Late Medieval Science at Padova

The scientific tradition at the University of Padova begins almost at the foundation of the University in 1222. Albertus Magnus (1200-1280) studied and taught here, and was instrumental in introducing the newly rediscovered Aristotelian scientific tradition, which included mathematics as one of its elements. He achieved fame as the teacher of Thomas Aquinas, and since 1941 has been the patron saint of natural scientists. From the very beginnings of the University mathematics was taught, although admittedly the earliest appearance of mathematical instruction was carried out in local "abacus shops" with highly practical goals in support of commercial activity. The fundamental text used was the "Liber Abbaci" of Leonardo Fibonacci. Subsequently mathematical instruction in Padova was surely closely related to astronomy and astrology, but the historical documentation of this activity is, at best, fragmentary. Nevertheless, by the close of the Middle Ages, Padova had become one of the principal centers of scientific research in Italy (and indeed in all of Europe). For example, already in 1352 Francesco da Ferrara published his De Proportionibus Motuum, an incisive reworking of the new kinematics and dynamics originating in Merton College, Oxford. The university library was outstanding for its era and boasted many important new scientific texts. As M. Clagget observes

There can be no doubt that Padua was the principal center [in Italy] for the study of English and French natural philosophy
Yet even then all did not go well for the professors: in 1411 Biagi Pelacani, one of the exponents of this Padova school of natural philosophy, was fired because the students had deserted his classes, apparently as a consequence of his attempts to extract higher fees from them.

The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) was one of many students who came to Padova from other European countries. He took his degree in medicine, but it should be recalled that at that time a knowledge of astrology was considered to be necessary for a well-educated physician. Girolamo Cardan (1501-1576) also took a medical degree at Padova. He subsequently served (1525-1526) as Rector of the University of the Artists (an early version of the Faculty of Science). Later he became astrologer to the Papal court where he ran afoul of the Inquisition for attempting to cast the horoscope of Christ. Cardan had better luck in predicting the date of his own death, which was by suicide. Between 1547 and 1576 the Chair of Mathematics was filled by Pietro Catena, and Giuseppe Moletti held that honor from 1577 to 1588. The latter was the principal author of the calendar reform instituted by Pope Gregory XIII. Among other mathematicians of the sixteenth century who had significant contact with the University of Padova were Barocius (Francesco Barozzi 1537-1604) and Thomas Fincke (1561-1656) who introduced the now standard terminology "tangent" and "secant" to geometry. Thus mathematical research at the University of Padova was already well established when Galileo Galilei became Professor of Mathematics here in 1592. Nevertheless, Galileo found it necessary to round out his income by casting horoscopes for the well-to-do Padova gentry. Later Stefano degli Angeli (1623-1697) carried on the mathematical tradition of Galileo and Torricelli. James Gregory (1638-1675), later to achieve lasting renown as Newton's teacher, visited Padova to study with Angeli, and indeed published two of his books there. It seems likely that Gregory came to appreciate the power of infinite series expansions of functions as a result of his contact with Angeli and the Padova school. The latter part of the century saw a decline in the sciences at Padova due in large part to the ascendancy of the pro-clerical faction in the Venetian Senate.

The Eighteenth Century

In the Eighteenth Century Padova, like many other European Universities had a Bernoulli on its mathematical faculty, in this case Nicholas Bernoulli (1687-1759) (of the second generation of Bernoulli's). Moreover it offered hospitality to a number of other distinguished mathematicians including James Stirling (1692-1770). Iacopo Riccati(1676-1754) was a student of Angeli and Bernoulli.

The Nineteenth Century

Giusto Bellavitis (1803-1880) made a significant contribution to the progress of linear algebra, and was also Magnifico Rettore of the University, a career all the more impressive in view of the fact that he began as a city clerk in nearby Bassano, and received his "laurea" honoris causam from the University only after he had been appointed as professor of mathematics. Gregorio Ricci-Curbastro (1853-1925) was one of the most important figures in Padova's mathematical faculty during the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. His work in differential geometry was among the first to introduce the systematic use of tensor analysis. Giuseppe Veronese (1854-1917) made important contributions to geometry including the Veronese maps of projective spaces, and a detailed study of "non-archimedean" geometry.

The Twentieth Century

Since 1900 a number of the most distinguished names in Italian mathematics have taught or studied for more or less extended periods at the University of Padova. Among the geometers the names of Ricci-Curbastro's student and collaborator Tullio Levi-Civita (1873-1941), as well as those of Francesco Severi (1879-1961), Guido Castelnuovo (1865-1962), Giacomo Albanese (1890-1948) stand out. Subsequently Mario Baldassarri, Annibale Comessatti (1886-1945), and Iacopo Barsotti (1921-1987) carried that tradition onward, and in the last decade the presence of Bernard Dwork (1923-1998) renewed the University of Padova's centuries old tradition of hospitality to outstanding foreign scholars.

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