From the italian Spectroscopy Society to the italian Astronomical Society

Article written by Giorgia Foderà Serio, published in “L’Astronomia in Italia”, edited by Fabrizio Bonoli, Arte Tipografica Publ., Naples, 1998

1. The establishment of the Italian Spectroscopy Society

Until 1870, the only Italian Astronomical Observatories endowed with spectroscopic instruments were the ones at the Collegio Romano and at the Campidoglio, whose directors were, respectively, Angelo Secchi (1818-1878) and Lorenzo Respighi (1824-1889), who can therefore be considered the pioneers of astronomical Spectroscopy in Italy. We should also mention Giovan Battista Donati (1826-1873), who had used one of the first split spectroscopes with a collimator in Florence. In 1860, he had thus started to study the spectra of about fifteen stars and a few comets, just a couple of years before the work of Secchi, who, in December 1862, began to observe stellar spectra. As a result, Secchi suggested one of the first spectral classifications of stars. This work immediately resounded all over the world, and is still remembered within the history of Astronomy

On the occasion of the total Sun eclipse of December 22, 1870, whose totality line crossed Sicily, the Italian Government – for the first time - provided money for a National scientific expedition shared by astronomers from Padua, Florence, Rome, Naples and Palermo, who were given spectroscopes. This induced Pietro Tacchini (1838-1905), who had been working as an Associate Astronomer at the Observatory of Palermo since 1863, to propose, in 1871, the first programme of spectroscopic observations of the Sun chromosphere in collaboration with the Observatory of the Collegio Romano. Tacchini, indeed, had already begun to study solar prominences and had observed - in Palermo – some types of prominences which did not correspond to the ones described for the same days by Secchi in Rome. Therefore, he wrote to the Jesuit astronomer, suggesting that they started contemporary observations of the Sun’s edge in order to study, with the same instruments, the causes for these differences. Secchi answered: I received your figures and your letter while I was thinking of the remarkable differences between what you see and what I see. (...)These differences made me think about the project of contemporary observations, so that you guessed my thoughts in your proposal. Therefore, they decided to draw together the outline of the solar disk. The observations started on July 1 and went on until mid-July. The usefulness of this approach emerged at once. Secchi himself was convinced of it, as it appears from his letter addressed to Tacchini: you’ll see that we’ll make a lot out of this work...

This series of comparisons allowed to understand that, in general, the differences between the results of contemporary observations with the same instruments should be ascribed to different atmospheric conditions between the two cities, as well as to the different aperture of the spectroscope split. After this experience, Tacchini and Secchi realized that the continuous observation of the Sun required a common, organized effort...

Secchi was telling me of the idea of creating an association of Italian Spectroscopists, who, while working together according to an agreement and a definite program, would provide in a short time the required series of regular and continuous observations for a safe and quick solution of important problems related to Solar Physics.

Tacchini did his best to establish the Society. The Observatories of Palermo, Naples, Collegio Romano, Campidoglio, and Padua joined the iniziative. At the time, these Institutes were directed respectively by Gaetano Cacciatore (1814-1889), Annibale De Gasparis (1819-1892), Angelo Secchi, Lorenzo Respighi and Giovanni Santini (1787-1877). Cacciatore, De Gasparis and Santini delegated respectively Pietro Tacchini, Arminio Nobile (1838-1897) and Giuseppe Lorenzoni (1843-1914). Because of the presence of Angelo Secchi, Spinosa remained the "official" party. Tacchini solved the problem in a pragmatic way:...in order to avoid difficulties, we shall make a family thing...

The Italian Spectroscopy Society was established on October 5, 1871. It was the first professional organization specialized in "Physical Astronomy". Thanks to Secchi and Tacchini, Astrophysics became independent from Astronomy in Italy, well ahead of other countries. Tacchini took upon himself the responsibility to publish the papers with the results of his observations, which were later gathered in the well-known Memories of the Italian Spectroscopy Society, whose first volume was published in 1872 in Palermo. Here Tacchini took advantage of the work of the lithographer Fraunfelder. Indeed, the beautiful illustrations of prominences, in red and black, still excite admiration and surprise for the precise design and the perfect printing. The first headquarters of the Society was the Observatory of Palermo, where the Memories were printed until 1879, when Tacchini was appointed as Director of the newly-established Central Weather Bureau, as well as of the Roman Observatory, and the office was moved to Rome, where the memories also were printed from then on.

