Why have Italy and other Latin countries produced so many
a Physicist Supported by the Church
Visitors to Bologna, a city known as La Grassa, are
immediately attracted to the great resturants, the elegant shops, and the
historic buildings. Tourists marvel at the 800-year-old basilica of San
Petronio and Santo Stephano, a church within a church, built in 392. With
some 20 miles of covered arcades forming a maze around the city, travelers
can take a mini-pilgrimmage to the Corpus Domini. Inside, they enter the
Golden Chamber and view the 500-year-old, mummified remains of St. Catherine.
Few visitors to Bologna, however, marvel over the career of physicist Laura
Maria Catarina Bassi - a star attraction at the city's University during
her lifetime. She has been overlooked by both tourists and scholars alike.
The University of Bologna is the oldest university in Europe, and in 1732,
it took the radical step of inviting the very young Laura Bassi, aged 21,
to join its faculty. She accepted and became the first woman to officially
teach at a college in Europe, and the second woman to obtain a doctorate
(in philosophy). These two things alone would make her interesting to students
of women's history, but recent research suggests that Bassi influenced 18th
century Italian science in more important ways.
In the third and fourth decades of the 18th century, Bassi represented the
vanguard of Newtonian physics. In 1732, she wrote a treatise criticizing
the theories of Descarte which indicates she was fully aware of all the
problems with the Cartesian system.
Algarotti mentions Bassi 2 times in
his book Newtonism for Ladies (1737). In an earlier poem, with the
interesting title "Non la lesboa," written for her graduation,
Algarotti again describes Bassi as a proponent of Newton. According to documents
in the Library Archiginnasio in Bologna, it seems she started out studying
mathematics with Dr. Gabriele Manfredi and "became proficient ...in
experimental physics" based on Newton's discoveries. More important,
the same document states that she taught courses in experimental physics
for 28 years covering Newton's theory of light, optics, and subjects from
The Principia such as his laws of motion.
Today's historians describe Bassi as a scientific muse or "ornament"
at Bologna. She is actually more like a bright star guiding scientists and
scholars to the university. "No scholar would pass through Bologna
without being eager for her learned converstion," writes one biographer.
From a private letter, we learn that Jean Antoine Nollet wanted the chance
to use her electrical laboratory. It is truly amazing that Bassi should
be doing experiments on electricity equipped with her own laboratory! Electrical
experiments were dangerous. More than a few scientists electrocuted themselves
with Leyden jars (that acted as giant capacitors) and experiments with kites.
No other woman worked on electro-magnetism until Hertha Aryton in the 1900's,
and she had to use her husband's lab. Bassi collaborated with her husband
on the medical uses of electricity. Galvani and Volta followed them at Bologna
studying the electric nature of neuro-physiology. Bassi duplicated some
of the experiments of Ben Franklin, and Veratti installed the first lightning
rod at the University.
Bassi as Petrarchan muse, 1732
Bassi published several technical papers: 13 on physics, 11 on hydraulics,
1 on mechanics, 1 on chemistry, and 2 on mathematical subjects. These papers
are housed in the Academy of Sciences. Strangely, there are no papers or
textbooks on electricity. One possible explanation is the expense of privately
publishing a book. From her private correspondence, it is clear that neither
Bassi or her husband were wealthy people. A more likely reason for not publishing
is the public's hostility to women who wrote books under their own names.
They were usually attacked for "singularity." For example, when
Margaret Cavendish published her scientific poems, London society declared
she was "mad Madge" and belonged in Bedlam. Maria Agnesi, who
succeeded Bassi at the University, tried to avoid criticism by passing off
her book on mathematics as a textbook for her younger brothers. Emilie du
Chatelet's commentary on Newton was published after her death (from sepsis),
and her friend Voltaire paid the entire cost of publication.
Bassi's conduct and her reputation always had to be above reproach
because her main support came from powerful men closely connected to the
church. There were 3 important "wisemen" who helped Bassi at each
stage of her career. The first was Gaetano Tacconi, her family's physician
and a professor at the university. He instructed her in philosophy and metaphysics
for 7 years, from age 13 through age 20. When her ability at philosophical
debate and Latin became evident, Tacconi began promoting Bassi in Bologna's
It wasn't long before her name reached Cardinal Prospero Lambertini. He
became her most powerful patron. Lambertini had returned to Bologna as its
Archbishop only one year earlier in 1731. He was born in Bologna and was
something of a scholar in his own right. Lambertini persuades the young
woman to participate in a public debate with Tacconi and 4 other professors.
On April 17, 1732, Bassi defends 49 philosophical theses in the grand Palazzo
Pubblico. Her career was officially launched!
Click HERE to see an enlarged view
What was Lambertini up to? According to Paula Findlen, it was all part of
the cardinal's ambitious plan to revive Bologna's reputation as a major
center of learning. With the cardinal's help, Bassi becomes a symbol for
"the scientific and cultural regeneration of the city." One month
later in May, the University confers a doctorate on her. In another lavish,
public ceremony, she is presented with an ermine cape, a jewel-encrusted,
silver crown of laurels, and a ring. A medal is struck in her honor. Then
the university Senate offered Bassi a teaching position (Reader in Philosophy)
. . . so that her intellectual skills would remain sharp.
Apparently, Lambertini engineered the whole thing. Over the next two decades,
he manuvers her career around various obstacles like pieces on a chessboard.
Bassi did not always deal with him directly especially after 1740 when Lambertini
is chosen as Pope Benedict XIV. She communicated most often with an intermediary,
Flamino Scarselli, the secretary to the Bolognese ambassador at the papal