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Astronomy, Observatories

The following five items appeared at the dates indicated on different pages in the original version of the Around Naples Encyclopedia. They have been consolidated here onto a single page.

entry Dec. 2002

I tried to see
the Leonid meteor showers a couple of weeks ago from my balcony. It was raining. And yesterday morning I got up quite early because of the spectacular sight promised me by the astronomy newsletter I subscribe to: 

There's quite a sight in the southeastern sky before and during dawn! The waning crescent moon is closely paired with the brilliant "morning star," Venus, while faint Mars joins in to make it a triplet. The blue-white star Regulus is a little to their upper right. Arcturus is far off to their upper left. The best views will be an hour or more before sunrise.

There was also going to be "earthshine," also known poetically as "ashen light"—when, close to the new moon, the reflected light of Earth is reflected onto the moon, enabling the whole lunar disk, even the part normally dark, to become visible and you see "the old moon in the new moon's arms" (that's pretty poetic for a Facts on File Dictionary of Astronomy!). 

Anyway, it was cloudy and I missed the whole show. Most of the time, however, I have quite a  view to the southeast; the whole Sorrentine peninsula is a silhouette. I often think that if I could live 5,000 years—10,000, max—in my house and watch the yearly procession of the sun as it moves from left to right, dawnstep by dawnstep, and then back—why, I could reinvent astronomy! I have part of it figured out already. In the summer, the sun rises behind Vesuvius. That makes sense. Vesuvius is a volcano. That gives the sun heat and causes summer. As the sun moves further out away from the volcano towards Sorrento, it gets cooler. 

Gotta check my newsletter. Maybe I'm missing something. 

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entry Aug. 2003

Sea-level astronomy is hampered by general atmospheric haze and, especially in or near a big city such as Naples, light pollution. Having said that, I am still tempted to run up to the new store on Vomero, where they sell digital cameras, computers, digital cameras, computers, and digital cameras and computers. I think I saw a small telescope on a shelf a few weeks ago. I can't miss this chance to see Mars as it—in the words of the great astronomer, Percival Lowell—"blazes forth against the dark background of space with a splendor that outshines Sirius and rivals the giant Jupiter himself." Mars is at "perihelic opposition" and has not been this close to Earth for 50,000 years. I recall working on a particularly good drawing of a bison for the Lascaux Municipal Museum at the time. 

I thought I might be able to get something Neapolitan out of Mars — Marte, in Italian. Maybe a good Neapolitan noodle—say, martellini. ("Man, that's some fine plate of martellini! Think I might get the recipe?") If only…if only. Alas, martellino means "little hammer". It is also a regional name of the bird called, scientifically, the cisticola juncidis, the Fan-tailed Warbler. At least, I think that's the English name, and if you had a fan-tail, wouldn't you warble? I rest my case. I thought, too, that perhaps Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910) the astronomer who started us looking for "canals" on Mars, might have been from Naples, but, no, he had to come from Savigliano, not far from Cuneo, a town way up there west of Genoa. Cuneo has a folk-reputation for turning out slow-witted people, of whom Schiaparelli was definitely not one.

In any event, most serious star-gazing in these parts operates out of the observatory in the Apennines near Castelgrande (see #4, below) well east of Salerno. It is one of the most important observatories in Europe and is run by the Naples observatory. The Naples observatory, itself (photo, right), is located on the Capodimonte hill and has its roots in the — if not infinite, at least benevolently despotic — wisdom of Charles III of Bourbon; he endowed a Chair of Navigation and Astronomy at the University of Naples in 1735. Actual construction of an observatory, however, had to wait a while. During the French decade in Naples, Murat approved the plan, and construction was started in 1812. The observatory was completed after the Bourbon restoration and conducted its first measurements in 1820. 

The Naples observatory has a 40 cm main telescope that, on occasion, is open to the public. There is also a good library and museum of astronomical artifacts. I see that on September 2 they will have a "Mars Party." They will have missed the close encounter by a few days. (Gods of War may come and Gods of War may go, but August vacation runs through the 31st.) Nevertheless, it will still be a good glance through the telescope.

