Riding the wave


Ferdinand Visconti: Correspondence (1818-1847)
edited by Vladimiro Valerio

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

The letters written by Ferdinando Visconti, found during a long and elaborate research on the history of cartography in southern Italy (1), cover a long period of his life running from 1818 until a few months before his death, on September 26, 1847.

The not high number of letters - 93 - is also to be related to the political misadventures of Visconti, who was the protagonist of the unfortunate Neapolitan constitutional experience in the years 1820 and 1821.

Expelled from the army, he could not act for about 15 years as director of the Topographical office and above all could neither organize nor manage scientific operations of great significance, interrupted throughout the Kingdom for a decade, and was forced to make his living as an architect and an expert of engineering at the civil Court.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that during the third decade of the century his correspondence was particularly scarce; that was a time when the fate of several scientists and Neapolitan men of culture was very precarious, all of them subject to the most intransigent and abject ostracism of the late reign of Ferdinand I and his son Francis I.

A letter from the English geologist Lyell is enlightening in this respect; so he wrote to his sister, from Naples, November 9, 1828: "Poor Costa (2), with Several other Naturalists decidely of superior knowledge to any of the present professors in the university here, have been deprived of their chairs and persecuted to beggary for their 'constitutional' opinions, "and concludes that" In all the great states of Italy except Tuscany, the inquisitorial suppression of all cultivation of science, moral or physical, is enforced with unrelenting rigour, and considerable success " (3).

Visconti&#;s correspondence must have been huge and addressed the main geodesists, astronomers, mechanical engineers, and men of prominent importance in the disciplines in the Kingdom of Naples, in Italy and in Europe as a whole, a fact which stands out with evidence from the surviving correspondence. I could not trace the letters sent to the Hellenic, German and French Geographical Societies, because of the vicissitudes suffered by their archives.

The correspondence published here lends itself to many interpretations and considerations. The first characteristic elements are provided by those tranches de vie that are often one of the salient features of the correspondence, which can illuminate the personality of an individual or highlight the flaws and limitations of an administrative structure. How can we forget, among the many examples, the pungent portrait of Baron de Zach that "al suo solito indispone tutti, l'un dopo l'altro, e sarebbe un prodigio se il solo Reichenbach non avesse incontrata la sorte medesima" (4) , or the sad description of the weak personality of Bonaventura Bandieri - a little known artist, active in Naples in the first half of the century - whose fairness degenerates into extreme stupidity " and "is afraid of everything, believing that any opinion of his may not please, and thus is constantly tormented " (5).

The indignation of Visconti was not restrained when, in 1845, he lamented with Admiral Beaufort the obtuse refusal of the Bourbon Navy to cooperate to hydrographic surveys: "Would you believe, Sir, - writes Visconti to Beaufort - that the commander in chief of our Navy, on account of jealousy, has refused to complete the sounding of the Procida channel, where currently sail all ships trading between Naples, Livorno, Genoa and Marseilles, advancing the pretext that the Navy has no means to perform such simple tasks? " (6).

Of great scientific interest is his correspondence with G. B. Amici, for the description of the instruments of observation, for the presence of issues relating to instruments and improvements that were being carried out through a heated debate among mechanics, astronomers and geodesists. Visconti displays really extraordinary competence in the field, and his comments are promptly welcomed by G. B. Amici. Also completely unknown manufacturers, such as Conciliis, Panisi and a brother of Bandieri, emerge in the so far desolate scenario of instruments-makers in Naples.

Of different contents but equally significant are the letters to the Royal Geographical Society and to the Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty, in their highlighting other aspects of Neapolitan scientific activity and society in the 19th century. Here the discussion moves on topographic and hydrographic operations, and on the whole chart production in the Kingdom of Naples. Visconti applies himself to provinding information on the Neapolitan production, and is also invested with the delicate task of revising the Admiralty charts relevant to the Kingdom of Naples.

