One hundred and fifty years have passed since the day – 12 June 1861 – on which Bettino Ricasoli was proclaimed the second Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy, to succeed Camillo Benso, the Count of Cavour. Four other scientists – Luigi Carlo Farini (1862), Luigi Federico Menabrea (1867), Giovanni Lanza (1869) and Benedetto Cairoli (1878) – would follow him in this post. An even larger number of scientists were appointed as key ministers during this crucial period in the history of the young nation. Never before had Italian naturalists been called upon to hold political positions of such importance, and indeed never again would they be in the governments that followed.
The many scientists who were invited to serve in the government of the Kingdom of Italy had one feature in common. Not a set of shared political ideas, nor even shared scientific interests. What united them was the fact that they were all participants in the conferences of Italian scientists that were held, at more or less regular intervals, between 1839 and 1875 and that accompanied the formation of a new intellection community in Italy.
The thirteen conferences which were convened over a period of thirty-six years saw the participation of five thousand scientists from every part of the peninsula. With the exception perhaps of theology, in no other field were meetings of such caliber and public impact being organized at the time. The philosophers and men of letters who for centuries had exercised hegemony over the intellectual life of Europe gave way, for however brief a season, to a new intelligentsia sustained by groundbreaking interests. After decades in the background Italian scientists took centre stage, asserting their right to play a guiding role in the creation of a sense of national unity. The reforms proposed by the conference participants were not aimed at undermining the status quo of the Italian states, of which they were in most cases the loyal representatives, but rather the cultural attitudes that sustained their economic policies, rooted in a ancién regime that was feudal in nature and for the most part indifferent to the benefits of scientific and technological progress. The universal value of science, the utility of its applications, and the profit that both the state and private interests could gain from its exploitation conferred on these conferences a political, as well as a pedagogic role.
The conference of Italian scientists was held annually from 1839 through 1847. The ninth meeting, which was convened in Venice in 1847, was interrupted by the Austrian police. They were not resumed again until after the unification of Italy, beginning with a special meeting in Florence in 1861, after which the conference was held in 1862 in Siena, in 1873 in Rome, and in 1875 in Palermo.
Many important objectives were achieved during these meetings, not the least of which were the adoption of the metric system of measurement, the standardization of statistics in the health field, the drawing up of a geological map of Italy, the compilation of an Italian herbal, and the publication of a ‘Uniform Italian Pharmacopeia’. No less momentous were the attempts made by the participants to reform the traditional curriculum and lay the foundations for a modern system of public education, one that placed more weight on the teaching of scientific and technical subjects. Lively discussions were conducted on the applications of the latest technological developments to the building of Italy’s new industrial base. Debate must often have been heated for, countering this strong push for modernization, many participants argued that agriculture should provide the main engine for economic development. Even if only a fraction of the ideas put forward during these meetings led to concrete results, a strong scientific community was forged that would stand the test of time. During the 1873 meeting the chemist Stanislao Cannizzaro proposed that a professional society for the advancement of science be created – the Società Italiana per il Progresso delle Scienze – which is still active today.
Alongside the serious work of the conferences, events to popularize science and technology were organized, from banquets and balls to church services, theatrical performances, commemorations, and guided tours that helped to raise the public profile of the scientists and to underline the social and cultural dimensions of their work. Although criticized by a few colleagues as ephemera, these events conferred on the pursuit of science some of the prestige that it had formerly possessed among the cultural elite. The commissioning of buildings, statues and monuments, and the publication of popular science texts, commemorative editions, topographic maps and guidebooks helped to increase the appreciation of this branch of knowledge among a public that had up to that time identified Italian culture almost exclusively with the literary classics and the teachings of the Catholic Church.
But who were the protagonists of these meetings ? The profile of the participants underwent significant changes over time, especially after the unification of the country. Initially the delegates were members of prestigious scientific academies, university professors of science or medicine, the directors of institutes of higher learning, high-ranking officers in the Corps of Engineers, the directors of mines, the prefetti of botanical gardens and natural history museums. Others however were eager to join and, despite some protests, members of the aristocracy and the gentry class quickly swelled the numbers of this intellectual community, to be followed by archeologists, historians and philosophers. This gradual broadening of the audience nonetheless reflected the genuine success of the conferences. A prosopographic study of the social and family background of the participants is underway to shed light on what was an important social as well as cultural phenomenon, and the results will be published in the following months as an addendum to the present exhibition.
Florence, 10 June 2011