In anticipation of International Women’s Day on March 8th, I would like to feature a woman who, in spite of huge domestic responsibilities and limited funds, undertook and applied her research to the benefit of the poorest in her society. She was a close friend and collaborator with Como’s best known son, Alessandro Volta – the inventor of the battery. However, in spite of her achievements, she is nowadays hardly ever mentioned.
She deserves to be much more famous than she currently is since her researches in agrarian science enriched the diet of peasant farmers across the arc of the Alps in Northern Italy. She was the first to seriously introduce the potato here by researching where and how best to cultivate it. The potato may possess modest nutritious value but it was superior to what was previously available. Its introduction saved tens of thousands from undernourishment caused by the paucity and precariousness of their previous dependence on wheat or maize.
As mentioned Teresa was a contemporary and close friend of Como’s most famous and certainly much better known scientist, Alessandro Volta, the inventor of the battery, who lived from 1745 to 1827. Teresa was born 1750 in Angera on Lake Maggiore and died 1821 in Como. Volta paved the way for the modern age’s ability to generate, capture and apply electricity. Teresa’s researches were instead dedicated to how she could improve the lives of the poorest in society – the peasant agricultural labourers and farmers – through developing crops that would ameliorate their subsistence diet or by offering them new economic possibilities as in her method for producing fabric from lupin stems.
Teresa was the daughter of Count Giobatta Castiglioni Zanebroni. She married Cesare Liberato Ciceri in 1770 when she was twenty and he was twenty years older. They had property in Como and extensive land in Camnago on the edge of the city as well as in Lazzate. However, the family had little actual income and, what with twelve children to feed, her agrarian research was always focused on practical innovations that could improve the lives of the poor.
Teresa grew up in the so-called age of enlightenment amongst an intelligentsia stimulated by contemporary scientific discoveries, the inspiration of philosophers like Voltaire and the creativity of the Romantic movement sweeping Europe. At an early age, she brought her friend Alessandro Volta over to Angera to show him a phenomenon which had enthralled her as she grew up – an area of water on the side of the lake where bubbles constantly rose to the surface. This led to his ‘discovery’ of methane for which he gained significant fame. The key role Teresa played in assisting him in his discovery has mostly been overlooked.
When Alessandro Volta was planning one of his journeys across Europe with his friend Giambattista Giovio, Teresa asked him to pass by Aiguebelle in France to pick up and bring back for her some examples of the potatoes that had only recently been introduced to France. She made doubly sure he would not forget by placing reminder notes each day in his baggage as he made his preparations to leave. Teresa was adamant that she wanted to look into the potential for cultivating the potato in Italy and to conduct research on how best this could be done.
For those of us brought up in the United Kingdom on how how Sir Walter Raleigh brought the first potatoes back from the Americas to Queen Elizabeth 1, it may seem strange that the potato had not yet reached Italy by the 1770s. Doubts are now cast on whether Raleigh ever brought back any potatoes since he went nowhere near their site of origin in the South American Andes. In any case, even though potatoes were evident in Spain from the 1570s, no country took their dietary potential seriously until the 1770s when large scale production began in Ireland. It later became the staple of the Irish diet and unfortunately, as tended to happen within colonial economies, formed the basis of a mono-cultural agricultural system which led to the tragedy of the Great Famine in the 1840s. The Germans also started potato cultivation in the mid 1700s with the Dutch taking it up by 1800. However there was resistance to adopting it in France and Italy due to common beliefs that potatoes spread leprosy and other diseases. In fact, if the tubers are exposed to light when growing they take on a green shade and are poisonous to eat. It was in 1777 that Teresa Ciceri implored her friend Alessandro Volta to bring back some seeding potatoes from France where she had learnt they had very recently been introduced. On Volta’s return she started to cultivate her potatoes on her land in Camnago close to Alessandro Volta’s summer residence.
Camnago was known as the Garden of Como resting in the sheltered valley of the Cosia with its south facing pastures protected from cold north winds by the mountains of the Triangolo Lariano. Teresa soon learnt that the potato was an ideal crop for mountainous areas like the Alps. It could grow up to an altitude of 2000 metres and was much more resistant to hail, frost, drought or floods than maize, wheat or barley. She was able to establish where, when and how to cultivate the crop in ways best suited to the local hilly terrain.
Meanwhile Alessandro Volta sponsored her membership of the Società Patriottica di Milano, an association similar to the Royal Society and born out of the spirit of the enlightenment when founded by the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa in 1776. The society was tasked with developing knowledge and know-how in the areas of agriculture, the arts and industry – all of Teresa’s areas of interest. It formed part of a knowledge sharing network across the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By 1785, La Patriottica had recognised the potential of the potato and they were able to turn to Teresa for all her information on methods of cultivation and conservation. For this she was awarded a gold medal. Following the French invasion of Lombardy and the defeat of the Austrians in 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte replaced La Patriottica with the Istituto Nazionale della Repubblica Cisalpina (later renamed Istituto Nazionale Italiano) modelled on the Institut de France.
Teresa’s husband died when she was 49 years old leaving her with many outstanding debts to manage. She remained economically disadvantaged for the whole of her life but still continued her researches into both industrial and agricultural innovations enjoying the company and affection of her extensive family and of friends and colleagues. She is remembered in the naming of the Liceo Statale in Via Carducci – close to the Liceo Statale Classico e Scientifico named after her good friend Alessandro Volta. Other than that, she is not as well known today as her achievements would merit. Apart from the naming of the secondary school and her portrait in the Civic Museum with a sample of cloth made from lupin, there are few other reminders of her achievements. However she managed to improve the lives of thousands of peasants over many generations by providing them with the means of producing a more reliable source of daily nutrition.She was a modest yet truly scholarly and practical scientist with a committed social conscience. Her contribution as a scientist committed to improving the well-being of her society warrants ongoing recognition.
Another contemporary female scientist of Teresa was the aristocrat Candida Lena Parenti. She is even less well-known than Teresa but she was responsible for discovering how to spin asbestos so that it could be used to form paper, textiles and even lace. Nowadays we know that asbestos is highly carcinogenic but its heat resistance and isolating qualities had been known since Roman times. Candida Parenti unlocked the means by which these properties could be exploited industrially.
Candida took a sample of asbestos from the collection of Alessandro Volta’s mentor, Canon Gattoni, who attributed its source as being from the ancient town of Herculaneum close to Pompei. She then procured further material from mines in the Tellina and Malenco valleys of the Valtellina, to the north east of Lake Como. The mining industry in the Valtellina then developed throughout the nineteenth century with 62 separate mines contributing material for the production of asbestos cloth. In that year the United Asbestos Company from the UK bought mines in the Valtellina but switched the industry’s production from textiles to building materials. All of this activity was initiated by Candida’s initial research for which she was awarded a silver medal in 1806 from the Istituto Nazionale Italiano (known previously as La Società Patriottica di Milano), who, as with Teresa Ciceri, awarded her a gold medal in 1807. I have not been able to find any further biographical details of Candida Lena Parenti on the Internet.
The past is by definition a mystery and research can only hope to shine a partial light on distant attitudes. Yet shining even this limited light on two female scientists living at the height of the enlightenment has revealed to me that their contemporary society was possibly, within limited aristocratic circles at least, less sexist than today. The examples of Teresa and Candida show their contribution to science and industry was clearly both recognised and appreciated in their time. Those contributions deserve not to be as overlooked and minimised as they appear to be today.