1. Introduction


Enriched by new pictures, a new exhibition dedicated to Vito Volterra by the CNR and already presented at the Jewish Museum of Rome in 2016 arrives at the Jewish Museum of Bologna. It serves as the opening event of the 2023 European Researchers’ Night, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the National Research Council.

Mathematician, physicist, senator, patriot, and Italian antifascist of Jewish origins, Volterra founded the CNR and was its first President. He was among the fathers of functional analysis, and was above all known because he inaugurated mathematical ecology with the Lotka-Volterra equations, which describe the prey-predator dynamics; in 1931, he was one of the twelve Italian university professors who refused to swear fidelity to the fascist regime, and thus was deprived of the prestigious academic positions he held, unleashing a damnatio memoriae of his public role in science policy, the effects of which lasted a long time.

 Empires die, but Euclid’s theorems retain eternal youth”, he wrote in the margin of a famous photographic portrait depicting him. With this exhibition, the National Research Council, the Jewish Museum of Bologna, and the University of Bologna intend to return the right acknowledgment to the excellence of ingenuity, the courage, and the coherence with which he advocated for the autonomy of Science and Culture, cultivating a constant democratic political commitment.

The exhibition includes a selection of original watercolor pencils made for the “La funzione del mondo – Una storia di Vito Volterra” graphic novel, Collana Feltrinelli Comics, in collaboration with Cnr Edizioni, 2020, by Alessandro Bilotta and Dario Grillotti.


2. The youthful years

Vito Volterra is considered to be one of the most important mathematicians of his time. He was born in Ancona on May 3, 1860; he lost his father when was two, and was brough up by his mother Angelica and by his uncle Alfonso Almagià, officer of the National Bank, the future Bank of Italy. In his first years, he lived in Turin and Florence, where he studied at the “Dante Alighieri” technical school and at the “Galileo Galilei” technical institute, showing a marked inclination for scientific studies; such interests found a hindrance in the economic situation of the family, which would have wanted to allocate the young Vito the commercial activity. The encouragement of his professor Antonio Roiti, a known physicist, whom had recognized the capabilities of his student, and the encouragement of one of his uncles, Edoardo Almagià, whom would support him in his scholastic career, were crucial for the continuation of his studies. He graduated in 1878 and enrolled in the Faculty of Mathematical, Physical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Pisa and the next year, after passing a difficult competition, he gets in the Scuola Normale of Pisa, where he receives the teachings of Ulisse Dini and Enrico Betti.

Graduated with a dissertation in Hydrodynamics, in 1883 he wins the chair of Rational Mechanics at the University of Pisa, when he was only 23 years old.

Captions | Didascalie

Left: Vito Volterra’s Birth certificate, issued by the Jewish Community of Ancona (Historical Archive of the Senate of the Republic)

Right: Report of the High Council for Public Education for the competition for the chair at the University of Pisa, 1883 (Central State Archives)

Captions for the additional panel – from top to bottom | Didascalie pannello supplementare (dall’alto verso il basso)

Volterra (the first on the left, sitting) during his university years (Courtesy of the Volterra family)

Volterra (in the middle) and Carlo Somigliana during University years (1881) (Courtesy of the Caltech Archives)

From one of Volterra’s notebooks: drawings of instruments shown by his mentor, Antonio Roiti, during the physics course at the technical institute of Florence (by grant of the Biblioteca Nazionale dei Lincei e Corsiniana)

Volterra’s teachers: on the left, Enrico Betti; on the right, Ulisse Dini (by grant of the Biblioteca Nazionale dei Lincei e Corsiniana)


