The Papal Observatory

The Papal Observatory

Supporting the legacy of Galileo Galilei at the Papal Observatory….

A request to the foundation from the Vatican Museums to help restore the oldest telescope at the Papal Observatory resulted in a grant being given in February 2018 by the Galileo Foundation.

In October John McCaffrey was able to visit the Papal Observatory at Castelgandolfo and receive a tour from the Vatican cosmologist, Fr Gabriele Gionti SJ, who proudly displayed the restored telescope which dates from the 1880s. With its incredible length of 3.43 meters and 33 cm diameter, the telescope is a visual testimony to the Vatican’s long history with science and astronomy.

It had been used as early as 1890 for the ‘Charter of the Heavens’ project to catalogue and photograph the entire sky; this was the first major collaboration between astronomists around the world.

Each participant was assigned the task of documenting an area of the sky spanning two celestial parallels with a double series of photographs. The Vatican Observatory was assigned the area between the +55 and +64 parallel.

The photographic work resulted in 1040 plates for cataloguing the stars and 540 for the heavens and the whole project took 55 years to complete! Two new lens were commissioned from Paris and a new 8 metre revolving dome was added to the Observatory in the gardens of the papal palace at Castel Gandolfo.

The success of this endeavour prompted Pope Leo XIII to declare the solemn re-founding of the Papal Observatory in 1891. Since Pope Leo many popes have shown an interest in astronomy, including Pope Pius XII and Pope Paul VI.

The foundation also supported the restoration of the Illumination of the Solar System in the Vatican Museums which has now been returned for display at the Observatory in Castel Gandolfo.

Pope Paul VI explores the heavens through the papal telescope.
Galileo President, John McCaffrey, with benefactors of the Galileo
Foundation and the papal astronomer, Fr Gabriele Gionti SJ, at the
Papal Observatory, Castelgandolfo, 2018.
Fr Gabriele showing the workings of the newly restored telescope to
John McCaffrey