Marsili (or Marsigli), Luigi Ferdinando

views updated May 21 2018


(b. Bologna, Italy, 20 July 1658; d. Bologna, 1 November 1730),

natural history, geography, oceanography, mineralogy, politics of science. For the original article on Marsili see DSB, vol. 9.

Between 1975 and 2005 the complex figure of Marsili was widely studied by scholars interested in various aspects of his life and work. Knowledge of him developed through a variety of perspectives: the distinctly European dimension of Marsili’s thinking and his initiatives; the part he played in the founding of the Institute of Sciences of Bologna and his views on the relationships between the new experimental science and the modern state; the special role he attributed to geography, as the discipline in which everything known about a place can be unified and made useful for its rulers; his idea of the necessary synergy between science and the arts, and the ways in which he put this into practice in his own researches and in his projects for new scientific institutions. In addition to these, fresh insights were achieved into the value of his pioneering studies in geology and oceanography.

The very title of John Stoye’s ample and well documented biography, Marsigli’s Europe, indicates the broad scope of this Bolognese nobleman’s experience as soldier and virtuoso. The two identities were not separate but deeply interwoven throughout his life. As is shown by Stoye, and before him from Raffaella Gherardi, Marsili also addressed his scientific and political concerns beyond Christian Europe, towards the Ottoman Empire, its institutions, language, antiquities, and natural history. Marsili spent most of his life abroad: in the Habsburg dominions, in Provence, Switzerland, the Low Countries, and England. Nevertheless he succeeded in persuading the Bolognese senate and Pope Clemente XI to reform the teaching of natural philosophy and mathematics in Bologna, with the resulting foundation of the Istituto delle Scienze e delle Arti (and not of the Accademia delle Scienze, as Francesco Rodolico states in the original article on Marsili). The new institution was inaugurated in 1714, and in the course of some twenty years acquired a library, an observatory, physics and chemistry laboratories, a natural history museum, and a museum of military arts, where experimental courses were taught using instruments and materials at the outset mostly donated by Marsili himself. The institute also included two academies, the Accademia delle Scienze and the Accademia di Belle Arti (the Clementina, named after the pope). The former had been in existence since 1691 as the Accademia degli Inquieti, and in 1705 Marsili offered to house it in his family home, to which he would dispatch the books, instruments, and natural specimens he collected all over Europe, and where an observatory was then built on the roof. This private institute, which was to develop through the researches of Eustachio Manfredi, Francesco Vittorio Stancari, and other young Inquieti, constituted the embryo of the future public institution.

Marsili’s inspiration for the project of forming an institution which would teach the new subjects by experiment and observation (“through the eyes, and not through the ears,” in his words), came from his teachers, Marcello Malpighi, Geminiano Montanari, and Gian-domenico Cassini, all followers of Galileo who were linked to the Accademia del Cimento, as well as being in touch with the Royal Society in London and the Académie des Sciences in Paris. Marsili himself became a foreign member of both, in 1699 (not in 1722, as Rodolico says) and in 1715 respectively.

As Gherardi has shown, Marsili’s political vision of science was also derived from a direct experience of the power apparatuses of the modern state, in the course of his career as a general in the Imperial Army and his acquaintance with the Viennese court. His researches on the Danube basin, from every standpoint, including cartography, astronomy (for calculating longitude), geology, mining, hydrology, natural history, later published in the six great volumes of his Danubius Pannonico-mysicus (1726), were made possible thanks to vast financial resources and the work of hundreds of individuals who included engineers and artists. In Marsili’s mind, geography, as a multi-faceted discipline able to unify all knowledge of a particular location, thereby enabling its political control, was a necessary tool for the formation of state rulers both in peace and war time (Farinelli, 1979 and 1992).

