Part I: Italians–Their Heritage and Contributions

Chapter 2: Broadening Man’s Horizons

Italian Born Scientists

During the Middle Ages, under the influence of Arabic achievement in arts and sciences, southern Italy was cultivating a growing interest in scientific inquisitions. At Salerno, even as early as the ninth century, a medical school was founded where the works of Hippocrates and Galen were translated from the Arabic. At the court of Frederick II in Sicily, Italians, Jews and Moslems wrote, read and translated Arabic and Greek scientific treatises into Latin. By the 13th century in the northern regions of Italy, the universities of Bologna and Padua had already developed reputations for academic excellence. As many as 10,000 students a year from all over Europe were attending classes in Italian universities during the 15th century.

It was in this relatively free intellectual climate that many early scientific discoveries were made and theories proposed. Mondino of Luzzi, a professor of medicine at Bologna, was performing autopsies in 1315 and wrote the Anatomia, the most widely used text book on anatomy. Flavio Gioia perhaps invented but certainly perfected the compass in the 14th century. By 1322 simple spectacles were being produced by the Murano glass works in Venice. It was from Italy that these glasses were imported to the Arabs and the Chinese.[1]

By the beginning of the fifteenth century and the dawning of the world of humanism major scientific breakthroughs were being made in Italy. One reason for this change was the weakening of the dogmatic and authoritative attitudes of the Church, which was itself caught up in the humanistic intellectual tradition. The critical attitude of the humanists toward speculation without experimentation assisted in creating this fertile intellectual environment.

Within this highly charged intellectual atmosphere nothing was beyond investigation and through it came change and progress in scientific truth. Leonardo da Vinci may be cautiously used as an example of this prevailing attitude that all can be achieved once man has put his full reasoning faculties on the problem.

A famous letter written by Leonardo reflects his confidence in the abilities of man. Writing in 1485 to the Duke of Milan, Leonardo requested a commission from the Duke, describing about 36 different services he could perform:[2]

I can invent whatever is needed for offense and for defense, on land and on sea . . .
I can transport water from one place to another . . .
I have methods of construction of very light and strong bridges which can be transported with the greatest ease . . .

He goes on to describe armored cars, cannons, small fire arms, and poison gas made from “lime, sulphide of arsenic and verdigris . . .” He got the commission he sought. A cursory examination of Leonardo’s Notebooks reveals a curiosity and depth which propelled him into scientific regions unimagined by his contemporaries. The following is a list of some of the major scientific discoveries of Leonardo during his sixty-seven years:[3]

As an Inventor: a lathe
lens grinder
coin stamper
flying machine
automatic turnspit
chain or sprochet drive
As an Anatomist: inclination of the pelvix
rediscovery of the thyroid gland
frontal and maxillary sinuses
suggested the correct order for the circulation of blood
arteriosclerosis – calcification of the veins
As a Naturalist: phyllotoxis or the arrangement of leaves on a stem
measurement of the age of a tree by its concentric circles
suggested the concept of evolution

Leonardo made further contributions to geology. Why, for example, do we find bones of large fish and oysters and other shells on the tops of high mountains? Leonardo rejected the traditional theory that they were accidental, or the remains of sea life transported there by the Great Flood. He concluded that these marine creatures had always lived there and that the mountains had originally formed the sea floor, which gradually was raised by river silt and mud.

Leonardo had an insatiable mind, tireless in its attack on the mystery of life. How does a child live in the womb? Why does man grow old and die? Every question demanded an answer through observation certainly but dissection whenever possible. These notations, preserved in the Codex Atlanticus in Milan, are masterpieces of detail.

Leonardo da Vinci died in France in 1519, a man to whom nothing was a mystery. As an artist and humanist Leonardo was unsurpassed in a generation of genius, but as a scientist and inventor he transcended his time and as much a part of our own culture as he was of Italian culture in the sixteenth century.

If some of the major scientific discoveries of the 16th and 17th centuries were not made by Italians, and many were, the outstanding scientists of that period studied at the intellectual centers of Italy. The most famous scientist of the 16th century, Nicolous Copernicus, certainly studied at Bologna, Ferrara and Padua. It is impossible to believe that his Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies (1543) and his reaffirmation of the heliocentric theory was not developed under the intellectual influence of the Italian humanists who had earlier turned away from the dictates of ecclesiastical authority.

