Stefano della Bella, an Italian artist and engraver, was born May 18, 1610. When della Bella was barely twenty-one years old, he was commissioned to design and etch the frontispiece to Galileo’s Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (1632). He created a masterpiece, with Aristotle and Ptolemy, defenders of a geocentric cosmos, whispering together on the left, while Copernicus, defender of the heliocentric system, stands alone at the right (first image above). A curious feature of the illustration is that the right-hand figure, although labeled “Copernicus”, does not have the traditional features of Copernicus (second image, from a 1590 portrait book), but looks rather like Galileo (third image, from Galileo’s 1613 letters on sunspots). Since Galileo was expressly forbidden from taking the side of Copernicus in this book, that could have been read as a serious breach of his injunction. Surprisingly, the frontispiece never became an issue at the trial; perhaps because, since only about half the copies contain the frontispiece, it was missing from the copies read by the inquisitioners. But it is interesting that in later editions of the Dialogue, where the frontispiece was not etched by della Bella, the features of Copernicus revert to those of the traditional type (fourth image, from a 1641 Latin edition of the Dialogue).
The Library own two copies of the printed frontispiece (we have two copies of the Dialogue), and one copy in beautiful bronze, executed by Bruno Bearzi, on the west exterior wall of the Annex. We featured Bearzi’s bronzes in our Scientist of the Day for Nov. 19, 2014 (fifth image).
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to firstname.lastname@example.org.