Marsili’s first significant collaborator was the German Johan Christoph Müller, who coordinated his field surveys and drew the majority of related illustrations and maps. The originality of Marsili’s method of inquiry is manifest in the sustained iconic representations of nature and its human transformations carried out in the course of his travels and military campaigns. Besides Müller, Marsili was served by artists such as Georg Christoph Einmart, an engraver and astronomer from Nuremberg, the latter’s daughter Maria Clara, and the Bolognese Raimondo Manzini, “a specialist in the illustration of nature” (Olmi, 2000, p. 273). It was thanks to his cartographic skills and his deep knowledge of the disputed territories that Marsili was elected imperial plenipotentiary in the negotiations to define new boundaries after the peace of Karlowitz, which, in 1699, put an end to the war between the Habsburg Empire and the Turks.The original article in the DSB rightly gave considerable importance to Marsili’s researches on geology and on oceanography. New studies of these have enriched scholars’ knowledge of them. Anita McConnell (“The Flowers of Coral,” 1990) shows how Marsili’s opinion that coral was a plant was not immediately refuted by the community of natural philosophers “in deference to his social standing.” The view of Jean-Andre Peysonnel that coral was animal in nature was eclipsed by Marsili’s Histoire physique de la mer (1725) dedicated to the Paris Academy of Sciences and prefaced by Herman Boerhaave, and not published until 1752.

Marsili’s background as a high-ranking officer trained in mining engineering during a long stay in eastern Europe enhanced his acute powers of observation on geological field trips.

In his study “Luigi Ferdinando Marsili, Geologist” (2003), Ezio Vaccari notes that the research Marsili undertook in the Swiss Alps (1705), observing and describing their various morphological and structural features, bore out essential elements of his theory on the structure of mountains, which he subdivided into three morphological units. Marsili planned to write a treatise on the organic structure of the earth, a work never completed. According to Marabini and Vai (2003), his studies of the gypsum formations in the Apennines can be seen as one part of this project and as an example of the innovative character of his geological method and of the wide-ranging perspective he maintains, even when his starting point lies in local and extremely detailed observation.

Even in this field Marsili never forgot his pedagogical concerns. In the rich collections of geological and paleontological material he donated to the Istituto he left an invaluable legacy to future scholarship that was later preserved in the science museums of the University of Bologna (Sarti, 2003).


Listed are editions or facsimiles of Marsili’s works issued after 1981.


Relazioni dei confini della Croazia e della Transilvania a sua maestà cesarea. Edited by Raffaella Gherardi. 2 vols. Modena, Italy: Mucchi, 1986.

Ragguaglio della schiavitù. Edited by Bruno Basile. Rome: Salerno, 1996. (In appendix: Memoriale a Giuseppe re de’ romani figlio di Leopoldo imperadore scritto dal co(nte) Luigi Marsigli tornato dalla schiavitù a Bologna.)

Bevanda asiatica: trattatello sul caffè. Edited by Clemente Mazzotta. Rome: Salerno, 1998.

Danubius Pannonico-Mysicus, tomus I. Edited by Antal András Deák. Budapest, Hungary: Vizugyi Muzeum, Leveltar es Konyvgyujtemeny, 2004. (Includes a facsimile of the 1726 Hague-Amsterdam edition, and texts in Hungarian, Latin, English.)


Angelini, Annarita, ed. Anatomie accademiche III. L’Istituto delle Scienze e l’ Accademia. Bologna, Italy: Il Mulino, 1993. Contains Introduzione by A. Angelini, pp. 13–310, and a documentary appendix, pp. 311–571.

Cavazza, Marta. Settecento inquieto. Alle origini dell’Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna. Bologna, Italy: Il Mulino, 1990.

_____. “I due generali: le vite parallele di Vincenzo Coronelli e Luigi Ferdinando Marsili.” In Un intellettuale europeo e il suo universo. Vincenzo Coronelli (1650–1718), edited by Maria Gioia Tavoni. Bologna, Italy: Costa, 1999.

Farinelli, Franco. “Il filosofo e la città: Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli e l’Istituto delle Scienze.” In La città del sapere: i laboratori storici e i musei dell’Università di Bologna, testi di Pier Luigi Cervellati et al. Milan, Italy: A. Pizzi, 1987.

_____. “Multiplex Geographia Marsilii est difficillima.” In I segni del mondo. Immagine cartografica e discorso geografico in età moderna, edited by Franco Farinelli. Scandicci, Italy: La Nuova Italia, 1992.

Gherardi, Raffaella. Potere e costituzione a Vienna fra Sei e Settecento: il “buon ordine” di Luigi Ferdinando Marsili. Bologna, Italy: Il Mulino, 1980.