Indeed, even as Copernicus was composing his treatise the Veronese scientist and physician Girolamo Fracastoro was working on an elaborate study involving a homocentric theory in which the planets rotated on concentric spheres around different axes. Fracastoro surpassed Copernicus in his attempts to make astronomical observations with the use of a rudimentary telescope, the first mentioned in the history of science. Fracastoro is also important in the history of medicine for his study and nomenclature of syphilis and his description and treatment of the disease in his De Contagione et Contagionis, in 1546. He also seemed to have been the first to recognize typhus through a careful recording and case study of the “sweating sickness” as it was known in the 16th century.

In almost every field of science Italians in the 16th and 17th centuries either made significant discoveries or were instrumental in providing the intellectual atmosphere for others to take the lead. In mathematics the first comprehensive printed Algebra was made by Luca Pacioli. Nicolo Fontana of Brescia, nicknamed “Tartaglia,” first solved cubic equations, translated Euclid and Archimedes and did extensive study on the trajectory of projectiles, anticipating in later works by Galileo and Newton.

Giovanni Battista Benedetti (1530-1590) was interested in the problems involving falling bodies and proposed that all bodies of the same material regardless of size, would fall with the same velocity. Benedetti was incorrect in his belief that the velocities of bodies with the same volume but different material composition would fall in proportion to their weight. He also experimented with projectiles and concluded that natural gravity was not eliminated by the so-called theory of impetus.

Galileo Galilei was born to a wealthy family in Pisa in 1564. Originally destined for medicine he became interested in physics, later teaching at Padua from 1592 to 1610. Some of his early discoveries were made at this time. Sometime between 1592 and 1603 he invented the first instrument for measuring temperature, the thermometer. In 1609 his optic tube enabled him to observe for the first time the lunar terrain as well as Saturn’s rings. Through continued refining and experiments he was able to combine concave and convex lenses and created the compound microscope in 1610.

Galileo’s observations on the planets and his own curious genius for scientific methodology led him intomdirect confrontation with the Church in 1632. In that year he published his Dialogue on the two chief systems of the world, the Ptolemaic and the Copernican, in which a defense of Copernicus was made. Yet the importance of the method used by Galileo was to win him lasting fame. In the Dialogue he wrote: “It seems to me that in discussing natural problems we ought not to start from the authority of the texts of the Scriptures but from the experiences of the senses and from necessary demonstrations . . . dalle sensate experienze e dalle dimostrazioni necessarie.” This Dialogue affirmed a unique view of the universe which was now to be dominated by principles of mathematics coupled with observation rather than the abstract conjectures of Aristotle and Ptolemy, and the authority of Scripture.

Yet during his own lifetime he was humiliated by his peers, denounced by his friends and condemned by his Church. Pope Urban VIII had Galileo perpetually confined to his farm near Florence as a punishment for his stab at authority. Galileo’s condemnation was a temporary victory for the Church but its impact upon the scientific world had far-reaching and longer-lasting consequences.

Despite this setback in the conflict between faith and reason some important scientific and intellectual advancements were made in Italy during the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1657 the Accademia del Cimento (The Academy of Experience) was founded in Florence and became the first organized scientific society in the world. While Galileo has been called the “spiritual father” of the Accademia, the Medici Dukes Ferdinand II and Leopold were the ones who actually called this organization to life. Both were extremely interested in the world around them and had the financial resources and influence to pursue their interests. Leopold was especially interested in the poisonous properties of tobacco and the possibilities of artificial incubation. But their interests did not dominate the Accademia.

The members of the society were important men of their day such as Borelli (1608-1670) who was recognized throughout Europe for his experiments with air pressure and the entire process of breathing. Within the sheltered confines of the Accademia he and others could follow their inclinations and experiment, free from the normal prohibitions of reactionary authority. Francesco Redi (1626-1694), also a member of the Accademia, was physician to the Grand Dukes of Tuscany while teaching literature at the University of Florence. His scientific experimentation led to the refutation of spontaneous generation, or the belief that decaying matter caused the creation of insect larva to form. Redi’s observations and experiments led to his rejection of this widely held belief on the “natural” formation of insect larvae; he found that the ova of insects were the maggots on meat.

The Accademia del Cimento began to publish the various experiments and research projects undertaken by its members in a book form entitled the Saggi di Naturale Esperienza Fatte nell’Accademia del Cimento. In the various issues of this work Galileo’s experiments were discussed, pendulum and vacuum studies were related, and several studies on magnetism were presented. This concept of printing the experiments of the members of the Accademia had widespread success, so much so that in 1684 the Saggi was translated into English, into Latin in 1731 for the scholars of Europe and into French in 1755.

