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No. 10, June 1997
Chemistry in 18th-century Italy. The institutional setting
by Raffaella Seligardi


No. 13 - Dec 2000 (PDF)

No. 12 - Sep 1999

No. 11 - May 1998

No. 10 - Jun 1997

In recent years there has been a heated debate among historians of science on the disciplinary status of chemistry in the 18th century. Some scholars, including Arthur Donovan[1] and Ferdinando Abbri[2], assert that chemistry was established as a modern and independent subject only with the conceptual revolution achieved by Lavoisier; others, on the other hand, above all Frederic Lawrence Holmes [3], have argued that much of this science was already clearly defined, at least as far as salts are concerned, before the end of the century.

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent[4] has recently attempted to mediate between these positions by affirming that if from our present point of view 18th century chemistry had a recognized identity of its own as a subject, this does not apply to the individual chemist, who did not enjoy a clearly defined institutional status and often didn't even call himself a "chemist", but more often a physician or a natural philosopher.

However controversial, if at the same time intriguing this latter interpretation may be, it is true that whereas chemistry was institutionally recognised in France from the foundation of the Academy of Sciences in Paris (1699), in Italy, with the exception as we shall see of Bologna, it became institutionalised only slowly, mainly in the second half of the century[5]. The information that follows, which concerns the Italian situation, aims to add something to the historiographical discussion, which in recent years has paid gradually more attention to the development of chemistry in its various national contexts[6].

Bologna's Institute of Sciences was founded in 1711-1714[7], with the model of the two most prestigious academies founded in the previous century, the Paris Academy and the Royal Society of London, very much in mind. Its function was to integrate the purely theoretical lessons offered by the University of Bologna with experimental practice. The Institute was the teaching equivalent of the Bologna Academy, or Accademia degli Inquieti, in which the actual scientific research took place. At the Bologna Institute chemistry was taught from the start, in that it was regarded as basic to the study of medicine. Indeed in 1709 the founder of the Institute, Luigi Ferdinando Marsili, wrote as follows to the trustees of the university:

«Since the science of chemistry is neither known nor practised, the knowledge of the nature of fluids will only ever be known to the doctors of Bologna inasmuch as it is taught them in books published beyond the Alps. This gap weakens medicine in Bologna very considerably, since the perfect or proper nature of fluids must be known, through much chemical experiment, before the damaging aspects of fluids can be corrected. From information concerning their perfect and defective states new cures may be invented, or the knowledge how to apply them may derive. This is of course obvious to the greatest academies of the world, and is the reason why university professorships for the systematic teaching of chemistry have been established, together with public laboratories open to all kinds of experimentation, whether vegetable, fossil, or animal. I would like to beg the trustees to lose no time in instituting this new chair...[8]».

Marco Antonio Laurenti was the first professor of chemistry in the Bologna Institute, although he never gave a regular course and at some point resigned. In 1734 the post was given to Jacopo Bartolomeo Beccari, who also became University Professor of Chemistry from 1737. This was the first proper chair of chemistry in Italy. As far as the Institute of Sciences at Bologna is concerned, regular courses planned over a two year period began to be held only after 1776, with Vincenzo Pozzi[9]. A laboratory existed only at the institute because the university lessons, as we have already indicated, were purely speculative in nature.

The chemistry laboratories at the Bologna Institute (there were four rooms in 1777), were reduced in 1789 to make way for those of Obstetrics. At the end of the eighteenth century there were two rooms, plus a storeroom. The doors were isolated by heavy curtains of cloth (chemical experiments are not exactly sweet-smelling...); the rooms had only one window with a big table in the centre and big cupboards along the walls. In the first room there were around 88 glass containers and a furnace with an alembic in copper. In the second room, known as "the furnaces", there were 13 of these, for various chemical operations (the making of acids, sublimation, distillation, cupellation, etc.); there were also a couple of mortars, a grindstone, 85 glass vessels, but - it should be noted - only one pair of scales[10]. So in these laboratories the more traditional operations of analysis and synthesis of substances were carried out by dry or wet means. On the other hand the experiments on pneumatic chemistry took place also within the teaching of experimental physics, which itself had a laboratory, furnished with modern equipment for gases made in London and Paris[11].

