The Meteorological Observatory of the Royal University of Sassari

The meteorological measurements in Sardinia start in 1874
The ancient front of University Palace, in a postcard from early 900

Checking the Personnel records of Sassari’s Royal University professors, you notice, for the academic year 1874-1875, a well-known name: Alessandro Volta. Needless to say, that’s not the famous inventor of battery of the Napoleonic age, but his grandson, born in Como in 1849. He had come to Sassari for teaching physics in the classical lyceum D.A. Azuni, but he was also charged with the same course at university.

In the first decades following the unification of Italy and before the equalization (1877) of the so-called secondary universities (including the little atheneum of Sassari), many professors, particularly from the mainland, used to sum up more than one teaching position both at school and at university. The Rector Maurizio Reviglio decided to accept this claim that Volta would have arranged a meteorogical observatory.

He took advantages in an unusual way of experimental physics’ traditional scopes, such as pneumatics and atmospheric-pressure studies, until then only used to carry out educational activities with medical students. Volta had good access to several national institutions, so he was able to get financial support from the MInistry of Agriculture to buy instruments such as psycrometer, rain gauge, thermographs, evaporimeter and anemographs. The renowned, Milan-based factory of scientific instruments, Tecnomasio Italiano, provided the equipment. The mayor feared an ephemeral success, directly connected to Volta’s influence, bounding the municipal financial support: in case of professor Volta’s moving, the succeeding physics’ teachers would have been responsible for the observatory direction and management.

The brand of the Tecnomasio factory, engraved on the arm of a Phisics’ collection instrument (ph. A. Mauri, RAS)
The brand of the Tecnomasio factory, engraved on the arm of a Phisics’ collection instrument (ph. A. Mauri, RAS)
The first meteorological, regional and national, measurements

The measurements, made in the Physycs cabinet located in the University Palace, started officially on 1st December 1874. The recording was done three times a day, at 9:00 a.m., at 13:00 p.m. and at 9:00 p.m. Just as the major feared, after a couple of years Volta moved to Pavia.

Meanwhile, the observatory headquarter in the palace of Porta Nuova, near the university was finished. The Observatory, located in the city centre, close to the old town walls, in 1880 was “evicted” in order to give way to the Appeal Court. The meteorology in Sardinia was being born among the difficulties. After a short stay in Sassari, also the brilliant physicist Adolfo Bartoli (winner of the first competition to became a full professor of Physics in the newly equiparated university, academic year 1878-1879) went away.

So, the position of director switched to a secondary school professor, Luigi Macchiati. He wrote an essay, filled with vivid descriptions, that is our greatest resource to reconstruct how both laboratory and field data were collected and to learn about the activity of trusted men, located throughout the country, that had to monitor the thunderstorms.

Finally, the Ministry of Agricolture, Trade and Industry gave a strong impetus to the project. Since 1865 the Ministry had set up the first national meteorological service: the Servizio meteorico-statistico, later (1876) part of the Central Office of Meteorology. The data were primarily collected for supporting the agricolture and were sent to Ministry by mail, using dedicated post-cards, but also by the modern and fast telegraph. The meteoric, decadic, agrarian service was active in Sardinia from Sassari and Cagliari, the meteoric international one only from Sassari.

Thanks to the efforts of a following Experimental physics’ professor, Lorenzo Valente, the Observatory was given a place on the roof terrace of ancient Jesuit College, as documented by an engraving, published in September 1891 in the popular magazine The hundred cities of Italy.

xxxxView of Sassari from the Meteorogical Observatory of the University (The hundred cities of Italy, September 1891)
View of Sassari from the Meteorogical Observatory of the University (The hundred cities of Italy, September 1891)

Stefania Bagella

Stefania Bagella

She is Curator of Muniss, the Scientific Museum of Sassari University. Her background ranges from pre-protohistoric archaeology to scientific museology, from history of science and universities to relation between science and society, outreach and scientific communication.