March 2010
New Planetarium

Most research in astronomy in the Campania region now goes on elsewhere, at the observatory in the Apennines near Castelgrande, east of Salerno (see item 4). The smaller facility, however, at Capodimonte in Naples, is more than just an historically important curiosity. It continues to provide local enthusiasts and schools with solid astronomy exhibits. The ability to do that will take a big step forward next week with the opening of a new planetarium with a state-of-the art digital projector. The new facility seats 50 patrons, and the overhead dome is 7 meters (21 feet) in diameter. The planetarium was financed by the Campania Regional Council for Culture and the National Institute of Astrophysics. The opening program will combine projected displays and the opportunity for patrons to spend a few minutes star-gazing through the observatory telescope.


added Oct. 2012

The Castelgrande Observatory

Toppo Telescope 1                      
The largest astronomical observatory in Europe is on Mt. Toppo near the town of Castelgrande in the Basilicata province of Italy about 100 km east of Naples. The site is now the home of SINGAO (the Southern Italy Neutrino and Gamma Observatory), the first international center in Italy for experimental astrophysics. The observatory hosts an altazimuth mount telescope with a 160 cm  (63 inches) mirror with adaptive optics. The telescope is designated as TT1 (Toppo Telescope 1) The site is managed by the astronomical observatory of Capodimonte in Naples and the I.N.A.F. (National Institute for Astrophysics).

The town of Castelgrande is at 950 meters a.s.l and the telescope on Mt. Toppo above the town is at 1250 meters. The conditions for stargazing are ideal since the area is relatively free of haze and atmospheric and light pollution. The initiative for building the Mt. Toppo observatory goes back to the mid-1960s. A preliminary prefabricated site was built in 1971 and functioned in a limited capacity beginning in that year. The observatory in its present configuration was built between 1989-93 under the auspices of the Capodimonte observatory in Naples and with funding from POP-FESR (Provincial Operating Plan - European Fund for Regional Development).

5.   added December 2015

This is my translation of an abridged extract of material in Italian on the website of the Astronomical Observatory of Capodimonte

The History of the OAC

The Astronomical Observatory of Capodimonte [Ital. acronym=OAC] is one of the 12 observatories that, together with four institutes of astrophysics, make up the National Institute of Astrophysics [INAF], the main Italian agency for astronomy and astrophysics. Construction of the OAC was begun in 1812 and completed in 1819. The first director was Carlo Brioschi. Currently the OAC has about 70 on-site personnel among researchers, students and contract employees; additionally there are about 40 technicians and administrators.

Early History

In 1735 Naples had once again become an independent kingdom after two centuries as a Spanish vice-realm. The new young Bourbon monarch, Charles III, approved a series of reforms proposed by Celestino Galiani, among which was a reorganization of university departments, including the opening of a new department for astronomy and nautical science. (The connection between the two disciplines was obvious and crucial to the development of accurate navigation, important for a seafaring state such as the kingdom of Naples.) The first head of that new department was mathematician Pietro De Martino (1707-1746). Instruction was very theoretical, however, since neither De Martino nor his two immediate successors, Felice Sabatelli (1714-1786) and Ferdinando Messia da Prado (?-1810) had access to a working observatory. This was unacceptable for a state that aspired to being a sea power with a great capital but well behind capitals such as London, Paris and Berlin, all of which had such facilities in their long traditions of scientific research. At the most in the city of Naples, there were some private observatories as well as some in the hands of religious orders.

The first project was finally put into action by Giuseppe Cassella (1755-1808), a student of Sabatelli. He was a mathematician in Padua who then came to Naples to be the astronomy professor at the Royal Naval Academy. He and Lord Acton, Minister of the Royal Navy, finally convinced Ferdinand IV to underwrite the foundation of an astronomical observatory in 1791. The first choice for a location was the north-east section of the Royal Museum (today, the National Archaeological Museum). The architect was Pompeo Schiantarelli (1746-1802/05).