In 1899 Tacchini, so as to assure long life to the publication of the Memories, asked Prof. A Riccò (1844-1919), director of the Astronomical Observatory of Catania from 1890, to join as editor of the collection and printing of the Memories. Riccò also held the first chair of Astrophysics in Italy, which was actually created for him by Tacchini. Riccò was happy to accept this honour and he also agreed to take care of the publication of the Memories in Catania. The Society thus went back to its origins in Sicily, where it stayed until 1919. In the month of January 1920, the Society was transformed into the Italian Astronomical Society.

2. The Memories

The Memories of the Italian Spectroscopy Society constitute the very first scientific magazine devoted to Astrophysics. They preceded by more than twenty years the better-known The Astrophysical Journal, whose first issue came out in the USA in 1895, edited by George E. Hale (1868-1938) and James E. Keeler (1857-1900), with the collaboration of Tacchini himself, as documented by the long correspondence with Hale.

The journal was created for the publication of the results of the program of solar observations agreed upon by the founders of the Society. However, starting from the third volume, it became necessary to publish an Astronomical Appendix since, as Tacchini himself wrote, the positive welcome received by the spectroscopy articles made some Italian astronomers wish to own a similar journal, extended to the whole range of Astronomy. The Spectroscopy Society, though maintaining its specific character, meant to fulfil this wish by adding to the Spectroscopy Memories an astronomical appendix, hoping this appendix may contribute to the progress of Science. In fact, the Astronomical Appendix never really developed, and its publication stopped in 1879. Articles of “classical Astronomy”, fewer and fewer, were finally absorbed by the Memories, which soon assumed an international character. Indeed, in the third volume we can find articles by Henry  Draper (1837-1882) who in 1872 had obtained the first picture of a stellar spectrum, Rudolph Wolf (1816-1893) and Norman Lockyer (1836-1920). The scientific correspondence published in the Memories – including letters addressed by Tacchini to the main astro-physicists of the time - became thicker and thicker. This is a proof not only of a continuous update and exchange with the International community, but also of the appreciation of the Society’s pioneering scientific activity. In 1873, scarcely one year after the start of their publication, the Memories were awarded a medal and a diploma at the Vienna Universal Expo. Moreover, in 1896 George E. Hale wrote to Tacchini: No one appreciates more fully than I do how much of us who are engaged in solar investigations owe to the spectroscopic workers of Italy. The volumes of the Memories which you so kindly presented to me stand in a case near my table and are used almost every day. I have good reason to know how much I am indebted to Tacchini, Secchi, Respighi, Lorenzoni and Riccò, not to mention the other members of the Society.

The Spectroscopy Society and the publication of its Memories therefore determined a really happy period for Italian Astrophysics. Towards the end of the century, however, it became clear that the need to maintain certain positions, with the astrophysical instruments development - mainly in the USA - would have requested substantial investments in this area in Italy too. The Italian Astronomical Community was not ready to push in this direction, and chose to reinforce the Astronomy of position, where they thought they could better compete with the Mathematics Academic community. As a consequence, the further development of astrophysical research was hampered. The Spectroscopy Memories, however, maintained their excellent quality and their International diffusion unaltered.


3. The Statutes

As we said above, the authoritative - but also intrusive - presence of the Jesuit Angelo Secchi among the promoters of the Spectroscopy Society made it particularly difficult to obtain an official statute from the Italian Government, especially just after the taking of Porta Pia. Indeed, if this had been possible, Secchi, because of his International repute, scientific authority, and age, should have been made chairman of the Society. This impasse was overcome by deciding the "content" more than the “form” of the Society. Indeed, a detailed programme was formulated, which established the categories of works to be done, as well as the rules for realizing and publishing them. (Appendix I). In the month of October 1871, Tacchini submitted to the Minister of Education a wide-ranging report about the agreed-on programme, and asked the Government:

600 lira for the publication of works made in 1871.