Although the Accademia was a short-lived society it nevertheless holds an important place in the history of experimental science. It was the harbinger of the scientific organizations whose members realized the importance of joint efforts, the use of elaborate instruments and the strict reliance on the scientific method. It was begun in a country which presented many features would lead the rest of Europe in its quest for scientific knowledge.

Although most of Italy was under the tight control of the religious authorities in matters broadly relating to dogma, the Italian universities were relatively free from Church control. Just as the Accademia was organized to promote experimentation in research, so too the Italian universities premitted a high degree of specialization and were the first universities to offer several “chairs” in the same fields of study. An invitation to Padua, Pisa, or Bologna was regarded as the highest honor in the scientific world of eighteenth century Europe.

The Enlightenment in western Europe had intellectual and scientific roots in Italy although most would associate the term with France. The Bolognese Luis Galvani (1737-1798) seriously discussed the mysterious force known as electricity, then a popular curiosity on both sides of the Atlantic. He defined positive and negative charges and lent his name to the nomenclature of electrical terms: galvanic, galvanism and galvanometer to name a few. Alessandro Volta from Como was fascinated with the idea of transforming chemical energy into electrical power as well as the storage of this energy. His “Volta Pile,” constructed in 1800, was the first battery with terminals of conductors, significantly advancing the study of electricity.

Later in the 19th century several outstanding Italians would successfully carry forth experimentation with electrical forces. Luigi Palmieri for example invented a magnetic electrical apparatus in 1843 to illustrate terrestrial magnetism. From an observation center on Mt. Vesuvious Palmieri devoted himself to various researches on magnetism, later turning his attentions to the creation of instruments which would measure earth tremors and predict the eruption of volcanos.

Scientific Contributions by Italians in America

The Florentine-born Antonio Meucci devised a prototype of the telephone in 1871 in the United States which he called a “teletrofono.” In 1869 and 1871 he took out patents for his invention and sought financial backing in the United States. He was exceedingly poor at this time and was to become even more disappointed when in 1876 he read that one Alexander Graham Bell had secured a patent for the instrument which he had invented. Subsequently Meucci was taken into the Globe Telephone Company.

Ultimately Bell sued the Globe Company and Meucci sold his patents to Globe; he received a few thousand dollars which was then taken by his creditors.

The story of Antonio Meucci is a highly charged, emotional tale which has been kept current even to this day. In 1971 the Italian government issued a stamp which honored Meucci as the inventor of the telephone while the United States honored Bell with a similar stamp in 1976. Various Italian-American organizations had taken this issue before the Manhattan Federal Court, attempting to stop the issuance of the Bell stamp. They have also charged Bell with fraudulently stealing Meucci’s patents. In any event it should be noted that even if Antonio Meucci is not given credit for the invention of the telephone, he will not be left without some honors. In 1881 Meucci received exclusive patents on another of his inventions, the making of postage stamps.

One can not omit from a discussion of 20th century inventors the name of Gugliemo Marconi and his experiments with electrical waves and the transmission of wireless messages. In 1896 he sent the first successful wireless message and in 1901 the first transcontinental communication from the British Isles to Newfoundland. His discoveries brought the possibility of mass communications that much closer to reality.

Some Italian scientists and inventors came to the United States during the mid-nineteenth century as exiles. One of these inventors was Quirico Filopanti, who arrived in America in 1849. He returned to Italy to fight with Garibaldi in the 1860’s. He later sought funds in the United States for experiments in air navigation which brought ridicule from scientists in this country. His proposal for funds was rejected. New York’s Eco d’Italia voiced its sympathy for Filopanti by printing that “Columbus and Fulton also had to struggle against the prejudices of their century . . .”

The International Centennial Exposition of 1876, held in Philadelphia, drew many Italian intellectuals and scientists to the United States. For the most part they were impressed with the research facilities available and the relatively open intellectual atmosphere. By the turn of the century Italian-born scientists were arriving in this country at an increased rate. In 1903, 817 “professional” including scientists and writers emigrated to this country, 551 of whom were from southern Italy.[4] The immediate linguistic and economic deficiencies encountered were overcome and many contributed to this country’s scientific growth. Among them were Giuseppe Bellanca, an aviation pioneer, whose monoplane the Columbia, was the first cabin aircraft to cross the Atlantic in 1911. Bellanca also designed the first trans-Pacific monoplane, the Miss Veedol.

