The Specola di Padova has been one of the most prestigious astronomical observatories in Europe for almost two centuries, thanks to its avant-garde instrumentation and its position with the free horizon to the south that allowed a clear observation of the stars.
Among the things that can be done in Padua, visiting the Specola is definitely an experience of immersion in history!
The Specola of Padua
La Specola is the seat of the ancient astronomical observatory of the University of Padua and is located in the Torlonga of the Castle of Padua. The observatory, almost 50 meters high (over 53 with the lightning rod antenna), was introduced in the 18th century.
The entire structure was built in the 9th century B.C. and was used four centuries later by Ezzelino III da Romano as a prison and torture room; after Ezzelino's death, the tower was abandoned until the following century, when the Carraresi, new lords of Padua, renovated it. But the Torlonga was abandoned again after the 1500s (not surprisingly, in the eighteenth century it was called "Castel Vecchio") until the fateful date of 22nd May 1761.
In fact, on this date the Senate, after the formal request of the Reformers of the Firm, decided to create an astronomical observatory in Padua. All this took place in a phase of great renewal for the Padua University that was attempting a more experimental approach to scientific studies, with the aim of reviving and giving new prestige to a field of study that boasted a great tradition in Padua: among others, Vecelio and Galileo were scholars here.
La Torlonga, home of the observatory
Starting from 1765, the teacher of 'astronomy, geography and meteors' Carlo Toaldo was commissioned to visit the main Italian observatories to obtain information on the structure and tools needed to set up the Observatory; after drawing up a budget, Toaldo called one of the most skilled architects of the time, Domenico Cerato from Vicenza for the project.
It was precisely the architect who found the ideal place to set up the Padua Observatory in Torlonga. He came to this conclusion for important reasons: in addition to the fact that it was possible to save money by not constructing a new building, Torlonga had the enormous advantage of having a totally free field of view on the southern horizon; this fact is of fundamental importance since it is to the south that the stars culminate, that is, they reach their highest point in their diurnal apparent motion. As a result, it is easier to observe them.
In 1777, La Specola was completed as a building, while the tool kit was completed in 1779 with the arrival of a large dial from England that was fixed to the wall and arranged along the north-south axis in the meridian room.
Another detail of the Torlonga
The excellent instrumentation of Specola, updated over the years, had attracted the attention of Napoleon, who was very careful to preserve it (as well as the entire University of Padua), as explained by a special decree he issued in 1806. However, during the Great War, the telegraph machines of the Specola were requisitioned and then the tower itself, an important sighting centre within the city that had, in the meantime, become the seat of the Supreme command of the armed forces.
After the construction of the Asiago branch in 1942 and its subsequent development, the Specola di Padova became obsolete, and the structure stopped being used as an astronomical observatory. Today, the building houses the La Specola Museum, the "Giovanni Santini" Library and the Historical Archive.
La Specola Museum
Inside the La Specola Museum, in addition to the charm of the structure, you can observe the Inscription Room (which takes its name from the presence of a 1618 plaque walled inside) that used to give access to the terrible prisons of Ezzelino III; as mentioned, the building was incorporated into the Carraresi castle and this is why there is a big cart on the ceiling, the symbol of the family.
The room today houses all the instruments for measuring time. In the La Specola Museum you can also enter the Sala Colonna, so called because of the pillar in the centre of the room supporting the vault above. Originally, this room was used to rest while waiting to enter the Meridian Room; today there are various small work tools collected in the display cases.
The Meridian Room is the room intended for the observation of the stars on the celestial meridian; in fact, visitors can notice that the meridian line is engraved on the floor. In this room there is the mural quadrant that had been brought here from England in 1779; instead, the instrument of the passages of Ertel is exposed on the northern part, here placed on a marble support in 1860.
Finally, we recommend a passage in the Sala delle Figure, frescoed by the Vicenza painter Giacomo Ciesa between 1772 and 1773, with the representations (under Toaldo's provisions) of 8 eminent characters in the field of astronomy: Ptolemy, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Montanari and Poleni.
The "Giovanni Santini" library in Padua
The library heritage of Biblioteca della Specola is named after Giovanni Santini, director of the Observatory from 1817 to 1877. The library consists of an ancient fund (largely part of the Santini donation) and the modern library that has a great number of publications also coming from other institutions and astronomical observatories from all over the world.