300 lira in the 1872 budget for the periodical publication of new observations.

franchise for the transmission of a two-word telegram for the observer on duty to other observatories in bad-weather days

 The escamotage was so successful that, as Tacchini himself wrote: the Ministry, realizing the relevance of the matter, welcomed our proposals, and immediately gave us 600 lira, with which we started the publication. As far as the other chapters for 1872 are concerned, we have received no answer as yet, but we are confident that, after fulfilling so promptly our wishes for the completed works, the Ministry will also support the new Society in the realization and publication of new works.

The definite answer arrived soon after; indeed, the Minister of Education, Quintino Sella, wrote to Tacchini, saying that he was happy to take part in V. S. For my part, I have added an article to item 35 of the 1873 budget of Education for the publications of the Italian Spectroscopy Society. The Minister’s provisions were approved in the budget discussion, and the life of the Society, which – as we would like to emphasize - was essentially a "society of people" who had a "common research project", was definitively assured. When Secchi died, in 1878, the “form” of the Society might have been settled. However, it seems that Tacchini did not worry about the matter. This is no surprise, since on the one side his “personality” as a scientist who preferred the substance to the form, led him to neglect all those formal aspects which in our country were – and still are - often “disguised” as substance. On the other side, Secchi had been the most authoritative spokesman of the International astrophysical community, which related to him for the publication of articles and news in the Memories, as well as in his quality of National point of reference for Italian astrophysicists.

A List of the members of the Italian Spectroscopy Society updated on January 1, 1890 (Appendix II) was published for the first time in volume XIX of 1890, eleven years after the establishment of the Society itself. There were only 30 Italian and 30 foreign members. It is still not clear from current historical studies, who decided, and how, the eligibility and number of Society members. We may assume that things were made informally, with talks among the various Society members, who all kept and assiduous correspondence with Tacchini.

In 1902, Tacchini, embittered about the vicissitudes of Italian Astrophysics, left his job as Director of the Observatory of the Collegio Romano, and retired to private life. Concerned for the future of the Society, on October 8, 1902 he submitted the first statute of the Society to the Ministry of Education. This statute was modified in 1905 (Appendix III), following the request of his successor, Annibale Riccò, with the establishment of a Board of Directors, made of three members, including the Director himself. This is the only proof that the Society had been managed sofar by a Director, not a President; indeed, Tacchini himself never qualified as Society President, but rather as Director.  The first Board of Directors was constituted by the physicist Pietro Blaserna (1836-1918), director of the Physics Institute of Rome, the astronomer Emanuele Fergola (1830-1915), director of the Observatory of Capodimonte,  and the astrophysicist Annibale Roccò, director of the Astrophysical Observatory of Catania, who also became director of the Society.

In 1910 Emanuele Fergola, who in the meantime had become senator of the Italian Kingdom together with Pietro Blaserna, asked to retire. The Board of Director replaced him with Elia Millosevich (1848-1919), who succeded Tacchini as Director of the Collegio Romano. Between 1918 and 1919, all the Board members died one after the other – Pietro Blaserna on February 26, 1918, Annibale Riccò on September 23, 1919, Elia Millosevich on December 5, 1919 – so that the Society was devoid of its main executive body.

4. The Italian Astronomical Society

The death of both Annibale Riccò and Elia Millosevicch speeded up the plan of transforming the Spectroscopy Society, which they had suggested in a circular on April 20, 1919. The fact that Blaserna was not replaced by a new member in the Board of Directors makes us realize that this transformation had already been accepted by the astronomical community, as well as by the Society members.

On December 19, a mere fortnight after the death of Riccò, Azeglio Bemporad (1875-1945), director of the Observatory of Capodimonte, sent a letter to Filippo Angelitti (1856-1931), director of the Observatory of Palermo, inviting him to take part in a meeting which would take place in Rome on January 6 and 7 of next year (1920). Among other things, Bemporad wrote: All Italian Astronomers must – in the memory of the two eminent astronomers who have recently disappeared – save the Society which has given life for almost fifty years to the only Italian astronomical journal. We should try and create a body which may connect scientists scattered in various observatories and allow their fruitful collaboration more than in the past...