Marabini, Stefano, and Gian Battista Vai. “Marsili’s and Aldrovandi’s Early Studies on the Gypsum Geology of the Appennines.” In Four Centuries of the Word Geology. Ulisse Aldrovandi 1603 in Bologna, edited by Gian Battista Vai and William Cavazza. Bologna, Italy: Minerva Edizioni, 2003.

McConnell, Anita. “L. F. Marsigli’s Voyage to London and Holland, 1721–1722.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 41 (1986): 39–76.

_____. “A Profitable Visit: Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli’s Studies, Commerce and Friendships in Holland, 1722–23.” In Italian Scientists in the Low Countries in the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries, edited by C. S. Maffioli and L. C. Palm. Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1989.

_____. “The Flowers of Coral—Some Unpublished Conflicts from Montpellier and Paris During the Early Eighteenth Century.” History and Philosophy of Life Sciences 12 (1990): 51–66.

_____. “L. F. Marsigli’s Visit to London in 1721, and His Report on the Royal Society.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 47 (1993): 179–204.

Olmi, Giuseppe. “L’illustrazione naturalistica nelle opere di Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli.” In Natura-Cultura. L’interpretazione del mondo fisico nei testi e nelle immagini, edited by Giuseppe Olmi, Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi, and Attilio Zanca. Florence, Italy: Olschki, 2000.

Sarti, Carlo. “The Istituto delle Scienze in Bologna and its geological and paleontological collections in the 18th Century.” In Four Centuries of the Word Geology. Ulisse Aldrovandi 1603 in Bologna, edited by Gian Battista Vai and William Cavazza. Bologna, Italy: Minerva Edizioni, 2003.

Sartori, Renzo. “Luigi Ferdinando Marsili, Founding Father of Oceanography.” In Four Centuries of the Word Geology. Ulisse Aldrovandi 1603 in Bologna, edited by Gian Battista Vai and William Cavazza. Bologna, Italy: Minerva Edizioni, 2003.

Spallanzani, Mariafranca. “Le ‘Camere di storia naturale’ dell’Istituto delle Scienze di Bologna nel Settecento.” In Scienza e letteratura nella cultura italiana del Settecento, edited by Renzo Cremante and Walter Tega. Bologna, Italy: Il Mulino, 1984.

_____. “Le Camere di Storia naturale.” In I luoghi del conoscere. I laboratori storici e i musei dell’Università di Bologna, edited by Franca Arduini et al. Milan, Italy: A. Pizzi, 1988.

Stoye, John. Marsigli’s Europe: The Life and Times of Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli, Soldier and Virtuoso. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1994.

Vaccari, Ezio. “Mining and Knowledge of the Earth in Eighteenth-century Italy.” Annals of Science 57 (2000): 163–180.

_____. “Luigi Ferdinando Marsili, Geologist: From the Hungarian Mines to the Swiss Alp.” In Four Centuries of the Word Geology. Ulisse Aldrovandi 1603 in Bologna, edited by Gian Battista Vai and William Cavazza. Bologna, Italy: Minerva Edizioni, 2003.

Marta Cavazza

Marsili (or Marsigli), Luigi Ferdinando

views updated May 18 2018


(b. Bologna, Ialy, 20 July 1658; d. Bologna, 1 November 1730)

natural history.

Marsili was the son of a nobleman, Carlo Marsili, and the former Margherita Ercolani. He served in the army of Emperor Leopold I from 1682 to 1704, attained high rank, and participated in the negotiations for the peace of Karlowitz—but also was wounded, imprisoned, and even suffered the humiliation of demotion. Although he did not complete his formal schooling, Marsili accumulated a vast knowledge of history, politics, geography, and the natural sciences. He traveled widely throughout Italy and the rest of Europe, particularly in the regions around the Danube, and made several long sea voyages (from Venice to Constantinople, from Leghorn to Amsterdam). While much of his work dealt with the military sciences, history, and geography, he also made a name for himself as a naturalist. He combined a love of travel with the sharp eye of an observer imbued with the Galilean method. In his scientific activity he was always guided by a prudent sagacity that once prompted this advice: “The modern method of observation is the right one, but it is still in its infancy, and we must not be so rash as to expect instantly to deduce systems from these observations; that is something which only our successors, after centuries of study by this method, will be able to do” (letter from Marsili to the astronomer F. Bianchini, 24 December 1726, in Lettere di vari illustri italiani e stranieri [Reggio nell’Emilia, 1841], II, 91).

