Showing posts with label 1808. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1808. Show all posts

13 September 2017

Saverio Bettinelli – writer

Jesuit scholar and poet was unimpressed with Dante

Saverio Bettinelli saw only limited merit in Dante's Divine Comedy
Saverio Bettinelli saw only limited
merit in Dante's Divine Comedy
Poet and literary critic Saverio Bettinelli, who had the temerity to criticise Dante in his writing, died at the age of 90 on this day in 1808 in Mantua.

Bettinelli had entered the Jesuit Order at the age of 20 and went on to become known as a dramatist, poet and literary critic, who also taught Rhetoric in various Italian cities.

In 1758 he travelled through Italy and Germany and met the French writers Voltaire and Rousseau.

Bettinelli taught literature from 1739 to 1744 at Brescia, where he formed an academy with other scholars. He became a professor of Rhetoric in Venice and was made superintendent of the College of Nobles at Parma in 1751, where he was in charge of the study of poetry and history and theatrical entertainment.

After travelling to Germany, Strasbourg and Nancy, he returned to Italy, taking with him two young relatives of the Prince of Hohenlohe, who had entrusted him with their education. He took the eldest of his pupils with him to France, where he wrote his famous Lettere dieci di Virgilio agli Arcadi, which were published in Venice.

He also wrote a collection of poems, Versi sciolti, and some tragedies for the Jesuit theatre.

The cover page for the first of 24 volumes of Bettinelli's complete works
The cover page for the first of 24 volumes
of Bettinelli's complete works 
In 1757 he wrote a series of letters addressed to Virgil, in which he criticised the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. He stated: ‘Among the erudite books, only certain parts from the Divine Comedy should be included, and these would form no more than five cantos.’ Voltaire praised his opinions but Bettinelli made enemies among Italians as a result of what he had written.

In 1758 he was sent by King Stanislaw, Duke of Lorraine to visit Voltaire on a business matter.

Afterwards he went to live in Modena where he became a professor of Rhetoric again. In 1773 after the suppression of the Jesuit Order, he returned to live in his home town of Mantua. Then a siege of the city by the French caused him to move to Verona.

In 1797 he returned to Mantua, where despite his age, he remained energetic and capable. He published a complete edition of his works, which ran to 24 volumes, in 1799 in Venice.

Bettinelli died on 13 September 1808 in Mantua having reached the age of 90.

Detail from Andrea Mantegna's frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi in Mantua's Palazzo Ducale
Detail from Andrea Mantegna's frescoes in the Camera
degli Sposi in Mantua's Palazzo Ducale
Travel tip:

Mantua is an atmospheric old city in Lombardy, to the south east of Milan, famous for its Renaissance Palazzo Ducale, the seat of the Gonzaga family between 1328 and 1707. The Camera degli Sposi is decorated with frescoes by Andrea Mantegna, depicting the life of Ludovico Gonzaga and his family. The beautiful backgrounds of imaginary cities and ruins reflect Mantegna’s love of classical architecture.

Paolo Monti's 1972 photograph of the Basilica
Paolo Monti's 1972 photograph of the Basilica
Travel tip:

The 15th century Basilica of Sant’Andrea in Mantua, which houses the artist Andrea Mantegna’s tomb, is in Piazza Mantegna. Mantegna was buried in the first chapel on the left, which contains a picture of the Holy Family and John the Baptist that had been painted by him. The church was originally built to accommodate the large number of pilgrims who came to Mantua to see a precious relic, an ampoule containing what were believed to be drops of Christ’s blood mixed with earth. This was claimed to have been collected at the site of his crucifixion by a Roman soldier.

13 April 2017

Antonio Meucci - inventor of the telephone

Engineer from Florence was 'true' father of communications

Antonio Meucci, the Florentine scientist and engineer who lived in New York
Antonio Meucci, the Florentine scientist
and engineer who lived in New York
Antonio Meucci, the Italian engineer who was acknowledged 113 years after his death to be the true inventor of the telephone, was born on this day in 1808 in Florence.

Until Vito Fossella, a Congressman from New York, asked the House of Representatives to recognise that the credit should have gone to Meucci, it was the Scottish-born scientist Alexander Graham Bell who was always seen as father of modern communications.

Yet Meucci’s invention was demonstrated in public 16 years before Bell took out a patent for his device. This was part of the evidence Fossella submitted to the House, which prompted a resolution in June, 2002, that the wealth and fame that Bell enjoyed were based on a falsehood.

It has even been suggested that Bell actually stole Meucci’s invention and developed it as his own while the Italian died in poverty, having been unable to afford the patent.

Meucci’s story began when he was born in the San Frediano area of Florence, which was then part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the first of nine children fathered by a policeman, Amatis Meucci, and his wife, Domenica.  A plaque marks the address in Via dei Serragli where he grew up.

