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Alberto Fortis
Relevant Non-Istrians
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lberto Fortis was born in Padova (Padua) on November 11 (or 9?), 1741. He was baptized as Giovanni Battista, but always called himself Alberto.

As a youth Fortis entered Paduan junior seminary and then the Augustinian order. He studied languages and sciences in Rome.

bibliophile, physician, geologist, naturalist, poet and journalist

born in Padova

Alberto was exposed from his youth to the company of the most renowned Paduan men of letters and science, who frequented the salon of his mother, Francesca Maria Capodilista (remarried after Fortis's father's death), herself a woman of letters. Having studied at the Seminario vescovile in Padua, Fortis entered the order of the Ermeitani di S. Agostino (Hermits of St. Augustine) in 1757. He pursued studies in theology, but his real interest lay in natural history, and he broke with teh Augustine order in 1767 in order to pursue his scientific studies more freely (though he was not able officially to leave the order until 1771).

He moved to Venice, began working as a journalist for the Magazzino italiano, and established contact with two internationally celebrated naturalists whose work was featured in the periodical Lazzaro Spallanzani and Charles Bonnet. In 1768 he began working for Domenico Caminer on his newly establed newspaper L'Europa letteraria (1768-73), perhaps meeting for the first time Domenico's daughter, Elisabetta Caminer Turra (1751-96), who worked for her journalist father and with Fortis as probably one of the single most influential people in her life, became one of the most prominent women in eighteenth-century Italy and a central figure in the international "Republic of Letters." A journalist and publisher, she participated in important debates on capital punishment, freedom of the press, and the abuse of clerical power. She also helped spread Enlightenment ideas into Italy by promoting and publishing Voltaire's latest works and translating new European plays - plays she herself directed, to great applause, on Venetian stages.

As primary members of the editorial teams of the newly established newspaper, Fortis and Caminer became close friends as well as working partners. Scholars hae often described the spiritual and intellectual bond the two shared over the course of their lives. Indeed, as a mentor, friend, and business partner over the years, Fortis was probably one of the single most influential people in her life. According to Giulio Perini, a Florentine man of letters and her other mentor who felt unrequited love for Elisabetta, Fortis was "although he does not say so, enamored of the girl," himself, while she was "most wise, and felt more gratitude and and friendship for him, and nothing of love." Despite personal and professional conflicts with both the father and the daughter in the early years, Fortis continued to collaborate with Elisabetta on and off throughout her journalistic career, and remained close friends for their whole lives.

Being of an encyclopedic mind and educational spirit, in addition to his work on the L'Europa Letteraria (1768-73), Fortis also started the Giornale Enciclopedico (1774-81). He undertook a series of geological, archeological, and anthropological expeditions during his lifetime, making repeated travels to Dalmatia. He also traveled extensively in southern Italy, where he lived for some years in the service of the court of Naples. Fortis's discovery of a source of saltpeter - essential for making gunpowder - near Molfetta led to his attempts to reform mining and production systems there. He published two controversial works on the topic, Del nitro minerale (Napoli, 1783) and Lettare a Melchiorre Delfico (Napoli, 1783).

After returning to the Veneto, Fortis pursued his interest in paleantology, collaborating with G. Olivi on Zoologica adriatica (1792) and undertaking excursions in search of fossils with Giambattista Brocchi. Perhaps Fortis's greatest work was his Viaggio in Dalmazia (Venezia, 1774), the account of his travels and explorations in Dalmatia. His sympathethic portrait of the Morlacchi people and his investigations of the province's natural resources and economic potential helped change preconceptions about this geographical and cultural area of the Venetian Republic. Fortis's book was rapidly translated into the principal European languages and helped inspire a rediscovery of the culture of Baltic Europe.

Basalt in the Ronca Valley

Apart from geology, Fortis also wrote about other facts important to natural sciences. He was a disciple of Giovanni Arduino, who had been the first to notice the evidence of volcanism in the Veneto. Fortis explored the area thoroughly in the 1760s, and he even accompanied Nicolas Desmarest when he toured the area in 1766 and noticed the basalt formations in the Ronca valley and the Alpone valley, between Verona and Vicenza. But it was not until 1778, when he was trying to obtain the professorship at Padua made vacant by the death of Arduino's, that Fortis published this rather lavish book on the geology of area around Verona.

Fortis had no doubt that the basalt of the Veneto was the result of volcanic activity. But he also found abundant layers of marine sandstone and clay above and below the basalt. Fortis came to believe that basalt originated as marine clay and was transformed into basalt by volcanic activity. There were no fossils in the basalt because the fossils had been burned out by the volcanic fire.

Thus in a way Fortis believed in the volcanic origin of basalt, because he thought it owed its origin to heat, but in another way he rejected the theory, since he did not think that basalt was volcanic lava that had cooled very slowly.

