Gortani, Michele

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(b.Lugo, Spain 16 January 1883; d. Tolmezzo, Italy, 24 January 1966)

geology, paleontology.

Gortani was the son of Luigi Gortani, an engineer, and of Angela Grassi. His parents were from Friuli in northeast Italy; his father was working in Spain when he was born. Gortani attended the secondary school in Udine, the main town of Friuli, and then entered Bologna University, from which he graduated in natural sciences in 1904. His first publication appeared in 1902, while he was still a student.

Gortani deeply loved Friuli, particularly Carnia, an area of mountains and valleys near the Austrian border. He did work in geology and paleontology, as well as entomology and botany (in the latter fields he published a guide to the Coleoptera of Friuli in 1905 and to the Friulian flora, the latter with his father, in 1905–1906). The Carnian Alps and stratigraphy of that geologic era were the main field of Gortani’s research.

Gortani was assistant in geology at Perugia University(1905), at Bologna (1906–1910), and at Turin (1911–1913); he was assistant and professor in charge at Pisa University(1913–1922). In addition he was a deputy in the Italian Parliament from 1913 to 1919. About 1910 he married Maria Gentile, who was from Friuli; they had no children.

During World War I, Gortani was a volunteer in the Alpine troops of the Italian army; he helped refugees from the territories, including Friuli, occupied by the Austro–Hungarian army in 1917 and was involved in the reconstruction after the war.

Gortani became full professor of geology at Cagliari University, in Sardinia, in 1922. His stay in Sardinia, though short, influenced his further geological research, the island being the other Italian region besides Carnia with extensive Paleozoic outcrops. He moved to Pavia later in 1922. In 1924 Gortani succeeded Giovanni Capellini at Bologna. He completely reorganized the department of geology there and was editor of the magazine Giornale di geologia from 1926 to 1953.

Gortani conducted numerous field investigations and laboratory examinations of the Paleozoic fossil flora and fauna of the Carnian Alps, achieving brilliant results in geologic age determinations and a major advance in Paleozoic stratigraphy. His most important stratigraphic synthesis of the region was published in 1921; a review on the Paleozoic of Sardinia followed in 1922. He continued to study Paleozoic fauna, especially graptolites, as well as Paleozoic fossils from Karakorum (1921).

In 1936 and 1938 Gortani led scientific missions to Ethiopia and Eritrea, then governed by Italy; his petrographer was Angelo Bianchi, from the University of Padua. In later years Gortani studied and described the fossils and the stratigraphic sequence of this region, not yet scientifically explored.

In structural geology Gortani pointed out the importance of gravitational tectonics and the imbricate structure in the Carnian Alps (1957).

He did work in hydrogeology and geomorphology, as well as petroleum geology. He was president of the International Symposium on the Gas Fields of Western Europe (Milan, 1957).

Gortani’s textbook of geology, Compendio di geologia (1946–1948), has a lengthy section devoted to recovery of groundwater for human needs. Gortani solved practical problems of coal mining (at Valdarno. Tuscany, in 1943), of geopedology, and of soil conservation. He was president of several commissions for applied geology questions, such as earthquakes, landslides, subsidence, and thermal springs. His studies in geomorphology emphasized the glacial phenomena in the central Apennines (1930–1931) and in Friuli (1959), and the Quaternary terraces throughout Italy (1929–1952). He founded the Italian Institute of Speleology in 1929.

Among Gortani’s many publications a note on Italian pioneers in geology and mineralogy is worthy of mention (1962). In 1960 he published the geological bibliography of Friuli.

Gortani was a member of the Constituent Assembly of Italy after World War II and then a member of the Italian Senate, as a Christian Democrat (1948– 1953). He was responsible for several laws connected with mountain populations and with geological problems, as well as for the geological map of Italy on the scale 1:100, 000 (completed in 1970).

Gortani’s love for his native region was expressed in the Museum of Carnian Traditions, which he established in Tolmezzo with the help of his wife. The Museo delle Arti e delle Tradizioni Popolari Carniche collects typical furniture and crafts.

Gortani was honorary member of the geological societies of England, France, Austria, and Germany; national member of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, of the Accademia Benedettina di Bologna, and of several other regional academies; and president of the Italian Geological Society, of the Friulian Alpine Society, and of the Carnian Community.

An Alpine shelter in Friuli and the Naturalist Society of Portogruaro (Venezia) have been named for Gortani; the Acts of the Friulian Museum of Natural History are titled Gortania.


I. Original Works. Gortani’s more than 300 publications appeared from 1902 to 1965. Among them are “Nuovi fossili raibliani della Carnia,” in Rivista italiana di palontologia. 8 (1902), 76–94; “Coleotteri del Friuli,” in Rivista coleotterologica italiana, 3 (1905); Flora friulana, conspeziale riguardo alla Carnia. 3 vols. (Udine, 1905– 1906) with Luigi Gortani; “La serie paleozoica delle Alpi carniche,” in Rendiconti della R. Accademia dei Lincei. 5th ser., 30 (1921). 100–103; “Ordoviciano nella catena del Caracorum orientale,” ibid., 183–188; “Osservazioni sul Paleozoico della Sardegna.” in Bollettino della Società geologica italiana. 41 (1922), 356–369; “Relazione sui terrazzi fluviali e marini d’Italia.” in Bollettino della Società geografica italiana, 6th ser., 6 (1929). 1–18; “Sulla glaziazione quaternaria nell’Appennino abruzzese,” in Rendiconti della R. Accademia delle scienze dell’Istituto di Bologna, 35 (1931), 34–39; “Sull’origine della lignite del Valdarno,” in Memorie della R. Accademia delle scienze di Bologna, 9th ser., 9 (1943), 175–201; Compendio di geologia, 2 vols. (Udine, (1946–1948): “Graptoliti di Rigolato (Carnia),” in Memorie dell’Istituto geologico e mineralogico della Università di Padova. 16 (1950), 3– 27; “Carta della glaciazione würmiana in Friuli,” in Atti della R. Accademia delle scienze di Bologna, 11th ser., 6 (1959); Bibliografia geologica d’Italia, VI, Friuli (Naples, 1960); “I pioneri italiana della geologia e della mineralogia,” in Giornale di geologia, 2nd ser., 29 (1962), 1–17; and “Le doline alluvionali,” in Natura e montagna, 5 (1965), 120–128.

II. Secondary Literature. Obituaries include Ardito Desio, in Atti dell’Accademia di scienze, lettere ed arti di Udine, 9 (1968), 1–23; Raimondo Selli. “Michele Gortani, Discorso commemorativo…,” in Accademia nazionale dei Lincei, Celebrazioni Lince, 9 (1968), 1–23, with bibliography on pp. 11–23; and Luigi Usoni, in Atti del Symposium internazionale sui giacimenti minerari delle Alpi (Trent, 1968), 5–12.

Giuliano Piccoli