Boscovich, Roger Joseph

, one of the most eminent mathematicians and philosophers of the last century, was born May 11, 17.11, in the city of Ragusa, and studied Latin grammar in the schools of the Jesuits in his native city, where it soon appeared that he was endued with superior talents for the acquisition of learning. In the beginning of his fifteenth year, he had already gone through the grammar classes with applause, and had studied rhetoric for some months, and as it now became necessary to determine on his course of life, having an ardent desire for learning, he thought he could not have a better opportunity of gratifying it, than by entering the society of the Jesuits; and, with the consent of his parents, he petitioned to be, received among them. It was a maxim with the Jesuits to place their most eminent subjects at Rome, as it was of importance for them to make a good figure on that theatre; and as they had formed great expectations from their new pupil, they procured his being called to that city in 1725, | where he entered his noviciate with great alacrity. After this noviciate (a space of two years) had passed in the usual probationary exercises, he studied in the schools of rhetoric, became well acquainted with all the classical authors, and cultivated Latin poetry with some taste and zeal.

After this he removed from the noviciate to the Roman college, in order to study philosophy, which he did for three years, and as geometry made part of that course, he soon discovered that his mind was particularly turned to this science, which he cultivated with such rapid success, as to excel all his condisciples, and had already begun to give private lessons in mathematics. According to the ordinary course followed by the Jesuits, their young men, after studying philosophy, were employed in teaching Latin and the belles lettres for the space of five years, as a step to the study of theology and the priesthood at a riper age; but as Boscovich had discovered extraordinary talents for geometrical studies, his superiors dispensed with the teaching of the schools ,*


Our account of Boscovich is taken from various authorities, as will be specified, but we have found it somewhat difficult to reconcile their differences. The above fact, with respect to the dispensation from teaching the schools, is taken from a life of Bosco vich, written by a dignified clergyman of the church of Rome for Dr. Gleig’s Supplement; but every other account we have seen, particularly that by —Fabroni, expressly asserts that he did teach these schools, at least three years.

and commanded him to commence the study of divinity, which he did for four years, but without neglecting geometry and physics, and before that space was ended, he was appointed professor of mathematics, an office to which he brought ardent zeal and h’rst-rate talents. Besides having seen all the best modern productions on mathematical subjects, he studied diligently the antient geometricians, and from them learned that exact method of reasoning which is to be observed in all his works. Although he himself easily perceived the concatenation of mathematical truths, and could follow them into their most abstruse recesses, yet he accommodated himself with a fatherly condescension to the weaker capacities of his scho* lars, and made every demonstration clearly intelligible to thm. When he perceived that any of his disciples were capable of advancing faster than the rest, he himself would propose his giving them private lessons, that so they might not lose their time; or he would propose to them proper books, with directions how to study by themselves, being always ready to solve difficulties that might occur to them. He composed also new elements of arithmetic, algebra, | plain and solid geometry, &c. and although these subjects had been well treated by a great many authors, yet Boscovich’s work will always be esteemed by good judges as a masterly performance, well adapted to the purpose for which ii was intended. To this be afterwards added a new exposition of Conic Sections, the only part of his works which lias appeared in English, It was within these few years translated, abridged, and somewhat altered, by the rev. Mr, Newton of Cambridge.

According to the custom of the schools, every class in the Roman college, towards the end of the scholastic year, gave puhlic specimens of their proficiency. With this view Boscovich published yearly a dissertation on some interesting physico-mathematical subject, the doctrine of which was publicly defended by some of his scholars, assisted by their master, and in the presence of a concourse of the most learned men of Rome. His new opinions in philosophy T. ere here rigorously examined and warmly controverted by persons well versed in physical studies: but he proposed nothing without solid grounds: he had foreseen all their objections, answered them victoriously, and always came off with great applause and increase of reputation. He published likewise dissertations on other occasions: and these works, though small in size, are very valuable both for matter and manner. It was in some of them that he first divulged his sentiments concerning the nature of body, which he afterwards digested into a regular theory, and which is justly become so famous among the learned.

