Riding the wave


Ferdinando Visconti
biography edited by Vladimiro Valerio

Ferdinando Visconti / Correspondence / (1818-1847)
edited by Vladimiro Valerio
Florence, Leo S. Olschki, 1995
(Archivo della corrispondenza degli scienziati italiani 12)

This is the biography of Ferdinando Visconti - by Vladimiro Valerio, an outstanding expert of Neapolitan cartography - derived from the correspondence exchanged with the scientific world of his time by a man out of the ordinary, for human moral, and political depth.

On the next page we give a sample of the correspondence.

Ferdinando Visconti was born in Palermo January 3, 1772, the son of Domenico - commander of the militia of the province of Bari around 1800 - and Francesca Palumbo, as indicated in his biographical sketch traced by Settimio Severo Palumbo (though dating his birth January 9 - see note 9), as well as in his biography by the Royal Geographical Society and in documents kept in the State Archives of Milan. A misleading tradition, derived from the first biographies compiled immediately after his death to commemorate him, makes him a native of Portici, the home-town of another famous cartographer, Antonio Campana, director of the Austrian Military Geographical Institue. These sources - accepted by Cesare Firrao, and therefore handed down to history becasue of the latter's authority (note 10) - also indicate an incorrect date of death, placed two years earlier (1845). In other words, until now there was uncertainty as to both the home-town and the dates of birth and death of the most famous director of the Topographical Office of Naples.

Despite his various biographies, often modeled on one another (note 11), we lacked an updated and complete reconstruction of his life. Indeed, the interest in this illustrious figure - appropriately defined by Firrao "one of our greatest glories" - faded away in the 20th century. The publishing firm Utet did not deem it useful to include him in its re-editons of the Encyclopedia, though his name appeared in the 19th century edition, edited by Gerolamo Boccardo (note 12). Even the prestigious Enciclopedia Treccani does not mention him. The usual information, further simplified, appears in the Dizionario del Risorgimento Nazionale and in Il Risorgimento Italiano. Uomini Politici, by Francesco Ercole, and in a number of minor works. Visconti's name unfortunately also disappeared from the publications, either rare or of little interest, on Neapolitan science of the 18th and 19th centuries.

To define Visconti a great cartographer and surveyor is perhaps simplistic, considering the great moral strength and socio-political commitment that inspired his whole life, and the prestigious roles he held in Milan and Naples, where the establishements he directed reached top results. Also keeping in mind the fruitful relationship he entertained with many Italian and foreign scientific institutions. He was a proper guiding light in the Neapolitan culture of his time, a moral and cultural reference-point for those who knew him, and thus enjoyed the esteem and respect even of political opponents. It is therefore safe to call him one of the best scientists that have crossed the horizon of Italian southern culture.

He was only three years old when he became a cadet in the Royal Naples Regiment (note 13); in November 1786 he entered the Military Academy, established by royal decree of October 27, 1786. He was, therefore, part of the first contingent of students admitted into the new educational military structure, whose ambition was to bring officers' training to the same level as the major European nations. Visconti immediately showed great aptitude for science and ballistics. He studied with special emphasis the effects of bombs on vaults, conic sections, and the geometric theory on bullets trajectory (note 14). Released by the Academy, February 27, 1791, with the rank of lieutenant in the Artillery and Engineering Corps, he was for a period taken on as a teacher of mathematics. During those years his interests widened to geography, astronomy and navigation: he wrote a treatise on manouvering ships "dans lequel il avoit reuni tout ce qu'il y a de meilleur, et plus moderne" but left it unpublished. He also studied the rhumb line and the construction of Mercator charts.

Visconti, in those years, was attracted by the political faith of the group of young Jacobins gathered around the mathematicians Giordano and Lauberg. Certainly in that period he got in touch with the French fleet of Latouche-Treville, in early 1793, during their forced call in the port of Naples, to repair the damages caused by a storm off Civitavecchia. Accused of conspiracy, he was tried by the first Council of State established by Ferdinand IV, and was sentenced Oct. 3, 1794 - in spite of "les plus pompeus eloges que les juges firent de lui " (note 15) - to ten years imprisonment on the island Pantelleria (note 16). As Firrao recalls, "these many years turned the best for him, because in the silence of exile he could explore the new mathematical methods of the immortal genius of Lagrangia, Monge, Laplace, Legendre and others, that made science rich.

