Giambatista Beccaria Papers


Date: 1766-1780 | Size: 0.75 Linear feet


The papers of the Italian natural philosopher and electrician, Giambatista Beccaria (1716-1781) contain letters to Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Banks, Laura Bassi, Gian Francesco Cigna, and others on a variety of scientific topics, including atmospheric and terrestrial electricity, the aurora borealis, earthquakes, meteorology, and phosphorescence. In addition to Beccaria's epistolary essays, the collection includes several journals of meteorological observations and notes for Giovanni Eandi's biography of Beccaria.

Background note

The natural philosopher Giambatista Beccaria was instrumental in the spread of the new electrical theory in Italy during the eighteenth century, and was among the great advocates on the continent for the scientific ideas of Benjamin Franklin. Born as Francesco Ludovico Beccaria in Mondovì, Italy, on October 3, 1716, Beccaria studied theology in Rome and Narni, where he was introduced to the new tendencies in science and philosophy. Upon entering the Scolopian (Piarist) order in 1732, he assumed the religious name Giambatista, under which all of his subsequent publications appeared.

Teaching in the Scolopian schools at Narni, and subsequently, Urbino, Palermo, and Rome, Beccaria's interests devolved to scientific matters, and he took pains to establish himself as a progressive, enlightened thinker. A measure of his success came in 1748, when he was called from Palermo to replace father Francisco Antonio Garro as chair in experimental physics at the University of Turin. There, he proceeded to the systematic study of electrical phenomena, defending Franklin's single-fluid theories against the competing theories of the Abbé Nollet, R. Symmer, and others. The first important fruits of his research, Dell'Elettricismo Naturale ed Artificiale (Torino, 1753), was proclaimed by Franklin as "one of the best pieces on the subject in any language," and brought the cleric welcome and wide acclaim as a man of science. By the early 1760s, he was a regular correspondent not only of Franklin, but of Joseph Banks, Joseph Priestley, and other members of the Royal Society, with a wider orbit in Italy, France, Switzerland, and other European nations. Perhaps the best indication of his stature, however, was that when Franklin was too busy to engage in electrical pugilistics himself during the 1770s, he simply had Beccaria's work translated.

Through his innovative research and voluminous publication, Beccaria established Italy at the center of eighteenth century study of electrical phenomena. His treatises Dell'Elettricismo, Lettere ... Coll' Appendice di un Nuovo Fosforo Descritto... (Bologna, 1758) , Elettricismo Artificiale (Torino, 1772), and Della Elettricità Terrestre Atmosferica a Cielo Sereno (Torino, 1775) passed through several editions and were translated widely, and other, related research took Beccaria into the study of the aurora borealis, sunspots, and aspects of meteorology.

Beccaria cultivated patrons in political and social circles, as well as scientific, and as Antonio Pace notes, he attained a measure of fame in Italy that, if not unparalleled, was nevertheless extraordinary. A visit to Beccaria was de rigeur for scientific travelers, and he was popular in court and civic life, as well. Ultimately, however, he was overshadowed by the reputations of his intellectual forebear, the luminous Franklin, and his successor, Alessandro Volta. The prodigious Volta dedicated his first book to Beccaria, whom he had studied at length, though ironically, it was Volta, his countryman, who subsequently did as much as anything to eclipse Beccaria. Beccaria died in Turin on May 27, 1781.

Scope and content

The Beccaria Papers contain epistolary essays on scientific topics written by Giambatista Beccaria to a number of scientific correspondents. Dating largely from the 1760s and 1770s when Beccaria had already established an international reputation and an international correspondence, many of the manuscripts are drafts of works that were intended for publication and, in a few instances, that were eventually published. Ranging in topic from Beccaria's primary interests in atmospheric and terrestrial electrical phenomena to the aurora borealis, earthquakes, meteorology, and typhoons, the letters are addressed to several of the major figures in eighteenth century European science, including Benjamin Franklin, Laura Bassi, Joseph Priestley, and Joseph Banks.

