The Incomparable Monsignor:
Francesco Bianchini’s World of Science, History, and Court Intrigue
Oxford University Press, 2022, 336 pp., Hardcover. $27.95. www.global.oup.com
By the time Francesco Bianchini died in 1729 at the age of 67, he had become known as the greatest Italian of this time. But just who was he, and how did he come to master the mathematical and historical sciences, the arts of diplomacy and dissimulation, and the patronage system that brought him into the company of popes and princesses? Author John Heilbron draws on an extensive archive of material to tell us his fascinating story. Bianchini was admired for his many accomplishments, which included writing a universal history from the creation to the fall of Assyria; recovering ancient calendars; discovering, excavating, and interpreting ancient buildings; designing a papal collection of antiquities later partially realized in the Vatican museums; undertaking a geodetic mapping of the papal states; confirming and publicizing Newton’s theories of light and color; discovering several comets and a few variable stars; building the most beautiful astronomical instrument, and the most exact solar observatory in the world, detecting the slow decline in the obliquity of the ecliptic and almost discovering the aberration of starlight; and creating a map of non-existent features on the invisible surface of Venus. His international reputation earned him election as a foreign associate (one of only eight) of the Academie royale des sciences of Paris and as a fellow of the Royal Society of London (chosen on Newton’s nomination). As a trusted servant of Pope Clement XI, he helped execute the delicate balancing the papacy practiced during the War of the Spanish Succession with one of his assignments resulting in attachment to the cause and person of the Old Pretender, James III, the Stuart claimant to the throne of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Engaging and highly readable, this is a history of not only an extraordinary individual but also a slice of the science, art, and courtly intrigue of the 18th century.