Even if we do not want to go into the details on the matter in this article, Bemporad’s words reveal the conditions of crisis of Italian Astronomy immediately after the First World War. In order to overcome this identity crisis, the community reunited in the Italian Astronomical Society, which represented the needs of all Italian astronomers both in the country, as a spokeperson for the Government and other scientific institutions, and abroad as a partner of the International Astronomical Union and the International Association of Academies.

On January 7, 1920, a room of the Royal “Accademia dei Lincei” hosted a meeting, which was at the same time the last meeting of the Italian Spectroscopy Society and the first meeting of the new Italian Astronomical Society. The Society was managed by an Organizing Committee, composed by five members, who took upon themselves the task to write down the Statute. The following people were invited to take part in this Committee: Vincenzo Cerulli (1859-1927) who, for his scientific merits and his astronomical authority, was elected chairman of the committee. The other members were: the physicist  Antonio Garbasso (1871-1933), the mathematician Vito Volterra (1860-1940) and the astronomers Azeglio Bemporad and Emilio Bianchi (1875-1941). The first Statute (Appendix IV) provided, among other things, that honorary members should be no more than 30 foreigners, while effective members should be no more than 100, while there was no limit to the number of associate members. This is a remarkable difference in comparison with the Spectroscopy Society, which envisaged an equal number (30) of Italian an foreign members. This was a sign of provincialism on the part of the community, which did not seem interested in the active confrontation with the events abroad, even though we should mention the “singularity” of Giorgio Abetti, whose continuous contacts with US astrophysicists are proved by his endless  scientific correspondence.

The Society published the  Memories of the Italian Astronomical Society (formerly Spectroscopy Society ) -  New Series. The editorial policy, published in the preface of its second volume, leaves no doubt as to the policy of President Cerulli. It is worthwhile to quote a few sentences of this preface. After recommending conciseness to astronomers and excluding the publication in the Memories of current Observatory’s works,(suitable for Annual Reports) such as determinations of stars and planets position, calculations of orbits, photometric measurements, series of latitudes, solar observations, and so on, unless some new remarkable phenomenon has emerged and must be reported, Cerulli goes on and says: Another category of written works unsuitable to our “Memories” are: reviews of articles published apart or in other journals, reports of activities of individual observatories, news about this or that branch of Astronomy: in short, all those works devoid of originality, though relevant, and suitable to annual reports.

However, if we exclude articles of mere bibliography, we shall welcome instead those notes where the results of other astronomers’ research are objectively and seriously analyzed. Faced with the current endless and often rushed astronomical written production, we feel the need for a critical body, which we would like to establish in Italy. Such an enterprise, which would be possible to the Italian intelligence, would not be hampered by the scarcity of optical means. Our activity, in the new areas of Astronomy, could therefore not so much consist in collecting discoveries on the basis of fashionable methods and standards, as in carefully examining these same methods and standards.(...)

In his preface to the third volume, Cerulli slightly adjusts his aim: People think that I have posed too strict limits upon our task, by soliciting only theoretical articles(...). From now on, the Memories will welcome all and sundry articles of theory and observation, so as to faithfully and fully represent the activity of our Observatories. (...) This enlargement of area, however, should not make us forget that the Memories propose themselves as a critical body. This remains our essential objective.

There is no need to comment upon Cerulli’s words. There emerges a total closing down to the external world (the articles of mere bibliography report researches being carried on abroad), as well as the wish to make the Memories a critical body!

In the month of May 1927 Cerulli died, and the whole Board expired in the course of the same year, so that new elections were fixed for February 1928. Emilio Bianchi was elected President; he had already been the Director of the Observatory of Milan since 1922. He was certainly an energetic man, who – among other things – established the Merate branch of the Observatory. Realizing that both the memories and the Society had difficulties in taking off (under the direction of Cerulli, only three volumes of Memories had been published in seven years and in 1925 the members were only 60), he immediately took two important decisions. First of all, he changed the editorial policy. In his preface to the fourth volume, after reaffirming that the memories should keep their role as scientific body, he concluded: two more words, addressed to all astronomers, and to all those who cultivated this science in Italy. Please support these memories; submit your works. We want to publish all research, no matter its character, as long as it is an effective contribution, small or great, theoretical or observational.