Among the more important series in the collection are copies of five or six letters from Beccaria to Benjamin Franklin (manuscripts nos. 1, 3-14), with multiple drafts of two. Eandi's Memorie Istoriche (no.16) includes translations of six letters from Franklin to Beccaria into Italian, dating from May 29, 1766, February 21, 1768, August 11, 1773, March 15, 1774, October 19, 1779, and February 19, 1781. His letters to Laura Bassi on the aurora borealis (nos. 37-39), to Gian Francesco Cigna on the mechanical effects of electricity (no. 61), and to Joseph Priestley and Joseph Banks on fulmine (no. 20), provide additional valuable information not only on the study of electrical phenomena, but on the propagation of transnational scientific networks during the mid-eighteenth century. His meticulous recording of the timing of shocks and aftershocks of the earthquake in Alba, January 1771, (no. 24-27) are a valuable addition.

Insight into the continued development of Beccaria's electrical theories is provided by the sixteen letters comprising group IV, which appear to be an extension of his previous works Elettricismo Artificiale and Elettricitࢰ a Cielo Sereno under the title, as Antonio Pace believes, Dell'Elettricità del Cielo Fulinante. These,, along with manuscripts no. 30-35, relate to the dispute over whether lightning rods preserved buildings or, as Beccaria believed, endangered them.

Giovanni Eandi's Memorie Istoriche, a biography of Beccaria, was undoubtedly added to the collection by a later owner, possibly Beccaria's student, Prospero Balbo. Part hagiography, part history, the work is important as a first-hand memoir of the scientist and contains an inventory of Beccaria's papers as they existed shortly after his death in 1781.


The Beccaria Papers were organized by a previous owner of the manuscripts into bundles that only occasionally relate to discrete topics, with individual manuscripts numbered sequentially within. Although there are some inconsistencies, the arrangement has been retained as received.

Collection Information


Accessioned 1948.

Custodial history:

The precise history of the Beccaria manuscripts cannot be ascertained with certainty, however it appears that after Beccaria's death they were passed to his student, Prospero Bablo, who may have added to them. A subsequent owner arranged and indexed these, numbering each "separate" manuscript sequentially, though the reason for numbering can be obscure and the distinctness of manuscripts equally so.

Preferred citation

Cite as: Giambatista Beccaria Papers, American Philosophical Society.

Processing information

Recatalogued by rsc, 2002.

Other finding aids

See also Antonio Pace, "The Manuscripts of Giambatista Beccaria, Correspondent of Benjamin Franklin," APS Proceedings 96 (1952), 406-416.

Related material

The APS also houses a manuscript by Beccaria, Ex Phisicis Institutionibus, 1769. Call no.: 537 B38exp.

Four letters from the Swiss scientist Henri Bénédict de Saussure to Beccaria were acquired separately and are housed in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection. These include:

  • 1767 May 5
  • 1770 February 6 (acknowledging his work on atmospheric electricity, electrical experiments, and mentioning Franklin)
  • 1772 October 9
  • 1780 March 28 (letter of introduction for M. Trembley)

Early American History Note

The Beccaria Collection consists of a folio size volume of collected letters and essays. Giovanni Battista Beccaria was a leading scientist in eighteenth century Italy. The collection includes letters Beccaria wrote to Franklin as well as drafts of essays he prepared for publication. The topics of the letters include discussions of electricity, meteorology, and astronomy.

The collection hints at how widely known Franklin's work and reputation were. It also demonstrates how scientific knowledge circulated in the eighteenth century with Beccaria, stationed in Italy, regularly corresponding with Franklin and others about scientific matters.

Beccaria's significance and the contents of the collection have been discussed at length in Antonio Pace, "The Manuscripts of Giambtista Beccaria, Correspondent of Benjamin Franklin," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 96, No. 4, pp. 406-411.

In addition to the manuscript collection, the APS also has a bound handwritten volume of Beccaria entitled Ex Phisics Institutionibus. This volume has the feel of a textbook with chapters on different subjects, most dealing with electricity. The back of the book contains fourteen plates. These plates contain diagrams on weights and measures, mechanics, astronomy, and mathematics.

Indexing Terms


  • Foreign Language
  • Journals (notebooks)
  • Manuscript Essays
  • Scientific Correspondence
  • Sketches.