Italian-born scientists have been best known in the area of physics in recent years, during which the names of Fermi, Rossi and Segre have become prominent leaders in the field of atomic research. Enrico Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938 and emigrated to this country in the following year. He was appointed Professor of Physics at Columbia University in 1939 and later, at the University of Chicago, constructed the first atomic pile, leading to a self-sustained nuclear chain reaction. From these experiments would come the first atomic bomb. Later, Fermi would work at harnessing nuclear power for peaceful use until his death in 1954.

Professor Bruno Rossi worked with Fermi on the atomic project but is best known for his work with cosmic radiation. Born in Venice, he taught at Florence, Padua, and Manchester Universities before coming to America in 1939. In America he taught at the University of Chicago, Cornell and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1966. His astrophysical research, carried out by NASA, led to the 1970 Explorer X Project. Rossi’s research into cosmic radiation discovered that cosmic rays were able to traverse great thicknesses of matter and that the collisions of such rays with atoms generated secondary particles. In 1971 Professor Rossi was awarded 20 million lire by the Italian Accademia dei Lincei for his contributions to science.

Another prominent Italian physicist who migrated to America is Emilio Segre. Born in Tivoli in 1905, he was a co-discoverer of the element Plutonium, the existence of slow neutrons, and of anti-protons. His extensive research in nuclear, atomic, and particle physics earned him the Nobel Prize in 1959.

Unlike music and art, the field of science is not always associated in the popular mind with the Italian-born or the Italian-American. Yet consistently biographical compilations such as the Prominent Scientists of Continental Europe and American Men of Science devote many pages to the contributions of Italian researchers and leaders in a variety of scientific fields. In 1968, for example, 165 Italian scientists were represented in the Prominent Scientists of Continental Europe publication.

And yet it should be remembered that specific contributions to scientific discovery are not the work of any particular ethnic group. Inventions and discoveries rest upon the research and experimentations of many others. Suffice it to remember that Italians have contributed to scientific progress both in Italy and in America.

Italian Explorers and Travellers

Italians have been at the forefront of many if not most of the important geographical discoveries during the Age of Reconnaissance. From the early Middle Ages Italian prelates and merchants had been deeply involved as nuncios or diplomats for the papacy, city states or commercial agents seeking new lands for trading opportunities. In 1245 Pope Innocent IV sent the sixty-five-year-old monk John of Piano Carpini as an envoy to the Great Khan, Lord of the Mongols. His travels on horseback covered some 3000 miles concluding when he reached Karakorum in 1247, the first westerner on record to travel to the East, return and relate his experiences.[5] The Polo Brothers, Niccolò and Maffeo, and Niccolò’s son Marco traveled extensively in China in 1271. Marco remained in China, traveled to Indonesia, India, and East Africa over a 28-year period, returning to Italy in 1299. His Travels of Marco Polo was a popular account of his journeys, evidenced by the fact that we still retain over 120 copies of the original book, an astonishing number for that period, showing that it was widely disseminated in the 13th century.

Carpini and Polo were not the only Italian travelers during this period of relative insularity. Niccolò de Conti, disguised as a Moslem, traveled for 25 years (1416-1441) through Asia. Later with the humanist Poggio Bracciolini he described his travels in the India Recognita which ranked with Polo’s Travels as a widely read treatise. The Venetian Ambrogio Contarini journeyed as an ambassador in Russia and western Asia in the 1470’s. In 1475 he met the other Venetian ambassador, Josafat Barbaro in Persia and together attempted to negotiate with the Persians for a continuation of their war against the Turks. This would have relieved Turkish pressure against Venetian trade but the mission was not successful.

The commercial revolution of the 15th century and the need for new trade routes and markets proved to be the major stimuli for the exploration of the world beyond Europe. Many explorers were Italian but were not employed by the various Italian city states but by Portugal, Spain, France, and England. The reason for Italian disinterest in exploration was economic and therefore understandable. The large cities had no real need to find new routes to the East for Italian trade was not seriously jeopardized by the Moslem conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Financially the expenses involved were usually prohibitive and few cities could participate in such undertakings. It was in the young but consolidated nation states that such projects could be realized and it was to these countries that Italian navigators flocked.

