Bassani, Francesco

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Bassani, Francesco

(b. Thiene, Vicenza, Italy, 29 October 1853; d. Capri, Italy, 26 April 1916)


The son of Antonio Bassani and Anna Brolis, Bassani studied geology at Padua with Giuseppe Meneghini and, especially, Giovanni Omboni, who introduced him to fossil fishes. After assisting Omboni for two years, he continued his studies at Paris in 1877 under Hébert, Gaudry, and Sauvage, and in Vienna in 1878 with E. Suess and M. Neumayr. He also studied in Munich with Zittel. From 1879 to 1887 Bassani taught natural history, geology, and mineralogy in secondary schools in Padua, Modena, and Milan, and actively investigated and published on fossil fishes of northern Italy and adjacent regions. In 1887 he was called to the chair of geology at Naples, which he occupied until his death.

Bassani was an outstanding teacher, combining the zest and talent for research with the gift of communicating his discoveries and aspirations clearly and understandably to others. As director of the Geological Institute in Naples he brought about extensive improvements in laboratory facilities and collections. He married Everdina Dowkes Dekker, a native of the Netherlands, whose drawings of fossils illustrate his monographs; they had two sons. In his last years he was afflicted with diabetes, in spite of which he continued his research with the aid of assistants.

Bassani was primarily a student of fossil fishes. He also investigated other geological problems, particularly those of the stratigraphic relations and geologic age of various formations in southern Italy, volcanic phenomena at Vesuvius and Solfatara, the contemporaneity of man and extinct animals on Capri, and marine mammals. Many of his short papers pointed out solutions to problems that led to rapid advances in regional geology. While still a student, he collaborated in translating Charles Darwin’s Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals into Italian. In 1885 he published a textbook of zoology for secondary schools.

Bassani’s earliest studies were of the Eocene fishes of Bolca (Verona), and he wrote a total of eight papers describing and interpreting these famous fossils; a monographic review commenced shortly before his death was completed by his student D’Erasmo in 1922. The slightly later deposit at Chiavòn (Vicenza) was written up in 1889. His studies of the Cretaceous fishes of Comen (Istria) in 1880 and the island of Lesina (Hvar) in 1882 are more important for the extensive comparisons between numerous Cretaceous faunas of the Mediterranean basin than for their systematic or descriptive portions. In 1886 he described a collection of fishes and reptiles from the Triassic bituminous shales of Besano, near the southern tip of Lake Lugano.

Soon after his appointment at Naples, Bassani investigated the fishes from limestones of the Sorrento Peninsula; these proved to belong to the alpine Triassic fauna, and he was able to show that the main dolomitic limestones of southern Italy, which up to that time had been regarded as Jurassic or Cretaceous, were actually Triassic. About the same time he wrote a monograph on the Miocene fishes of Sardinia; in 1899, on the Eocene fishes of Gassino, in Piedmont; in 1905, those of the Pleistocene marls of Taranto and Nardo; and in 1915, on the fishes of the Miocene of Lecce. At least nine of Bassani’s papers are devoted exclusively to fossil sharks, and studies of this group of fishes form prominent parts of other reports. He became expert at discriminating shark teeth and eventually concluded that all Pliocene sharks belonged to existing species.

Bassani’s most significant work consisted of faunal revisions; he reviewed nearly all important fossil fishes of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic in Italy. Characteristically, he studied entire fossil assemblages rather than reviewing genera or other systematic groups. His reports include full surveys of earlier studies, carefully organized and detailed descriptions of the fossils, and logically developed conclusions about the environmental implications of the fauna and its geological age. He made extensive use of comparative range charts and based his correlations upon the indications of the bulk of the fauna rather than a few “index” species. As his familiarity with faunas of many ages grew, he developed a concept of fish species evolving slowly through geologic time; in accordance with this, he believed that many of the differently named fossils from faunas of different ages actually belonged to the same species, but in the absence of adequate proof of identity he refrained from relegating them to synonymy. He was widely regarded as one of the leading paleoichthyologists of his day.


I. Original Works. Lists of Bassani’s publications are in the memorial by D’Erasmo. pp. lxviii–lxxvi, and those by Lorenzo and Parona. See also A. S. Romer, N. E. Wright, T. Edinger, and R. van Frank, “Bibliography of Fossil Vertebrates Exclusive of North America, 1509–1927,” in Memoirs of the Geological Society of North America, no. 87. I (1962), 100–103.

Individual works by Bassani are L’espressione dei sentimenti nell’uomo e negli animali (Turin, 1878), a translation of Darwin’s Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, with G. Canestrini; Elementi di zoologia descrittiva al uso delle scuole secondarie (Milan, 1885, 1889); “Sui fossili e sull’età degli scisti bituminosi triasici di Besano in Lombardia,” in Atti della Società italiana di scienze naturale, 29 (1886), 15–72; “Ricerche sui pesci fossili di Chiavòn (strati di Stozka, Miocene inferiore),” in Atti della Reale Accademia delle scienze, scienze fische e matematiche di Napoli, 2nd ser., 3 , no. 6 (1889), 1–103; “Sui fossili e sull’età degli scisti bituminosi di Monte Pettine presso Giffoni Valle Piana in provincia di Salerno,” in Memorie della Società italiana delle scienze detta dei XL, 3rd ser., 9 , no. 3 (1892), 1–27; “Contributo alla paleontologia della Sardegna. Ittioliti miocenici,” in Atti della Reale Accademia delle scienze, scienze fisiche e matematiche di Napoli, 2nd ser., 4 , no. 3 (1892); “La ittiofauna del calcare eocenico di Gassino in Piemonte,” ibid., 9 , no. 13 (1899), 1–41; “La ittiofauna delle argille marnose pleistoceniche di Taranto e di Nardò,” ibid., 12 , no. 3 (1905), 1–59; “La ittiofauna del calcare cretacico di Capo d’Orlando presso Castellammare,” in Memorie della Società italiana delle scienze, 3rd ser., 17 (1912), 185–243 written with G. D’Erasmo; and “La ittiofauna della pietra leccese (Terra d’Otranto),” in Atti della Reale Accademia delle scienze, scienze fisiche e matematiche di Napoli, 2nd ser., 16 , no. 4 (1915), 1–52.

II. Secondary Literature. Articles on Bassani are G. D’Erasmo, “Commemorazione di F. Bassani,” in Bollettino della Società geologica italiana, 35 (1916), xlix–lxxvi, including a bibliography of 105 titles; G. de Lorenzo, “Commemorazione di F. Bassani,” in Rendiconti della Reale Accademia delle scienze, scienze fisiche e matematiche di Napoli, 3rd ser., 22 (1916), 69–88; C. F. Parona, “Cenno necrologico,” in Atti dell’Accademia delle scienze di Torino (Classe di scienze fisiche, matematiche e naturali), 51 (1915–1916), 945–950, and “A ricordo di F. Bassani,” in Bollettino. Comitato geologico d’Italia, 5th ser., 6 (1919), 89–102; and C. Stefani, “Commemorazione del Prof. F. Bassani,” in Atti dell’Accademia nazionale dei Lincei. Rendiconti, 5th ser., 26 (1917), 335–336.

Joseph T. Gregory