Pope Benedict XIV was very keen on the extension of scientific knowledge, and as well as giving a boost to the Bologna Institute also established the first chair of chemistry at the "Sapienza" at Rome, held by Luigi Filippo Giraldi[12]; yet only in 1800, with Domenico Lino Morichini, was the new chemistry introduced in Rome.

In 1726 a course of experimental chemical medicine was established at the University of Padua[13]; this however was not activated until 1749, it would appear, merely because of questions of curriculum priorities. The actual chair in experimental chemistry was set up in 1759 and given to Marco Carburi, who didn't start to teach until the academic year 1767-1768 since the Venetian government had given him the job of going on a journey of mineralogical instruction (and a spying mission) in the countries of north and central Europe. The laboratory set up by Carburi at Padua[14] served as a model between 1771 and 1773 for those of Parma (where from 1767 Marco Aurelio Cavedagni held the chair of chemistry, which passed to Giuseppe Camuti in 1769), of Florence and of Turin.

Marco Carburi had been a student of Beccari at Bologna, like the physician Giambattista Borsieri, who taught chemistry to physicians at the University of Pavia from 1770. The chemistry chair of that university dates from 1776 and was given to Giovanni Antonio Scopoli; Luigi Valentino Brugnatelli[15] succeeded him in 1796. In addition, in 1775 the Museum of Natural History, directed by Lazzaro Spallanzani, was established, while in 1777 Scopoli became director of the chemistry laboratory.

A chair of chemistry also existed at the University of Naples from 1732, although it was joint chemistry and botany. An autonomous chair dates from 1790 and was assigned to Giuseppe Vairo. From 1771 a private school of medicine and chemistry also existed at Naples, founded by Nicola Andria [16].

Concerning Tuscany, a chair in chemistry was set up at Pisa in 1757, held by Antonio Nicolao Branchi. In 1771 another chair followed at Siena. But the fulcrum of Tuscan chemistry was represented by Florence, where in 1775 the Museum of Physics and Natural History was founded. The director, the Trento physician Felice Fontana, although he didn't hold a chair in chemistry, was perhaps the greatest Italian chemist of the end of the century [17].

In Turin in 1757 the Società Privata was founded, which in 1760 took the name of Società Reale (Royal Society), and finally in 1783 became the Royal Academy of Sciences of Turin. It was primarily interested in practical applications of use to the state. The chemical research conducted at the Turin Academy, as well as in fashionable pneumatics, was mainly interested in dyes, mineralogy and mineral waters. Among prominent figures in Turin we find Giovanni Francesco Cigna, Giuseppe Angelo Saluzzo and Carlo Lodovico Morozzo. The chair of chemistry applied to the arts at the University of Turin was established, on the other hand, in 1800 and given to the Turin academic Giovanni Antonio Giobert, previously an important and indeed the only purveyor in Turin of Lavoisier's ideas [18].

Among other non-university institutions [19] we may recall that in 1784 the Ospedale Maggiore of Milan started a New School of pharmaceutical chemistry run by Pietro Moscati, who in 1791 became professor of chemistry in the chair set up that year in Milan University. In Milan we can also find Marsilio Landriani, who had important connections with chemists of several European countries and was one of the exponents, with Fontana, of eudiometry, i.e. the method of verifying the healthiness of the air.

In 1781 Anton Maria Lorgna founded at Verona the Italian Society of Sciences (known later as the Society of the XL); in 1769 the Academy of Sciences at Mantua was founded. These two institutions also published their annals, of course, and many of them dealt with chemical subjects.

