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Age of Invention: Lucca More Closely
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I’m recently back from spending over a week in Tuscany, specifically Pisa and Lucca. Although I was there on holiday, the two cities turned out to have all sorts of sites related to the history of invention.
Some are famous. Galileo Galilei, for example, is said to have used the leaning tower of Pisa to drop two spheres of different masses, to show that they would fall at the same speed — at least, that’s what his disciple Vincenzo Viviani claimed, ten years after Galileo’s death, and many decades after the alleged demonstration. Even if Viviani was being accurate, however, Galileo certainly wasn’t the first to demonstrate the concept. And Viviani mistakenly claimed priority for all sort of other scientific breakthroughs for his master, so like most other historians I’m inclined to doubt the story.
Nonetheless, Pisa was certainly Galileo’s birthplace — though it turns out that there are three different locations in the city to have claimed the honour over the years.
Galileo was initially thought to have been born in or near the fortress (its walls are impressive to look at and contain a pleasant garden). But this location was then refuted on the basis that for Galileo’s father Vincenzo Galilei to have lived in the fortress he would have had to have been a master at arms, which he was not. He was in fact a merchant and lute-maker. So in the nineteenth century a new location emerged: the casa Bocca, on the Stretto Borgo, which Vincenzo rented a few months before Galileo’s birth, and where the Galilei family lived for the next decade. It seemed a secure candidate for a while, except for a weird discrepancy: Galileo’s baptismal certificate assigned his birth to the wrong parish.
It then emerged that Galileo’s mother’s family — the Ammannati — lived in the correct parish, and that the custom of the time was for women to return to their parents’ home for the birth of their first child. Thus, the evidence points to Galileo having been born at the Casa Ammanati on the via Giusti. It’s a neat story of how a tourist destination can jump around based on new research, though there’s unfortunately not much to visit there other than a plaque.
In terms of things to actually see, one of the most impressive things in Pisa is the Museo delle Navi Antiche (Museum of Ancient Ships), which we found to be undeservedly deserted. Housed in the old stables for the city’s cavalry, and once the site of the Medici-era naval arsenal, the museum gives a fantastically thorough overview of the city from its Etruscan beginnings through to Roman subjugation, Ostrogothic invasion, Byzantine reconquest, and Longbeard settlement in the sixth century (although they’re usually called the Lombards, this comes from langobardi — literally, longbeards — so I think calling them that is both more accurate and more fun).
The museum’s highlight, however, is the ancient ships for which it is named, and which are incredibly well-preserved. I was stunned to see a massive actual wooden anchor, not just a reconstruction, of a cargo ship from the second century BC. It’s so well-preserved that you can even make out a decoration, carved into the wood, of a ray fish. The same goes for the rest of the various ships’ timbers. You can see almost all of their original hulls and planking, as well as finer details like rudder-oars, benches for the rowers, and in one case even the ship’s name carved into the wood — the Alkedo, which appears to have been a pleasure boat from the first century. Apparently, during excavation, the archaeologists could even make out the Alkedo’s original red and white paint, as well as the impression left by an iron sheet that had covered its prow. The ships’ contents are often just as astonishing, with well-preserved baskets, fragments of clothing, and even bits of the rigging like its wooden pulleys and ropes. Well worth a visit.
As for Lucca, I was delighted — on the way to Gelateria De’Coltelli, which has a branch in both Pisa and Lucca, and serves by far the nicest gelato — to stumble across a small free museum dedicated to the Italian claimants to the invention of the internal combustion engine, the Museo Del Motore A Scoppio a Barsanti e Matteucci. The museum’s aim is to bring to prominence the role of local inventors Felice Matteuci and Niccolo Barsanti, who seem to have been somewhat overshadowed by later improvers. Matteuci and Barsanti applied for a UK patent for their engine as early as 1853, a few years ahead of the better-known engine developed by Jean J. Lenoir.
The museum is a fun one. You can press buttons to make some of the model engines move. It also has an informative short film and plenty of the relevant documents for Matteuci and Barsanti’s claim to priority — copies of their patent specifications, and so on. It’s worth at least a quicks top, and seems to have succeeded in its aim of raising the inventors’ profiles, considering I both visited and am writing about them now!
But I’m often a little worried about attempts to highlight particular inventors for a claim to priority at having been “the” inventor of something. Sure, they were almost certainly ahead of Lenoir, but they certainly weren’t the first to create machines using the principles of internal combustion. Some of the principles were already being experimented with in the mid-seventeenth century, as Christiaan Huygens and Denis Papin tried to create vacuums under pistons by exploding gunpowder. And there may even have been some gas-using engine prototypes being ignited with electric sparks from as early 1801.
As with the history of the steam engine, there’s likely to be a lot of myths and legends surrounding such a world-changing technology. “Breakthrough” inventions are always, always the result of much longer processes of marginal improvement. This is not to say that we should discount inventors’ achievements, as inventors are still extremely rare and worth celebrating. But we should avoid creating needless myths. An accurate picture of invention, in my view, is actually much more likely to encourage more people to become inventors. Investigating internal combustion properly will take a lot of further research, but I’ve stuck it on my ever-growing to-do list.
It’s well worth visiting Lucca’s deconsecrated Church of Saints Giovanni and Reparata — you can get a combined €10 ticket that also gives you access to the cathedral, museum, and belltower — which is really an archaeological site, allowing you to walk underneath the church’s floor and see all sorts of wonderful Roman mosaics and bits of Longbeard and medieval building remains.
The Villa Guinigi Museum has some spectacular bits of medieval stonework. You can really see the fusion of styles from the Romans, twisting Longbeard spiralling patterns, and interlocking geometric shapes and plants of Islamic Iberia, which was just a short sail away. I liked the theory mentioned in the museum that the early Longbeard spirals came from their artwork, when they were nomadic, having largely been in the form of metalwork — a bit like Celtic motifs. Seems plausible, though I don’t know how you’d test it.
We had pasta every day of the trip, and often multiple times a day. But the very best place for it was Lucca’s In Pasta - Cibo e Convivio. So good we went twice. Also check out Pane e Vino in Pisa. The google reviews don’t do it justice at all. For wine and snacks we kept coming back to Ciclo Divino in Lucca, and to L'Avvelenata in Pisa. If you’d like to treat yourself to some fancier food, Pisa has Offish, which specialises in seafood, and Lucca has SurReale. I was expecting SurReale to serve those tiny portions so typical of wannabe avant-garde places, but was pleasantly surprised to be served satisfying portions of some highly original, inventive dishes. Overall, Lucca is an impressive cultural hub.
Next time, it’s back to the usual sort of posts. I’ve got Part III of Why wasn’t the Steam Engine Invented Earlier to write up, and have another project in the works too, on energy crises.