3. From Turin to Rome

The move from Turin to the the Jolittian Capital coincided with the apex of his scientific career and marks an important step in the mathematician’s private life: on July 11, 1900, he marries Virginia Almagià, daughter of his uncle Edorardo, who had supported his scientific aspirations. Arriccia, on the outskirts of Rome, is the destination of the Volterra spouses’ summer vacations: a place where they could rest from the city rhythms and where they could enjoy the quiet needed to study. Volterra commissioned a cottage to the architect Giulio Magni (Velletri 1859 – Roma 1930), an exponent of a transitional style between nineteenth-century Eclecticism and Liberty. The cottage had been recently restored by Virginia Volterra, granddaughter of the mathematician and a researcher of the CNR. Today, the house is a destination of guided tours, and it hosts events. The cottage, the realization of which was accompanied by an intense exchange of ideas, is surrounded by a park characterized by a great variety of plants, on the model of the Italian garden, and by the classic maze of boxwood hedges. In Ariccia, the spouses host friends, Italian and foreign colleagues, and they can cultivate their passion for books and art collecting.

Caption | Didascalia

The Volterras with the Levi Civita family in the Arriccia cottage (Virginia Volterra archive)


 4. Between international scientific activity and politics

Volterra soon took an interest in the politics of science and in the relationship between research and the economic and cultural development of the country, also coming in direct contact with political figures of the time. In 1905, he was appointed Senator and immediately strived to promote the foundation of the Italian Society for the progress of Sciences and for the development of the Thalassographic Committee. At the same time, his international prestige was also strengthened, as attested by the documents in his archive, which evidence membership nominations to 60 different national academies and international scientific organizations (the Institut de France, the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg, Royal Swedish Academy of the Sciences of Stockholm, the Royal Society of London, the National Academy of Science of Washington), as well as various honors and memberships in orders of knighthood and the conferment of the Legion of Honor. In 1909, Volterra traveled to the United States for the first time, invited by astronomer George Ellery Male.

Caption | Didascalia

Decree appointing Vito Volterra as Senator (Historical Archive of the Senate of the Replublic)


5. An International Scientist

From the earliest studies, Volterra connects with the international scientific world (Henri Poincaré, Emile Picard, Emile Borel, Paul Painlevé), as attested, incidentally, by his personal archive, donated to the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei by the heirs of the great mathematician in March 1981 and kept in the rooms of the academic Library. The archive restores the overview of the dense relationships between the scientist and the scholars of the time, as well as with the representatives of prestigious international cultural and scientific institutions. The Fund is made of over 100 boxes with more than 500 scientific manuscripts, about 16.000 letters exchanged with 1.500 correspondents, 20 boxes of papers related to academic and political activities and to his teaching commitment. Such evidence documents the intellectual work and the leading role that Volterra had in the European scientific, cultural, and political setting. Among the documents held in the found, there are also charters with many Italian and European mathematicians. Within a few years, Volterra became a member of prestigious academies. He received honorifics and important roles; in 1893 he became a professor at the University of Turin; in 1899 he became National member of the Accademia dei Lincei; in 1900 he was called to the University of Rome at the Faculty of Science, of which he became dean in 1907.

Captions | Didascalie

Top right: Tullio Levi Civita (Padova 1873 – Roma 1941). Mathematician and physicist. His studies on absolute differential calculus with coordinates were the fundamental reference and the basis of the mathematical structure of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity (Historical Archive of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei)

Middle left: Corrado Segre (Saluzzo 1863 – Torino 1924). With Eugenio Bertini, he’s considered to be the founder of the Italian school of algebraic geometry. At the University of Turin, he initiates a great number of mathematical talents to research (Historical archive of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei)

Down right: Guido Castelnuovo (Venezia 1865 – Roma 1952). Mathematician and statistician, mainly known for his fundamental contributions to algebraic geometry. After the World War, he was a commissioner and president of the CNR and, from 1949, he became senator for life (Historical Archive of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei)

Captions for the additional panel – from top to bottom | Didascalie pannello supplementare (dall’alto verso il basso)

Volterra (the third on the left, in the front row) at Clark University, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of its founding, 1909. Under this circumstance, Volterra received one of his many honorary degrees, awarded to him during his career, by the University of Massachusetts. (Courtesy of the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives)

Oxford. Group photograph of academics in the cloister of the Magdalen College. Volterra is identified with a pen sign in the first row. (By concession of the Biblioteca Nazionale dei Lincei e Corsiniana)

