Italian museum has ‘incredibly rare’ find of cross-cultural exchange

An 11th-century artifact housed in an Italian museum has been identified as a scientific instrument with an incredible surprise: signs of use by Muslim, Hebrew and Christian users.

Federica Gigante, an expert in Islamic art and scientific instruments at the University of Cambridge in Britain, saw a photo of the artifact on the Verona museum’s website and asked the curators of the Fondazione Museo Miniscalchi-Erizzo about it.

“The museum had not yet begun an in-depth investigation of the object,” Gigante said in a description of the find on the university’s website. “It is now the most important object in their collection.”

The discovery was hailed as ‘extraordinary’ by The Guardian and as ‘shining light on religious harmony’ by The Times of London.

When Gigante began studying the astrolabe – a scientific instrument dating back to 11th century Spain and used to map stars and other celestial bodies – she found Arabic and Hebrew inscriptions, making it a rare find of cross-cultural exchange. In addition to the rarity of the astrolabe, Western numerals were also found as corrections etched into the copper device.

“Not only is this an incredibly rare object,” said Gigante, whose research was published earlier this month in the journal Nuncius. “It is a powerful account of the scientific exchange between Arabs, Jews and Christians over hundreds of years.”

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‘Very exciting’ find in Italy shows cross-cultural scientific exchange

While studying the astrolabe at the museum, Gigante said in the university’s article that she noticed that “not only was it covered with beautifully engraved Arabic inscriptions, but I could also see faint inscriptions in Hebrew.”

“I could only make them out in the bright light coming through a window,” she said. “I thought I was dreaming, but I saw more and more. It was very exciting.”

As she analyzed the astrolabe, which she identified as originally coming from the Muslim-ruled Andalusian region of Spain, she realized that it had undergone “many alterations, additions and modifications when it changed hands.”

“At least three separate users felt the need to add translations and corrections to this object, two used Hebrew and one used a Western language,” she said.

Detail of an 11th-century astrolabe in the Fondazione Museo Miniscalchi-Erizzo in Verona showing scratched Western numerals and Hebrew inscriptions.

The Western numerals added to the instrument could be incorrect changes, probably “relative to the latitudes of Cordoba and Toledo” in Spain, she wrote in the research paper, calling the astrolabe “remarkable.”

An 11th century astrolabe in the Fondazione Museo Miniscalchi-Erizzo in Verona with its "rete," a pierced disk representing a map of the sky, one of the earliest known made in Spain.

What is an astrolabe? And why is it important?

Not sure what an astrolabe is? Think of it as “the original smartphone,” is how Smithsonian magazine described the age-old tool in 2017.

The astrolabe is “a device that can do it all: give you the time, your location, your horoscope, and even help you make decisions – all with the wave of your hand.”

Tom Almeroth-Williams, research communications manager for arts and humanities at the University of Cambridge, agrees with that comparison in his report on Gigante’s discovery on the university’s website.

Similar to “a portable computer,” the astrolabe provided “a portable two-dimensional model of the universe that fit in the user’s hand, allowing them to calculate time and distances, plot the position of the stars, and even predict the future , by a horoscope,” he wrote.

This particular astrolabe has Islamic prayer rules and prayer names, “arranged to ensure that the original intended users stayed on time to perform their daily prayers,” Almeroth-Williams wrote.

The astrolabe was inscribed with (translated into English): “for Isḥāq… the work of Yūnus.” The names could be the Jewish names Isaac and Jonah written in Arabic, which according to Gigante suggests that the tool was used in a Sephardic Jewish community in Spain, where Arabic was spoken.

Detail of an 11th century astrolabe in the Fondazione Museo Miniscalchi-Erizzo in Verona showing Hebrew letters translating the Arabic names for astrological signs.

Astrolabes can have different plates for use at different latitudes and this one has one engraved for North African latitudes, suggesting the object was also used in Morocco or Egypt, Almeroth-Williams wrote.

In the past, the astrolabe found its way into the collection of Veronese nobleman Ludovico Moscardo (1611–81) before passing through marriage to the Miniscalchi family, Gigante wrote. The family founded the Fondazione Museo Miniscalchi-Erizzo in 1990 to preserve the collections.

“This object is Islamic, Jewish and European, they cannot be separated,” Gigante said.

Follow Mike Snider on X and Threads: @mikesnider & microphone snider.

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