Father Noceti, another Jesuit, and one of his early preceptors, had composed two excellent poems on the" rainbow and the aurora borealis, which were published in 1747, with learned annotations by Boscovich. His countryman, Benedict Stay, after having published the philosophy of Descartes in Latin verse t attempted the same with regard to the more modern and more true philosophy, and has executed it with wonderful success. The first two volumes of this elegant and accurate work were published in 1755, and 1760, with annotations and supplements by Boscovich. These supplements are short dissertations on the most important parts of physics and mathematics. In these he affords a solution of the problem of the centre of oscillation, to which Huygens had come by a wrong method; confutes Euler, who had imagined that the vis inertiæ was necessary | in matter; and refutes the ingenious efforts of Riccati on, the Leibnitzian opinion of the forces called living.

Benedict XIV. who was a great encourager of learning, and a beneficent patron of learned men, gave Boscovich many proofs of the esteem he had for him; and both he and his enlightened minister, cardinal Valenti, consulted Boscovich on various important objects of public economy, the clearing of harbours, and the constructing of roads and canals. On one occasion, he was joined in a commission with other mathematicians and architects, invited from different parts of Italy, to inspect the cupola of St. Peter’s, in which a crack had been discovered. They were divided in opinion; but the sentiments of Boscovich, and of the marquis Poleni, prevailed. In stating, however, the result of the consultation, which was to apply a circle of iron round the building, Poleni forgot to refer the idea to its real author, and this omission grievously offended Boscovich, who was tenacious of fame, and somewhat irritable“in temper. About the same time other incidents had concurred to mortify his pride; and he became at last disgusted with his situation, and only looked for a convenient opportunity of quitting Rome. While in this temper of mind, an application was made by the court of Portugal to the general of the Jesuits, for ten mathematicians of the society to go out to Brazil, for the purpose of surveying that settlement, and ascertaining the boundaries which divide it from the Spanish dominions in America. Wishing to combine with that object the mensuration of a degree of latitude, Boscovich offered to embark in the expedition, and his proposition was readily accepted. But cardinal Valenti, unwilling to lose his services, commanded him, in the name of the pope, to dismiss the project, and persuaded him to undertake the same service at home in the Papal territory. In this fatiguing, and often perilous operation, he was assisted by the English Jesuit, Mayer, an excellent mathematician, and was amply provided with the requisite instruments and attendants. They began the work about the close of the year 1750, in the neighbourhood of Rome, and extended the meridian line northwards, across the chain of the Appennines as far as Rimini. Two whole years were spent in completing the various measurements, which were performed with the most scrupulous accuracy. The whole is elaborately described by Boscovich in a quarto volume, full of illustration and minute | details’, and with several opuscules, or detached essays, which display great ingenuity, conjoined with the finest geometric taste. We may instance, in particular, the discourse on the rectification of instruments, the elegant synthetical investigation of the figure of the earth, deduce^ both from the law of attraction, and from the actual measurement of degrees, and the nice remarks concerning the curve and the conditions of permanent stability. This last tract gave occasion, however, to some strictures from D’Alembert, to which Boscovich replied, in a note annexed to the French edition of his works. The arduous service which Boscovich had now performed was but poorly rewarded. From the pope he received only a hundred sequins, or about forty-five pounds sterling, a gold box, and” abundance of praise." He now resumed the charge of the mathematical school, and besides discharged faithfully the public duties of religion, which are enjoined by his order. A trifling circumstance will mark the warmth of his temper, and his love of precedence. He had recourse to the authority of cardinal Valenti, to obtain admission into the oratory of Caravita, from which his absence excluded him, and which yet afforded only the bent-fit of a free, but frugal supper. In presiding at that social repast, the philosopher relaxed from the severity of his studies, and shone by his varied, his lively, and fluent conversation.

At this time a dispute arose between the little republic of Lucca, and the government of Tuscany, on the subject of draining a lake. A congress of mathematicians was called, and Boscovich repaired to the scene of contention, in order to defend the rights of the petty state. Having waited three months in vain, expecting the commissioners, and amused with repeated hollow promises, he thought it better for the interest of his constituents, to proceed at once to the court of Vienna, which then directed the affairs of Italy. The flames of war had been recently kindled on the continent of Europe, and Boscovich took occasion to celebrate the first successes of the Austrian arms, in a poem, of which the first book was presented to the empress Theresa; but the military genius of Frederic the Great of Prussia soon turned the scale of fortune, and our poet was reduced to silence. More honourably did he employ some leisure in the composition of his immortal work, “Theoria philosophise niituralis reducta ad unicam legem virium in natura existentium,” printed at Vienna, in | 1758. This he drew up, it is alledged, in the very short space of thirty days, having collected the materials a considerable time before; yet we must regret the appearance of haste and disorder, which deforms a production of such rare and intrinsic excellence.