Group photograph of the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures committee – Sèvres, Oct. 6, 1993. Volterra is identified with a pen sign, in the first row (the first on the left) with the Pavillion du Breteuil di Sévres in the baground. (By concession of the Biblioteca Nazionale dei Lincei e Corsiniana)

Volterra (standing) at the Lunch at the Hotel Lutetia, in horror of Paul Montel. Paris, June 24, 1937 (By concession of the Biblioteca Nazionale dei Lincei e Corsiniana)


6. The Great War

At the outbreak of World War I, Volterra was in favor of the intervention of Italy by the side of France and Great Britain; when Italy declared war to Austria on May 24, 1915, he enlisted, already in his fifties, as a volunteer in the Air Force Engineers. He was one of the most influential figures of the Italian scientific world, and in such a role he dealt with the bodies born in the various allied countries to coordinate the technic, industrial, and scientific effort aimed at warfare. Under this circumstance he worked, as lieutenant, at the Central Air Force Institute, a cutting-edge structure for the research applied in the military field in Italy. At the Institute, he devoted himself to a project on airships and on phototelemetry surveys, for which he went several times to war zones, earning his promotion to captain on the field.

Captions for the additional panel – from top to bottom | Didascalie pannello supplementare (dall’alto verso il basso)

Volterra at the front of an airship. (Courtesy of the Volterra family)

Volterra (second on the left) with his comrades. (Courtesy of the Volterra family)

Volterra (the second standing on the right) on a vehicle armed with a cannon. (Courtesy of the Volterra family)

During an inspection at the front, April 19th, 1916. (Courtesy of the Volterra family)


7. The birth of the National Research Council

In the early years of the 20th Century, the attention of the need for cooperation among the countries in the scientific and technological field rose. To that end, some coordinating organizations with international character were created, and their activity has positive outcomes. Scientists believed it was appropriate to make such organizations durable and stable and to establish new ones, endowing them with statutes and putting them under the coordination of a general Board. The first interallied conference on scientific organization was held from October 9th to the 11th, 1918; delegates of the science academies of the allied countries and of some neutral nations took part in it. For Italy, the delegation of the Accademia dei Lincei was given to Volterra, as director of the Office of Inventions and Research. The national research councils should have formed an international council through their delegates. With the support of the Accademia dei Lincei, Volterra, already by 1919, tried to form a research Council in Italy which would incorporate the already-existing scientific and technical bodies (the Office for Inventions and Research, the Central Air Force Institute), on the model of the allied countries. After years of negotiations with the government, in 1923 the founding decree was issued. In 1924, Volterra became the first president of the CNR, by appointment of the Accademia dei Lincei, where the new institution was based and where it had its first meeting. With these premises, the National Council of Research was born, and today it’s still the major institution for scientific research in Italy.

Caption | Didascalia

First report of the executive Board of the National Council of Research, chaired by Vito Volterra. March 12, 1924 (Historical Archive of the CNR)


8. Fascism

Volterra had expressed concern on the developments of the Italian political situation: between 1921 and 1925, Fascism turns, even from a legal point of view, into a regime. After Matteotti’s murder, Giovanni Amendola promoted the formation of the Union of Liberal and Democratic Forces, in which Volterra was invited to be part of. In 1925, he was among the signatories of the ‘Manifesto of the anti-fascist intellectuals’, drafted by Benedetto Croce. The mathematician soon understood that the strains of legality and of the Statute operated day by day by the head of government are the stages of a transformation in a dictatorial sense. In 1926, pressure began for the mathematician to resign from the Accademia dei Lincei, an eventuality that aroused a movement of solidarity of a part of the intellectuals towards Volterra. The marginalization of the scientist because of his political views occurred slowly, through harassment and restrictions. The CNR, at the expiration of Volterra’s presidency, was reformed, taken from the Accademia dei Lincei, and brought under the direct control of the government. Giuglielmo Marconi was appointed president. In 1931, the government extends to university professors the obligation to take the oath, already imposed on other categories of state officials. Volterra and a few other colleagues, though, refused, and lost their academic role; in 1934, the oath was required of members of academies as well, and Volterra was removed from the Lincei. Tagged as an opponent, he was guarded by the police, which controlled his movements between Italy and other countries, especially in France, where he maintains his scientific contacts. The appointment to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1936 is of comfort for the scientist in his last years.

