Another feminist Newtonian: Bologna’s Minerva

Given that Newton boasted on his deathbed that he had never known a woman and that many modern historians are fairly convinced that he was homosexual it is somewhat ironic that his theories were defended against other competing systems of natural philosophy by two women in the first half of the eighteenth century; particularly at a time when women in natural philosophy was effectively an oxymoron. In France Newton’s primary torchbearer was Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet about whom I have blogged in an earlier post. In Italy Newton’s theories were championed for several decades by Laura Bassi.

Bologna’s Minerva

Laura Maria Caterina Bassi the only daughter of the Bolognese lawyer Giuseppe Bassi and his wife Rosa Cesarei was born on 31th October 1711. A relative, Lorenzo Stegani, recognised her intellectual gifts when she was still a child and taught her French, Latin and mathematics. At the age of twelve the family physician, Gaetano Tacconi a professor of medicine at the University of Bologna, was impressed as she recorded his instructions for the treatment and care of her ill mother in both perfect French and Latin. For the next seven years Tacconi instructed the young lady in logic, metaphysics and physics. Up till 1732 Bassi’s education remained a family secret but that year saw an outbreak of what can only be described as Bassi fever.

The University of Bologna is the oldest university in Europe and at the beginning of the eighteenth century students were still examined by public disputation, i.e. the candidate was expected to orally defend a series of academic theses. At the beginning of 1732 Bassi took part in a private disputation in her home with members of the university faculty in the presence of many leading members of Bolognese intellectual society. As a result of her performance during this disputation she was elected a member of the prestigious Bologna Academy of Science on 20th March. Rumours of this extraordinary young lady quickly spread and on 17th April she defended forty-nine theses in a highly spectacular public disputation. On 12th May following a public outcry she was awarded a doctorate from the university in a grand ceremony in the city hall of Bologna.  Following a further public disputation the City Senate appointed her professor of philosophy at the university, making her the first ever female professor at a European university.

One would be mistaken if one thought that this was a sign of a major step forward in women’s rights or female equality; what we have here is what is now known as a publicity stunt. Although Bologna was Europe’s oldest university and had been highly prestigious in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance both it and the much younger Academy of Science were in serious decline in the early eighteenth century. The Senate and the Academy thought that by appointing Bassi as a sort of wonder of nature they could improve the public standing of both institutions. Their calculations paid off and many notable foreign visitors came to Bologna to witness the female wonder. However Bassi was at the beginning not taken seriously as a scholar.

Within four months of her election the members of the Academy changed their statutes to prevent further women from becoming members. Although she was a fully paid member of faculty she was, as a women, not allowed to teach at the all male university and was only required to take part in disputations three times a year at major university public ceremonies. Her status in the city of Bologna is best illustrated by the reactions to her marriage. In 1738 she married the physician Giovanni Giuseppe Veratti; the public reactions was largely very negative. Part of the population thought Veratti, who lacked both fame and fortune, was beneath “their” Bassi and that she should not have married him. Another more vocal section of the public thought she should not marry at all and that the Bolognese “Minerva” should remain a virgin.

Bassi, however, was a genuine scholar and was not content to be just an ornament and fought to obtain recognition for her intellectual abilities. Already in her initial disputations she had demonstrated a command of the theories of Descartes, which she rejected, and Newton, which she embraced. During the 1730s she had taken lessons in mathematics from Gabriele Manfredi one of the universities leading mathematicians. Following her marriage she started teaching courses in natural philosophy in her own house. She also petitioned the Senate to loosen the restrictions on teaching at the university and from 1739 onwards she also taught courses there.

In 1745 she received another academic honour. Pope Benedict XIV who as a cardinal and Archbishop of Bologna had been present at Bassi’s first private disputation and remained her principle patron throughout his life, appointed her one of twenty-five Benedictinni, Bolognese scholars granted a Papal scholarship in recognition of their eminence. This was also a publicity stunt to raise the standing of the Bolognese Academy of Science.

Starting in about 1749 Bassi and her husband set up a laboratory in their home and started teaching courses in experimental natural philosophy specialising in Newtonian physics and Franklinian electrical theory. This work continued until Bassi’s death in 1778.

Two years before she died Bassi was appointed, after four years of procrastination after all she was still only a woman, to the chair of physics at the Institute of Science the experimental sister institution to the Academy of Science; she was succeeded in this post on her death by her husband and he in turn by their son. The much-disputed marriage appears to have been harmonious with Bassi and Veratti working very successfully together throughout the years. Alongside her scientific work Bassi bore eight children, five of whom survived into adulthood.

Bassi was known and respected throughout Europe and corresponded with many of the leading intellectuals of the day. She was for example instrumental in getting Voltaire elected a member of the Bolognese Academy of Science and exercised together with her husband a strong influence on the young Alessandro Volta who followed the path that they had hewed in experimental studies of electricity.

Bassi only published four papers in her lifetime and a fifth paper appeared posthumously however as a teacher she played an important and significant role in establishing Newtonian physics in Italy. Europe’s first female professor became much more than the ornamental figurehead as which she was appointed.

This is my post for Ada Lovelace Day 2012.


Filed under History of Physics, History of science, Newton

4 responses to “Another feminist Newtonian: Bologna’s Minerva

  1. Pingback: Another feminist Newtonian | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Jeb

    “Given that Newton boasted on his deathbed that he had never known a woman”

    Find that interesting. Edward Tyson is another Virgin scientist. This seems important towards establishing his reputation as a rational scientist. His sexuality and selfless devotion to science crops up a lot in contemporary accounts of his life.

    “They shew us to our selves in the worst disguise, by turning us to the weak and dark side of human nature; and serve to convince us what little reason we have to glory in our wisdom, or in any intellectual attainments: since the strongest brain may so suddenly, and by so many accidents be disordered”
    Dr Ibbot on Bedlam.
    If he was gay must have been hell for a range of cultural reasons not least his ability to be rational. Even if not would have been important to establishing his credentials as a man of reason to be morally upstanding.

    Women were of course another reminder of that dark side and weak nature.

  3. Pingback: OPUS 500: A retrospective | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  4. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #12 | Whewell's Ghost

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