Personal Name(s)

  • Balbo, Prospero, conte, 1762-1837
  • Banks, Joseph, 1743-1820
  • Bassi, Laura, 1711-1778
  • Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781
  • Cigna, Gian Francesco, 1734-17
  • Eandi, Giuseppe Antonio France
  • Franklin, Benjamin, 1706-1790


  • Auroras.
  • Beyond Early America
  • Earthquakes -- Early works to 1800
  • Electricity -- Early works to 1800
  • Electricity -- Experiments
  • Lightning
  • Lightning rods
  • Meteorology -- Italy -- Observations
  • Phosphorescence
  • Physics -- Early works to 1800
  • Science and technology
  • Scientific apparatus and instruments -- 18th century
  • Sunspots

Detailed Inventory

Giambatista Beccaria Papers
1766-1780 box 1
I. Drafts of letters to Benjamin Franklin
1766-17790.2 lin. feet
1. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Benjamin Franklin (incomplete)
[1779 December 16]1 leaf

Draft response to Franklin's letter of November 19, 1779. See other drafts of the same letter, nos. 3-8.

2. Balbo, Prospero, conte, 1762-1837.
Scarnafigi Lettere
[1773]1 leaf

D. 1p. In Italian. (see Beccaria papers, no.2.) Notes regarding Beccaria's (unsuccessful) request to join the American Philosophical Society, taken either by Balbo or Giovanni Eandi, apparently from correspondence between Beccaria and Count Ponte di Scarnafigi. Priestley is also referred to. Mentions that Beccaria was enrolled Oct.29, 1773, but the APS cannot substantiate this. Authority for author; Dr. Pace, Aug.1959.

Other Descriptive Information: Film 54-66 Frame 254

3, 4. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Benjamin Franklin
1779 December 163 leaves

Postscript (2 leaves) written by Eandi, with corrections by Beccaria.

5. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf account of Beccaria's publications and accomplishments
1779 December 169p.

Enlarged, with corrections, by Beccaria.

6. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf Cy to Benjamin Franklin
[1779 December 16]3p.

L. in Eandi's hand. 3p. Draft. In Italian. (see Beccaria papers, no. 6.)

Other Descriptive Information: Film 54-66 Frame 259

7. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf Cy to Benjamin Franklin
[1779 December 16]2p.

Turin, A.L.S. 2p. Longer, final draft of no.3, in Ceccaria's hand. In Italian. (see Beccaria papers,no.7.) (see also nos. 3 and 4 for earlier draft of this letter)

Other Descriptive Information: Film 54-66 Frame 256. Printed: Pace. Franklin and Italy, pp. 379-380.

8. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Benjamin Franklin
[1779 December 16]4p.

In hand of an amaneunsis, signed by Beccaria.

9. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Benjamin Franklin (incomplete)
[after 1773 August 11]1p.

Draft of reply to Franklin's letter of August 11, 1773. See also drafts of same letter, nos. 10-11.

10. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Benjamin Franklin
[after 1773 August 11]4p.

Expansion of no. 9, in Beccaria's hand.

11. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Benjamin Franklin (incomplete)
[after 1773 August 11]3p.
12. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Benjamin Franklin (incomplete)

Discusses the phenomenon of phosphorescence. Includes corrections and revisions to Beccaria's Dell'Eletricismo Artificiale e Naturale (Turin, 1753). In Beccaria's hand.

13. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
2 ADfs to Benjamin Franklin
1766 October 114p.

Beccaria complains of his affliction and encloses an offprint of one of his treatises for Franklin's comment. Note in Latin to Morton, Secretary of the Royal Society, offering to send more of his experiments by Franklin for their consideration. In hand of an amanuensis, in answer to Franklin's letter of May 29, 1766.

14. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Benjamin Franklin ("Risultato di sperienze")

Containing the results of experiments on two bodies which, when rubbed together, impart or receive fire. Probably in Beccaria's hand.

II (15). Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Meteorological journals

Record of meteorological observations made in Garzegna, 1769, 1770, 1772, 1773, 1775-1777, and at Alba, 1770. The journals are kept in diary form and relate not only to Beccaria's observations on atmospheric electricity, but to his experiments and hypotheses. The entries include barometric and hygrometric readings at various points throughout the day, and include diagrams of Beccaria's scientific apparatus as set up on buildings.

III (16). Eandi, Giovanni.
Memoria istoriche Intorno Gli Studi del Padre Giambatista Beccaria (biography of Giambatista Beccaria)

Complete, in Eandi's hand, with annotations and emendations in Beccaria's hand.