Finally it was not in the merchant’s economic interest to aid in the discovery of improved routes because that would hamper the Italian monopoly on eastern commerce. In this instance any alternate routes would be reckoned only in loss of revenues. For these reasons Italian merchants invested in the secure returns of established commercial ventures rather than speculate on innovative but costly schemes. Money would be expended after a discovery for the spices and tradestuffs available but not for initial exploration. Italian banking houses loaned money for such voyages at exorbitant rates of interest. In 1505, for example, Genoese and Florentine bankers invested 30,000 florins in Portuguese expeditions sailing for spices. The money was returned at the rate of 175% interest!

The saga of Columbus’ voyages to the New World is too well known to be repeated here. Suffice it to say that during the course of these journeys, lasting some eight years, he reached the Greater and Lesser Antilles, South America and Central America, and was awarded the title “Admiral of the Ocean Sea.” He also received a percentage of the gold and silver found in these newly discovered lands. The story of how Columbus died in Spain, poor and in chains, is completely inaccurate. Even if he received 2 or 3% of the revenues, as he alleged, he was a wealthy man as the substantial amounts left to his sons indicated.

Columbus did not arrive at his calculations totally by himself. In 1474 he had begun a correspondence with the Florentine Paolo Toscanelli, a doctor of medicine with an interest in geography who encouraged westward travel to the Indies. Toscanelli enthusiastically supported Columbus with his own calculations for a westward journey which did prove to be somewhat inaccurate. Toscanelli reasoned that Asia was such an extensive land mass and projected so far eastward that it would be but a short trip from the Azores to the tip of Asia. This was an oversimplification, to be sure, but it did act as a catalyst for Columbus. In the end the thought of one scholar was interpreted into action by another for the benefit of the whole world.

As to the charges that Columbus was imprisoned, they are true. During an insurrection at Santo Domingo in 1500 the Royal Commissioner felt that the admiral and his sons were guilty of poor administration and brutality. He decided to ship Columbus and his sons back to Spain to answer these charges. During the voyage Columbus was put in irons temporarily and upon arriving in Spain he was exonerated of all charges. He kept the fetters as a gloomy souvenir of his imprisonment. In 1502 he set out again on his fourth voyage with full Spanish backing.

The tragedy of Columbus was not his lack of material wealth nor his humiliating incarceration but the timing of his discoveries. When he died in 1506 his travels and exploits were not highly regarded and his personal rapport with the Crown was at a low ebb. He died not knowing what he had discovered, believing to the end that a province of China, some islands near Asia, were the lands he had found in the West.

The Admiral of the Ocean Sea was soon followed by other Italians in the employment of foreign powers. Giovanni Caboto from Genoa sailed for Henry VII of England in 1497 and 1498 to North America. With a crew of 18 Bristol mariners and his son Sabastian he touched Cape Breton Island, sighted Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. A second voyage brought him as far as Delaware, and possibly as far south as Cape Hatteras. At that point he disappears from history, another navigator failing to find Asia but discovering North America instead. Sabastian Cabot is usually given credit for advocating the concept of a “Northwest Passage,” an all-water northern route to Asia. In 1509 he attempted to discover this route and during his voyage penetrated as far north as Hudson Bay.

The Florentine Amerigo Vespucci was the manager of the Seville branch of the Medici Bank and had helped to finance Columbus’ second and third voyages. In 1499 he became involved in the actual exploration of the New World and traveled with the Spaniard Alonzo di Ajeda along the coast of South America for some 2000 miles. In 1501-1502 he was commissioned by the King of Portugal to explore the newly discovered Brazilian territories. He again traveled along the coast of South America to the LaPlata River. It was to Vespucci’s credit and fortune that he was the first explorer to realize and advocate that this was indeed a New World, not merely an extension of Asia as Columbus and others had thought. As a result of his voyages and writings the German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller bestowed the name “America” upon the new continents.[6]

Sidney Alexander has commented that “etymologically, all Americans are Florentine . . .” referring of course to Vespucci’s origins. To some degree this is correct if one considers the ethnic backgrounds of many of these early explorers. But not all of them traveled to the New World. Other examples of exploration by Italians proliferate in the annals of early maritime histories. Antonio Pigafetta, a volunteer gentleman from Vicenza, was the official historian on Magellan’s circumnavigation in 1522. He was one of the 18 men to survive the journey after Magellan was killed in the Philippines. His Le Voyage et Navigation faict par les Espaignoly (1525) ranks with Columbus’ Journal as a masterpiece of first-hand narration.

