Poli, Giuseppe Saverio

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(b. Molfetta, Italy, 28 October 1746; d. Naples, Italy, 7 April 1825)

physics, natural sciences.

Poli was the son of Vitangelo Poli and Eleonora Corlé. He completed his early education in Molfetta and then entered the University of Padua, where he studied medicine and natural sciences; among his teachers were Morgagni and Caldani. After obtaining his degree, Poli returned to Molfetta and established a medical practice, which he subsequently abandoned to dedicate himself to the natural sciences. To broaden his knowledge in this field, he traveled for several years throughout Italy, staying at the major universities.

Poli finally went to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and took up residence in Naples, where, in 1776, he received the chair of physics at the Royal Military Academy. Shortly thereafter he was sent to observe the teaching methods in France, England, and Germany and to purchase equipment for the physics course at the academy. Upon his return, Poli was offered a teaching post in physics at the Ospedale degli Incurabili, which was then a school of higher learning independent of the University of Naples. Ferdinand IV later summoned him to court to tutor his son, the future Francis I. Poli also held the chair of experimental physics at the university and was director of the military school.

Despite these commitments, Poli continued his scientific studies, for which he won an international reputation as well as membership in the principal Academies of Italy and Europe, including the Royal Society of London. Poli gained distinction also as a patron of the arts and sciences, and at his insistence the library of the royal family in Naples was made available to scholars. On his initiative, too, the botanical garden of Naples was founded; and he supplied it with many rare plants from his own garden. Poli’s scientific collections were donated to the Museo di Storia Naturale.

Poli’s interest in electrical and magnetic phenomena led him, in 1772, to study the causes and effects of lightning and thunder; and he concluded that electricity, lightning, and magnetism were all caused by the same “fluid.” His interest in this type of investigation was so passionate that, on his journey from France to England, he made observations in the middle of a thunderstorm, during which the ship itself was struck by lightning.

Poli was also interested in many other topics. He was an expert in numismatics, for example, and his collection of coins and medals became famous. He produced a series of lectures on military history and wrote a work on anearthquake that had hit Naples as well as an elaborate poetic work on astronomy, which failed to arouse enthusiasm for either its artistic or scientific merits.

In the field of natural sciences Poli did extensive research, particularly in marine biology. His proximity to the sea and financial support from the court, where he enjoyed an influential position, enabled him for twelve years to study Mediterranean mollusks and crustaceans. He was helped in this work by the anatomist Michele Troja. Poli’s investigations appeared in two folio volumes, in which he outlined a systematic classification of the two animal groups and presented detailed anatomical and physiological descriptions. The work was illustrated with a series of beautiful engravings by contemporary artists. Because of this work Poli is recognized as the founder of the study of mollusks.


I. Original Works. Poli’s works include La formazione del tuono, della folgore e di varie altre meteore, spiegata giusta le idee del signor Franklin. Diretta al Sig. D. Daniello Avelloni (Naples, 1772); Riflessioni intorno agli effetti di alcuni fulmini (Naples, 1773); Continuazione delle Riflessioni intorno agli effetti di alcuni fulmini, ove si esamina la dissertazione del P. G. del Muscio relativa alle riflessioni medesime (Naples, 1774); “Lettera sulla formazione delle meteore,” in Nuova raccolta di opuscoli scientifici e filologici, 41 (1785), and 42 (1786–1787); Lezioni di storia militare (Naples, 1777); Ragionamento intorno allo studio della natura (Naples, 1781); Elementi di fisica sperimentale, 5 vols. (Naples, 1787); Testacea utriusque Siciliae eorumque anathome tabulis aeneis, 2 vols. (Parma, 1790–1795); Memoria sul terremoto (Naples, 1805); and Viaggio celeste, 2 vols. (Naples, 1805).

II. Secondary Literature. On Poli and his work, see S . delle Chiaie, De praestantissimi equitis Poli vita (Naples, 1825); S . Gatti, Elogio del commendatore Giuseppe Saverio Poli (Naples, 1825); P . Giampaolo, Elogio del commendatore Giuseppe Saverio Poli (Naples, 1825); N. Morelli, “II Cavalier G. Saverio Poli,” in Biografie degli uomini illustri del regno di Napoli (Naples,1826); and M. Tridenti, “G. Saverio Poli, antesignano della moderna biologia,” in Archivio di storia pugliese, 3–4 (1950), 228–246, and “G. Saverio Poli e gli inizi della genetica sperimentale,” ibid. (1951), 169–174.

Carlo Castellani

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