The new opening – in comparison with Cerulli’s policy – is evident. The Memories propose to give space to all contemporary serious publications in Italy, and not only those written by professional astronomers. Secondly, he modified the Society’s statute. The new one (Appendix V), written down by Bianchi himself, with the help of Giorgio Abetti (1882-1982), director of the Observatory of Florence, and Giovanni Silva (1882-1957), director of the Observatory of Padova, was approved by the Members meeting, in the month of March 1930. The most important difference from the preceding statute concerns, as expected, the “body” of the Society, namely: there is no more a distinction between effective and associate members. All of them become effective members, whose limit of 100 is abolished. The qualification of honorary members is maintained, but with no limits of number. Besides, effective members are elected by the Board of Directors, on the advice of two other effective members.

Therefore, this new statute aims at enlarging the basis of the Society. These measures had positive effects. Starting from the fifth volume, the Memories were published regularly, even though the volumes were completed every two years. Moreover, several articles by a solid Astronomy amateur like Glauco de Mottoni (1901-1988) were published, together with articles written by remarkable physicists and mathematicians. The number of members gradually grew: in the month of March 1930, they are 97. In the month of May 1932, they are 120.  The available data indicate  that such number remains more or less constant in time, at least until 1951 (13 members), and then slowly grew, as starting from the Seventies.

In 1937, they started the procedure for qualifying the Society as a non-profit corporation. At the same time, they wrote down a new statute, complete with the Government’s directives as realted to scientific societies. All of this took a long time: on May 28, 1937, Luigi Gabba (872-1948), the Society’s secretary, wrote to Francesco Zagar (1900-1976), director of the Observatoy of Palermo, that we are still far from completing the final draft of the new statute.

With a Royal bill dated June, 1939 nr. 1299, the Italian Astronomical Society, established in Milan, obtained the definition of non-profit corporation, as well as the approval of the new Statute (Appendix VI).  Article 19 of the statute envisaged for the Society an internal set of rules, to be submitted to the Ministry of Education for approval.

Exactly one year later, on June 10, 1940, Italy entered the Second World War. The set of rules, still incomplete in the month of April 1943, was approved by the Minister on May 15, 1943. (Appendix VIII) The Society, though never interrupting the publication of the Memories, obviously lived through a critical period. Giorgio Abetti, who succeded Bianchi as president of the Society, appealed to all members in the month of April 1943:

In the present conditions, though the activity of the Society is forcefully reduced, we appeal to old members and new members, as well as to all those who are interested in Astronomy and Astrophysics, to act in order to strengthen the Society. It seems to me impossible that there are only 98 people in Italy who joined a society, which has a history and a scientific production which cannot be forgotten, nor can they end up like this. If this period implies that the activity of most of us is addressed to other duties, it is also true, and the proof is given by frequent requests, that just now the desire and interest in Astronomy is at its liveliest. With the good will of all those who work in the field, as well as of all those who would like to help out, our Society can certainly grow, thus going on the path which started with Father Angelo Secchi and Pietro Tacchini 73 years ago, as a honour to the country, with the unforgettable name of “Italian Spectroscopy Society.”

Not by chance Abetti, who had been practically the only one who had kept Astrophysics alive in Italy, felt the need, in such a dark moment, to refer back to the really international tradition of the Society, as well as of Italian astronomy.

At the end of the Second World War, the status of Astronomy in Italy was not, and could not be, very good. The recovery was slow and difficult, also for the Italian Astronomical Society. However, the development of instrumentation and the opening up of new horizons with radio Astronomy and the conquest of Space have been accompanied by a remarkable development – in both quality and quantity – of the Italian astronomical research and of the Society itself. The Memories have now become an appreciated international journal, particularly for the publication of monographs and proceedings of International Meetings.

