Letter from Angelo Secchi to Pietro Tacchini

Roma, 25 maggio 1873
210 x 135 mm
Historical archives of INAF-Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory, Florence

The letter sent by Angelo Secchi to Pietro Tacchini on 25 May 1873 testifies to the state of mind of the Jesuit father at a crucial moment in his existential affair and in a particularly difficult historical context. After the breach of Porta Pia and the annexation of the Papal States by the Unitarian government, on 3 February 1871 Rome was proclaimed the capital of Italy. Relations between the two States become increasingly tense and a series of laws and measures were issued to limit the properties and rights of the State of the church. It is one of the crucial moments in the personal and professional life of Secchi. The law on the excruciating of ecclesiastical properties of the papal States, which would be promulgated in June 1873, would put Secchi at risk of losing his observatory, provoking a wave of protests at international level. It is within this framework that the letter of Secchi to Pietro Tacchini is placed: the astronomer from Modena in service at the Observatory of Palermo, younger than Secchi of twenty years, with whom the Jesuit had started a close collaboration starting from 1865. Their relationship almost immediately turned into a partnership not only scientific but human and of profound mutual esteem. The words of Secchi testify to it when, immediately after the commentary on the common astronomical observations at the beginning of a letter, the latter feels the need in some way to reassure his friend’s concerns: As for my future for which you take such care, I hope that it will not be as sad as you fear.
From the letter emerges the passion that Secchi had for his work, to the point of affirming that he would renounce to any positions of prominence in the scientific field to continue to carry out his observational and study activities. Tacchini, endowed with political sensibility and well introduced in the Roman context, declares himself available in his letter of May 29 to strive to ensure the observatory of the Roman college to keep its centrality also in the new unitary state. The outcome will be a compromise, as Secchi will continue to remain the Director of the Observatory whose premises will be insulated from the rest of the building of the Collegio Romano, but accessible to the staff.
The letter reproduced here is part of the Secchi fund preserved at the historical archive of the Astrophysical Observatory of Arcetri. The fund consists of a corpus of 136 letters from Angelo Secchi to Pietro Tacchini written between the 1861 and the l877. The 214 letters written by Pietro Tacchini in the period 1861-1877 are instead preserved in the historical archive of the Pontifical Gregorian University. The entire correspondence of the two astronomers has recently been transcribed and published (see Bibliography).

Antonella Gasperini, INAF-Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri

Alle origini dell’astrofisica italiana: il carteggio Secchi-Tacchini 1861-1877, a cura di I. Chinnici e A. Gasperini, Firenze, Fondazione Ronchi, 2013.