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No. 10, June 1997
Marta Cavazza on Beate Ceranski, "Und sie fürchtet sich vor niemandem". Die Physikerin Laura Bassi (1711-1778), Frankfurt-New York, Campus, 1996.


No. 13 - Dec 2000 (PDF)

No. 12 - Sep 1999

No. 11 - May 1998

No. 10 - Jun 1997

"We need to know much more about this pioneering woman physicist". With these words Londa Schiebinger (The Mind has no Sex?, p.16) in 1989 stressed the need for new studies on Laura Bassi, the first woman not only to have obtained a university degree, but also to have been given teaching posts in the university and in an academy, gaining an officially recognised role in the scientific community. Her wish has been granted, for in fact over the past few years not many people have received as much attention from historians as Bassi has received. To articles by Bologna scholars (Elio Melli, Giulio Gentili, Ludovico Masetti Zannini, and myself) can be added studies by scholars from various countries, (Alberto Elena, Paula Findlen, Beate Ceranski, and Gabriella Berti Logan). Some of these studies have been published in prestigious reviews, such as Isis, Nuncius and American Historical Review. If in some cases the sudden interest in Laura Bassi has arisen partly through the ninth centenary celebrations of the University of Bologna, which has led several scholars to increase our knowledge of themes and figures connected to the history of this institution, without doubt most of those mentioned above are part of the great movement in Women's Studies, which in this last decade have also involved historians of science. Early modern Italy is a good place for this kind of research, because it enables us not only to analyse the historical forms of the exclusion of women from knowledge and its institutions, but it also offers, particularly in the eighteenth century, several examples of pioneering female participation (of course marginal and of a tiny minority) in scientific activity, which have been almost entirely ignored by traditional historiography. The case of Laura Bassi is the best known and most important, but it is not the only one, as the researches of Paula Findlen and myself increasingly bear out.

The prevalence of scholars from other countries among those who are taking an interest in the famous graduate can easily be explained by the lateness with which Women's Studies have arrived in Italy, especially in the area of the history of science. Her case, which for a couple of centuries was abandoned to the connoisseurs of local history or at most reduced to a portrait in a gallery of illustrious women, has been re-examined in the light of new and broader perspectives, which have often provided surprising results.

The categories of gender history applied together with those of the sociological history of science, in fact, are highly suitable for Laura Bassi, bringing to light hitherto unknown aspects, as well as affinities with other biographies of eighteenth century women, and also suggesting new readings of documents we know of already. Paula Findlen must take the merit for having opened up the new fields. In an article significantly titled "Science as a Career in Enlightenment Italy. The Strategies of Laura Bassi" (Isis, 1993), the latter is presented as a gripped on and tenacious constructor of an entirely original female scientific "career", a little on the lines of Biagioli's Galileo Courtier. Findlen stressed the ability Laura Bassi showed in getting into the patronage system of eighteenth century Bologna, dominated by the Bolognese Pope Prospero Lambertini, exploiting to her own advantage the singular nature of her situation and actively contributing to the creation of her myth (expressed in her identification with Minerva), which fitted nicely into the fame and prestige of the city.

Beate Ceranski also has recourse to the sociological categories used by Findlen (patronage, client, broker), both in her articles and above all in her biography, recently published in Germany. Deriving from a 1995 Hamburg University doctoral thesis in the history of science, this book is the most detailed and wide-ranging study yet produced on the Bologna scientist, a successful synthesis of all previous work on the subject. Not that Ceranski depends on the literature; her sources are always her own, and indeed the broad range of her treatment enables her to utilise a greater and more varied quantity of documents. Her solid documentary base weighs down only the notes and the appendix, but not the narration, which is admirable for its pedagogic clarity and stylistic sobriety, qualities that do not stop her from having a sympathetic attitude to her subject, the young woman "who was afraid of no one" and who fought with clear-sighted determination to win acceptance in the patriarchal world of eighteenth century science.

The division into chapters coincides with the most significant dates in Laura Bassi's life, starting with 1731, when the existence of the child prodigy was first made public, and the annus mirabilis of 1732, the year of the solemn degree ceremony in the Palazzo Pubblico, and the appointment to membership of the Academy of Sciences and as reader of the university. The period from 1733 to 1745 is then examined in detail, when the young graduate on the one hand assumes the role of Bologna Minerva assigned to her by the city authorities, guaranteeing through her presence prestige and publicity to academic disputations and public anatomies, while on the other hand she devoted herself intensively to "modern" studies of mathematics and experimental physics.