The Statute of 1939 has remained in force until December 20, 1993, when, after a long and troubled procedure, the Ministry for Arts and Culture, from which the Society depends as a cultural institute, approved a new statute, which fulfils contemporary needs (Appendix VIII). The members meeting, held in Catania on September 30, 1995, approved the new set of rules.


5. From “Coelum” to the “Journal of Astronomy”.


Astronomy outreach should be treated separately. Since the first meeting (1920), Vito Volterra had pointed out this problem. He said that the members must first of all decide about the fundamental question of the policy of the new Society and of its publication; namely, whether they should both maintain their traditional scientific character or enlarge to the field of astronomy outreach. The problem was certainly not trivial: suffice it to think that Astronomy was not a compulsory subject in any degree course. Even worse, it was not even taught in secondary schools. Therefore, it was not a question of "entertaining" people, as much as of trying to make Astronomy take root in a vast audience, so as to create a "reservoir" of young people who would later make up a new generation. The words of Volterra received a mere formal consent. The members’ unanimous vote was that the Memories would maintain their traditional scientific character and they put off the decision whether, in consideration of its economic power, the Society should enlarge its field of activity, including popular outreach and education, as embodied by a bulletin of astronomy propaganda.

The problem was set aside for almost a decade. In the course of the meeting held in Florence on September 22, 1929 (chaired by Bianchi), the councillor Giuseppe Armellini (1887-1958), director of the Observatory of Campidoglio, draw to the matter the attention of the Society’s members, recommending that they thought whether it be possible to give the members a bulletin of astronomical information and outreach, through an agreement with the society URANIA, which already published essays on the topic.

Poor Armellini, obviously well-intentioned, perhaps did not know the history of the society Urania, born of the first Italian Astronomical Society, established in Turin in 1906 by Giovanni Boccardi (1859-1936), director of the Observatory of Turin, and traumatically closed down in 1913 by Vincenzo Cerulli. This was probably why Bianchi gave an interlocutory answer.  However, in the following year, during a meeting held in Bolzano on September 10, the central topic of discussion was astronomy outreach. Bianchi himself, who had at heart the enlargement of the society, draw the attention of the members to the matter, reporting the wish expressed by several members, that the Society may publish – over and above the Memories – also a popular Bulletin of astronomy information and outreach. This proposal was also supported by Guido Horn (1879-1967), director of the Observatory of Bologna, who thought that this desirable bulletin would be successful, since many people wanted it, and offered to become its director. Giovanni Peisino (1890-?), who at the time was an astronomer at the Observatory of Trieste, repeated the first proposal of Armellini, but Emilio Bianchi informed the members who were at the meeting that this could not be done, since the President of the Society Urania was not disposed to make an agreement with the Italian Astronomical Society. The Members Meeting therefore assigned to Emilio Bianchi, Guido Horn and Giovanni Silva the task to study the economic feasibility of the publication of the hoped-for Bulletin, under the patronage of the Italian Astronomical Society and the direction of Prof. G. Horn.

Less than four months later, the first issue of the monthly review Coelum, directed by Horn-d'Arturo and printed at the Astronomical Observatory of Bologna, came out in the month of January 1931. The board of  S.A.I., while inviting its members to support the new magazine, added that the price for the annual subscription would be reduced from 30 to 25 lire for them only. We do not know whether the difference was paid by S.A.I. as a contribution to the magazine. The new magazine had an immediate success: it was well organized, and contained articles, surveys, and news. Both professional and amateur astronomers published articles which, though addressed to “non-specialist” readers, never fell off in general or approximate terms, thus playing the exemplary  role of Astronomy outreach tool it had been conceived for. However, we should point out that, though created under the patronage of the Italian Astronomical Society, the magazine Coelum was not an organ of the Society itself. Only in 1975 did the Managing Board decide, on the request of several members, to publish, over and above the Memories, a Journal of Astronomy,  mainly addressed to secondary students and teachers, as well as to those who where interested in  astronomical observations. The leading article in the first issue of the Journal ends with the wish that, with this initiative the Italian Astronomical Society will not only fulfil the expectations of many of its Members, but will also be able to play a socially useful role, by promoting the spread of  scientific culture  in our Country.

The Italian Astronomical Society is still committed to this fundamental task.