are and how we fit into our universe. Having such a diverse set of sponsors, all under the hospitality of the Piazza Blu, makes a powerful statement about the universality of our quest to study the universe.
But in conjunction with this interesting mix of scientific and religious institutions, there is a special personal connection to these themes. For in fact, this is not the first time that such diverse elements have been found together, in one place, in Pisa. Indeed all of them coexisted in the life of Pietro Cardinal Maffi.
Cardinal Maffi served as the archbishop of Pisa in early decades of the 20th century, but he was also a scientist and a historian of science. Famously, he proposed that a statue should be raised in Pisa to honor Galileo, its most famous astronomical son. (This proposal was turned down by the city, apparently for political reasons.) We remember Cardinal Maffi at the Specola in his role as president of the Vatican Observatory during its formative years. He was responsible for bringing Fr. Johann Hagen SJ from Georgetown University to be its director, the first Jesuit to hold that post.
Maffi’s life united a love of creation and a love of God, a deep respect for the academic research needed to understand both, and a profound understanding of our history in studying this creation of God, guided by a keen sense of both truth and artistic beauty. His life is celebrated at the exhibition in a room that includes letters and writings on matters both religious and scientific. Among the displays, for example, is a book on Chinese astronomy and geography that he received from friends in China which may be the work of the famous Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci.
Present at the opening ceremonies from the Vatican Observatory were Fr. Alessandro Omizzolo, Fr. Gabriele Gionti, and Br. Guy Consolmagno. The afternoon of the exhibit’s opening, Fr. Omizzolo led a guided tour of journalists through the displays, which he had a lead role in preparing. In the inauguration of the exhibit that evening, Br. Consolmagno offered a few words of welcome from the Observatory.
The theme of the exhibition is “the universe within and without us.” Back in February, when the Vatican Observatory’s role in this exhibition was first announced, our director, Fr. José G. Funes, made special note of this connection between the universal and the particular. “The history of the universe could not be told without our ‘small’ human stories,” he said. “Cardinal Maffi lived a dual existence: the world of the Church and that of science… in the search for the deeper meaning of human existence.”