We’ve reached the fourth instalment of our journey around the world in 80 objects – things, great and small, famous and obscure, which shed a particularly revealing light on a place or culture. Our last edition looked into a classic car, a cheesy logo and a death mask. Here are three more.
17. Galileo’s Telescopes, Italy
The history of Florence is overloaded with extraordinary intellectual and artistic achievements – from Brunelleschi’s dome on the cathedral, to Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia. So relatively little attention is given to two rather unglamorous tubes in a glass display case in one of the city’s lesser-visited museums. One is just under a metre long, the other just over. They are patched together out of leather, wood, paper and copper wire – but the critical elements are the glass lenses at each end.
For these are two of the original telescopes made by Galileo Galilei in 1609 and 1610 and represent one of the greatest technological advances in the history of science. In 1609, at the age of 45, Galileo had already revolutionised the design of navigational compasses, learnt how to strengthen magnets and made huge experimental strides in better understanding gravity.
Then he heard about a new spy glass that had come from Flanders to Venice and could magnify distant objects by two or three times. Galileo was fascinated and immediately started to consider how he might make a better version. He quickly learnt how to make stronger lenses and how best to combine them at the most effective focal length. Within a few months, he had managed to make a telescope that increased magnification 20-fold. And when he turned it on the night sky, he was astonished.
He could see the moon, the stars and the planets in a way no other human being had done before. Through his lenses, the received wisdom of millennia was turned on its head. The moon was not smooth, but covered in craters and mountains and craters. The shadows were so clear, Galileo used them to estimate the height of the peaks.
He saw that Venus waxed and waned like the moon, and the geometry of the changing crescents must mean that it was moving around the Sun and not Earth, which could not, therefore, be the centre of the universe. And there was more evidence for this when he discovered that there were four moons revolving around Jupiter. He spotted the rings around Saturn. And through his new telescope, Galileo could see that the Milky Way – which seems to the naked eye like a white stain across the sky – was actually composed of myriad individual stars. In short, through these telescopes, in the hands of one of the world’s most brilliant scientists, our view of the heavens was changed forever.
Museo Galileo: The Institute and Museum of the History of Science, Florence (museogalileo.it).
18. The Aztec Sun Stone, Mexico City
Weighing in at 25 tons and measuring almost 12ft across, the Aztec Sun Stone (also known as the Calendar Stone) has pride of place in the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. It’s a striking display. Carved on to the circular face of the stone are a series of concentric circles decorated with complex patterns, symbols and compass-like arrows, with a grotesque face at the centre.
The most famous relic of the Aztec civilisation, it has come to symbolise the nation’s indigenous identity and complex relationship with its past. Part of its fascination is that we still don’t know for sure what those carvings mean, why the stone was made and how it was used. We do know that it was made by the Mexica people (rulers of the Aztec Empire) and had only recently been installed in Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) – when Cortes invaded in 1520, killing Moctezuma II and taking possession of his empire for the Spanish.
Many believe the central figure to represent the sun god, Tonatiuh. In Aztec cosmology, he represents the Fifth Sun or the Sun of Movement and he is surrounded by representations of four previous suns (or eras). Others have argued that the figure represents the earth monster, Tlaltecuhtli, or another god, Yohualtecuhtli – the Lord of the Night. But whoever he is, the symbols, rings and divisions in the design around the rest of the stone reflect the 260-day sacred calendar of the Mexica, and refer to a history going back thousands of years.
The stone was originally positioned facing upwards at an unknown location in the city and was painted in bright colours. It’s references to the Aztec cosmos and calendar suggest that it might have been used as a sophisticated reference resource. But many anthropologists now believe that a primary function was for it to be used as a ritual altar for the bloody human sacrifices for which the Aztecs are notorious.
The stone’s postcolonial history has added to its significance. Fearing its pagan associations, the Spanish buried the stone in the late 16th century. Unearthed again in 1790, it was first displayed at the base of one of the cathedral towers. In 1847, the US general Winfield Scott occupied the city and threatened to remove it as a war trophy but, by 1855, it had been installed in the Archaeological Museum and it is now in the National Museum of Anthropology and History, where it dominates the Mexica Hall.
National Museum of Anthropology and History, Mexico City (mna.inah.gob.mx).
19. Seaside Rock, Blackpool
A long rod of solid, sticky sugar, backed so hard it splinters as you bite it, glues itself to your teeth as you chew it and is dyed in the brightest and most unappetising colours you could possibly imagine. Along with candyfloss – its polar opposite – seaside rock is absolutely the most impractical and awkward confectionery of all. If you tried to market it alongside a standard range in a sweet shop, you would go out of business overnight.
And yet somehow its appeal still endures. Obviously the association of place – the never-ending lettering, which remains legible no matter how hard you bite or suck, nor where you break the stick – is key. Whether it reads “Blackpool” or “Brighton”, “Margate” or “Morecambe”, it is unique to that resort, the ultimate confirmation that you are there. And its hopelessly impractical nature – the sheer challenge of eating it – is surely part of the fun and part of that confirmation. After all, when would you have the time and inclination to attempt to get your teeth around some like that, except when you were on holiday?
So where did seaside rock originate, and how on earth do they manage to thread the lettering all the way through? The history is a little uncertain, but the most commonly told version attributes the invention to Ben Bullock, who owned a sweet factory and dreamed up the idea while holidaying in Blackpool. He found a way of adapting the rock sugar that was sold as confectionery at fairs, and making the lettering – Blackpool Rock – work. He produced the first brightly coloured sticks in 1887 and sold them in the resort.
The process of making it has changed little since then. Rock is still made by hand – sugar and glucose syrup are boiled up and used in three different ways: to make the coloured skin, the aerated white core and the letters, which are formed from thin strips of coloured sugar padded out with some of the white core sugar, and then they are rolled together in the right order. Apparently, square-sided letters are much easier to make than rounded ones, which is why capitals are more common than lower-case. Finally, the rock is pulled and rolled into shape by a machine that produces pieces of finished rock up to 6ft long before they are sliced into rather more manageable lengths.
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To read about other objects in our series so far, see telegraph.co.uk/tt-80objects.
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