BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ASTRONOMICAL OBSERVATORY OF BRERA
FROM ITS FOUNDATION TO TODAY - 1
The Duchy of Milan had been an independent State from 1395 to 1499, and then it was ruled by foreign powers, in particular by the Austrian Habsburg house from about 1706. Maria Theresa
(1740 - 1780) and her son Joseph II
(1780 - 1790) carried out a series of substantial reforms that allowed the development of the State, which enjoyed a peaceful period. There were progresses in many fields: economy, government, education, science, arts and culture. It was the period of the Milanese Enlightenment
, and probably it was not by chance that even astronomy took advantage of that favorable situation.
Regular astronomical and meteorological observations were organized in the Collegium of Jesuits of Brera, the present-day Brera Palace, at the end of 1762, after the move of Father Louis Lagrange
(1711-1783) from the Marseille Observatory to Milan. In 1763 Father Ruggiero G. Boscovich
(1711-1787) was appointed at the chair of mathematics of the University of Pavia, and, during a short stay in Brera in 1764, he was informed of the idea to build a new Observatory. The Jesuit Boscovich was a polymath, and he had some experience also in engineering, so he was entrusted with the project. Between the second half of 1764 and the beginning of 1765 he designed the structure. The construction began in April 1765, and six months later it was essentially completed. The new observatory consisted of two main floors. The lower floor divided into five rooms, which housed the wall quadrants, pendulum clocks and other instruments, while the upper floor consisted of a single room, with an octagonal plan, used for observations with telescopes and for lessons of astronomy. Finally, above this room there was a terrace with two conical domes.
The Observatory became quickly renowned in Europe and in 1776 Lalande, describe it in the Journal des Savants
. More than a century later, Schiaparelli (1938), in a posthumous publication, wrote that if Boscovich had been able to realize all his ideas, and if he had been fairly and strongly supported, Brera could have been one of the main observatories in Europe, or perhaps the most important one, at least on the Continent. But the human passions prevented such a good outcome. Unfortunately, there was an increasing disagreement between Boscovich and other Jesuits, such as Lagrange, and part of the difficulties probably derived from Boscovich’s character. In August 1773, Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society of Jesus, and Boscovich moved to France, where he was appointed director of the naval optics of the French Marine. He however continued to keep in contact with his colleagues in Milan, and when he came back to Italy, he spent some months near Brera in 1786, before the definitive deterioration in his health.
After the suppression of the Jesuit Order, the Observatory and the Palazzo di Brera were nationalized and passed under the dependence of the Austrian government of Milan. Immediately the Austrians showed a particular interest in the development of the Observatory and in 1773 the Austrian government sent Giuseppe Megele
to Milan, a technician specialized in the construction of optical and mechanical equipment, who made much of the new instrumentation built at the Brera observatory. In 1775 a new astronomer, Barnaba Oriani
, arrived at the Brera Observatory, which shortly thereafter became director. The main astronomical activities practiced at the time were focused on position astronomy, astrometry and celestial mechanics.
Since the geographical coordinates (latitude and longitude) of the observation site can be obtained from the measurements of the positions of the stars, the astronomers of the eighteenth century also dealt with geodesy and topography. In particular, in 1788 the astronomers of Brera were commissioned by the Austrian government to carry out topographic surveys in order to develop a new and accurate geographical map of the territories of Milan and Mantua. At the time, several geographical Lombardy's map already existed, but these maps were realized only to measure the surface of the properties in order to apply taxes. These were accurate representations only on a small scale, but they contained large errors on the medium and large scales. Since it was impossible to think of carrying around the territory astrometric instruments such as meridian circles or multiplier circles, very precise but also very heavy and which required complicated support structures and complex alignment procedures, astronomers used, for the first time in Italy, a procedure which was then widely used in geodesy until modern times known as geodesic triangulation
The survey campaign lasted six years, from 1788 to 1794, and on the basis of the measurements made, the new paper was prepared, designed by Giacomo Pinchetti and reported on nine copper plates, eight for the actual map sheets and one for the frontispiece, by the famous engraver Benedetto Bordiga. The engraving of the last plate remained incomplete because the work was interrupted by an unexpected political event: the descent into Italy of Napoleon Bonaparte, who on 10 May 1796 defeated the Austrians in Lodi and a few days later entered triumphantly in Milan. The Austrians withdrew, bringing with them the copper plates of the Lombardy map to Vienna, which of course also had a great military interest.