These studies resulted in Fortis publishing in 1778 Della valle vulcanico-marina di Ronca nel territorio veronese memoria orittografica,. published in Venice by the Stamperia di Carlo Palese  The title of this work includes the unusual and rare word "orittografica," from the Greek oryctographia, literally "writing about digging," and refers to a combined interest in geology and paleontology. It is, in fact, an essay on the natural history of the volcanic valley of Ronca near Verona, including a discussion of the geology and fossils found in the valley. It is printed with some very fine etchings on fold-out plates. The first plate shows fossil sea-shells, the remainder showing dramatic formations of volcanic rock and the natural scenery around them.

"His works are for the most part descriptive of tertiary deposits and volcanic rocks of the Vicentine Alps; Monte Bolca, a locality long famous for its fossils, was thoroughly searched by Fortis and he discovered several new localities of well-preserved fossils." (Zittel p. 94). The beautifully engraved double-page plates show fossil shells, geological structures, basalt etc.

Istria and Dalmatia

Fortis travelled all over Europe, in particular across Italy and Dalmatia while dispatching his duties given to him by the Venetian Senate during the period of 1765 to 1791, making his trip by sea along the Istrian coast, exploring the countryside, folk customs and poetry of local inhabitants. He was not a rich man but his enthusiasm enabled him to get financial aid for his travels from wealthy and influential people.

In 1756 and 1771 he stayed in Istria, in 1770 on the islands of Cres and Losinj, the latter journey largely funded by John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute (1713-92). Later in 1771 he went further south to the karst sources of the Cetina river near Vrlika and of the Krka near Knin where he explored the underground river source at Tapolje (Shaw, in press). He was accompanied there by Frederick Augustus Hervey (1730-1803) who paid all expenses. Hervey was also with him on the Pula-Rovinj journey.

In the period from 1771 to 1774 and later, he paid several visits to Dalmatia, in particular to the area of Dubrovnik (1779-83). During his stays in Croatian areas he made friends with a large number of educated people, who provided him with data, in particular geographic and ethnographic, on Dalmatia. His first book about Dalmatia, Saggio d'osservazioni sopra l'isola di Cherso ed Ossero (Debate and Considerations about the Island of Cres and Losinj) from 1771 contains the map Isola di Cherso ed Ossero whose author is Fortis himself. The map represents the island of Cres and Losinj with their waters at the scale of 1:144 000.

Besides collecting information about nature, he also wrote about the folklore and economy as well as about the history, ethnicity, geography, climate, geology and plants of places under Venetian control in Istria and Dalmatia. While traveling through Istria and Dalmatia, he also learned some words of local Slavic dialects, which he called Illyrian.

His extensive travels in Dalmatia and its karst resulted in notes in the form of interesting letters to famous friends all over Europe. Later, these travelogues were collected in the 2-volume book published for the first time in 1774 and for which he is best known: Viaggio in Dalmazia dell'Abate Alberto Fortis, "containing general observations on the natural history of that country... the natural productions, arts, manners and customs of the inhabitants in a series of letters from Abbe Alberto Fortis to the Earl of Bute, the Bishop of Londonderry, John Strange." The books contained two folding maps and 13 engraved plates (all folding).

The generosity of the people who had financed his travels are recognized in the dedications in the English edition of his Travels into Dalmatia (Fortis 1778a). In 1777 he was in the classical Karst region of Slovenia near Trieste, where he visited Vilenica, and he went from there to Postojna and Planina (Shaw 2000, 74-78).Fortis was only 29 years old during this second Istrian journey, the youngest of the 1770 party, and 11 years younger than Hervey in 1771.

Included are his observations of Cherso and Osero, and the account of the voyage of Antonio Veranzio from Budapest to Constantinople in 1553, edited by Fortis. There are numerous details of the Morlacchi, or Vlassi as they called themselves. In his account Fortis outlined many of the divisions and tensions: the Vlassi despised the people of the coastal towns, who heartily detested them in return. To Fortis the Morlacchi represented a key to the ethnographic identity of Eastern Europe, since they could be identified by their language as Slavs. The accidental discovery of coins, walls and a necropolis at Tupeci made Fortis famous; the naturalist came to the conclusion that the locality could have been the site of the Late Antiquity Laurentum described by Procopius (500? - 565? AD), a Byzantine historian. The engravings depict landscape views, native costumes, archeological ruins, fossils, mineral formations, Fortis's Viaggio in Dalmazia was translated into English and French, both editions published in 1778. The above work was quoted by Montague Summers in The Vampire: His Kith and Kin (reprinted 1960): "When a man dies suspected of becoming a Vampire or Vulkodlak, as they call it, they cut his hams, and prick his whole body with pins, pretending that, after this operation, he cannot walk about." Another method found to incapacitate the body of an individual destined for vampirism is to break the deceased's spine. Mustard seeds were often placed in the coffin in order to keep the vampire busy counting them" (pp. 204-210).