The oil portrait, undated and unsigned, kept at the Army Geographical Institute in Florence, was certainly realized in 1814 when Visconti took charge of the Topographic Office in Naples. Here is his physical description reported in his personal documents in 1803: height 5 feet, 2 inches and 3 lines (m 1, 68); dark brown hair and eyes, light brown eyebrows, regular mouth, round chin, oval face (ASM Ministry of War, 2856)
From SocietÓ uomini e istituzioni cartografiche nel Mezzogiorno d'Italia, by Vladimiro Valerio (Florence, Military Geographical Institute, 1993)

What chiefly emerges is essentially the figure of an eclectic scientist, driven by an inexhaustible desire to learn and eager to offer his knowledge to the general benefit. He hosted and helped in every way the foreign scientists travelling to Naples, as well as directing to his foreign correspondents the Neapolitans going abroad on various scientific commitments.

When the naval officer Vincenzo Lettieri went to London to take charge of the ships built in the British shipyards on behalf of the Bourbon navy, Visconti was careful to introduce him to his friend Beaufort, with words of praise: "He is a very distinguished officer of the Neapolitan Royal Navy and greatly wishes to know the most distinguished officers of the British Navy, wherefore I dare address him to you, yourself one of its most illustrious representatives " (7).

He succeeded, therefore, in being a point of contact between the Neapolitan community and European culture, besides being a perfect correspondent, who never overlooked letters or requests. In this respect the words written by Julian Jackson, after his retirement from the Geographical Society of London, are very significant: "I will merely add that I shall at all time be happy to hear from you in a private capacity, and that any letters addressed to me at N░ 52 Coleshill St. Eaton Sq. London, will be sure to find me " (8).

It was April 9, 1847, and the end of Visconti was approaching. His English friends - but also French, German and Italian - were deprived of the joy of receiving news, books, charts and attention from Naples, which was heading towards a renewed and pernicious isolation from the international scenario (9).


1. See Vladimiro VALERIO, SocietÓ Uomini e Istituzioni Cartografiche nel Mezzogiorno d'Italia, Army Geographical Institute, Florence 1993 (hereafter VALERIO 1993).
2. Oronzo Gabriele Costa. See No 4, letter 15.
3. See Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, edited by His Sister in Law, Mrs. Lyell, John Murray, London 1881, vol. I, pp. 213-214.
4. See letter 16 addressed to Amici dated 24 November 1818.
5. See letter 10 addressed to Amici dated 11 August 1818.
6. See letter 80, addressed to Beaufort, dated October 6, 1845.
7. See letter 60, addressed to Beaufort, dated June 27, 1843.
8. See letter 93, sent by Julian Jackson, dated April 9, 1847.
9. A long biography of Visconti, fairly reliable, although rarely mentioned, was published to accompany a lithograph portrait by Settimio Severo Lopresti, made at the death of Visconti.

His correspondents

a) Giovambattista AMICI

Approximately one third of the published letters are part of the correspondence between Visconti and Amici in just four years between 1818 and 1821. Those were the years of greatest activity for the topographic structure of Naples, while Visconti's initiatives followed one another with growing intensity, as if he could foresee the misfortune that was to fall on the whole southern culture (1). Visconti met Giovanni Battista Amici in Naples when the latter arrived, November 6, 1817, at the close of a long journey undertaken with his wife Teresa (2). Visconti was one of the first to visit the couple and was among the last friends Amici met before leaving Naples. From Teresa Amici's diary we know that they frequently met Visconti at the residences of foreign diplomats (the Austrian Koller, the Prussian Ramdhor, the Russian Count Horloff) and at the homes of outstanding Neapolitan families, pleased to host that illustrious person: on November 30, together with Visconti, Amici and his wife went "to the delightful, panoramic home of Count Ricciardi on the Vomero hill" (3).

Portrait of Teodoro Monticelli by GB Amici,
engraved by Giuseppe Carandini.
In Vladimiro Valerio, SocietÓ Uomini e Istituzioni Cartografiche nel Mezzogiorno d'Italia.

b) Teodoro Monticelli

Visconti had been friends with Teodoro Monticelli for a long time. Both had suffered the harsh Bourbon political repression in the last decade of the 18th century (6) and both were part of that large group of liberals and former Neapolitan Muratists around which had coagulated the best intellects of the Kingdom. The letters found in Monticelli's correspondence, kept in the National Library in Naples, mostly deal with Visconti's scientific work as a member of the Academy of Science, of which Monticelli was "permanent secretary". It is no coincidence that the correspondence between the two was mostly entertained in the years during which Visconti, relieved of his position at the direction of the Topographic Office, was forced to make his living as an engineer or on behalf of the Academy.