He probably started studying these methods with Annibale Giordano, himself sentenced to reside "in castrum Insulae Pantelereae", and later moved into the castle of L'Aquila. But not less meaningful must have been his acquaintance with the then young economist and mathematician Francesco Fuoco (1774-1841), segregated on the island of Pantelleria from 1799 to 1801. Especially Fuoco could acquire that mathematical background that became a characteristic of his more mature economic theories (note 17). The two men entertained a scientific association and an emotional bond that stood firm for the rest of their lives.

Once released in consequence of the clauses of the Treaty of Florence, concluded March 28, 1801, between France and the Bourbons, Visconti returned to Naples where he began teaching mathematics. Finance Minister Giuseppe Zurlo proposed him for an engineer and geographer at the Neapoletan Topographical Office, as well as the successor to Rizzi Zannoniin the direction of the Office, but negotiations failed because "the King would not admit him because previously accused of being a Republican" (note 18). Because of the difficulties he met in being accepted in the Neapolitan society, and embittered by the brutal repression against those accused of political conspiracy, that the Treaty of Florence just mitigated, Visconti moved to Milan, where there were several Neapolitan exiles with whom he shared dreams and concerns for the fate of the kingdom of Naples. He got friendly with young Fedele Amante, the future chief surveyor at the Topographical Office in Naples; was a friend and workmate of Francesco Macdonald (Secretary of War in Murat's time); of Giovambattista Vinci, who would become senior officer of the Bourbon Corps of Engineers; of Luigi Cosenza, who reached in Naples the rank of Brigadier, appointed inspector of artillery and engineering in Sicily, but never betraying, however, his liberal ideals; and of Calcedonio Casella. He made friends with the leading military and technical members of the Italian public administration, including the engineer Antonio Assalini to whom he remained bound even after returning to Naples.

In Milan he had the opportunity to be appreciated by the renowned astronomer Barnaba Oriani (1752-1832), with whom he could improve his skills on calculation and geodesy, and entertained a solid friendship and fruitful scientific dialogue. They certainly had the opportunity to discuss the state of cartography in southern Italy and the need to make measurements with modern geodetic criteria.

On September 7, 1802 he was appointed second lieutenant in the corps of engineers of the Cisalpine Republic, commanded by the Swedishman Gustavus Tibell. His military records kept in the State Archive in Milan leaves us an interesting description of his physical appearance: 1.68 m high, dark brown hair and eyes, forehead, nose and mouth "right", chin round and oval face (note 19).

Because of his great technical skills, he acted from the beginning as deputy head of the topographic corps directed, from August 23, 1805, by Captain Anthonio Campana. In May 1805 this role was confirmed by Decree of Domenico Pino (1767-1828), the Minister of War of the Kingdom of Italy. When Campana became director of the "War depot", proposed him for promotion to captain and deputy director of the Institute, as he was "the only man - Campana wrote to the Minister, 29 November 1806 - who may in all circumstances exercise my functions as befits " (note 20). Campana's letter is a useful document which highlights the duties entrusted to Visconti, and his level of preparation in those early years of cartographic activity: "On the other hand allow me, Excellency - Campana continues - to inform you that Visconti has so far performed all major astronomic and geodetic operations and shall in the future continue to direct them, provided he has under him officers trained in such precious activities, since he is the only senior officer having all the necessary knowledge ". Visconti had also collaborated with the French surveyors to the mapping of Veneto and to other works in which the Viceroy had identified a need for the presence of Italian geodesists (note 21). Despite Campana's request, Visconti was appointed junior captain only September 21, 1809, and was promoted to senior captain less than a year later (August 23, 1810).

In 1808 he was entrusted with the construction of a detailed chart of the Adriatic Sea. In order to carry out this appointment he started, as he recalls, "a journey along the coast of Istria, the islands of Kvarner, Dalmatia and Albania to Budva, to astronomically determine the geographical position of a sufficient stretch of those coasts(note 22). He devoted himself to the Adriatic Chart for the rest of his stay at the "War depot" in Milan. His last promotions were as squadron leader and Deputy director of the Depot (July 8, 1813).

Several times the Neapolitan government had asked Visconti to return to Naples to direct the topographic section, established at the War Ministry and headed by GA Rizzi Zannoni. But his topographic and scientific duties prevented him for some years to think about returning to his hometown. The favorable opportunity came in the spring of 1814, at the end of Napoleonic rule in Europe, and especially because of the fall of Eugene de Beauharnais and the consequent fall of Lombardy under the Austrian rule. The agreements between Murat and the Court of Vienna, who happened to be allied at that particular moment, made it possible for Visconti to move from Milan to Naples. Following his express request, Visconti was able to obtain his dismissal from the Italian army on May 9, 1814 (note 23). On May 21, the day after the death of Rizzi Zannoni, he reached Naples to take over the Neapolitan Topographic Office (note 24).

