Luciani, Luigi

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Luciani, Luigi

(b. Ascoli Piceno, Italy, 23 November 1840 ; d. Rome, Italy, 23 June 1919)


Luciani was the son of Serafino Luciani and Aurora Vecchi. In 1860 he completed secondary studies in Ascoli Piceno and then—after a period spent in independently pursuing politics, literature, and philosophy—in 1862 began to study medicine at the University of Bologna. He also studied in Naples for a time, returning to Bologna to graduate in 1868. Following his graduation he remained at the university to work in the physiology laboratory directed by Luigi Vella.

Luciani spent March 1872 to November 1873 in Leipzig, at the physiological institute directed by Carl Ludwig. From that tine lie regarded Ludwig as his real master and this period of residence in Germany as the main epoch of his scientific life. It did, in fact, leave a deep imprint on his mind. Returning to Bologna Luciani became a lecturer in general pathology; after teaching this subject at Bologna (1873-1874) and Parma (1875-1880), lie became professor of physiology in Siena (1880-1882), Florence (1882–1893), and finally Rome (1893-1917), where he died, as professor emeritus, of a urinary disease. Luciani was a Senator of the Kingdom and a member of Italian and foreign academies. He was an excellent teacher (many of his pupils rose to university chairs), a man of vast general and philosophical culture, and an able experimenter.

Luciani not only investigated all phases of physiology—general, human, comparative, and linguistic— but also conducted research in many other fields. (He made observations on silkworms, studied experimental phonetics, and took up the theory of self-intoxication as an effect of experimental removal of the thyroid-parathyroid complex in animals, for example.) His treatise Fisiologia dell’uomo went through a number of editions in several languages.

Luciani had made a study of the activity of the cardiac diastole in 1871, before going to Ludwig’s laboratory. Once there he took up the work of H. F. Stannius and carried out experimental research on the genesis of the automatic activity of the heart (that is, of the periodic cardiac rhythm, now known as Luciani’s phenomenon). To this end he used a graphic method, obtaining tracings of three distinct, characteristic phenomena (access, periodic rhythm, and crisis) which can be interpreted as three different phases of cardiac activity prior to its exhaustion. Luciani subsequently took up the related question of the automatic activity of the respiratory centers. He then carried out studies on cerebral localizations; made contributions to the doctrine of the cortical pathogenesis of epilepsy (1878); performed experimental extirpations of the various regions connected with the sensory functions; and did research on the mixed sensory and motor nature of the cortical excitation.

Luciani also carried out significant research on the physiology of fasting, in which he determined the various changes that, in man, the great organic functions undergo. On the basis of his observations he was able to distinguish three stages in fasting—an initial, or hunger, period; a period of physiological inanition; and a final period of morbid inanition or crisis.

Luciani’s most important scientific work, however, was his research on the physiology of the cerebellum (1891). Through skillful vivisection, he succeeded in experimentally removing the cerebellum in the dog and the monkey, thereby making a fundamental contribution to the development of knowledge of the nervous system—and, in fact, illuminating the peculiar function of the cerebellum within the framework of the whole nervous system.

Luciani held that the multiform symptomatology consequent upon decerebellation is a series of discrete phenomena, and distinguished among three clinical stages following decerebellation. The first is characterized by the presence of dynamic signs, the second by motor deficiencies, and the third by compensatory phenomena. The limits between the various stages are not, however, sharply defined. He considered cerebellar ataxy to be based on the triad—atonia, asthenia, astasia—now named for him. Clinical observation largely confirmed this triad as valid in human physiopathology. Luciani also asserted that atonia and asthenia are constant components of cerebellar deficiency in the experimental animal.


I. Original Works. Luciani published about seventy works, some of them written with collaborators, which appeared in both Italian and foreign journals, or as separate publications, between 1864 and 1917. Baglioni, cited below, provides a complete list. See also Luciani’s posthumously published “Cenni autobiografici,” in Archivio di fisiologia,19 (1921), 319-349.

II. Secondary Literature. On Luciani’s life and work, see esp. Silvestro Baglioni, “Luigi Luciani,” in Aldo Mieli, ed., Gli scienziati italiani dall’inizio del medio evo ai giomi nostrii, I (Rome, 1921), 336-343, with a bibliography of Luciani’s publications, works published on the occasion of jubilees, and literature on Luciani. See also Paolo Crepax, ’The First Italian Contributions to the Study of Cerebellar Functions and the Work of Luigi Luciani. II. Luigi Luciani,“in Luigi Belloni, ed., Essay on the History of Italian Neurology (Milan, 1963), 225-236, with bibliography.

Bruno Zanobio

Gianluigi Porta