IV. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Dell'Elettricità del Ciel Fulminante
1780, n.d.250p.

Letters divided into 6 "books," intended as a continuation of Elettricismo Artificiale and Della Elettricità Terrestre Atmosferica a Cielo Sereno. The letters are directed primarily to Joseph Banks, but also to Count Casati and Joseph Priestley. The work comprises the manuscript for Beccaria's Del Fulmine, which never reached the printer.

17. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
AMs, Di due sensazioni di odore, e di luce che lscia dietro a sè il fulmine
18. Balbo, Prospero, conte, 1762-1837.
Notes regarding edition of nos. 17 and 20
19. Balbo, Prospero, conte, 1762-1837.
Index to nos. 17 and 20
20. Del Fulmine
I. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Joseph Banks
1780 July 152 copies

" tratta di osservare la elettricità terrestre atmosferica."

II. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Joseph Banks
1780 August 162 copies

"...della cagione del fulmine."

III. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Gregorio Casali Bentivoglio Paleotta

"...della cagione esterna, che riunisce, e condensa in fulmine il fuoco elettrico."

IV. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Joseph Banks

"Osservazioni intorno all'elettricità permanente ne' temporalo semplici, e intorno alle alterazioni passeggiere della medesima"

V. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Michele Casati

"...della naturalezza della cagione eficiente de' temporali, e degli accidenti compagni"

VI. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Joseph Priestley

"...della trombe, o code di mare"

VII. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Joseph Priestley

"...della folgore, o sia del fulmione, che attraversa l'aria"

VIII. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Joseph Priestley

"...del diffondersi il fulmine in terra"

IX. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Joseph Priestley

"...di tre diverse maniere di luci che possono succedere allo scoppio de'fulmini"

X. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Joseph Priestley

"'inducimento in snetiero, che adopera il fulmine propagandosi pei corpi terrestri"

XI. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Joseph Priestley

"...di alcuni ammirandi effetti prodotti dal fulmine collo scagliamento de'licori non infiammabili"

XII. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Joseph Priestley

" cagione, onde il fulmine trallo scagliare le parti de' corpi ne accenda alcuni, e non altri"

XIII. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Joseph Priestley

"Degli effetti del fulmine sui metalli"

XIV. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Joseph Priestley

"...all'azione del fuoco elletrico sulle calci metalliche"

XV. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Joseph Priestley

"...degli efetti [sic] del fulmine sopra I sassi, sopra I mattoni, sopra la terra, sopra le calci, etc."

V (21). Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
On the Aurora Borealis

Sketches partly in Barracria's hand, partly dictated to Eandi.

VI (22). Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Tommso Volperga di Caluzo, "Della Aurore Boreali": copia I
[ca.1779]19ff., 12 blank

Draft in hand of Eandi, corrections in Beccaria's hand.

VII (23). Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Notes on the Aurora Borealis

Half in Beccaria's hand. First section titled "Del lume zodiacale."

VIII. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Journal of observations on earthquakes and on atmospheric electricity in Alba, 1771
177121 and 26ff.
24. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Tremuoto di Alba: giornale scritto dal Vernazza a dettatura del Beccaria cui fu compagno di viaggio
25. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Tremuoto di Alba
26. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Risultati delle osservazioni particolari
27. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Osservazioni generali intorno al tremuoto d'Alba principato I 28 genaio [sic] 1771
IX (28). Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Delle macchie solari (On sunspots)
X (29). Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
On the zodiacal light

In hand of Beccaria and Eandi.

XI. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
On electrical conductors and the method of safeguarding buildings, especially powder magazines, from lightning
n.d.5 items
30. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Notes on the powder magazine of Santa Barbara

Not in Beccaria's hand

31. Balbo, Prospero, conte, 1762-1837.
List of Beccaria's unedited works dealing with the application iof lightning rods
32. Gianotti, G. B..
Calcolo della spesa etc... per assicurare da; fulmini li tre magazzini a polvere esistenti nel maschio del Castello di Tortona (Estimate of the expenditure for safeguarding the three poweder magaiznes from lighting in the dungeon of the Castle of Tortona)
1770 March 283ff.