Captions | Didascalie

Top right: Memorandum to tenured and tenure-track professors of the University of Rome regarding the oath of allegiance to the fascist regime. November 3rd, 1931

Middle left: Letter from the Ministry of National Education notifying Vito Volterra of his dispensation from service. December 31, 1931 (Historical Archive of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei)

Middle right: Draft of Vito Volterra’s letter to the rector of the University of Rome with which he refuses to take the oath of fidelity to the fascist regime. November 18, 1931 (Historical Archive of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei)

Down left: Phonogram from the Rome Police Headquarters to the General Directorate of Public Security, concerning the granting of a passport to Vito Volterra. December 19, 1928 (Central Archives of the State)


9. The Racial Laws

On July 14, 1936, a ‘Manifesto of Italian scientists’ proclaimed the racial purity of the Italian people and the alienation of the Jewish people from the national community. From the first days of the next September, some measures affecting the Jewish citizens were enacted. Preceded by a thumping press campaign, the racial laws were applied with particular doggedness the cultural world. Volterra and his family, already tried the harassment they suffered for political reasons, faced new difficulties. Vito Volterra died on October 11, 1940, and none of the scientific institutions could commemorate him; only the Bulletin of Mathematics published a memory, in the January-February 1941 issue, while the only remembrance is that by Carlo Somigliana at the Pontifical Academy. Abroad, the mathematician’s passing is followed by many celebratory initiatives. In Italy, only with the end of the regime and war, Volterra was the subject of a re-enactment by Giudo Castelnuovo on October 17, 1946, with the reopening of the meetings of the Lincei.

Captions | Didascalie

Middle left: Letter of Senate President Luigi Federzoni communicating the discrimination ordered against Jewish senators and their families. January 21, 1939 (Historical Archive of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei)

Down left: Phonogram from the Rome Police Headquarters to the General Directorate of Public Security announcing the death of Vito Volterra. October 11, 1940 (Central Archives of the State)

Down right: Letter of the Vicepresident of the Istituto Lombardo Accademia di Scienze e Lettere, informing Volttera of his termination, for racial reasons, as corresponding member. December 19, 1938. (Historical Archive of the Accademia dei Lincei)


10. Vito Volterra’s scientific legacy

By Roberto Natalini, CNR Institute for Computational Applications

Vivo Volterra was not only a visionary scientist, capable of envisioning a new society based on science, or the great politician and organizer who, as well as opposing the nascent fascist regime, founded the National Research Council. Volterra was also primarily a great mathematician, capable of opening up research directions that are still very much alive today internationally.

Birth of Functional Analysis

In 1887, when he was only 27 years old, he published two essays: ‘Sopra le funzioni che dipendono da altre funzioni’ and “Sopra le funzioni dipedenti da linee’, which are today considered as the first works in that branch of analysis that we call Functional analysis.

 Fish life and biological modeling

Removed by most of his positions by the fascist regime, after signing the ‘Manifesto Croce’, Volterra decided, in 1926, to devote himself primarily to studies in the biomathematical field, an area that was completely pioneering at the time and that, perhaps only now, is starting to enter its full maturity. In this context, Volterra proposed one of the first mathematical models for ecology, the one which is now known as the ‘prey-predator model’. He considered an ideal system formed by populations of preys and predators uniformly distributed in the same territory, and he hypothesized that at each instant the state of the system could be described by a differential equation whose unknowns were the densities of the two populations.

This is the model’s idea: in the absence of predators, prey exponentially grows and the predators, in absence of prey, exponentially decrease. If the two populations are present at the same time, their interacting decreases the rate of change in the number of prey and increases that of predators proportionally to the product of their density. The important result found by Volterra was to explain why, during World War I, due to the cessation of fishing-related activities, there had been an increase in prey and a decrease in predators. This paved the way for all subsequent population dynamics models that are still used in biology today.

