Enlightening Towers: Public Opinion, Local Authorities, and the Reformation of Meteorology in Eighteenth Century Italy

By Bertucci, Paola | Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, September 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Enlightening Towers: Public Opinion, Local Authorities, and the Reformation of Meteorology in Eighteenth Century Italy


Bertucci, Paola, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


IN THE SPRING OF 1777 Piazza del Campo at Siena became the site of a collective experiment. One year earlier the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Pietro Leopoldo, ordered that a lightning rod be affixed to the tower of the town hall, the very heart and symbol of the city. His decision prompted the heated reaction of a Siena nobleman, the marquis Alessandro Chigi, who published an attack against the theory that lightning was an electrical phenomenon, claiming that metallic conductors would be ineffective in preventing damages to building and people during thunderstorms.1 Chigi's opposition to lightning rods found quite a few supporters, and when, on April 18, 1777, black clouds darkened the sky above Piazza del Campo, a large crowd gathered in the square to observe the effects of the conductor erected on top of the tower. They saw a bolt of lightning strike the tower and be conducted safely into the ground, channeled by the metallic rod. The professor of physics at the University of Siena, Domenico Bartaloni, examined the tower and the conductor after the storm. Although "the incredulous" expected "a completely different result, almost wishing to see the tower flashing, so as to expose to ridicule the holy laws of physics," Bartaloni declared the complete success of the conductor in protecting the tower. His official report was published in the transactions of the Academy of Siena as well as in the local newspaper. The collective witnessing of the experiment sanctioned the success of lightning rods in the public sphere.2

The Siena episode highlights typical elements that characterized eighteenth century debates on the effectiveness of lightning rods: the involvement of public opinion, the role of local authorities, the experts' engagement in the popularization of their views, and the spectacularly visible setting of the experiments. Towers were main protagonists of the early history of lightning rods. Highly tangible symbols of political, religious, or financial power, towers had always been frequent targets for the fiery meteor of lightning. From the mid-eighteenth century, they became favorite sites for experimenting with lightning conductors. Not only in Siena but also in Florence, Pisa, Milan, Turin, Venice, Genoa, Bologna as well as in smaller towns south of the Alps, natural philosophers affixed metallic conductors on top of the towers of churches, city halls, castles, and palazzi.' In the philosophers' opinion, the pointed conductors would slowly draw the electric fire from tJiunderclouds and channel it into die ground, thereby preventing huge discharges that would damage buildings. Or, they would attract lightning, forcing it to pass through the metal, with the same result. Yet because of their visibility and symbolic significance in the everyday life of Italian cities, towers also became highly debated experimental sites that attracted the inhabitants' attention and made the debate over lightning rods a public concern.

This essay shows that before lightning rods became marketable commodities, they were experimental devices used to substantiate or criticize Franklin s theory of electricity, which held that the matter of lightning and that of artificially produced electric sparks were one and the same. The study of the nature of lightning contributed to the reformation of Aristotelian meteorology in terms of die new science of electricity: each flash of lightning that struck a metallic conductor created the experimental setting for electricians to study the behavioT of such a disruptive natural "meteor." The reports of their observations made up a sort of transnational repository of experimental results on which lightning rods advocates relied to support dieir arguments. Because of their unusually visible setting, however, such experiments acquired a public dimension that obliged electrical experimenters to confront public opinion and local authorities. In some cases, this confrontation brought electricians to engage in campaigns of popularization of electrical science, which aimed at highlighting the public benefits deriving from the installation of lightning rods and from the study of electrical meteorology.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Enlightening Towers: Public Opinion, Local Authorities, and the Reformation of Meteorology in Eighteenth Century Italy
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.