As a naturalist, with that same prudent sagacity, Marsili undertook the exploration of two basic subjects: the structure of the mountains and the natural condition of the sea, lakes, and rivers. He left many local observations concerning the structure of the mountains (noteworthy among them being those on the continuity of the linea gypsea, the gypsum-bearing strata in the hills of the Adriatic slope of the Apennines); accurate sketches of stratigraphic profiles; and even cartographic representations of particular geologic conditions, although he was far from grasping the geologic significance of the strata. Realizing this later, he gave up systematically elaborating his many “schedae pro structura orbis terraquei.”

The sea had fascinated Marsili since childhood. In 1681 he published a study of the Bosporus, the result of observations that he had made at age twenty. It contained valid findings, notably the discovery of a countercurrent with waters of different density beneath the surface current of the strait. He later traveled around the Mediterranean, doing research mainly along the coasts of the Romagna and Provence. The keenness of his mind often made up for the crudeness of his instruments during these travels. In 1724 he published the first treatise on oceanography, Historie physique de la mer. In it he treated problems which until then had been veiled by error and legend. Marsili examined every aspect of the subject: the morphology of the basin and relationships between the lands under and above water; the water’s properties (color, temperature, salinity) and its motion (waves, currents, tides); and the biology of the sea, which foretold the advent of marine botany. Among the plants he numbered animals like corals, which before his time had been regarded as inorganic matter.

Finally, Marsili was the precursor of the systematic oceanographic exploration that was to begin half a century later with the famous voyage of the Endeavour. Using the same methods, he studied Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy, discussing its physical and biological aspects in a very valuable report, which remained unpublished until 1930. Marsili wrote a basic work on one of Europe’s greatest rivers, Danubius…observationibus geographicis, historicis, physicis perlustratus …(1726), in which he devoted much space to a study of the riverbed and of the waters, as well as to the flora and fauna, and the mineralogy and geology of the adjacent land.

Marsili was also a skilled organizer of scientific work. In 1712 he founded the Accademia delle Scienze dell’Istituto di Bologna, which, under his influence, immediately became an active center of scientific research, consisting mainly of natural history exploration of the area around Bologna. With Domenico Galeazzi, Marsili set an example in 1719 by climbing and studying Mount Cimone, highest peak of the northern Apennines. When Marsili went to London in 1722, to be made a member of the Royal Society, Sir Isaac Newton insisted on presenting him personally and praised him in his speech as both an already famous scientist and a founder of the new Academy of Bologna.


I. Original Works. Marsili’s writings include Osservazioni intorno al Bosforo tracio ovvero canale di Constantinopoli …(Rome, 1681), a booklet repr. in Bollettino di pesca, piscicoltura e idrobiologia, 11 (1935), 734–758; Historie physique de la mer (Amsterdam, 1725); and Danublius-Pannonicus-Mysicus observationibus geographicis, historicis, physicis perlustratus et in sex tomos digestus (The Hague-Amsterdam, 1726), also trans. into French (The Hague, 1744). The volume Scritti inediti di L. F. Marsili (Bologna, 1930) includes “Osservazioni fisiche intorno al Lago di Garda,” M. Longhena and A. Forti, eds., and “Storia naturale de’gessi e solfi nelle miniere di Romagna,” T. Lipparini, ed. There is also Marsili’s Autobiografia (Bologna, 1930).

The University of Bologna library has 176 vols. of Marsili’s autograph letters and cartographic sketches: see L. Frati, Catalogo dei manoscritti di L. F. Marsili (Florence, 1928); and M. Longhena, L’opera cartografica di L. F. Marsili (Rome, 1933).

II. Secondary Literature. For information on Marsili’s life and work, see G. Fantuzzi, Memorie della vitadel generale conte L. F. Marsili (Bologna, 1770), for the period up to 1711 drawn from Marsili’s Autobiografia. See also two works by M. Longhena: II conte L. F. Marsili (Milan, 1930) and “II conte L. F. Marsili,” in Bollettino della Società; geografica italiana, 95 (1958), 539–573, with a complete list of Marsili’s published writings and an extensive bibliography on Marsili the geographer and naturalist; and Memorie intorno a L. F. Marsili (Bologna, 1930).

Francesco Rodolico