After a successful suit of eleven months at Vienna, Boscovich returned to Rome, and received from the senate of Lucca, for his zealous services, the handsome present of a thousand sequins, or abut 450l. Thus provided with the means of' gratifying his curiosity, he desired and obtained leave to travel. At Paris he spent six months, in the society of the eminent men who then adorned the French capital; and, during his stay in London, he was elected, in 1760, a fellow of the Royal Society, and he dedicated to that learned body his poem on eclipses, which contains a neat compendium of astronomy ,*


The occasion of his coming to London is thus related in his life in Dr. Gleig’s Supplement: The British ministry had been informed, that ships of war, for the French, had been built and fitted out in the sea-ports of Ragusa, and had signified their displeasure ou that account. This occasioned uneasiness to the senate of Itagusa, as their subjects are very sea-faring, and much employed in the carrying trade; and therefore it would have been inconvenient for them to have caused any disgust against them in the principal maritime power. Their countryman Boscovich was desired to go to London, in order to satisfy that court on the above-mentioned head; and with this desire he complied cheerfully on many accounts. His success at London was equal to that at Vienna, He pleaded the cause of his countrymen effectually there, and that without giving offence to the French, with whom Ragusa soon after entered into a treaty of commerce.

and was published at London the same year. The expectation of the scientific world was then turned to the transit of Venus, calculated to happen in the following year. Boscovich, eager to observe it, returned through Holland and Flanders to Italy, and joined his illustrious friend, Correr, at Venice, from whence they sailed to Constantinople, having on their way, visited the famous plain of Troy. In Turkey, he scarcely enjoyed one day of good health, and his life was repeatedly despaired of by the physicians. After spending half a year in this miserable state, he returned in the train of sir James Porter, our ambassador at the Porte; and having traversed Bulgaria, Moldavia, and part of Poland, his intention was to penetrate into Russia, if the agitation which there prevailed, on the death of the emperor Peter, had not deterred him from executing the project. The diary of his journey, which he published in Italian and French, is inferior to any of his works, and contains many trifling and insipid remarks. The truth was, | Boscovich began his travels at too late a period of life to profit much by them.

At Rome his arrival was welcomed, and he was again consulted on various plans of public improvement. But in the spring of 1764, he was called by the Austrian governor of Milan, to fill the mathematical chair in the university of Pavia. The honours which he received provoked the jealousy of the other professors, who intrigued to undermine his fame. He took tlfe most effectual mode, however, to silence them, by publishing his Dissertations on optics, which exhibit an elegant synthesis and well-devised set of experiments. These essays excited the more attention, as, at this time, the ingenuity of men of science was particularly attracted to the subject, by Dollond’s valuable discovery of achromatic glasses.

The expulsion of the Jesuits from the dominions of Spain prevented Boscovich from going to California, to observe the second transit of Venus, in 1769, and which expedition the royal society of London had strongly solicited him to undertake. And as his rivals began now to stir themselves again, he sought to dispel the chagrin, by a second journey into France and the Netherlands. At Brussels he met with a peasant, famous for curing the gout, and from whose singular skill he received most essential benefit. On his return to Italy in 1770, he was transferred from the university of Pavia to the Palatine schools at Milan, and resided with those of his order, at the college of Brera, where he furnished, mostly at his own expence, an observatory, of which he got the direction. But he was still doomed to experience mortification. Some young Jesuits, who acted as his assistants, formed a conspiracy, and, by their artful representations, prevailed with the government to exclude his favourite pupil and friend from holding a charge of trust. This intelligence was communicated to him at the baths of Albano, and filled him with grief and indignation. He complained to prince Kaunitz, but implored his protection in vain. To the governor of Milan he wrote, that he would not return, unless things were restored to their former footing. He retired to Venice, where, having staid ten months in fruitless expectation of obtaining redress, he meditated spending the remainder of his days in honourable retirement at his native city of Ragnsa. But while he waited for the opportunity of a vessel to convey him thither, he received the | afflicting news of the suppression of his order in Italy. He now renounced his scheme, and seemed quite uncertain what step he should take. Having come into the Tuscan territory, he listened to the counsels and solicitation of Fabroni, who held forth the prospect of a handsome appointment in the Lyceum of Pisa. In the mean time he accepted the invitation of La Bord, chamberlain to Louis XV. accompanied him to Paris in 1773, and through his influence obtained the most liberal patronage from the French monarch; he was naturalized, received two pensions, amounting to 8000 livres, or 333l. and had an office expressly created for him, with the title of “Director of optics for the marine.” “Boscovich might now appear to have attained the pinnacle of fortune and glory; but Paris was no longer for him the theatre of applause, and his ardent temper became soured by the malign breath of jealousy and neglect. Such extraordinary favour bestowed on a foreigner could not fail to excite the envy of the sgavans, who considered him as rewarded greatly beyond his true merit The freedom of his language gave offence, his perpetual egotism became disgusting, and his repetition of barbarous Latin epigrams was most grating to Parisian ears. Besides, the name of a priest and a Jesuit did not now command respect; and the sentiments of austere devotion, which he publicly professed, had grown unfashionable, and were regarded as scarcely befitting the character of a philosopher”.

