Remembering people

 

    All over Milan there are monuments commemorating great men and women, with new portraits appearing from time to time – such as the gilded bronze statue of journalist Indro Montanelli working at his typewriter in the Giardini di Porta Venezia park. Occasionally a statue becomes very famous even though its identity is unclear. Under the portico in Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, at number 13, there is an Ancient Roman statue known as “scior Carera” (Mr. Carera), though the surname is just a misinterpretation of the first word of the Latin motto on the base (Carere debet omni vitio qui in alterum dicere paratus est, roughly “Anybody who wants to criticise someone should be free from all faults). The 3rd century A.D. statue was re-used in the Middle Ages, and given a new head to celebrate an archbishop, Adelmanno Menclozzi, but to the people of Milan he has remained simply “Omm de preja” or “Stone man.”

    In other cases, there is no doubt about the name, but the monument is lacking something. Such as in the Porta Venezia park, near the Corso Venezia entrance, where there is a marble base complete with dedication to Ruggiero Giuseppe Boscovich in Latin, Italian and Croatian, but no statue at all. It’s been that way for about fourteen years now. Perhaps those responsible are waiting for the 300th anniversary of his birth? (18th May 1711). Apparently the statue is ready, but the institutions responsible are still trying to agree on the inscription and in which languages to write it. In any case, Boscovich already has a street in Milan named after him (near the station), and even a crater on the moon. He was a scientist who became famous throughout Europe, particularly for the application of mathematics to astronomy, such as a procedure for calculating a planet’s orbit from three observations of its position, and an analogous method for determining the equator of a planet from three observations of a surface feature.

    He wasn’t universally popular in the society of his times. The Hapsburg administration chose him for a mission to London over a question of the neutrality of Ragusa (his place of birth, now Dubrovnic), and while he was there, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He repaid this compliment by dedicating the Royal Society a Latin poem, “De Solis et Lunae Defectibus”, a five-thousand line composition which, following a technique apparently in fashion in those days, summarizes all there was to be known about astronomy in a poetical format. His contemporary, French astronomer Delambre, said that it was “uninstructive to an astronomer and unintelligible to anyone else.” Boscovich had written most of it while on horseback, riding in the countryside engaged on another job.

    He was expected to turn his mind to all sorts of things. In 1742, Pope Benedict 14th asked him to examine the dome of St. Peter’s which was showing signs of structural failure. He recommended the installation of a series of iron rings, and the work was duly performed. He was asked to sort out a problem of water ownership between the Republic of Lucca and the Granducato of Tuscany, and to supervise the design of the harbour of Rimini. In 1764 he was in Milan, at the Jesuit College of Santa Maria di Brera, where he designed and masterminded the construction of an observatory, now Milan’s oldest scientific institution.

    Astronomer, mathematician, architect and philosopher, he was something of a “universal man” ŕ la Leonardo da Vinci. He wrote many papers and books, and several of the latter were true best sellers, with the first edition rapidly followed by a second. But he had to come to grips with many problems, particularly in the latter part of his career. Twice he planned to travel in order to observe the transit of Venus, and twice his plans came to naught. The problem the first time, in 1761, was apparently the Venetian ambassador to Constantinople, the city in which he planned to make the observations: he arrived too late. Then in 1769 the Royal Society invited him to lead an exhibition in California to observe the next transit, but this was made impossible by the political situation. In Milan, he fell out of favour with his colleagues, and he was removed from his post as director of the Brera Observatory. Within the Jesuit Order – he had been ordained as a Jesuit priest – the position of scientists was always precarious, but in 1773 all vestiges of his support crumbled when Pope Clement 14th dissolved the Jesuit Order. He was forced to travel to Paris, where he became a French citizen in order to take up a post that had been specially tailored for him, Director of Optics for the French Navy. He later returned to Italy to spend the last years of his life in Italy, and he was buried in Milan, in the church of Santa Maria Podone.

    Today there’s not much to see in Via Boscovich except for the street name. Santa Maria Podone seems to be nearly always locked; and of course in the park the statue seems to be in permanent exile as I mentioned. However, you can see the exterior of the observatory from the Botanic Garden (entrance in Via Fiori Oscuri 4, follow the track to the left of the main Academy building), open Mon-Fri 9.00-12 midday, while the display of antique scientific instruments inside the observatory is open Mon-Fri 9.00-16.30 (phone 02.72320301, www.brera.inaf.it).

Henry Neuteboom