At the age of 15, Meucci gained a place at the Florence Academy of Fine Arts as its youngest student, studying chemical and mechanical engineering. He had to leave after two years because he needed to find work but continued to study part-time.

A plaque marks the house in Florence's Via dei Serragli,  where Antonio Meucci was born in 1808
A plaque marks the house in Florence's Via dei Serragli,
where Antonio Meucci was born in 1808
He worked as a stage technician at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence, where he constructed a type of acoustic telephone to communicate between the stage and the theatre’s control room. He married costume designer Esterre Mochi, who worked at the same theatre, in 1834.

A year after they were married, Meucci and his wife emigrated to Cuba, largely because Meucci was fascinated by research being conducted in Havana into treating illnesses with electric shocks. In helping to further this research, he discovered by accident that sounds could travel by electrical impulses through copper wire.

Realising there was commercial potential in what he had stumbled upon, he moved to the United States in 1850, acquiring a house at Staten Island, near New York City, where he set up a workshop in the basement.  He had considerable savings from his time in Cuba, which he invested in a tallow candle factory.

His personal circumstances changed, however, when severe rheumatoid arthritis left his wife paralysed and in need of care.

A replica of the handsets Meucci created for his prototype telephone, which he unveiled in 1860
A replica of the handsets Meucci created for his
prototype telephone, which he unveiled in 1860
In one respect, this provided an opportunity. He devised a system, using copper wire, whereby Esterre could communicate with him by a rudimentary telephone linking to his workshop.  

This consisted of two wooden cylinders, each containing an electromagnet and a soft iron membrane, which converted the vibrations made by voice soundwaves into electrical impulses that travelled along a length of connecting wire, which were in turn reproduced as the same sounds at the other end of the line.  With handles attached, the two components resembled hand bells.

It was this device that he demonstrated in public in 1860, attracting sufficient interest that New York's Italian-language newspaper carried the story.

But events conspired against Meucci.  He improved and developed his device but his candle factory went bankrupt, which meant he had no funds to invest. His limited English made it difficult for him to find American backers, while most of his Italian friends, including the unification hero Giuseppe Garibaldi, were not from moneyed backgrounds.

It did not help that he was badly burned in an accident aboard a steamship, which further impacted on his ability to earn money. Meanwhile, needing to pay for treatment for her illness, Esterre sold his prototype machines to a second-hand goods shop for $6.

Meucci quickly made another device but could not afford the $250 needed for a definitive patent. Instead, in 1871, he filed a patent caveat - one-year renewable notice of an impending patent. Three years later he could not even find the $10 for the patent caveat.

He sent a model and technical details to the American District Telegraph Company, a subsidiary of Western Union based in New York, but failed to generate much interest. When he asked for his materials to be returned, in 1874, he was told they had been lost.

Two years later Bell, said to have worked in the laboratory where Meucci’s notes, diagrams and prototype devices were stored, filed a patent for a telephone. He subsequently struck a lucrative deal with Western Union, which made him wealthy, and a celebrity.

Suspecting that Bell had hijacked his ideas, Meucci sued. He appeared close to winning when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and proceedings against the Scot to annul the patent were begun in January 1887.

However, by this stage Meucci was in failing health and he died in 1889 before the process could reach a conclusion, the legal action dying with him.

The church of San Frediano in Cestello in Florence
The church of San Frediano in Cestello in Florence
Travel tip:

The parish of San Frediano is the part of the Oltrarno section of Florence that forms the neighbourhood around the Chiesa di San Frediano in Cestello, a church dedicated to St Fridianus, an early Christian Irish pilgrim who became bishop of Lucca. He is said to have miraculously walked across the surface of the Arno river near where the church was built.  Work began on the church in 1460 and it was rebuilt between 1680 and 1689. Although rather plain on the outside, the church contains many fine frescoes and paintings by Florentine artists.

Florence hotels from

Teatro della Pergola in central Florence
Teatro della Pergola in central Florence
Travel tip:

Primarily a court theatre used by the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, it was only after 1718 that the Teatro della Pergola, in Via della Pergola, was opened to the public. A highly prestigious theatre in its heyday, it was at La Pergola that the great operas of Mozart were heard for the first time in Italy. Gaetano Donizetti's Parisina and Rosmonda d'Inghilterra, Giuseppe Verdi's Macbeth and Peitro Mascagni's I Rantzau all made their debuts at the theatre.  Today, the theatre presents primarily 250 drama performances, by authors ranging from Molière to Neil Simon. Opera productions are hosted only during the annual Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. The theatre is about 10 minutes' walk from the Duomo.

More reading:

How Marconi made the world's first radio communication

Alessandro Volta - creator of the first electrical battery

What Luigi Galvani did to add a new word to the language

Also on this day:

(Picture credits: Meucci plaque and Teatro della Pergola by Sailko; prototype telephone courtesy of the Milan Museum of Science and Technology; San Frediano in Cestello by Amada44; all via Wikimedia Commons)