After re-organizing the topographical service by establishing a General War Depot, structured like those in Paris and Milan, Visconti conceived the project of a map of the Kingdom to be surveyed 1:20.000 and to be engraved 1:80,000. With two separate decrees of September 29, 1814, Murat approved his project, and at the same date promoted him to Colonel and Director of the Depot. Not much could be done in the following few months under Murat's leadership. Taking advantage of the permanence of Neapolitan troops in the Marche, Visconti was able to extend the triangulation from northern Italy to the Neapolitan border, to be verified at a later date through the measurement of a geodetic base.

When Ferdinand IV of Naples returned in 1815, neither the persecutions nor the purges of 1799 were repeated. The military structure remained almost untouched by virtue of the excellent preparation of the officers and the good organization of the whole system. No doubt of the two armies, the Neapolitan and the Sicilian one, the first was better trained and equipped with better men.

Visconti was confirmed in the direction of the War Depot with the decree of December 21, 1815. A series of rivalry arose between the Bourbon Army and the Muratists, and probably the will of the king to limit Visconti's power, brought to the decree of January 22, 1817, by which the General Depot was split into two separate entities: the War Depot and the Topographical Office. The first was given to loyal colonel Brocchetti, the second to Visconti (decree of June 4, 1817). By common consent, this separation proved "not good for the service" (note 25) and caused delays in the execution of the map of the Kingdom.

Visconti's oil portrait - undated and unsigned, kept at the Army Geographical Institute in Florence - was certainly made in 1814 when Visconti took charge of the War Depot in Naples. His military record in 1803 describe his features: height 5 feet, 2 inches and 3 lines (m 1, 68); hair and eyes dark brown, light brown eyebrows, mouth "right", round chin, oval face (ASM Ministry of War, 2856)
From Societā uomini e istituzioni cartografiche nel Mezzogiorno d'Italia by Vladimiro Valerio (Florence, Army Geographical Institute, 1993)

Between 1817 and 1820, Visconti was able to achieve, with the scanty personnel made available by the General Staff, a series of geodetic and topographic major operations, on which was based the subsequent cartographic production: between 1817 and 1819 he surveyed the neighborhood of Naples, 1:25.000, intending to make a large map in nine sheets (note 26); between 1818 and 1819, taking advantage of a request from the Austrian government, which wanted to complete the chart of the Adriatic started by Visconti while in Milan, he sent a team of engineers to survey the Adriatic coast of the Kingdom, 1:20.000; in 1819, to cast the basis for the triangulation of the Kingdom, he measured a geodetic base between Castel Volturno and the lake Patria, using Ramsden apparatus, coming from the Officio at Palermo. He also promoted lithographic printing experiments, begun in early 1818, which led to the establishment of the Military Lithography and to the enhancement of the lithographic method in Naples (note 27). His tireless activity also produced an unpublished interesting "essay" on geometric mapping scale 1:2.000, which unfortunately remained an experiment (note 28).

During the regency of Francis I - Ferdinand I was in Laybach, invited by the European powers to discuss the new political scenario determined by the risings in various European countries earlier that year - Visconti, who had been elected in parliament, obtained the approval of a decree which established a corps of military engineers-surveyors (December 26, 1820). With these new forces he meant to launch the survey 1:20.000 of the Kingdom, and to complete all the geodetic and topographic programs. Unfortunately, his plans had no future: with the dissolution of the army, started in 1821, after the return of Ferdinand to the throne, backed by Austrian troops, Visconti was exempted from the direction of the office and dismissed from the Army. The universal esteem he enjoyed prevented more dramatic consequences. It is not unlikely that he enjoyed the intercession of Koller - who had hosted him in Naples for years - and of Ramdhor, Prussian ambassador to Naples, or even of the Austrian Command, respectful of his genius and moral integrity.

Between 1822 and 1830, he continued to plan and carry out surveying work as a member of the Academy of Sciences, such as astronomical observations and leveling in the island of Ischia. He also meant to determine the difference in longitude between Naples and Rome, provided the director of the Officio, De Sauget, granted him a couple of surveyors. To survive, since he had been removed from any public office, he worked as an architect and an expert in the Courts.