"Sottoscritto G. B. Gianotti." Also includes a non-itemized fragment, described (in part) by Balbo as "Notizie date da un officiale del soldo..."

33. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Apparecchi e proposizioni e fulmini
1770 March 3145ff.

Includes an anonymous letter, probably from Felica Fontana, to Beccaria, March 31, 1770, and Beccaria's reply of April 6.

34. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
A sua Eccellenza il signor conte Ponti di Scarnafigi (incomplete)
1770 March 316ff.

"Intorno ai conduttori, ed a' cervi volanti proposti per dissipare I temporali."

35. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Al chiarissimo signor abate Guiseppi Toaldo
1770 March 318ff.

"Lettere due sui conduttori, di mano del Vassalli." Two copies.

XII (36). Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Dell' Elettricismo naturale (On Natural Electricity)
n.d.16ff., total

Paragraphs 994-1071 of a discarded continuation of Elettricismo Artificiale. In Beccaria's hand. Beccaria later changed the title and recast it as an epistolary work of a more restricted nature, publishing it as Delle Elettricità Terrestre Atmosferica a Cielo Sereno.

XIII. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Materials on the Aurora Borealis
1770-17726 items
37. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Laura Bassi, "Considerazioni del chiarissimo padre Beccaria sopra l'aurora boreale del 1770"
38. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Laura Bassi, "Osservazioni di tre aurore boreali"
39. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Miscellaneous materials on the aurora borealis
a. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Laura Bassi

Fragmentary draft, not in Beccaria's hand.

b. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Laura Bassi

"Intorno all'accordo delle proprietà del fuoco elettrico, e de' fenomeni, che si osservano nelle aurore boreali."

c. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Laura Bassi
[ca.1770]3 drafts

"Nelle fonzioni prorprie del fuoco elettrico, che si osservano nelle aurore boreali."

d. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADf to Laura Bassi, with illustrations
[ca.1770]3 drafts


XIV. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADfs to Gian Francesco Cigna on the Elettricismo Artificiale
177222ff., total
40. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADfs to Gian Francesco Cigna on the Elettricismo Artificiale
41. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADfs to Gian Francesco Cigna ("Lettera VII")
XV. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADfs to Gian Francesco Cigna on the Elettricismo Artificiale
n.d.53ff., total
42. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADfs to Gian Francesco Cigna ("Lettera II")
43. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADfs to Gian Francesco Cigna ("Lettera III")
44. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADfs to Gian Francesco Cigna ("Lettera VIII e IX")
45. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADfs to Gian Francesco Cigna ("A sequita le lettera ultima")
46. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADfs to Gian Francesco Cigna ("Nuovi sperimenti intorno alla meccanica del fuoco elettrico")

Includes sketches of apparatus.

47-58?. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADfs to Gian Francesco Cigna

Includes "Osservazioni di elettricità atmosferica in Alba," "Osservazioni dell aurora boreale, 1770".

XVI. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADfs to Princess of Piemonte, "Delle meteore di luce tranquilla"
n.d.53ff., total
59. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADfs to Gian Francesco Cigna

Dedication and index of eight letters dedicated to the Princess of Piedmont, in Eandi's hand. The first six letters concern the aurora borealis, zodiacal light, and falling stars, were to have been sent to Joseph Banks; the seventh, on waterspouts, was directed to Joseph Priestley; and the last, on the rainy wind of Turin, was written to Gian Francesco Cigna.

60. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADfs to Gian Francesco Cigna

Second copy.

XVII. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADfs to Gian Francesco Cigna
n.d.32ff., total
61. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
ADfs to Gian Francesco Cigna
1779-17809 items

Containing nine letters addressed to Cigna and others. The first two were recast and published in vol. 3, part 3, of Beccaria's Opuscoli (Milan, 1780) under the title "Nuovi Sperimenti... per Confermare ed Estendere la Meccanica del Fuoco Elettrico." All in Beccaria's hand. Includes eleven diagrams and sketches of scientific instruments, including a small copper-plate engraving used in "Nuovi Sperimenti.".

XVIII. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Miscellaneous items
62. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Treatise on typhoons (fragment)

In Latin.

63, 64. Beccaria, Giambatista, 1716-1781.
Miscellaneous extracts on the aurora borealis