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Luigi Galvani: Devozione, scienza e rivoluzione by Marco Bresadola (review)
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Reviewed by
Marco Bresadola. Luigi Galvani: Devozione, scienza e rivoluzione. Bologna: Editrice Compositori, 2011. 318 pp. Ill. €15.00 (978–88-7794–731-4).

Galvani, frogs, Frankenstein. Many could easily guess what these words have in common: one of the grand narratives of modern science brings them together [End Page 577] under the umbrella of Galvani’s experimental practice on animal electricity, which was famously based on frogs. Yet, the back cover of Luigi Galvani: Devozione, scienza e rivoluzione promises to break away from cliché, and welcomes readers with a warning that is also an enticement: “not only about frogs”! Marco Bresadola’s interesting and informative biography of Galvani lives up to the promise. It explores Galvani’s intellectual, scientific, and cultural life well beyond his dealings with the famous amphibian. In line with the author’s goal of making Galvani accessible to the broader public, the book introduces readers to the famous natural philosopher’s life and legacy, while simultaneously reconstructing the process by which the world became galvanized. In doing so, Bresadola sheds light on a variety of aspects that accompanied and shaped Galvani’s existence and natural investigations: his cultural and social milieu, education, career, marriage, family, faith, and character. Situating Galvani in the intellectual, religious, and political atmosphere of mid- to late eighteenth-century Bologna, Bresadola reconstructs Galvani’s formative years and his accomplishment of status as an anatomist and natural philosopher both in the city and in the transnational scientific world. Moreover, he describes aspects of Galvani’s career that are normally overlooked, such as his medical practice, hospital duties, and interest in the phenomenon of apparent deaths, which puzzled and intrigued many. Bresadola also examines Galvani’s family relations and the intertwining of his domestic life and laboratory activities, and introduces readers to the rhetorical strategies that informed his experimental narratives. Naturally, much is devoted to the analysis of Galvani’s experimental practice, claims, and writings. And Bresadola manages to offer novel and fascinating insights into Galvani’s experimental world, such as the dynamics of his lively and crowded domestic laboratory, where assistants, colleagues, friends, and family members—and notably Galvani’s beloved wife Lucia—all gathered around the famous frogs, and participated in the experimental work, sharing excitement and frustrations. The last part of the book examines how Galvani’s De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari publicized his views on animal electricity, and took him to the forefront of the world of natural philosophy. Here Bresadola also guides readers through the details of Galvani’s famous controversy with Antonio Volta over animal electricity, and touches upon the various incarnations of Galvanism that followed the publication of his writings.

In line with the place of prominence occupied by the word “devotion” in the book’s title, Bresadola pays special attention to the role of religion in Galvani’s life. In particular, he situates Galvani in the context of the so-called Catholic Enlightenment, which advocated a reform of Catholicism along the lines of the principles of “regulated devotion” promoted by the famous historian and literato Ludovico Antonio Muratori. In keeping with such principles, deep religious conviction was not at odds with natural inquiry, and Galvani is accordingly portrayed as a man of faith as well as science. Perhaps less obvious is the relevance of the word “revolution” to the wider discussion of Galvani’s life and work. As Bresadola remarks, Galvani was no revolutionary. Rather, he maintained that the Catholic faith was incompatible with the tenets of the French Revolution. After the French army took possession of Bologna, he refused to swear allegiance to the Cisalpine [End Page 578] Republic, as all public employees had been requested to do, and paid a high personal price. Galvani’s nephews Antonio and Giovanni Aldini (the latter of whom would carry on some of Galvani’s work and experimental pursuits) proved more inclined to embrace the presuppositions of the postrevolutionary world, but did not manage to convince their uncle to do the same. The years in which Galvani rose to the status of a transnational scientific celebrity thus ended up being years of hardship. Throughout the book, Bresadola skillfully leads readers through the various circumstances...