Bassi Verati (Veratti), Laura Maria Caterina

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BASSI VERATI (VERATTI), LAURA MARIA CATERINA

(b. Bologna, Italy, 29 October 1711; d. Bologna, 20 February 1778)

physics.

In the eighteenth century, a period comparatively rich with opportunities for women’s participation in scientific activities, Europe’s first female university professor Laura Bassi Verati (or Bassi Veratti) is most remarkable for the unique institutional success she was able to achieve. Her biography and career path is intimately linked to the learned culture of her home town Bologna, where she became the central personality teaching, practicing, and representing the newly emerging field of experimental physics.

Biography. Bassi, the only surviving child of the Bolognese jurist Giuseppe Bassi and his wife Rosa Cesarei, received her early instruction in the Latin language by male relatives and her further education by the family physician Gaetano Tacconi, who was a professor of medicine at the University of Bologna. Teaching her the classics and training her to hold philosophical disputations in Latin about any conceivable subject, Tacconi developed his gifted pupil on the humanist model of the learned prodigy. In 1732, Bassi was ready to be presented to the public. The city’s social elite and learned public as well as the municipal authorities and the Bolognese archbishop Prospero Lambertini were all equally delighted with this prodigiously learned and eloquent young woman. They decided to crown her achievements by a doctoral degree, thus highlighting Bologna’s identity as “la dotta,” the learned city. Within months, Bassi gained fame throughout Europe as the “Bolognese Minerva.” By the end of the year, she found herself not only a doctor but also a professor of the Bolognese University—and a highly paid one, indeed.

Apart from its old and famous university, Bologna boasted another scientific institution, the Institute of Science (Istituto delle Scienze). It had been created in 1711 to provide a home for the teaching of the experimental sciences and had an academy to further original research attached to it. Under the influence of such advisors as the chemist Jacopo Bartolomeo Beccari, the discoverer of gluten and Bolognese limestone, and the astronomer Eustachio Manfredi, who was one of the first to disseminate Newton’s work in Italy, Bassi changed the focus of her scholarly activities and turned to the sciences. She took lessons in mathematics and, among others, read Newton, whose optical experiments she repeated for herself.

While not abandoning her role as the “Bolognese Minerva,” Bassi increasingly devoted herself to physics. This gradual change was confirmed by her marriage to Giuseppe Verati (1707–1793), a young professor of medicine at the Bolognese university, who had also studied physics and later became known for his researches on medical electricity. Though she also met with severe criticism for abandoning her virginity, Bassi now had the possibility of entertaining a scientific salon and offering private lectures in experimental physics.

When Pope Benedict XIV (papacy 1740–1758), who knew her from his time as Bolognese archbishop, initiated a major reform of the Bolognese academy of sciences in 1745, Bassi managed to get one of the newly created paid positions, albeit a supernumerary one (sopra numero) which left her status somewhat contested. From 1745 on, Bassi regularly participated in academy life. Like the other members of the core group of paid academicians—the “Benedettini”—she read a paper on her own original research once a year and published papers in the academy’s transactions, the Commentarii. In 1772, Bassi also obtained the professorship of physics at the Bolognese Institute of Sciences and, accordingly, held three paid positions at three different scientific institutions at the same time.

Bassi had eight children and was actively involved in Bolognese scientific life until she died from heart failure at the age of sixty-six. Though she had no female disciples, she provided a role model for many scientifically minded women, including Dorothea Erxleben, the first woman to obtain a medical degree in Germany in 1754.

Scientific Work. Like the work of many eighteenth-century scientists, Bassi’s research does not easily relate to a single subject. Judging from her few publications and the unpublished talks she gave at the academy, her research activities comprehended hydromechanics, electricity, and optics as well as pneumatics and the study of gases. Her most notable research was concerned with the bubbles produced in gases.

Bassi explained her observations by using the Newtonian concept of attraction as interpretative framework, and by analogies to electricity which reveal how closely she followed the developments in this new field. Together with her husband, Bassi advocated Franklin’s theory of one electric fluidum (as opposed to the rival two-fluida theory) and became its main Bolognese defender. Because of the differing results she obtained in her own experiments, she doubted the exact validity of the Boyle-Mariotte law on the reciprocity of the volume and pressure of a gas. Like the work on the origins of bubbles, however, the further research which she had announced never came to a tangible result. Her research work as a whole—which was also hampered by representational as well as family duties—therefore gives the impression of being broad to some extent.