In Europe, his book was the biggest literary sensation from the Italy of the 18th century. The very popular, separate chapter about the Morlaks was first translated to German, Die Sitten der Morlacken, Bern 1775, and later to French Lettre a Mylord Comte de Bute Sur les moeurs et usages des Morlaques, Bern 1778, to English Travels into Dalmatia, London 1778, after that Swedish Bref on Morlackerna, Göteborg 1792, Travell to Dalmatia etc. In 1776, in Croatia, Ivan Lovrić (around 1754–1777), a native from the town of Sinj, wrote in the region which Fortis called Morlakia, the extraordinary addition to the partly polemic tone of Fortis, Comments on the Journey through Dalmatia by Alberto Fortis and the life of Stanislav Sočivica. Due to the interesting observations, the enormous popularity of these notes, especially about the Morlaks, has been lasting until today in Europe.

In 1779 Fortis held an inaugural lecture in the Economic Society of Split titled Della coltura del castagno da introdursi nella Dalmazia marittima e mediterranea (On the Cultivation of Chestnut and its Introduction into the Seaside and Inland Dalmatia). The first edition of the work was issued in 1780 in Naples and was reprinted in 1794 in Venice.

Fortis left Split for Naples where he worked as court mineralogist, being engaged not only in research, but also in practical activities, for example as a reader of old chronicles and a maker of corographic maps, an expert who explores mineral resources of the Kingdom and proposes how to exploit them. In 1791, after a ten-year service at Naples court, Fortis returned to Padua. The translation of Viaggio in Dalmazia into the Croatian language was published in Zagreb in 1984.

In 1795 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Fortis died in Bologna on October 21, 1803.

Selected works

Fortis, Alberto, prirodoslovac i putopisac (Padova, 11. XI. 1741 - Bologna, 21. X. 1803). Školovao se u Padovi i Rimu, a bio je član augustinskoga reda. Enciklopedističkoga prosvjetiteljskog duha, pokrenuo je časopise L'Europa Letteraria (1768-73) i Giornale Enciclopedico (1774-81). Osobito ga je zanimala geologija, ali bilježio je i druge činjenice važne za prirodoslovlje. U Istri je boravio više puta, jer je po nalogu mlet. Senata 1765-91. često putovao u Dalmaciju, a morem se iz Venecije putovalo duž istar. obale. Osim prirode, folklora i gospodarstva, skupljao je podatke i o povijesti, običajima i kulturi stanovnika Istre i Dalmacije. U svojem najpoznatijem djelu, dvosveščanoj knjizi Viaggio in Dalmazia (Venezia 1774), donosi mnogobrojne podatke o povijesti, etnografiji i folkloru, fizičkom zemljopisu, klimatologiji, geologiji, botanici i dr. kvarnerskih otoka i Dalmacije pod mlet. vlašću. Na čestim putovanjima u Istru i Dalmaciju naučio je i nešto hrv. jezika, kojega je u duhu toga doba nazivao ilirskim.


  • L. Pozzo-Balbi, L'Isola di Cherso, Roma 1934;
  • Ž. Muljačić, Putovanja Alberta Fortisa u Istri, Radovi Centra JAZU u Zadru, 1978, 25;
  • J. Bratulić, Alberto Fortis i njegov put po Dalmaciji, u: A. Fortis, Put po Dalmaciji, Zagreb 1984.


  • Benvenuti. Dizionario degli Italiani all'Estero, 1890.
  • Casati. Dizionario degli Scrittori d'Italia, 1925-34.
  • Catalogue of Portraits of Naturalists: 441 [1 portrait listed].
  • Ciancio, Luca. Autopsie della terra illuminismo e geologia in Alberto Fortis (1741-1803). Firenze, L.S. Olschki, 1995. 385 p., illus. [Published as: Biblioteca di Nuncius, no. 18; ISBN 88-222-4331-5].
  • Ciancio, Luca. "Fortis, Alberto," in DBI, 49:205-10
  • De Tipaldo, Biografia degli Italiani, 1834-45.
  • Frati, Dizionario Bio-bibliografico Italiani, 1933.
  • Imperatori, Dizionario di Italiani all'Estero, 1956.
  • Parenti, Aggiunte al Dizionario, 1952-60.
  • Poggendorff: 1, cols. 778-9. • WBI.
  • Torcellan, Gianfranco. "Alberto Fortis", in Riformatori delle antiche repubbliche, dei ducati, dello stato pontifico e delle isole, vol. 7 of Illuministi italiani, ed. Giuseppe Giarrizzo, Gianfranco Torcellan, and Franco Venturi (Milano: Ricciardi, 1965), p. 281-390
  • Wolff, Larry. Venice and the Slavs.
  • Wolff, Larry. "The Enlightened Anthropology of Friendship in Venetian Dalmatia: Primitive Ferocity and Ritual Fraternity Among the Morlacchi", Eighteenth-Century Studies, 32.2, Winter 1998-1999, ??-??. [Subjects include Fortis, Alberto, 1741-1803. Viaggio in Dalmazia.].

See also:


  • Elisabetta Caminer Turra & Catherine M. Sama, Selected writings of an eighteent century Venetian woman of letters. University of Chicago Press (2003), p. 18-19.
  • Istarska Enciklopedia, p. 232.
  • Acta Carsoligica, 30-1, 12 Ljubljana 2001, p. 182-212 -
  • viaLibri
  • Basalt -

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