Another Florentine, Giovanni da Verrazzano, was commissioned by the French to find a northern passage to Asia in 1523. He went as far as South Carolina, turned northward and entered New York harbor. He then rounded Cape Cod, traveled along the northeast coast to Maine and returned home in 1524. His accuracy in surveying and noting the North American coastline was the most important of all the early voyages. His drawings and maps would ultimately give France the basis for her claims in the New World.

By the 17th century practically all of the nation states were now supplying the leadership as well as the expertise needed in further settlement and exploration in the New World. The Age of Exploration had given way to an Era of Colonization and Italian leadership was not conspicuous during this phase of settlement. But Italians were present primarily as priests and monks who were a part of every colonization effort.

About 20 Italians arrived at Jamestown in 1622 at the request of the English, who needed their abilities in glassmaking and to teach this art to the other colonists. In the west Father Francesco Kino from Genoa explored extensive tracts of land in Mexico and California, was appointed royal cosmographer in 1683, and in 1698 prepared the first maps of California which established the fact that California was not an island. He also introduced cattle into the southwest as well as grapes and various European grains. This “Padre on Horseback” also established some 20 missions in California before his death in 1711.

Perhaps the most famous of these explorers of Italian origin was Enrico Tonti, who assisted the Frenchman LaSalle in his travels in North America. Tonti was LaSalle’s lieutenant and with him built Ft. St. Louis de la Mobile on the Illinois River.[7] During Tonti’s numerous expeditions and colonization excursions he journeyed through what is now Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. He was the one man who knew best the unsettled lands of New France, who earned the respect of the Indian tribes in those regions as well as the admiration of his fellow settlers. An Italian by birth, he died in 1704 in the New World he had helped to explore and settle. He has been called the “Father of Arkansas” and Tontitown, Arkansas, bears witness to his importance.

After the American War of Independence many Italians of noble birth were intrigued with this new nation and were drawn to America. Several of them were friends of the Founding Fathers or members of the same international organizations as Jefferson and Franklin. Count Francesco dal Verme of Milan arrived here in 1783 and was greeted by George Washington. Traveling as a wealthy and interested vacationer, dal Verme was entertained at Yale University where he received an honorary degree. Later, when Thomas Jefferson visited Lombardy, dal Verme played host to this illustrious American visitor. Another notable of Italian lineage was Count Luigi Castiglione, who was a member of the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia. He visited all 13 states in 1785-1786 and published a two-volume work on the natural history and plant life of America.

Another Italian traveler during the early 19th century was Giacomo Constantino Beltrami, a six-foot nobleman from Como who arrived in America in 1823, an exile from the Napoleonic wars. Beltrami joined a military expedition to North Dakota but left the party soon after it began. On his own and with the assistance of several Chippewa and Ojibway Indians he stumbled through the wilderness and by chance came upon what he considered to be the source of the Mississippi River at Lake Julia.[8] Upon his return to civilization he published a book on the discovery and was actually given credit for it by a United States Geological Survey, in 1855. Today a northern county in Minnesota is named after him, as well as Lake Beltrami in that state.

Italian journalists wrote about the growing American nation for their continental readership during the 19th century, and commented on some interesting features of American life. Some of the reports, articles and fictional accounts were very inaccurate, while others tried to give a realistic portrayal of the land and its people. In 1848 Salvatore Abbate published his report on American life and spent the first chapter of his book dispelling the myths which surrounded this country. He told his readers that not all Americans were rich and patrons of the arts and that indeed some scientific progress was occurring in America. Further, noble birth did not guarantee anyone anything in this new land![9] He cautioned his readers that, despite rumors to the contrary, the American government was NOT paying all travel expenses for Italian immigrants nor providing them with free lands or servants upon their arrival.

Some Italian visitors were outright hostile to America, such as Giovanni Vigna del Ferro, a Bolognese journalist who wrote his Un Viaggio nel Far West (A Trip to the American Far West) in 1881. He was offered two free tickets to California and made the worst of this offer by accepting them and writing about his experiences.

An inaccurate journalist at best and certainly not a student of American history, del Ferro was disappointed that in the 1880’s the Indians encountered no longer attacked the trains nor offered their traditional war whoops. Indeed, during his four year stay in this country he was able to describe the Indians as drunken sots, the buffalo largely killed off and their remains scattered over the prairies, and the food quite unappealing to a foreign visitor. Since western food made him sick he traveled with his own provisions of barreled wines, cans of tuna, mortadella, cheese, sardines and butter.[10] After visiting Salt Lake City, Reno and San Francisco he reported that in the western part of the United States, disease was the usual order of the day and vigilante violence the order of the night. His reports were usually reprinted in Italian-American papers in New York City.