On July 8, 1828, he presented, at the Academy of Sciences, a memorandum on the "metric system that is best suited to the domains on this side of the Lighthouse, initiating a broad debate on the kind of reform to be launched in the Kingdom to standardize the units of measurement. His propensity to the old system - which he supported within the Commission established by the King in 1832, approved with the decree of April 6, 1840 - was later evaluated negatively: "Who would have thought - De Luca wrote - that the great surveyor could support the Neapolitan baroque system of weights and measures, as opposed to science itself that had generated the great French metric system?" (note 29). But his choice was based on practical considerations: although he was aware that "a metric system scientifically worked out as in France, was certainly beautiful, he realized that it "would only be understood by educated people, that is, by a very small number of our population" and that "for a long time the mentioned system would give rise to fraud and deception more extensive than what at present due to the non-uniformity of measures" (note 30).

On this occasion Visconti showed his cleverness at harmonizing the abstract ideologies of science with extant circumstances. Altought his choice later on seemed a compromise to most people, it must be kept in mind that it was supported by most of the Neapolitan scientists, included Afan de Rivera, and that his opponents were against him only on principle. Visconti's proposal gave rise to amendements of the old measures, as a result of new measurements of the Earth arc of meridian. The new palm, slightly altered (from m 0.26367 to m 0.26455) appeared to be equal to 7 / OO of the geographical miles, thus being - like the meter - an exact fraction of the Earth quadrant, although not in decimal progression.

On January 11, 1831, he was reinstated in the Army, with his former rank as Colonel of Engineers. Only on 22 October 1835, following the death of Giovanni Melorio, could he resume his post as director of the Officio. Under his leadership the topographic office returned to work at full capacity, and resumed major triangulations, according to a specific project aimed also to the measurement of two great arcs of parallel and meridian, with which he intended to contribute to the study of the shape of earth. He connected Sicily to the mainland by a triangulation that passed through Calabria and the Aeolian Islands, and began considering the measurement of other basis for comparison in Sicily, Calabria and Puglia.

In 1839 he designed an administrative map of the Kingdom, to be surveyed on the scale 1:40.000 and to be engraved 1:360.000, in the hope of achieving in a short time a map coverage of the entire Kingdom, which could meet the needs of the central and peripheral Public Administration, which so far could only use the outdated mapping of Rizzi Zannoni. Despite some promising tests carried out during the topographic campaign of 1839, the map was later abandoned.

On April 16, 1843 he was appointed Brigadier and inspector of the Royal Ordnance and of the Army training centres, but continued to direct the topographic office, being the only one who manage any scientific matter related to topography and geodesy. In his last years he continued to maintain an extensive correspondence with the leading European geographical and astronomical societies, who turned to him as a scientific reference. He was a member of the Société de Géographie, of the Royal Geographical Society, of the Astronomical Society and of the Geographic Society of Athens. He attended the 7th Meeting of Italian scientists held in Naples in September 1845, and received several demonstrations of respect. A meaningful citation had already appeared in 1844 in the 18th volume of the Antologia Militare by Antonio Ulloa: "To Engineer General Ferdinando Visconti, a man of splendid European fame.

Married with Adelaide, they had no children but adopted Clorinda, daughter of a dear friend, Colonel Lojacono. The beloved step-daughter died very young, before his promotion to Brigadier. De Luca said that " the memory of his loss embittered that honour at the sad thought that he could not share it with his Clorinda" (note 31). Suffering from a contagious illness in the legs (erysipelas), he died in Naples, while still in office, on September 26, 1847 (note 32). It is likely that Visconti, already ill, had been informed of the uprisings in Messina on 1st September, and of the requests for constitutional reforms, coming from towns in Calabria and Sicily, and we like to think that his mind went back in time to retrace his own story, marked by a constant longing for the freedom of individuals and nations. The uprisings that shortly would upset Europe would have certainly seen him a protagonist. His death was not mentioned on Neapolitan newspapers, while the news was promptly given the geographical societies of Paris and London. At the sitting of 17 December 1847, the President of the French Society, Count Mathieu Louis Molé (1781-1855),announced the "perte douloureuse" (note 33); the Royal Geographical Society published a brief but accurate biographical portrait (note 34).