Captions for the additional panel – from top to bottom | Didascalie pannello supplementare (dall’alto verso il basso)

Volterra is driven to invent the theory of functionals by the observation that expressions that depend on other functions occur in many analytical developments. But the taste for generalization and abstraction in him was always guided by the compass of problems of physics and mechanics which he finds himself solving. This is how this new mathematical language has permeated a wide variety of fields: from physics, to mathematical economics, to theoretical ecology. (Alma Mater Studiorum University of Bologna. Library of Mathematics, Physics, and Informatics – Mathematics Department)

‘Volterra’s Egg”. Model used for research into the motions of the Earth's pole caused by cyclic motions on the Earth's surface such as sea currents, atmospheric currents, and the continuous movements of river waters toward the sea. In 1895-96 such investigations were the source of a heated diatribe with Giuseppe Peano. (Photographs by John Vining, Huntington Library)

Volterra's pioneering investigations of the theory of elastic distortions in multiconnected bodies concerns some special deformations of elastic bodies that are not due to external forces, but to internal discontinuities caused by infiltration or subtraction of matter and subsequent welding. Such investigations have had relevant implications for construction science. (Alma Mater Studiorum University of Bologna. Library of Mathematics, Physics, and Informatics – Mathematics Department)

Diagrams of fluctuations representing the Lotka-Volterra system of equations describing variations in the size and composition of populations of coexisting animal species over time (V. Volterra, Variazioni e fluttuazioni del numero d’individui in specie animali conviventi, 1926).  (Alma Mater Studiorum University of Bologna. Library of Mathematics, Physics, and Informatics – Mathematics Department)



Graphic Novel Section

La funzione del mondo - Una storia di Vito Volterra

Watercolors exhibition by Dario Grillotti


Vito Volterra, a key figure in the scientific and civic history of our country, was also recounted in comic books.

The exhibition presents a selection of pages in the original version, before the text was added. From the book by Alessandro Bilotta (story) and Dario Grillotti (drawings), published in 2020 by Feltrinelli Comics.

In collaboration with CNR-National Council of Research.

In collaboration with CNR-IAC, Istituto per la Applicazioni del Calcolo “Mauro Picone”




Dario Grillotti (Viareggio, 1984) graduated from the Scuola Internazionale di Comics of Florence in 2008. He has collaborated with Giunti, Piemme, Kleiner Flug, Zanichelli, the IBC Emilia-Romagna and the Editions Delcourt. In 2013, he was selected at Clermont-Ferrand’s “Rendez-vous du Carnet de voyage”.

He is comics, illustration and concept art teacher at the Scuola Internazionale di Comics in Reggio Emilia.

He lives and works in Bologna.


Alessandro Bilotta (Roma, 1977) is one of Italy’s leading screenwriters. Beginning in the 90s, he published stories in Italy and France, among which are “Giulio Maraviglia” and “Romano” for the publisher Vents d’Ouest. For the character of “Dylan Dog” by Sergio Bonelli Editore, he created the saga “Il Pianeta dei Morti”. Other series of his are “Valter Buio” and especially “Mercurio Lo”, award-winning series set in early 19th century papal Rome. He’s currently in the process of publishing “Gli Uomini della settimana” (Panini Comics). He won, among other prizes, the “Gran Giunigi”, the “Micheluzzi”, the “Repubblica XL”, and the “Romics d’Oro.”



Screening Room





Continuous loop screening of the documentaries:

Scientists in Pisa: Vito Volterra’s Legacy (21’)

Edoardo Volterra. Life as duty, studying as passion (22’)


The documentary “Scientists in Pisa: Vito Volterra’s legcy” is dedicated to Vito Volterra; it was made by Alfea Cinematografica, directed by Stefano Nannipieri, and produced by the Association for the for the diffusion of scientific and technological culture “La Limonaia” (2006).

