November 18 offers us the opportunity to remember the brilliant and tragic story of a great scientist: Vito Volterra. In fact, that day, in 1923, the National Research Council was established with a royal decree.
The first seat is at the Accademia dei Lincei, the first president the physicist Vito Volterra. For a long time his figure was put aside, forgotten, to the advantage of Guglielmo Marconi, who in 1928 will take his place. This is explained by the beginning of the Fascist period, with the political positions that Volterra took in defense of freedom and not least with the fact that he was Jewish. Recently it was the historical head of the CNR press office, Marco Ferrazzoli, in collaboration with the Jewish community of Rome, to bring to light the figure of Volterra and the persecution of which he was victim with a work entitled The courage of science.
Vito Volterra was born in Ancona on May 1860. He lost his father when he was very young, he studied between Turin and Florence showing a talent for scientific subjects. Despite the family economic problems manages to enroll at the University of Pisa, where he graduated and won the chair of rational mechanics at just 23 years of age. Shortly after he was called to the Faculty of Sciences in Rome (of which he will be dean from 1907), he married and settled in Ariccia, just outside Rome.
At the age of 35 he was appointed senator and fought for the establishment of the Italian Society for the Progress of Sciences. He becomes a prominent figure internationally, is invited to be part of many foreign academies and invited to the United States. When the First World War breaks out he enlisted as a volunteer in the Aeronautical Engineers. In particular, he devoted himself to a study of airships and phototelemetry surveys in war zones which earned him the rank of captain. After the war, the need for greater coordination among scientists emerged in the various countries and for Italy the choice of leadership in this process ended in Volterra, who heads the Inventions and Research Office of the Accademia dei Lincei. But it took a few years of negotiations for the government to be persuaded to set up the National Research Council, of which Volterra became president by designation of the Lincei. But in the meantime, fascism was becoming a regime and in 1925 Volterra signed the Manifesto of the anti-fascist Intellectuals edited by Benedetto Croce. Pressures begin for Volterra to resign “through harassment and restrictions”, Ferrazzoli points out.
When Volterra’s mandate expires, the CNR is reformed, brought under the control of the government and entrusted to Marconi. For Volterra the problems are only at the beginning: for refusing to swear allegiance to the regime, he loses his status as professor and member of the Lincei (but in 1936 he was invited to join the Pontifical Academy). Registered as an opponent, lives its most difficult moment when in 1938 the Manifesto of Italian Scientists comes out “which proclaims the racial purity of the Italian people and the extraneousness of the Jews from the national community,” says Ferrazzoli.
Vito Volterra died at the age of 80, on 11 October 1940, and in Italy no one can commemorate him (but the Pontifical Academy will do it). His scientific heritage is considered very relevant, but alongside his studies on functional analysis and biological modeling, he is remembered for being a visionary scientist who imagined a society in which science had a leading role. Ferrazzoli’s work closes with a quote: “Every day, men have countless requests to make to science, which is continually pressed by a growing wave of people who hope for it. the solution of new problems that they face pressing and complex “.