The information above indicates that the introduction of chemistry chairs in Italian universities and academies occurred in the second half of the century, quite late compared to other countries where chemistry had been encouraged since the previous century in parallel institutions, like the Paris Jardin du Roi, if not directly in the universities. This backwardness also conditioned the reception of new discoveries on gases which characterised the second half of the century: indeed they began to arrive in Italy only from the years 1773-1774.

The institutionalisation of chemistry in Italy proceeds parallel to the fragmentation of chairs in mathematics and the appearance of natural science chairs. It should be seen in the context of a reform of academic teaching, of the widening of the classical curriculum already going on in previous centuries, which involved all of the Italian states (and not just these) in the second half of the 18th century. It would not seem that the late institutionalisation of chemistry is to be attributed to the backwardness of the subject itself. It is true that Italian chemistry was closely linked to other disciplines such as medicine or mineralogy; it was no coincidence that the first professors of chemistry were doctors or natural philosophers by training. However, and here I agree with Holmes and Bensaude-Vincent, even before the introduction of the chairs there was agreement on what constituted the kernel of the subject: dry or wet procedures of analysis; the concepts of acid, alkali, base and salt; the theory of affinities; some properties conferred on bodies by phlogiston (although its nature was unclear). Furthermore, many books on chemistry were in circulation: we may recall Nicolas Lémery's Cours de Chimie (1675), translated into Italian in 1695 from the eigth edition of 1693; Stephen Hales Vegetable Staticks (1727), translated into Italian for the first time in 1756; Hermann Boerhaave's Elementa Chemiae (1732), translated into Italian in 1737; the Latin works of Georg Ernst Stahl; the Nouveau cours de chymie suivant les principes de Newton et de Stahl, translated in 1750; Pierre Joseph Macquer's Dictionnaire de chimie (1766), translated in 1783-1784.

The attitude of many Italians, who had been trained through these books, towards the new chemical doctrines indicates clearly that Lavoisier and his collaborators were more often regarded as experts in pneumatics rather than chemists. The innovations proposed by Lavoisier, from their point of view, did not involve all chemistry, but only the part concerning combustion, calcination and acidity. The whole subject of affinities and everything that we might now call organic chemistry (such as the analysis of animal and vegetable substances, and of foods) were external to Lavoisier's system as it was understood in Italy, even if they were certainly important aspects of chemistry. Marco Carburi, the Padua chemist, had this to say about Lavoisier and the chemistry of airs in 1797:

«The chemistry of gases is only a small part of chemistry, not all of it... Lavoisier's work... does not contain even elementary information on any branch of metals or any other of the chemical arts; and would be quite ridiculous to consider a chemist one who just works on gases, or as one informed in chemistry someone who has just learnt modern theory, just as it would be absurd to consider a mere eye-doctor as a surgeon»[20].

Other factors, as well as those mentioned above, can explain the Italian situation: the peninsula's fragmentation into so many states reinforced the number of reasons why particular subjects were believed to be interesting by local scientific communities. At Bologna and Pavia, for example, chemistry was considered primarily in relation to medicine [21]; at Turin the main interest was towards the dying industry and military applications; at Naples more emphasis was given to what was useful for mineralogy. But this didn't stop Naples producing works on mineral waters or Turin on pneumatic chemistry.

What was missing obviously was an Italian scientific community, which began to form gradually only in the last twenty years of the century, when first Carlo Amoretti and then especially Luigi Valentino Brugnatelli became promoters of scientific journals in the Italian language, which involved the specialists of the subject spread over the dozen or so states in which the peninsula was divided up. Brugnatelli's editorship of the 22 volumes of Annali di chimica between 1795 and 1805, was mainly responsible for promoting the exchange of ideas, discoveries, experiments and interpretations. These journals in the Italian language contributed more than anything else to the formation of an Italian chemistry community, well before an Italian state was born (in 1861): another case in which the formation of a community of experts long preceded institutional developments.


[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.


Raffaella Seligardi, CIS, University of Bologna, Via Zamboni 31, I- 40126 Bologna. E-mail: