CAM - Centro di Ateneo per i Musei

Museum of history of Physics



Giovanni Poleni’s Teatro di Filosofia Sperimentale

Giovanni Poleni, scientist and philologist, became in 1739 the first professor of Experimental Philosophy at the University of Padua and he founded in 1740 his Teatro di Filosofia Sperimentale, the first physics cabinet in an Italian University.

Until his death, in 1761, Poleni succeeded in creating a rich collection of about 400 instruments, where the main fields of contemporary physics were well represented. There were also mathematical, drawing and meteorological instruments. Some of the devices were bought from famous European scientists or instrument-makers, as Jan van Musschenbroek or Jean Antoine Nollet. But most of Poleni’s instruments were made in Venice and Padua, under Poleni’s supervision, on the basis of the descriptions that were given in the physics treatises of those years.

Poleni’s collection acquired an excellent reputation throughout Europe. The French astronomer Jerôme de Lalande, for instance, wrote in 1790 “Je n’ai guère vu de plus beau Cabinet de Physique”, and the French Académie des Sciences, in praising Poleni’s scientific activity, stated that through his Teatro, Poleni had set Padua physics school on a level with the most famous schools of those years.

At present, the Museum preserves about a hundred instruments from Poleni's collection. Let us mention for instance the beautiful macchina divulsoria, a device intended for studying the tensile strength of materials. Poleni used this instrument when he was asked by Pope Benedetto XIV to examine, together with the architect Luigi Vanvitelli, the condition of Saint Peter's dome in Rome, which seemed to be on the verge of collapsing. Poleni concluded that large iron rings were needed to strengthen the dome and he carried out experiments with his divulsoria in order to determine the size of the rings, which were finally fixed between 1743 and 1748.



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