We might readily think of several examples, historical and more recent, to illustrate the truism that some of the most famous books in the popular consciousness are those that few have read. Official suppression – successful or otherwise – is probably one of the most powerful guarantors of this kind of notoriety, and Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World – Ptolomaic and Copernican (1632) was among several texts of the so-called ‘Scientific Revolution’ to achieve such status thanks to their inclusion on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.
The Dialogo was first published in Florence on 21 February 1632 by Giovanni Battista Landini. It enjoyed a modest but reasonably wide geographical distribution in the ensuing months as Galileo himself sent copies to associates (mostly men of political influence) throughout Italy and in France, but within 8 months it was banned from sale in Florentine bookshops, and by July 1633 it had been added to the Catholic Church’s Index, apparently to try to prevent its influence among university men and certain religious orders, following the author’s appearance in front of the Roman Inquisition.
The source of the controversy in Galileo’s work was his alignment with Copernicus in contending that the earth was subject to motion and not fixed, but the form of the Dialogo, which presented a fictional dialogue between 3 ‘friends’, Salviati, Simplicio and Sagredo, echoed more closely the renaissance tradition of instructional literature intended for an educated gentlemanly audience than the genre of academic treatises. Despite its flaws the text was translated and reached wider audiences through later editions, including Latin in 1635 and English in 1661.
All this suggests that surviving copies of the original Italian edition must have interesting stories to tell, and we might wonder who read actually them. It’s clear from the number still extant that the confiscation ordered by the Papal decree in 1633 did not lead to systematic destruction of copies in circulation since the previous year. The Whipple Library’s copy, which RSW had purchased from bookseller J. Tregaskis & Son on 18 May 1934 for 38l 10s, is one of 7 currently reported in Cambridge libraries.
What makes ours distinct, however, is that it retains the paper covers that were very likely intended as temporary protection while the book was in the shop. Such survivals are very rare, as their purpose was ephemeral, serving only until the new owner commissioned a permanent binding. This, combined with the fact that the pages are uncut, suggests that this may have been a copy confiscated from a bookshop, as it hadn’t yet been sold.
Where it went, or how it managed to remain in its pristine state before appearing on the open market in London in the 1930s we can’t know, but once again we have cause to thank Mr Whipple for resisting the temptation to aggrandize his collection with fancy modern bindings, thereby preserving an important piece of book history.
 Cf. Robert S. Westman’s report of the sale of a copy in Denmark in 1940 for a mere £1! Robert S. Westman, ‘The Reception of Galileo’s “Dialogue”: A partial world census of extant copies’ in P. Galluzzi (ed.), Novità Celesti e Crisi del Sapere: Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studi Galileiani (Florence, Giunti Barbèra, 1984), 329-371, pp 329-330 & n. 5.
Drake, Stillman, Galileo (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980)
Westman, Robert S., ‘The Reception of Galileo’s “Dialogue”: A partial world census of extant copies’ in P. Galluzzi (ed.), Novità Celesti e Crisi del Sapere: Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studi Galileiani (Florence, Giunti Barbèra, 1984), 329-371.