Does time exist or is it just space by a different name? What kind of watch is most like Dante, the Florentine poet who wrote the Divine Comedy? These are not the questions that usually get directed at chief executives of luxury brands but Angelo Bonati, who heads the Italian watchmaker Officine Panerai, is no ordinary businessman. 'When you first get a watch, as a child, you hear the 'tick-tock' and you try to imagine how it works,' he says, his eyes shining and intense as he sips an espresso in Hong Kong's Four Seasons Hotel. 'It keeps going. Alone. Just like you. And maybe you think that this machine is like you and you wonder about its soul, its spirit. As you grow old you forget about this moment, but the essence of this feeling persists. And that's why we love our watches.' Eureka. Just like that. Just like Aeschylus, as the tortoise fell on his head, time spent with Bonati is surreal and illuminating at the same time. And all the while he wears a wicked smile, the kind of dangerous sorriso that has made Florence, this Milanese's adopted home, a dangerous and beguiling city ever since Catherine de Medici began beaming on the city 500 years ago. 'Florence gave us the culture of beauty,' says Bonati. 'When you work in Florence you can feel that. Like the Duomo [Florence's 13th Century basilica]. We aim to get all the elements of Florence into our watches, the city is part of Panerai's DNA.' It's thus not surprising that Panerai's new venture in Beijing is not just another champagne-drenched identity parade for the usual celebrity suspects. That's not Bonati's style. Instead the watch company is the co-host, along with Florence's Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, of an historic exhibition at Beijing's Planetarium that features the pioneering scientific work of Galileo Galilei, the first scientist to prove that the Earth moved around the sun, and not vice-versa. The exhibition, titled 'Galileo's Telescope - the Instrument that Changed the World' runs until January 10, 2009. It coincides with the 500th anniversary of the telescope's invention in 1609 and the commencement, on January 1, 2009, of Unesco's World Year of Astronomy. 'Galileo did much of his pioneering work in Florence,' says Bonati. 'Watches did not originate in Switzerland but in Italy and there is a continuum from Galileo to the Florentine watchmakers of today.' The exhibition was organised by Professor Paolo Galluzzi, the director of the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza and he collaborated closely with Panerai to create an event that places Galileo in his correct historical context. 'Galileo is one of the most important pioneers of modern science, making contributions comparable to Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein,' says Galluzzi. 'He introduced a fundamental improvement into the traditional procedure of building mechanical time-pieces when he discovered that the movements back and forth of a circular pendulum are almost exactly the same [isochronous]. And he used this discovery to build a new type of escapement [which drives the timekeeping element] that was destined to enormously improve the precision of mechanical clocks.' The exhibition came to life after an initiative from the authorities in Beijing, who wanted a suitable candidate to honour the UN's year of astronomy. They contacted Galluzzi. He was delighted to be asked. 'The exhibition is the first attempt to illuminate the birth of the telescope and to illustrate the extraordinary celestial discoveries that Galileo made as a result,' he says. 'To achieve this goal, the exhibition displays original documents, perfect replicas of Galileo's instruments and simulations of his celestial observations.' Galileo's telescope came about by fortuitous accident. In 1608 he stumbled upon a tube closed at both ends with a piece of glass. It had been devised by Dutch opticians for military use. Galileo spent several months refining the lenses and increased the magnification 30-fold. The Pisa-born son of a lute player then had one more flash of genius - he pointed the telescope at the sky, paving the way for astronomical discoveries that would overturn humanity's belief that the Earth was the centre of the universe. His work put him into a direct and potentially fatal conflict with the Catholic church - Pope Urban VIII ordered that he be tried for heresy. Under threat of death he was forced to recant his belief that the Earth moved around the sun. It was not until 1992 that the Catholic church formally conceded that Galileo had been right. 'The trial of Galileo, his condemnation and abjuration convey a message that is still important,' says Galluzzi. 'Basic research must be free of all constraints; scientists cannot be prosecuted for their ideas. Galileo is the universal symbol of the freedom of research.' Both Galluzzi and Bonati admire Galileo for the sweep of his accomplishments. A true Renaissance figure, he had a wide range of interests in the arts and sciences. 'Galileo was the son of a great musician,' says Galluzzi. 'Music, art and literature instilled in Galileo a respect for proportion and harmony and taught him to emulate the beauty of natural and artistic artefacts. For this reason his scientific instruments are like works of art.' One of the most beautiful pieces in the exhibition was not made by Galileo himself. It is a plane astrolabe made by Egnazio Danti in 1570 that was sold to Florence's Grand Duke Cosimo II in 1604. Galileo coveted the piece and the Duke granted the great scientist a loan of the instrument. It became known as 'Galileo's Astrolabe' because it was used in combination with Galileo's telescope to make measurements that proved the Earth moved around the sun. Instruments derived from astrolabes were later used for navigation and Galileo also devised some of the most effective to make him a wealthy man. Panerai also has its roots in nautical instruments, having been founded in 1860 and, within a few years, becoming an official supplier to the Italian navy. From the start the company has tried to infuse its products with aesthetic elements that make them more pleasing to use. 'Panerai has the same objective as Galileo - to produce exquisite and accurate instruments,' says Bonati. 'We were convinced that we had to support the science museum in Florence and its Galileo archive because that is part of our DNA.' And so what of Dante? When asked which figure from Florence's illustrious history is closest in spirit to a Panerai watch, Bonati does not chose Galileo but instead opts for the man who is still called il sommo poeta (the supreme poet) by most Italians. 'Dante was full of character. He lived to the full,' says Bonati. 'Being a great writer he was an illuminating man and this illuminatio is part of the character of our watches. Unlike Galileo, Dante adds nothing to the technique of watchmaking but the way he writes is like the soul of our watches.' Given Bonati's intellectual perspective it's perhaps ironic that the large-faced watches were rescued from obscurity by Sylvester Stallone, who discovered Panerai in 1995 and bought several as gifts for friends, including Arnold Schwarzenegger. Back then the company's main market was the US. Now it is looking to the east. 'China is growing in extraordinary ways,' says Bonati. 'In the next seven to eight years it will become the world's premier luxury market and the difficult economic circumstances of the moment will accelerate that.' And are there any lessons for the mainland authorities in the persecution of Galileo? Bonati smiles inscrutably at the suggestion. 'I can't say I have ever thought about that,' he says. 'But you pose a very interesting question.'