During the Civil War Italy and the Italian journalists who wrote about the conflict were unique in their impartiality toward North and South. During a period when most European countries favored a southern victory most Italians were apathetic toward the outcome. But several Italian travelers did leave their impressions on the subject of slavery. Catholic periodicals especially were anti-slavery and many of the Italian attacks upon the “peculiar institution” were to be found in magazines such as Civilta Cattolica. When Harriet Beecher Stowe arrived in London in 1853 this magazine blasted America for permitting slavery to exist, calling it a remnant of pagan antiquity which had no part in the modern world. Ten years later the celebrated Italian scholar Cesare Cantu blamed the United States for not living up to its principles embodied in the Constitution. “The evil in (America) derives from a violation of democracy; from not having equally distributed power between all, by giving all to a privileged class; a class privileged in politics and personality, who are in competition with their slaves.”[11] Only after emancipation could democracy in America and the entire world be assured, he concluded.

After the war Italian travelers to America were consistent in their abhorrence of the treatment of blacks in this country. A professor of geology, Giovanni Capellini, was especially incensed at the inhuman treatment of blacks. He related several incidents in Kentucky and along the Ohio River when whites flung insults at blacks working on another steamboat, while young boys flung stones at the corpse of a black who was floating in the water. All of this after the war, after the emancipation of slavery, in the land of the Declaration of Independence.

Another commentator, Francesco Varvaro, wrote in 1876 that he could not reconcile the doctrines expressed by the American Declaration with the prevailing attitudes toward the former slaves. Although an Italian anti-cleric, Varvaro was disgusted when he witnessed blacks being excluded from Protestant churches. “In a country whose institutions have such an egalitarian base, I admire the Catholics who, slave or free, have always treated the blacks with equality, and have always admitted them to their churches.”[12] The actor Ernesto Rossi scorned American democracy after having witnessed two blacks thrown out of a theater while a black Congressman was not admitted to a hotel used by his white colleagues.

In sum, Italian travelers and journalists found quite a distinction between the principles of American democracy and its actual workings on a day-to-day basis. Although they usually did not get involved with the political squabbles of the post-Civil War period they were very concerned with the ethical and moral questions of slavery and the promise of equality. The views of the Italians in America were the least prejudiced and most believable of any foreign nation of that time and often made Americans ashamed because of their accurate insights.


It may be said with no small amount of pride that the Children of Italy discovered America, gave poetry to the English, cuisine to the French, acting and ballet to the Russians... and music to the world. (Adapted from Luigi Barzini's The Italians.)
It may be said with no small amount of pride that the Children of Italy discovered America, gave poetry to the English, cuisine to the French, acting and ballet to the Russians… and music to the world. (Adapted from Luigi Barzini’s The Italians.)

  1. Vincent Ilardi, "Eyeglasses and Concave Lenses in Fifteenth-Century Florence and Milan," Renaissance Quarterly, XXIX, No. 3 (Autumn, 1976), 341-360.
  2. This famous document is from Leonardo's Codex Atlanticus in the Ambrosiana Library in Milan. A Portion of the letter is found in Antonina Vallentin's Leonardo da Vinci: The Tragic Pursuit of Perfection (New York: The Viking Press, 1938), pp. 75-85.
  3. Pamela Taylor, ed., The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (New York: The New American Library, 1960).
  4. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Immigration (Washington, D.C.: 1903).
  5. Christopher Dawson, ed., Mission to Asia (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).
  6. On early Italian explorers and the Age of Discovery consult B. Penrose, Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952) and J.H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance (New York: Mentor Books, 1963).
  7. Barbara Marinacci, They Came From Italy (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1967), pp. 15-35.
  8. Andrew F. Rolle, The American Italians (Belmont, California: The Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1972), pp. 29-35.
  9. Andrew J. Torrielli, Italian Opinions on America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1941), pp. 8-9.
  10. Rolle, Op. cit., p. 32.
  11. Cesare Cantu, "L'America nel 1863" quoted in Torrielli, Op. cit., pp. 62-63.
  12. Torrielli, Op. cit., p. 70.


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