skip to content
Detail of the silver globe

In 1927 the Whipple Museum's founder acquired a small silver globe that was assumed to have been made in the 16th century by a high-quality Italian globe maker. Miniature metal globes were given as symbols of wealth and power in 16th century Italy. Recent research carried out in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science suggests, however, that the globe's authenticity may be open to question.

Silver-coloured metal globe
Image 1: Silver-coloured metal globe in the Whipple Museum's collection. It was purportedly made by the globe maker Paolo Forlani in 16th-century Italy, but later research has questioned its authenticity (Wh.0365).

European princes and affluent merchants used miniature metal globes as symbols of their wealth and power in the 16th century - Cosimo I de' Medici (1519-1574) gave a brass celestial globe supported by a Hercules figure to Evangelista di Rainieri di Pretella who supported Cosimo in his rise to power. The degree of craftsmanship and the materials used meant that metal globes attracted additional value as works of art (Image 1).

At first sight, this object appears to be a silver globe made in 16th-century Italy. Suspicions arose, though, when it was noted that the 'silver' globe had not tarnished over time, even though the metal is prone to rapid discolouration. By examining the globe carefully, including its size and materials, and the maps and letters engraved upon it, we can gain important information about this object that gives clues about its age.

Sources for the globe

Inscription on the globe, with decorative scrollwork outlining the cartouche
Image 2: Inscription on the globe, with decorative scrollwork outlining the cartouche. The maker has erroneously retained the hyphen in the name 'michae-li', which indicated a line break in the original inscription (Wh.0365).

The inscription on the globe translates as:

"Paulus de Furlanis of Verona made this work of the most excellent cosmographer Master Jacobus Gastaldus of Piedmont and dedicated it to the excellent Doctor of both Laws and Knight Bachelor Master Paulus Michaelis." (Image 2)

Examination of the map engraved on the globe shows that it is not based on maps made by Giacomo Gastaldi (c.1500-1565). Gastaldi always showed Asia and North America as either joined or very close together, but the map on the globe shows a large body of water separating the two land masses. This arrangement in fact matches a set of printed gores made by Antonius Florianus (fl. 1555-c. 1570). The match between the map on the gores and the map on the globe is so good that it seems the gores must have been the source for the globe's cartography. Paolo Forlani (also Paulus de Furlanis) (fl. 1560-1574) made maps based on Gastaldi's work, though, and would have known that the map on the globe did not match Gastaldi's cartography. It seems unlikely, then, that Forlani made the globe.

Forlani did come up with the inscription though - it appears on his world map of 1560. It seems that the maker of the 'silver' globe copied this inscription to give the impression of links to well known Italian cartographers. However, the maker's lack of learning is clear. Not only has he used an inscription that is mismatched with the globe's cartography, but he has also copied it inexpertly, retaining a hyphen that was not required when the line spacing changed (Image 2).

Dating the globe

Comparison of old-style and 'modern' scripts
Image 3: 'Modern' script (top) showing high contrast between light and dark strokes and horizontal serifs at the ends of strokes, compared with the low contrast and diagonal serifs of the old-style script (bottom).

Since the inscription on the globe was copied from Forlani's world map, the object must have been made after 1560. Looking at the script on the globe can tell us more. Writing styles underwent a transformation between 1660 and 1690. Characteristic scripts from before this period can be called 'old style', while more recent scripts are often described as 'modern'. Old style scripts are more angular than modern ones. For instance, the top of a letter 'p' tends to come to more of a point in the old style scripts. There is also less contrast between light and dark strokes in the old style. This is particularly noticeable in letters with pronounced curves such as 'e' and 'o'. Perhaps the easiest way to tell old style from modern script is to look at the serifs (Image 3). Old style scripts used serifs which dropped away on the diagonal, whereas modern scripts generally use horizontal and vertical serifs. The script on the globe appears to be modern, so the globe is likely to have been made after 1690.

Another piece of evidence suggests that the globe might have been made even later. The Florianus gores would have produced a globe of 258mm in diameter. However, the globe in the Whipple Museum is 100mm in diameter. Copying the gores onto a smaller sphere would have required the craftsman to make awkward adjustments to the scale, rather than reproducing the cartography point by point. However, a reproduction of the Florianus gores appeared in A. E. Nordenskiƶld's widely available Facsimile Atlas (1889). These gores gave a globe of 100mm in diameter - exactly the same size as the one in the Whipple Museum. We cannot say for sure whether the maker was working from the 1889 version of the gores, but it would certainly have been a lot easier for him to do so than to work from the earlier version. On this basis we might expect the globe to have been made after 1889. The mismatch of cartography and inscription also seems more likely if the maker lived long after the original sources were produced.

Authenticity and Expectation

Robert Whipple spent a good deal of money on the globe, and described it in his accession record as "Silver globe, Italian 95mm diam in case by Furlani", apparently thinking the object authentic. It is likely that Whipple's judgement was based in part on his high opinion of the dealers who supplied the globe - he had bought many authentic instruments from them over a period of some years, and so reasonably expected that the globe would be genuine too. However, a closer look has shown that the globe's authenticity is open to question. Imagine that you had seen the globe on its own - would you have thought it a fake?

This article is based on the work of Rob Jenks, 'An Early Italian Globe? A critical study of a terrestrial globe in the Whipple Museum', in Taub, L. & Willmoth, F. The Whipple Museum of the History of Science - instruments and interpretations to celebrate the 60th anniversary of R. S. Whipple's gift to the University of Cambridge (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2006).

Inscription translation by Nick Jardine in: Olivia Brown, Catalogue 4: Spheres, Globes and Orreries (Cambridge, 1983), cat. no. 7.

Katie Taylor

Katie Taylor, 'An early Italian globe?', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2009.

Next Article: Identifying Stars at Sea

Opening Times

Please note that we are closed for Bank Holiday Monday, 27th May

We are open five days a week, 12.30 - 16:30.

Monday 12.30 - 16:30

Tuesday 12.30 - 16:30

Wednesday 12.30 - 16:30

Thursday 12.30 - 16:30

Friday 12.30 - 16:30

We hope to see you soon!