Giuseppe Ricciardi was born in Naples July 18, 1808. More than with the young and turbulent Giuseppe, Visconti made friends with his father, the Earl of Camaldoli, Francesco Ricciardi, born in Foggia, June 12, 1758 and died in Naples December 17, 1842, whose house at the Vomero was one of liveliest salons of the time and a meeting place for liberal and "Muratists" Neapolitans.


Visconti's correspondence with John Washington lasted for five years, when the English hydrographer was secretary at the RGS. John Washington (1800-1863) (9) had joined as a volunteer the British Navy in 1812, aboard a frigate engaged in military operations in North America. When he was back in England he followed courses at the Royal Naval College where he was awarded a gold medal in 1816. The following years he was back in America and in the Pacific Ocean. In 1821 he was promoted to Lieutenant. He continued to sail, and especially to make astronomical observations. Since 1827, with the rank of First Lieutenant, he sailed in the Mediterranean, also carrying out astronomical observations in the interior of Morocco, establishing the position of several points hitherto unknown. He had his first command in 1830 and in 1833 was promoted to Commander.


Sir Francis Beaufort, whose name is linked to the international scale of wind force, is one of the glories of the British Admiralty, and one of the founders of modern meteorology and hydrography. He joined the Navy as a youth, and during his first voyage to the Sunda sea (1789) he made his first hydrographic surveying. He gained great reputation when he was tasked with the survey of the coast of Karaman, in 1811. His works in the Eastern Mediterranean were brought to the attention of the scientific community in 1817: the volume entitled "Karaman", rich in archaeological and anthropological historical notations, had a remarkable success, becoming one of the most popular travel-books of the time and an editorial model. A second edition appeared in 1820. The quality of his coastal survey, published by the Hydrographic Office, was so great that in 1972 Beaufort "was quoted by the Hydrographic Department as the principal authority for the surveys of the southern coast of Turkey" (12).The fine quality of his work did not go unnoticed to contemporaries as attested by Visconti's first letter to Beaufort, in which he mentions the "excellentes Cartes sur les Côtes de Karamanie" (13).


Julian Jackson (1790-1853) is the last of Visconti's correspondents. Jackson too was a secretary of the Royal Geographical Society for six years, from 1841 to 1847. The correspondence with Jackson, third secretary of the RGS, is one of the richest - no less than 14 letters sent and 8 received - and the most interesting one.


1.See VALERIO 1993, Chapter XI, p. 221-250.
2.Bibliography on Amici is quite extensive, see in particular the biographies appeared in DSB I, p.135-137, edited by Vasco Ronchi; ST I, pp.41, 42, edited by Mario GLIOZZI, and the monograph edited by G.Tarozzi, La scienza degli strumenti. Giovanni Battista Amici ottico, astronomo e naturalista, edited by Accademia Nazionale di Scienze Lettere e Arti, Modena 1989.
3. See Giornale di Viaggio da Modena a Firenze-Roma, written by Amici's wife, Teresa, kept in BEM, Friends Fund, c.14 st.
6. Arrested 27 February 1795, Monticelli was convicted on the island of Favignana. See Ceva Grimaldi, Elogio del comm. T. Monticelli, , Stamperia Reale, Naples 1845 and RIIN, p.187-188.
9. See Lewellyn Styles DAWSON, Memoirs of Hydrography, Including Brief Biographies of the Principal Officers Who Have served in H.M. Naval Surveying Service Between the years 1750 and 1885, Imperial Library, Eastbourne 1885, vol.II, p.93-111 and DNB, XX, p.898, 899, edited by John Knox Laughton.
12. Alfred Friendly, Beaufort of the Admiralty. The Life of Sir Francis Beaufort 1774-1857, Hutchinson, London 1977, p. 219. Also see Lewellyn Styles DAWSON, Memoirs of Hydrography, Including Brief Biographies of the Principal Officers Who Have served in H.M.Naval Surveying Service Between the years 1750 and 1885, Imperial Library, Eastbourne 1885, vol.II, pp.1-5.
13.See Letter nr 51.
Vladimiro Valerio
Department of History
's Architecture
San Polo 2468 - Palazzo Badoer
30125 Venice
tel. + 39 041 2571 418
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