Laura Bassi and the Bassi-Veratti Collection

Laura Bassi

Laura Bassi (1711-1778) was one of the most important and visible scientific women in eighteenth-century Europe. In 1732 she was the second woman to receive a university degree in Europe and the first to be offered an official university teaching position, both at the University of Bologna. She was the first female member of the Bologna Academy of Sciences, one of Italy’s leading academies, and played a significant role in the spread of Newtonian experimental physics through her teaching, research, and correspondence. While little documentary evidence of her own scientific work survives, she nonetheless had an active program of research and experimentation for many decades and was widely reputed to be an outstanding teacher of experimental physics. Bassi carried on extensive correspondence with other natural philosophers of her time, including Alessandro Volta, Lazzaro Spallanzani, Giovanni Battista Beccaria, Jean-François Nollet, Voltaire, and Francesco Algarotti.

Encouraged in her studies by her family and by the intellectual community of Bologna, at the age of twenty she was invited to give a public debate on 49 philosophical and physical theses. Not long after this success, she received a special doctorate from the University of Bologna, followed soon after by an ex officio appointment to a chair in philosophy at the university. In Bologna she presented dissertations on subjects such as gravity, refrangibility, mechanics, and hydraulics. With her husband, Giuseppe Veratti, she made Bologna a center for experimental research in electricity. Laura Bassi was a high-profile public figure who debated frequently in public, appeared regularly at Bologna’s annual public anatomy dissection held during Carnival attracted high-profile visitors to Bologna from across Europe, wrote poetry for important public functions, and enjoyed the patronage of many contemporaries. Despite her public presence, however, most of Bassi’s teaching and research took place in her home, where from 1749 until her death, she and her husband established a laboratory, taught classes in experimental physics and natural philosophy, and presided over a lively scientific “salon.” In 1776 she was named professor of experimental physics at the Bologna Academy of Sciences, with her husband as her assistant. Giuseppe Veratti, her husband and intellectual partner, took over the professorship when his wife died only two years later; while Laura Bassi was celebrated during her lifetime and is the focus of current research, we lack any studies of him. Their youngest son Paolo Veratti continued to teach experimental physics from the family physics study but never entirely attained the success of either parent.

The Bassi-Veratti Collection at the Archiginnasio is key to any research on Laura Bassi, her husband Giuseppe Veratti, and their family. Given her busy life as scientist, educator, poet, wife, and mother, Laura Bassi’s published output does not reflect the full scope of her accomplishments. Only the public disputations that launched her career and four treatises in the Commentarii of the Academy of Sciences were published. We know that during her lifetime she was a celebrated figure in the intellectual life of Bologna and that she played an important role in spreading Newtonian ideas of physics and natural philosophy in Italy in the eighteenth century, but less about her daily activities and those of her family. The Bassi-Veratti Collection consists of 12 boxes. Four boxes contain legal documents and deeds of both families; two are devoted to materials on Laura Bassi, and the rest hold materials about her husband Giuseppe Veratti, their son Paolo who became a physician and an experimental physicist and like both parents, professor at the University of Bologna, as well as additional family papers on the Bassi and especially the Veratti families. These papers were donated to the Archiginnasio in 1922-1924. In addition to scholarly writings and legal papers, the archive holds correspondence and poetry written in honor of accomplishments and noteworthy events in Bassi’s life as well as materials commemorating her death, printed publications by and about the family members, a commemorative medal from 1732 and the stamp used to make it, as well as a copper engraved portrait of Laura Bassi.