But, notwithstanding these discouragements, Boscovich applied assiduously to the improvement of astronomy and optics; revised and extended his former ideas, and struck out new paths of discovery. His solution of the problem to determine the orbit of a comet from three observations, is remarkable for its elegant simplicity; being derived from the mere elementary principles of trigonometry. Not less beautiful are his memoirs on the micrometer, and on achromatic telescopes. But his situation becoming more irksome, in 1783, he desired and obtained leave of absence. Two years he spent at Bassano, in the Venetian state, where he published his opuscules, in five volumes, 4to, composed in Latin, Italian, and French, and containing a variety of elegant and. ingenious disquisitions connected with astronomical and optical science. During that time he lived with his editor Remondini, and occupied himself in superintending the press. After finishing his | task, he came to Tuscany, and passed some months at the convent of Valombrosa. Thence he went to Milan, and issued a Latin prospectus, in which he proposed to reprint the remaining two volumes of the philosophical poem of Stay, enriched with his annotations, and extended to ten, books. But very few subscribers appeared; his opuscules experienced a slow sale; and the Imperial minister neither consulted nor employed him in some mathematical operations which were carrying on; all symptoms that he was no more a favourite of the Italian public. These mortifications preyed upon his spirits, and made the deeper impression, as his health was much disordered by an inflammation of the lungs. He sunk into a stupid, listless melancholy, and after brooding many days, he emerged into insanity, but not without lucid intervals, during which religion suggested topics of consolation, and he regretted having spent his time in curious speculation, and considered the calamity with which he was visited as a kind of chastisement of heaven for neglecting the spiritual duties of his profession. In this temper of resignation, he expired on the 13th of February, 1787. He was interred decently, but without pomp, in the parochial church of S. Maria Pedone. “Such was the exit,” says Fabroni, “of this sublime genius, whom Rome honoured as her master, whom all Italy regarded as her ornament, and to whom Greece would have erected a statue, had she for want of space been obliged even to throw down some of her heroes.

Boscovich was tall in stature, of a robust constitution, but pale complexion. His countenance, which was rather long, was expressive of cheerfulness and good humour. He was open, sincere, communicative, and benevolent. We have already noticed that with all these qualities, he was too irritable, and too sensible of what he thought a neglect, which gave him unnecessary uneasiness. He was a man of strict piety, according to his views of religion. His great knowledge of the works of nature made him entertain the highest admiration of the power and wisdom of the Creator. He saw the necessity and advantages of a divine revelation, and was sincerely attached to the Christian religion, having a sovereign contempt for the presumption and foolish pride of infidels.

Zamagna, his countryman, and also a Jesuit, published a panegyric on him in elegant Latin, and a short encomium | of him is to be found in the “Estratto della Litteratura Europa;” and another, in the form of a letter, was directed by Lalande to the Parisian journalists. A more full life and eulogium is in Fabroni’s collection; another is in the Journal of Modena; a third was published at Milan by the abbate Ricca; and a fourth at Naples by Dr. Julius Bajamonte. Fabroni has given the most complete catalogue of his works. 1

1 Fabroni Vitae Italoruirt, vol. XIV, Dr. Gleig’s Supplement to the Encyclop. Brit. Dr. Rees’s Cyclopædia.