Work was begun but never finished. Revolution, war and politics intervened. By 1806, the French (under Joseph Bonaparte) were on the throne of Naples. Cassella continued his appeals to the new rulers and they agreed to the construction of the observatory at the monastery of San Gaudioso on the Sant'Agnello hill, near the ancient acropolis of Greek Naples and the point where Acton had had his own personal observatory. Casella died in 1808 and plans for the conversion of that facility to a royal observatory were suspended. The French rulers of Naples, however, were very interested in improving the scientific profile of their new property. They built the Botanical Gardens and in 1812, Joseph Bonaparte's successor, Gioacchino Murat, declared the foundation of a Zoological Museum and an astronomical observatory.

From the Beginnings until 1860

The initial planning of the observatory was meticulous. In 1809, thinking ahead, the French rulers of Naples decided on the first director, Federico Zuccari (1784-1817). He was a promising young astronomer who was already teaching Mathematical Geography at the military academy. He was sent to the Milanese Observatory in Brera for training. Upon his return to Naples, he first set up his equipment (brought from Milan) at the earlier premises of the San Gaudioso observatory. That proved impractical for various reasons: there was too much ambient light from the city and the subsoil was unstable. Zuccari looked for a new site and decided on what is now the current location, the Miradois hill, a height near the then new Bourbon Palace of Capodimonte. The observatory building itself was designed by Zuccari and architect, Stefano Gasse. The entire process of building the main structure as well as outbuildings and dwellings and then ordering and installing astronomical equipment from abroad was slow, complicated and often interrupted. Furthermore, during the period of construction, the Napoleonic Wars had ended; the French were deposed as the rulers of the kingdom of Naples and the Bourbon court was restored. The returning monarch, Ferdinand IV (renamed Ferdinand I of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies), decided to go ahead with the observatory and it was completed and dedicated. Zuccari had died in 1818, so the first director was Carlo Brioschi (1781-1833). He remained director until his death. He was succeeded by Ernesto Capocci (1798-1864). He was a multifaceted person, also interested in literature and politics. He was, in fact, decidedly anti-Bourbon and was thus removed from his position at the observatory in 1850. He was replaced by Leopoldo Del Re, who stayed until 1860, the year of the unification of Italy; Capocci then returned as director until his death in 1864.

From 1860 to the present     

Just before the unification of Italy, Annibale de Gasparis (1819-1889) appeared on the scene at Capodimonte. He would then be director from 1864 until his death. He was to be the most outstanding astronomer at the observatory for the rest of the 19th century. [trans. note: de Gasparis was an astronomer of international renown. He won the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1851 and was awarded the Lalande Prize from the French Academy in 1851 and 1852. The asteroid 4279 De Gasparis as well as the lunar crater De Gasparis and the Rimae de Gasparis (a 93 km long fracture near the crater) are named in his honor. Between 1849 and 1865 he discovered nine asteroids.]

It is fair to say that the observatory, by the mid-to-late 1800s was already somewhat behind the times, operating perhaps as a “quaint” research station from earlier in the century. It paid more attention to the practical, daily research of keeping exact time and watching weather patterns than to the newer and more exacting requirements that sought to integrate the mathematics of earlier astronomy with chemistry and physics, which would then lead to the new discipline of astrophysics. The Capodimonte conservatory managed to insert itself into this newer international level of astronomy only thanks to some outstanding personalities. Such a one was Arminio Nobile (1838-1897), the first to hypothesize the phenomenon of short-term latitude variation. His collaborators at the observatory in those years were Faustino Brioschi, Francesco Contarino and Filippo Angelitti. In 1893 and 1894 they and the director of the observatory, Emanuele Fergola, carried out daily experiments together with the Columbia College Observatory of New York to determine variations in the latitude of Naples. Fergola was the first in Italy to use the telegraph to transmit data, this on the occasion of research on the longitudes of Naples and Rome. The group also did significant work on the movement of the poles.

That was the situation until 1912, when director (1912-1932) Azeglio Bemporad started to develop interest at the observatory in astrophysics. The effects of the First World on the observatory were noticeably negative. Equipment aged and general interest and financial resources faded. That period of lessened activity lasted for years; it has only been since the 1970s that the Capodimonte observatory has managed to reclaim a position as an active and prestigious scientific institution. Since April 2010, Prof. Massimo Della Valle has been the director of the observatory.

[miscellaneous items from Feb 2016, here.]

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