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Felice Fontana

Born  1730
Died  1805

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Itailan physiologist and natural scientist, born April 15, 1730, Pomarolo near Rovento; died March 9, 1805, Florence.

Biography of Felice Fontana

Felice Fontana's greatness is demonstrated in his many-sided contributions to physiology, anatomy, botany, toxicology, chemistry and experimental pathology. He was educated in Rovereto, where he was a student of Tartarotti, and at Verona, Parma, and the University of Padua.

In 1755 he went to Bologna, where he collaborated with Leopoldo Marc Aurelio Caldani (1725-1813) in research on the irritability and sensitivity of the parts of the animal body, an advanced subject proposed to scholars in 1752 by Albrecht von Haller. Caldani reported to Haller his experiments with Fontana in a series of letters. In 1757 Fontana defended Haller’s position in an epistolary dissertation which was published in the collection Mémoires sur les parties sensibles et irritables du corps animal (1760), marked the beginning of his fame. From Bologna, Fontana returned for a brief time to the Trentino and then moved to Rome; from there he went to Tuscany, which became his permanent residence until the time of his death.

In 1765 Fontana was appointed to the chair of logic and, in 1766, to the chair of physics at the University of Pisa. Also in 1766, Grand Duke of Tuscany, Peter Leopold (Pietro Leopoldo) of Habsburg-Lorraine (1747-1792) appointed him court physician and summoned him to Florence. The duke, who was very interested in natural sciences, commissioned Fontana to organize and develop the court’s physics laboratory, which was then located at the Pitti Palace. Fontana reorganized the surviving instruments of the Medici collection – including the relics of Galileo and of the Accademia del Cimento now in the museum of the History of Sciences in Florence - and notably increased the collection through the acquisition of scientific instruments and natural objects. In 1754 he was the first to utilize spider web instead of silk thread for cross-hairs in telescopes. Peter Leopold became Holy Roman emperor Leopold II in 1792.

Fontana's wax cabinet
In connection with this science museum was founded an highly specialized wax modelling laboratory, where the sculptor Clemente Susini (1754-1814) and other artisans produced wax models of the human anatomy, prepared under Fontana's supervision. The Museum of Physics and Natural History was opened in 1775. After the museum had been inaugurated, Fontana was able to begin a long-planned trip in the autumn of 1775 to France and England, to observe, study and make outstanding acquisitions. This trip, which lasted until January 1780, enabled him to make direct contact with the most significant scientists of the era.

The collection was seen by Emperor Joseph II of Austria who immediately asked Fontana to have some copied for his Military Medical Academy which had been established the preceding year in Vienna. In 1786 forty cases loaded on twenty mules were sent. This transportation was a laborious and extremely costly undertaking. The first stage involved traversing the Alps via the Brenner Pass, with continuation of the journey from Linz to the capital by boat down the Danube. The total expenditure by Emperor Joseph on the 1192 wax models was 30,000 gulden.

Rescued by Napoleon
Like his brother Gregorio (1735-1803), a celebrated mathematician, Felice Fontana was an abbot. However, though wearing the garments of a lay abbot, he never engaged in religious activities. Toward the end of his life he fell foul of the religious and political controversies. His sentiments lay with France in her revolution. As a result he was imprisoned by Austria but rescued by Napoleon and able to return to Florence. In recognition of this help he reproduced for France some of his famous wax figures. Several of them can still be seen at Montpellier.

On February 11, 1805, Felice Fontana was stricken with apoplexy; he died the following month and was buried in the Church of Santa Croce, the pantheon of Florence.

The quality of Fontana’s scientific accomplishment is evident from his first work, on irritability and sensitivity, a subject that he continued to pursue so intensely as to earn the praise of Haller in 1767: «Fontana leges irritabilitatis constituit, ingeniosus homo et accuratus.» For neurologists, there is special interest in his giving the first accurate description of the nerve fibre, and in the role he took in the eighteenth century preoccupation with the irritability of tissues; for this was the idea that lay behind the emergence of electrophysiology at the end of that century.

