1Giovanni Poleni’s Cabinet of Physics

Museum of the History of Physics

From the beginning of the eighteenth century, new experiment-based lectures started spreading throughout Europe. These so-called “experimental physics” - or “experimental philosophy” - lectures were extraordinarily successful, not only in universities but in the “salons” and in royal courts as well.

It was within this context that a chair of experimental philosophy was created in Padua in 1738. The new chair was assigned to Giovanni Poleni (1683-1761), mathematician, physicist, but also an expert in several other fields, like classical architecture and philology. The Cabinet of Physics that Poleni set up for his new lectures was located at the Palazzo Bo and it grew to nearly four hundred items. About a hundred of these instruments are still kept at the University of Padua Museum of the History of Physics.

Poleni’s Cabinet of Physics soon acquired an excellent reputation in the whole Europe. The French astronomer Jérôme de Lalande visited it in 1765, stating in his “Voyage d' un François en Italie” that he did not know of “a more beautiful Cabinet of Physics”. As for the Paris Academy of Sciences, it acknowledged Poleni, among other compliments, as the person who brought Padua school of physics “on par with the most well-known schools of this kind”, thanks to its collection of scientific instruments (“Histoire de l'Académie Royale des Sciences”, 1763).

2Antonio Vallisneri and the Antiquities


«To finish up with his Collection he (Vallisneri Senior) added to his Museum many precious antiquities besides natural items»

The part dedicated to the “antiquities” in the catalogue of the “Museum” begins with these words. The document was included in the first of the three volumes of “Opere fisico-mediche…” (Coletti, Venice 1733) edited by his son Antonio Vallisneri junior and is one of the most important sources for the knowledge of his Collection, also known as “Museo Vallisneriano”.

The selection of “antiquaria” reported here reflects the way Vallisneri looked at the past as scientist and friend of intellectuals and collectors of that time such as Apolostolo Zeno, Bernardo and Francesco Trevisan, Scipione Maffei.

It was supposed that Vallisneri collected antiquities and art objects being interested in the artistic production of the past (especially the sculpture). Anyway he could also have been attracted by some well-known items like the “Idol of the Sun” (see in the catalogue “Idol"), or the two statues of “Vestales” (see “Statue of Athena”). Finally he probably wanted to imitate the original display of the Mantova Benavides collection, founded in the sixteenth century in Padua, from which he acquired the most part of his antiquities and also the Renaissance bookcase (the so called Venetian “scanzia”, see “bookcase with open shelves”) still preserved in the Museum of Archaeological Sciences and Art.

3The eighteenth century in Padua - Antonio Vallisneri and the Earth Sciences

Palazzo Cavalli

The Museum of Geology and Palaeontology houses some fossils from Antonio Vallisneri’s collections. Prof. Antonio Vallisneri (1661-1730) taught Practical Medicine at the University of Padua from 1700 to 1730, and like most researches of his time he was interested in Natural History. During the years he accumulated his personal collection for teaching, consisting of archaeological and natural findings, and rare and ancient objects. Within the field of the Earth sciences he refuted the Universal Flood theory and recognized the proper nature of the fossils. In his book Dei corpi marini che sui monti si trovano, published in 1728, he showed that the fossils are remains of animals or plants living in the past, and that they had no relationship with the Universal Flood. He made many other important discoveries in the field of geology, for example on the water cycle, on the thermal waters and regarding some mines in the Apennine.