The Milan Planetarium teaches The School of Night

It’s all in the stars. The matter that forms our bodies comes from the universe and its celestial bodies. This is attested by the conferences that take place in the prominent Milan Planetarium, which was established in 1930, and has been in operation since then.

The Yuletide season has featured a series of astronomical conferences with two that stood out for allure and poetry. The evening dedicated to William Shakespeare’s Sky was explained by the illustrious Dr. Anna Lombardi. During the era of the Bard, natural science walked hand in hand with astrology, hence the study of mathematics, physics, and chemistry intertwined with the mysticism of astrology. As 2016 marked the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, the conference tributed the English poet and playwright exploring the incredible astronomical revolution that occurred through personalities such as Thomas Digges, Giordano Bruno, Thomas Harriott, and John Dee (who allegedly inspired the character of Prospero in The Tempest).

These freethinkers became known as the members of The School of Night, a group of poets and scientists who centered on Sir Walter Raleigh, who was once referred to in 1592 as the School of Atheism. Dr. Lombardi engagingly retraced the Elizabethan era’s astronomical discoveries and the way William Shakespeare thoroughly referenced the universe and its elements in all his works, with Troilus and Cressida, that demonstrates an example of the characters speaking of the Sun following the other planets in circles around the Earth:

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre,

Observe degree, priority and place.

Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,

Office, and custom, in all line of order:

And therefore is the glorious planet Sol

In noble eminence enthroned and sphered

Amidst the other …

And Julius Caesar that uses the Polaris as pillar of immovable center:

I am constant as the northern star,

Of whose true-fixed and resting quality

There is no fellow in the firmament.

The most famous Shakespearean quote about the universe comes from Romeo and Juliet, when the Capulet maiden pleads her star-crossed lover not to avow on the Earth’s natural satellite, whose gravitational influence produces the tides to change as it constantly morphs its crest:

O, swear not by the moon, the fickle moon, the inconstant moon, that monthly changes in her circle orb, Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

Sonnet 14, introduced a variant of the procreation theme, tying it in with predictions of the future made through celestial bodies that during that era possessed an astrological trait:

Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck,

And yet methinks I have astronomy.

But not to tell of good or evil luck,

Of plagues, of dearths, or season’s quality;

Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,

Or say with princes if it shall go well.

The enchantment of the 17th century firmament streamed into the magic of another enchanting evening at the Milan Planetarium, dedicated to the Christmas sky. An enthralling alchemy occurred betwixt the vault of heaven and the power of music, as Stefania Ferrori and Riccardo Vittorietti from Associazione LOfficina educated an audience of both children and adults on star charts.

The strategic role of the Lombardy capital emerged from their storytelling, starting with the Milanese astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli who seems to have unwillingly spread the notion of Martians. Amongst Schiaparelli’s contributions were his telescopic observations of the Red Planet: he observed a dense network of linear structures on the surface of Mars which he called canali in Italian, meaning channels but the term was mistranslated into English as canals. Since the latter term indicates an artificial construction, various assumptions were made about life on Mars. In other words we must thank a Milanese astronomer for giving rise to waves of hypotheses about the possibility of intelligent life on other planets!

This and many other anecdotes, as well as scientific notions, lead to a beguiling exploration of the sky, as the music by I The Canter band overwhelmed with its swing. Barbara Campo’s nightingale voice jammed through a jazz repertoire, accompanied by Max Ferri’s guitar and Filippo Perelli’s saxophone and flute.

The stellar mood that one can experience with the celestial navigation through time and space, projects us into the origins of what has shaped virtual and augmented reality today. Man in the past was captivated by the understanding of the universe, to find a direction in his life. Sailors would do so literally just as poets would metaphorically. We should embrace once more this tradition and follow Stephen Hawking’s advice when he said:
Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.