After a series of impressive and ingenious experiments, Fontana retracted the action of the bite of the viper to an alteration in the irritability of the fibres, which he maintained was mediated by the blood: in other words, the viper’s poison directly alters the blood, coagulating it, and this in turn alters all parts of the organism - especially the nerve fibres - that the blood would normally nourish. Fontana extended his toxicological experiments to other substances, especially to curare.

Although he did not hold a chair in chemistry, Fontana was perhaps the greatest Italian chemist of the end of the eighteenth century.

Fontana also took advantage of microscopic investigations to complete the characterizations of the parts of the animal body which Haller had based upon irritability and sensitivity. The use of the microscope was at that time especially difficult, because of the illusory images abundantly produced by contemporary instruments. Although Fontana was unable to do away with these images - one can visualize his «tortuous primitive cylinders» - he nonetheless belongs, together with L. Spallanzani, among the major microscopists of the eighteenth century.

In 1781 Fontana described the nucleolus after finding it in the slime from an eel's skin.

    "Only the nerves feel"


  • Dissertation epistolaire de Mr. L’Abbé F. Fontana . . . au R. P. Urbain Tosetti . . .
    In Mémoires sur les parties sensibles et irritables du corps animal. . . ouvrage qui sert de suite aux Mémoires de Monsieur de Halle, III.
    Lausanne, 1760: 157-243.
  • Richerche de motu dell' iride. Lucca, Giusta, 1765.
    An investigation of how and why the iris contracts.
  • Nuove osservazioni sopra i globetti rossi del sangue. Lucca, 1766.
    Felice Fontana's treatise on the red blood corpuscles.
  • De irritabilitatis legibus, nunc primum sancitis, et de spirituum animalium in movendis musculis inefficacis. Lucca, 1767.
  • Ricerhche fisiche sopra il veleno della vipera. Lucca, J. Giusti, 1767.
    The starting point of modern investigations of serpent venoms. This work also includes Fontana's description of the ciliary canal in the eye of an ox. This structure does not appear in the human eye, but certain spaces in the trabecular meshwork are often referred to as the spaces of Fontana. French translation, 1781. English translation prepared from French edition, 2 volumes, 1787.
  • Osservazioni sopra la ruggine del grano. Lucca, 1767.
  • Descrizione ed usi di alcuni stromenti per misurare la salubrità dell’aria.
    Florence, 1774.
  • Ricerche fisiche sopra l’aria fissa. Florence, 1775.
  • Saggio de osservazioni sopra il falso ergot, e tremella. Florence, 1775.
  • Saggio del Real gabinetto di fisica e di storia naturale di Firenze. Rome, 1775.
  • Richerche filosofiche sopra la fisica animale. Florence, 1775.
  • Memoir intorno ai globetti rossi del sangue. Florence, 1776.
  • Recherches physiques sur la nature de l'air dephlogistique et de l'air nitreux.
    Paris, 1776.
  • Sopra il valeno della viper. Lucca, 1777.
  • Experiences chimiques sur la bile de boeuf. Florence, 1781.
  • Traité sur le vénin de la vipère, sur les poisons américains, sur le laurier-cerise et sur quelques autres poisons végétaux. On y a joint des observations sur la structure primitive du corps animal. Différentes expériences sur la reproduction des nerfs et la description d'un nouveau canal de l'oeil.
    Florence, 1781. 2 volumes in 1.
    The greatly expanced French translation includes Fontana's work on the anatomy of the nerves and nerve regeneration. Volume 2 discusses American poisons.
  • Treatise on the venom of the viper; on the American poisons; and on the cherry laurel, and som other vegetable poisons. To which are annexed, observations on the primitive structure of the animal body; different experiments on the reproduction of the nerves ; and a description of a new canal of the eye. 2 volumes. London 1787.
    This first English translation includes his letter in which he gives an account of his investigations of the space at the angle of the iris known as Fontana's space or canal.
  • Peter Koeffel:
    Felice Fontana: Life and Works.
    Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 1984, 58: 430-432.
  • Leonardo Franchini:
    Il corpo di Venere: biografia di Felice e Gregorio Fontana.
    Nicolodi Editore, Rovereto, 2007.

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