Vladimiro Valerio
Department of History of Architecture
San Polo 2468 - Palazzo Badoer
30125 Venice
tel.+ 39 041 2571 418
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9. A long biography of Visconti, fairly reliable, although little known, was published to comment on a portrait made by Settimio Severo Lopresti, at the death of Visconti.
10. See the obituary of Ferdinando Visconti, published in the Annali Civili del Regno delle Due Sicilie, LVI (1856), pp.154-156; Ferdinando De Luca, Ferdinando Visconti, "Proceedings of the R. Institute for the Encouragement of Naples", II (1865), pp.327-342, and Ceasre FIRRAO, Sull'Officio Topografico di Napoli. Origine, e vicende, Tipografia dell'Unione, Naples 1868, p.32.
11. Besides the works mentioned above we may recall Giuseppe FERRARELLI, L'Ufficio Topografico di Napoli e il generale del Genio Ferdinando Visconti, in "Napoli Nobilissima, IV (1896), pp.125-127; Attilio Mori, Cenni storici sui lavori geodetici e topografici e sulle principali produzioni cartografiche eseguite in Italia dalla metā del secolo XVIII ai nostri giorni,, Army Geographical Institute, Florence 1903, pp.50-56; Oreste MASTROJANNI, Il Reale Istituto di Incoraggiamento di Napoli Pierro, Naples 1907, pp.222-224, Giuseppe FERRARELLI, Memorie militari del Mezzogiorno d'Italia, Laterza, Bari 1911, pp.91-94 and Attilio MORI, La cartografia ufficiale in Italia e l'Istituto Geografico Militare, Stabilimento Tipografico per l'Amministrazione della Guerra, Roma 1922, pp. 96 and ff, with some amendments to the previous work of 1903.
12.Gerolamo BOCCARDO, Nuova Enciclopedia Italiana, Unione Tipografica Editrice Torinese, Torino 1888, vol. XXIII, p. 205.
13. See.Mémoire in ASM War Ministry, fs. 2856, reproduced in Appendix I.
14. ASM, Ministry of War, fs. 2856.
15. ASM, Ministry of War, fs. 2856.
16. See Giuseppe Maria ARRIGHI, Saggio storico per servire di studio alle rivoluzioni politiche e civili del Regno di Napoli, Stamperia del Corriere, Napoli 1809-1813, vol. III, pp. 82-86.
17. On Francesco Fuoco, whose life is still little known, see Biagio Salvemini, Vanni Malagola, Francesco Di Battista, Piero Barucci, Sul classicismo economico in Italia; il "caso" Francesco Fuoco, Institute of Economics, Faculty of Economics, Florence 1979.
18. VALERIO 1993 ch.IX, footnotes 38-40.
19. ASM, Ministry of War, fs. 2856.
20. ASM, Ministry of War, fs. 1953/Visconti.
21. Henri Marie Auguste BERTHAUT, les ingénieurs militaires géographes, Imprimerie du Service Géographique, Paris 1902, vol.II, indicem.
22. VISCONTI Ferdinando, Sulla posizione geografica e sulla larghezza della bocca del mare Adriatico, "Proceedings of the Royal Academy of Sciences", Napoli II (1825), p.51.
23. ASM, Ministry of War, Officers' records. 96.
24. Ferdinand VISCONTI, Notizia intorno al Reale Officio Topografico di Napoli ed ai lavori in esso eseguiti, in: Annuario Geografico,, edited by Annibale Ranuzzi, Milan 1844, p. 20.
25. Caesar FIRRAO, Sull'Officio Topografico di Napoli..., In footnote 10, p. 32.
26. See Vladimiro VALERIO, La carta dei contorni di Napoli degli anni 1817-1819 ed il Reale Officio Topografico di Napoli, in: Cartografia Napoletana dal 1781 al 1889, edited by Giancarlo Aliso and Vladimiro VALERIO, Prismi, Naples 1983, p. 29-40.
27. See Vladimiro VALERIO, Il Regio Officio Topografico di Napoli, "Review ANIAI, I (1979), p. 28-30.
28. On the cadastrial operation launched in Castel Volturno see.VALERIO 1993, p. 244-245.
29. Ferdinando De Luca, Ferdinando Visconti, in footnote 10, p. 440.
30. Ferdinando VISCONTI, Del sistema metrico uniforme che meglio conviene ai domini al di quā del Faro del Regno delle Due Sicilie, Stamperia Reale, Naples 1829, p .7.
31. Ferdinand De Luca, Ferdinando Visconti, in footnote 10, p. 342.
32.According to Alfredo COMANDINI, (L'Italia nei cento anni del secolo XIX, Milan 1902-1907), Visconti died on 26 September while Lopresti dates his death on 28 Sept.
33. See Bulletin de la Société de Géographie, VIII (1847), p. 427.
34.See The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, I (1848), pp.xxxii-xxxiii.