Pietro Blaserna: a creative environment for physics

In this vision, a government commission designated Viminale Hill as the most suitable place to host the new scientific faculties.
The Institute of Chemistry, directed by Stanislao Cannizzar,  already existed in the cloister of the former convent of San Lorenzo in Panisperna. The project envisaged constructing a new building in the same area to house the Royal Institute of Physics of the University of Rome. It would be based on the idea and design of Pietro Blaserna and inaugurated in 1881.
Blaserna was a typically nineteenth-century physicist with genuinely innovative ideas regarding teaching physics and the relationship with students.

He created a creative environment inspired by realities such as the Copenhagen school, the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, the Institut Pasteur in Paris, and even Giuseppe Levi’s group in Turin.
In his vision, the new physics should combine experimentalism and theory.
His idea was to create a ‘house for physics’ centred on the laboratory. He revolutionised the relationship between students and professors. Young scholars finally had the opportunity to access the laboratories and become familiar with all the tools, conducting their research autonomously.

It was a significant novelty in Italy. Physics laboratories already existed in Florence or Bologna, but a ‘practical physics school’ was unique.

The architecture of the Palazzina itself was functional for this purpose.
Laboratories, classrooms, and mechanical workshops for constructing or repairing scientific instruments were on the ground floor.
The students of the first two years, including doctors, engineers and mathematicians, could also stay on the ground floor.
Only students who would continue studying physics could climb the stairs and access the first floor. Here were the library, the specialised laboratories with precision instruments and the professors’ offices. The library, in the central area of the first floor, contained the classic texts of nineteenth-century physics and the best-known and cutting-edge magazines of the time, publishing and disseminating new theories and experiments from all over the world.
On the second floor was the director’s apartment.

In 1899, Blaserna established a complementary physics chair assigned to his student Alfonso Sella; the following year, he called Vito Volterra to the chair of Mathematical Physics. The institute had three full professors: an absolute national record.

In those years, the Institute played a central role. It housed the first physical school in Italy, the SIF, the SIPS, the International Office of the Uniform Chorister and the Physical Club.

Blaserna died in 1918. The same year, Orso Maria Corbino succeeded him. He would continue his work with the same open spirit.

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