As a teacher of physics, Bassi was of supreme importance not only for Bologna but for the whole of northern Italy. She acted as a mentor and patron for such younger scientists as Lazzaro Spallanzani and Alessandro Volta and also was sought after by those who wanted to become members of the Bolognese academy, Voltaire being the most prominent among her clients. At Bologna, her private lectures on experimental physics gave virtually the only opportunity for instruction, let alone experimental demonstrations in physics. As suggested by her academy talks and the scientific instruments she bought, during her whole career Bassi kept abreast of current developments. Her prominence in the learned culture of northern Italy brought attention to experimental physics. Through her work, physics formed as a discipline integrating experimental and mathematical traditions.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bassi published only two papers. Her unpublished papers have been reproduced in Ceranski, 1996.

WORKS BY BASSI

“De Problemate Quodam Hydrometrico.” De Bononiensi Scientiarum et Artium Instituto atque Academia Commentarii4 (1757): 61–73.

“De Problemate Quodam Mechanico.” De Bononiensi Scientiarum et Artium Instituto atque Academia Commentarii4 (1757): 74–79.

Bassi–Verati, Laura. Fondo speciale. Biblioteca Comunale dell’Archiginnasio, Bologna. Important collection pertaining to Bassi’s biography and contemporary perception. For a description cf. Tommasi, Raffaella. “Documenti riguardanti Laura Bassi conservati presso l’Archiginnasio.” L’Archiginnasio57 (1962): 319–324.

Melli, Elio, ed. “Epistolario di Laura Bassi Verati. Edizione critica, introduzione e note.” In Studi e inediti per il primo centenario dell’Istituto Magistrale Laura Bassi. Bologna: STE, 1960. Collection of letters by Bassi.

OTHER SOURCES

Berti Logan, Gabriella. “The Desire to Contribute: An Eighteenth-Century Italian Woman of Science.” American Historical Review 99 (1994): 785–812. Contains minor errors; otherwise a comprehensive article concentrating on Bassi’s scientific work.

Cavazza, Marta. “Laura Bassi e il suo gabinetto di fiscia sperimentale: Realta e mito.” Nuncius 10 (1995): 715–753.

Tells the fascinating story of the collection of Bassi’s scientific instruments.

——. “Laura Bassi ‘maestra’ di Spallanzani.” In Il cerchio della vita: Materiali di ricerca del Centro Studi Lazzaro Spallanzani di Scandiano sulla storia della scienza del settecento, edited by Walter Bernardi and Paola Manzini. Florence: L. S. Olschki, 1999. Discusses Bassi’s role as teacher of the naturalist Spallanzani, probably her most important pupil.

Cenerelli, G., ed. Lettere inedite alla celebre Laura Bassi scritte da illustri italiani e stranieri con biografia. Bologna: Tipografia di

G. Cenerelli, 1885. Collection of letters to Bassi.

Ceranski, Beate. “Il carteggio tra Giovanni Bianchi e Laura Bassi, 1733–1745.”Nuncius 9 (1994): 207–231.

——.“Und sie fürchtet sich vor niemandem”: Die Physikerin Laura Bassi (1711–1778). Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 1996.

Comprehensive book-length biography of Laura Bassi, covering both scientific and social historical aspects.

Elena, Alberto. “‘In lode della filosofessa di Bologna’: An introduction to Laura Bassi.” Isis 82 (1991): 510–518.

Concise review of older literature on Bassi.

Findlen, Paula. “Science as a Career in Enlightenment Italy: The Strategies of Laura Bassi.” Isis 84 (1993): 441–469. Discusses Bassi’s career in terms of the patronage system.

——. “The Scientist’s Body: The Nature of a Woman Philosopher in Enlightenment Italy.” In The Faces of Nature in Enlightenment Europe, edited by Lorraine Daston and Gianna Pomata. Berlin: Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, 2003. Intriguing cultural historical reading of the discourses about Bassi as sexual being and sexual object.

Beate Ceranski