The Galileo Project
site map

Marsili [Marsigli], Luigi Ferdinando

1. Dates
Born: Bologna, 20 July 1658 (if it matters, Fantuzzi says 10 July)
Died: Bologna, 1 Nov. 1730
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 72
2. Father
Occupation: Aristocrat
Marsili was from a noble family of Bologna. His mother was also from a noble family, the Ercolani. Marsili's elder brother was a Monsignor in the Church.
In view of Marsili's own personal means later, the family had to have been at least affluent.
3. Nationality
Birth: Italian
Career: Italian, German, French
Death: Italian
4. Education
Schooling: No University
He did not complete his formal schooling, but he accumulated a vast knowledge of history, politics, geography, and the natural sciences. However, he never acquired a good literary education and never wrote with elegance.
He studied informally with Malpighi and mathematics with Montanari.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Natural History, Geography, Scientific Organization
Subordinate: Geology, Mineralogy
He undertook the exploration of two basic subjects: the structure of mountains and the natural condition of the sea, lakes, and rivers. He left many local observations concerning the structure of mountains. In 1724 he published the first treatise on oceanography, Histoire physique de la mer. In it he examined every aspect of the subject, including the physical (or geological) formation of basins and the plants and fish that lived in the sea. Marsili also wrote an early work in limnology, on Lake Garda. He also wrote a basic work on one of the Europe's greatest river, Danubius (1726), in which he discussed the riverbed and waters, as well as the flora and fauna, and the mineralogy and geology of the adjacent land.
He founded the Accademia delle scienze dell'Istituto di Bologna in 1712.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Personal Means, Patronage, Miscellaneous
As a young man scarcely twenty, in Rome, he was employed by Queen Christina (of Sweden) and by Card. De Luca in a diplomatic mission--testimony to his social standing and in itself evidence that he had sufficient personal means. Later in life he had extended troubles with his brother about Marsili's acts in donating his estate to Bologna for the Institute.
After he surrendered Breisach and was dismissed in dishonor in 1704, it is clear that he lived on his personal means.
He served in the army of Emperor Leopold I, partly as an engineer, from 1682 to 1704, and attained high rank. He was used by the Emperor on diplomatic missions to the Pope and in peace negotiations with the Turks. Nothing illuminates the exact nature of Marsili's recompense here. Much of it depended on what I call patronage. As mentioned above, this employment ended in dishonor when Marsili was involved in the surrender of Breisach. If it matters, it does appear that a great injustice was done to him.
In 1708, when imperial troops threatened the Papal States during the War of the Spanish Succession, Marsili headed the Papal army. And later, about 1715, he inspected the defenses of the Papal States against possible Turkish raids on the Adriatic coast.
He spent considerable time during his retirement along the French coast near Marseilles. Much of his study of the sea stems from these stays.
8. Patronage
Types: Court Official, Eccesiastic Official, Government Official, City Magistrate, Merchant
Early, when he was in Rome before he took service with the Emperor, Marsili won the favor of Queen Christina of Sweden, to whom he dedicated his first work.
At that time he also gained the favor of several Cardinals who recommended him to the Emperor, opening the way to imperial favor for him. Cardinal De Luca even employed him as a diplomatic representative to Venice.
Marsili's long service to the Emperor was of course his principal patronage.
Especially in the late 80's, he won the favor of Count Stalmen, the Chancellor.
Marsili dedicated his work on coffee, 1685, to Bonvisi, the Papal nunzio to the Emperor.
When he returned to Bologna after his disgrace, the King of Spain, through his governor, restored Marsili's right to wear a sword.
The Pope not only made use of Marsili's military capacity, but he furnished valuable financial assistance that made the establishment of the Institute of Bologna possible. Later, when family quarrels over Marsili's disposition of the family inheritance for the Institute left him in a difficult financial situation, the Pope gave him a large gift.
When it appeared that Marsili, angered over lack of support for his Institute, would leave Bologna and take his collection with him, the Senate presented him with a silver bowl and encouraged him to stay. However, the city did not come up with the money necessary for this Institute, though it did encourage him to apply to the Pope. After some hesitation, I will list this item as patronage.
The Dutch East India Company published Marsili's Physical History of the Sea in 1725. He dedicated the work to the Académie Royale, of which he became a member in 1715, replacing Viviani.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Military Engineering, Cartography, Hydraulics, Civil Engineering
As a young military man he advised on fortifications along the Turkish frontier along the Raab and mapped the area for the purpose. Work on fortifications continued to be a constant part of his military career. Occasionally the work involved diversion of water.
He drew a plan of Buda after the imperial forces recaptured it in 1686. He drew up maps for the peace negotiations with the Turks that began in 1688-9. Marsili appears to have been a born cartographer. He mapped everything he dealt with. His work on the Danube contains twenty maps. At the Peace of Carlowitz (with the Turks) in 1699 Marsili was designated to determine the exact border. He left behind a collection of more than a thousand maps, many of them his own work.
As a military man he also built bridges.
The work on the Danube contains extensive hydrographic discussions. When the Reno flooded in 1715, the Senate of Bologna sought Marsili's opinion on the plans elaborated to correct the problem. This was the scheme to diver the Reno into the Po. Marsili went on to write a treatise on the issue in general rather than technical terms.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: Institute Bologna, Académie Royal des Sciences, Royal Society
Marsili participated in the Accademia degli Inquieti in Bologna. In 1702 he built an observatory in his palace and installed Manfredi in it. He collected a museum. In 1712 he founded the Academia delle Scienze dell'Istituto di Bologna, which under his influence, immediately became an active center of scientific research, consisting mainly of natural history exploration of the area around Bologna. The Institute absorbed in Accademia degli Inquieti. In founding the Institute, Marsili gave it his collection and gave his house to the city for the Institute; it was this bequest that started the unpleasant struggle with his brother.
In 1715, a member of the Académie Royale des Sciences, replacing Viviani. He was a member also of the Académie Royale des Sciences of Montpellier.
He went to London in 1722 to be made a member of the RS. Newton insisted on presenting him personally and praised him as both an already famous scientist and a founder of the new Academy of Bologna.
  1. G. Frantuzzi, Notizie degli scrittori bolognese, (Bologna, 1781), 5, 286-327.
  2. M. Longhena, Il conte L.F. Marsili, (Milan, 1930).
  3. G. Targioni-Tozzetti, Notizie della vita a delle opere di Pier'Antonio Micheli, botanico fiorentino, (Firenze, 1858), pp. 173-5.
  4. P.A. Saccardo, "La botanica in Italia," Memorie del Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, 26 (1895), 104, and 27 (1901), 67-8.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. G. Fantuzzi, Memorie della vita del generale conte L.F. Marsili, (Bologna, 1770).
  2. A Fabroni, Vitae italiorum doctrina excellentium, 5, 6.
  3. Luigi Ferdinando Marsili, Relazioni dei confini della Croazia e della Transilvania a sua Maestŕ Cesarea (1699-1701), ed. Raffaella Gherardi, 2 vols. (Modena, 1986).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

©1995 Al Van Helden
Last updated
Home | Galileo | Biography | Chronology | Family | Portraits |
Science | Christianity | Library | About | Site Map | Search

Please note: We will not answer copyright requests.
See the copyright page for more information.