Italy as we know it has only been a Country since 1861. Many find this notion puzzling or surprising, because it is easy, while studying history, to consider this distinctively shaped peninsula as its own entity, despite the fact that several nations have coexisted on its land at different times. This way of thinking about Italy reflects in a number of lists of “influential Italians” that might feature historical figures who probably did not consider themselves to be Italians at all. If asked, Julius Cesar would have proudly claimed to be Roman, whereas Leonardo Da Vinci was born in a village near Florence, which at the time was a Nation State of its own, and Galileo Galilei was a subject of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. None of the above mentioned historical figures would have believed they shared a nationality with someone born in Sicily, such as Archimedes, or South Tyrol (there is an ongoing debate on the latter), and yet, when it comes to national pride, we have no doubt as to where we stand. Italy, despite being a conflation of languages and traditions that differ wildly from one another, displays a few unmistakeable traits that set it apart from other countries and that make it come natural, to compilers of lists on the internet, to group personalities born way before national unity under the Italian flag. Here’s our pick of the most influential Italians in history.
Five influential Italians that changed history
1. Archimedes – 287 – 212 BC
Archimedes is a perfect example of what we have just said: born in 287 B.C. in Syracuse, Sicily, he was, by all standards, Greek. He spoke Greek and he participated in Greek culture which, at the time, was dramatically different and on many counts hostile to the Roman one. Archimedes himself, who was a prolific inventor, is said to have designed and built complex machinery to defend his native Syracuse from the onslaught of the Roman army. And yet, to us, he was Italian, or so we consider him nowadays. Archimedes has been one of the most influential physicists and mathematicians in the history of mankind and not only because of his discovery of the physical principle that bears his name. As well as laying the foundation for the way in which we study and understand physics, he also contributed ground-breaking discoveries to the fields of mathematics and calculus. He is also remembered for a series of funny anecdotes, many of which appear to be the stuff of legend rather than historically accurate accounts. The most famous is his alleged exclamation of delight after discovering his celebrated principle: “Eureka!”, meaning “I found it!” which is currently used in several languages to define a so-called lightbulb moment.
2. Leonardo Fibonacci – 1175 – 1250
Leonardo Fibonacci is a name that has graphic designers and maths nerds all over the world go weak at the knees. Even if you have not heard of him, he has contributed to the shaping of a lot of images you are familiar with, namely logos, fonts and a huge chunk of modern graphic design. He also brought about a revolution in the western study of Mathematics. This eminent mathematician is responsible for introducing the Western World to the Arabic numeral system (which was already known, but not particularly popular before his time). He also created the famous Fibonacci sequence, in which each number is the sum of the previous two. On this potentially infinite sequence, several subsequent theorems and studies have been built. If it all seems too abstract to be relevant, just take a look at the image: this familiar-looking spiral is the graphic representation of the Fibonacci Sequence in the so-called golden ratio. This structure has served as the basis for hundreds of popular logos, because it has been discovered to carry what the human eye perceives as perfect and absolute harmony.
3. Galileo Galilei – 1564 – 1642
You might have noticed by now that our personal pick of the most influential Italians in history only features scientists. This is a simple matter of balance: you will find plenty of acknowledgments of Italy’s contribution to the arts, to music, literature, painting and sculpture and you are probably aware that Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Dante Alighieri were Italian. We thought we’d give this list a different spin, focusing on the great scientific minds of our Country. Galileo is regarded as the father of modern science, because of his ground-breaking contributions to astronomy and mathematics and the innovation he brought to the scientific method itself. He was, of course, famously prosecuted by the Inquisition for defending the theory of Heliocentrism, maintaining that the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun. This theory was considered both wrong and a heresy by his contemporaries, who defended the approved geocentric theory, whereby the Earth was thought to be the centre of the universe. Galileo was eventually forced to recant his theories, after which he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. He – inadvertently – left behind an unusual relic that can be viewed in Florence
4. Alessandro Volta – 1745 – 1827
We have already mentioned Alessandro Volta as being one of the most prominent Italian inventors of all time. He is credited with building the first electrical battery and also – a fact which is slightly less well known – with discovering methane. The discovery that electricity could be generated through a chemical reaction opened up infinite revolutionary possibilities for human progress and broke new ground in experimental physics. Interestingly enough, the discovery of the so-called animal electricity was also the work of an Italian scientist, Luigi Galvani. To this day, the metric unit for electric potential is called Volt in honour or Alessandro Volta. The first battery, of course, was a large device, made of two electrodes, consisting of discs of zinc and copper, immersed in a mixture of water and sulphuric acid, which probably did not make it a particularly handy way to power household appliances. However, Volta’s experiment prompted others to build on the basis of his discovery, leading to the development of several battery-powered devices that, in due time, evolved into the omnipresence of portable electronics that we experience in our daily life.
5. Rita Levi Montalcini – 1909 – 2012
The last in our list of influential Italians is Nobel laureate Rita Levi Montalcini, who not only contributed to the field of neurobiology by discovering the nerve growth factor, but also set an example for women of her time and for the following generations, by defying all the expectations that a young woman at the beginning of the XX Century was subjected to. In a society that valued the role of wife and mother as the highest position a female could aspire to, she decided to dedicate her life entirely to science, in the firm belief that men and women have identical intellectual potential, but a radically different approach. After contributing to cutting-edge medical discoveries, she served in the Italian Senate until her death (2012).