These are also the years of her marriage to Giuseppe Veratti, an event to which the author attributes great importance, and in which her teaching activity really begins, not in the university, where her readership continued in its honorary character, but in the private school of experimental physics set up in her own home.

Another important year, in fact the most decisive, was 1745, when Bassi was enabled to acquire a real, official and not merely ornamental role in Bologna's scientific community, almost at the same level as her male colleagues: a supernumerary post in the class of academic pensioners known as the Benedictines of the Academy of Sciences, established that year by the Pope. The post was obtained for her thanks to the protection of Benedict XIV himself, obtained through a series of intermediaries and against the wishes of some of her Bolognese colleagues, who in any case managed to stop her from having the right to vote. This is the chapter in which Ceranski most systematically makes use of the term "patronage", in an attempt to clarify the real dynamics of the forces at work and in particular the role of the Pope. It's a situation open to further research, made more difficult by the scarcity of up to date serious studies on the cultural politics of Pope Lambertini, which Ceranski herself complains about.

The last chapter covers the years 1745-1778, the "years of research", in which Bassi's authority in scientific circles also beyond Bologna was increasingly founded on the esteem earned by her ability to teach experimental physics, her work on mechanics, on hydrometry, on elasticity, and other properties of gases, and her contribution to debates on electricity. Ceranski makes a competent examination of these works, only in part published in the Commentarii of the Academy of Sciences, placing them in the context of the developments in research at a European level and at the more limited level of the various theoretical orientations present in Bologna's Academy. Thanks both to the prestige thus gained, and thanks also to her already mentioned ability to procure protection and create alliances, she was able to obtain in 1776, two years before her death, the definitive recognition that she by now fully belonged to the scientific community: the post of professor of experimental physics in the Bologna Institute of Sciences.

The political and social reality of eighteenth century Bologna was very complex, and cannot be reduced to that of court society, the background to many studies centered on the analysis of the mechanisms of patronage systems. This is not just because of the mixed system of city government, but because of the importance of the graduate class, of the intellectual elite whose strength derived from the university and the Institute of sciences. In applying the constellation of categories centered on the concept of patronage to this reality, Ceranski has to take into account the complexity of the relations of power, the relations between patron and client and of brokerage. She rightly gives great importance to the role of exponents of the academic culture of the city, and through an examination of their correspondence between 1732 and 1745, she studies

how they take up positions, and their interventions of support or of hindrance in the various phases of Bassi's "career". Above all she emphasises that in the Bologna patronage system people's roles often varied according to their function. This also applies to the ever more famous graduate, who from quite early on finds herself in the position of authoritative intermediary of superior powers (the Pope, the Academy) above all on behalf of young scholars such as Spallanzani, Fontana and Volta.

There is insufficient space here to go into all the aspects Ceranski deals with concerning Laura Bassi's image, and the social and cultural context provided by the Bologna which formed her and was in its turn influenced by her. We are not in my opinion dealing with a definitive reconstruction, so much as a basic step forward in the many-sided research in progress on the role of women in eighteenth century science in Italy, and especially in Bologna. This is not intended as a criticism, but to stress the rich potential of a field so recently "discovered", in which there is so much room for other interventions and further reflection.


[1] Donovan, Arthur, «Lavoisier and the origins of modern chemistry», in Donovan, Arthur (ed.), The chemical revolution. Essays in reinterpretation, Osiris, vol. IV, 1988, pp. 214-231.

[2] Abbri, Ferdinando, «The chemical revolution: a critical assessment», Nuncius, vol. 4, 1989, 2, pp. 303-319.

[3] Holmes, Frederic L., Eighteenth-century chemistry as an investigative enterprise, University of California: Berkeley, 1989; Id., «Beyond the boundaries», in Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette; Abbri, Ferdinando (eds), Lavoisier in European context: Negotiating a new language for chemistry, Science History Publ., 1995, pp. 267-278.

[4] Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette, «A geographical history of eighteenth-century chemistry», in Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette; Abbri, Ferdinando (eds), Lavoisier in European context: Negotiating a new language for chemistry, Science History Publ., 1995, pp. 1-17.

[5] Abbri, Ferdinando, «La chimica italiana dalle origini ad Avogadro», in Maccagni, C.; Freguglia, P. (eds), La storia delle scienze, Torino: UTET, 1989, vol. 5, tomo 2, pp. 377-410; Baldini, Ugo, «L'attività scientifica nel primo Settecento», in Storia d'Italia, Annali, vol. 3, «La scienza e la tecnica», Einaudi, pp. 467-545.