Wat’s left of Vito Volterra’s scientific, human and pollical legacy, and why has his figure been erased by the collective memory? The documentary tries to answer these questions through the memories of his heirs, interviews with historians and scientists, documents of the time, and Volterra’s own words.

Following his father Vito’s footsteps, Edoardo Volterra, a world-renowned scholar of Roman law, embraced the values of the national liberation struggle and remarked the importance of culture and research for the creation of a spirit of universal brotherhood, which rises above any pollical or nationalistic contrast. “Rector of Liberation”: this is how Edoardo Volterra is remembered in Bologna. During his mandate, he firmly based his actions on those values. The footage “Edoardo Volterra. Life as duty, study as passion” is named after him; it was written and directed by Andreina Di Brino and Marco Visalberghi, and produced by DocLab (2018).


The reduction from the original of the documentary “Scientists in Pisa: the legacy of Vito Volterra” was curated by Alfea Cinematografia, the one for the documentary “Edoardo Volterra. Life as duty, study as passion” was curated by Sandra Linguerri (University of Bologna).

Section “The territorial Research area of the NRC of Bologna | Sezione “L’Area territoriale di Ricerca del CNR di Bologna”

The post-war NRC inaugurated its activities on April 30, 1945, a few days after the Liberation and the end of the war. During the period of the reconstruction and of the economic boom, the NRC developed in harmony with the new national phenomena of urbanization and industrialization, becoming a driving force behind the overall growth of the research system in Italy.

Since the 1970s, the NRC has consolidated the role it has acquired through the creation of targeted Projects, the establishment of interdisciplinary committees and the construction of Research Areas. With the Areas, the aim was to aggregate organs scattered throughout the country in a defined number of locations. Connected to the different realities existing on the territory, the Areas have both favored the visibility of the NRC’s research results to the outside world, and a more adequate response to the research services demands of local institutions: universities, industries, social structures.

The research Area of Bologna was formally born in July 1977. In 1987, with the City of Bologna handing over the first 87,000sq. m. of land to the NRC, the physical implementation of the Area of Bologna has begun; it was designed by architect Enzo Zacchiroli in the Navile area. Architect Zacchiroli said he chose white and yellow as the buildings’ main colors “to brighten up the landscape on the foggy days of winter in Bologna.” A scientific Park has been and still is being developed here; in the Park, there is, among other things, a campus for the science and technology departments of the Alma Mater Studiorum, as well as two institutes of the National Institute of Astrophysics. To talk about the Research Area of Bologna means to talk about the complex issues of the environment and the planet, of the cosmos, of atoms, molecules and matters, of citizen science.

Captions for the images on the second poster on the right


  • Enzo Zacchiroli, designer of the Area; 2) rendering of the original project; 3) Eng. Zandorella, Arch. Tura and Eng. Grimaldi (from left to right) at the construction site of the great Library; Images 1,3 taken from the volume “La nuova Area di Ricerca CNR a Bologna”, edited by Paola Alberti and Carlo Salomoni, Grafis Edizioni (1994). Image 2 taken by the volume “L' Area della Ricerca di Bologna, organizzazione, progettazione, realizzazione”, edited by Alberto Bombonati (1993).


NCR facilities managers in 1994, shortly after the transfer of the Institutes to the new Research Area of the NRC. Photographic portraits of Arch. Carlo Salomoni, taken from the volume “La nuova Area di Ricerca CNR a Bologna”, edited by Paola Alberti and Carlo Salomoni, Grafis Edizioni (1994)

Introductory text of the first sheet of the 6 underglass series

The Territorial Research Area of Bologna currently hosts headquarters and territorial units of 7 Institutes of the National Council of Research, as well as 2 Institutes of the National Institute of Astrophysics, and it’s a point of reference for the other NRC Institutes present in Emilia-Romagna. Furthermore, within the Area there are entities engaged in industrial research and technological transfer towards the corporate world and in the valorization of the technical and scientific culture to the public.




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ultima modifica 2023-06-20T17:42:35+02:00
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