[6] See Revue d'histoire des science, vol. 48, 1995: «Débats et chantiers actuels autour de Lavoisier et de la révolution chimique».

[7] Cavazza, Marta, Settecento inquieto. Alle origini dell'Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna, Il Mulino, Bologna, 1990.

[8] Marsili, Luigi Ferdinando, Parallelo dello Stato Moderno della Università di Bologna con l'altre di là de' Monti, Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna, MSS 630, cc. 47-48.

[9] Cavazza, Marta, «L'insegnamento delle scienze sperimentali nell'Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna», in Pancaldi, Giuliano (ed.), Le università e le scienze: prospettive storiche e attuali, Bologna: Università di Bologna, 1993, p. 158, n. 22, p. 166.

[10] Biblioteca Comunale dell'Archiginnasio di Bologna, MSS B. 1301, Inventario Generale di tutti li Capi Mobili e di varj Immobili esistenti nelle Camere, Logge Atrj ed altri luoghi dell'Instituto Nazionale in Bologna, 25 luglio 1798 (7 Termidoro anno VI), pp. 56-76.

[11] Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna, MSS Canterzani, 4152, Caps. XVIII, no 3, Inventario delle macchine fisiche esistenti nel Gabinetto della fu Altezza Lord Principe Cowper, 7 September 1790. On the Cowper collection see: Dragoni, Giorgio, «Vicende dimenticate del mecenatismo bolognese dell'ultimo '700: l'acquisto della collezione di strumentazioni scientifiche di Lord Cowper», Il Carrobbio, 11, 1985, pp. 67-85; see also Belli, Stefano, Le «Camere» di fisica nell'Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna (1711-1758), Università di Bari, Ph.D. Thesis, 1994.

[12] Conte, Emanuele (ed.), I maestri della Sapienza di Roma dal 1514 al 1787: I Rotuli e altre fonti, Roma: Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medio Evo, 1991, vol. 2, p. 676.

[13] Giormani, Virgilio, «L'insegnamento della chimica all'Università di Padova», in Quaderni per la storia dell'Università di Padova, 1984, vol. 17, pp. 91-133.

[14] Id., «Il laboratorio di chimica all'Università di Padova nel '700: un modello per Parma, Firenze e Torino», in Abbri, Ferdinando; Crispini, Franco (eds), Atti del III Convegno nazionale di Storia e Fondamenti della Chimica, Brenner: Cosenza, 1991, pp. 83-92.

[15] Beretta, Marco, «Luigi Valentino Brugnatelli e la chimica in Italia alla fine del '700», in Storia in Lombardia, 1988, fasc. 2, pp. 3-31; Id., «Gli scienziati italiani e la rivoluzione chimica», Nuncius, 1989, 2, pp. 119-145.

[16] Abbri, Ferdinando, «Filosofia chimica e Scienza naturale nel Meridione», in Nastasi, Pietro (ed.), Atti del Convegno Il Meridione e le Scienze (secoli XVI-XIX), Palermo, 1986, pp. 111-125.

[17] Id., Science de l'air: Studi su Felice Fontana, Brenner: Cosenza, 1991.

[18] Id., «De utilitate chemiae in oeconomia reipublicae. La rivoluzione chimica nel Piemonte dell'antico regime», in Studi storici. Rivista trimestrale dell'Istituto Gramsci, fasc. 2, 1989, pp. 401-433; Pedrocco, Giorgio, «Scienziati piemontesi nell'evoluzione chimica settecentesca», in G.C. Calcagno, V. Pallotti, G. Pedrocco, Scienze e tecnologie in Europa nell'età moderna, CLUEB, Bologna, 1979, pp. 15-83.

[19] Di Meo, Antonio, «La chimica e la sua storia. Il caso italiano», in di Meo, Antonio (ed.) Storia della chimica in Italia, Theoria : Roma; Napoli, 1989, pp. XXI-XLV.

[20] Giormani, Virgilio, «L'insegnamento della chimica...», see note 13, above.

[21] Abbri, Ferdinando, «Chemistry turned upside down: aspects of the Italian debate on Lavoisier's theory», in Abbri, Ferdinando; Crispini, Franco (eds), Atti del III Convegno nazionale di Storia e Fondamenti della Chimica, Brenner: Cosenza, pp. 101-111.


Marta Cavazza, Department of Philosophy, University of Bologna, Via Zamboni 38, I-40126 Bologna. E-mail: