Who is Who in Dubrovnik: Rudjer Boskovic

Lauren Simmonds

Continuing our look at some of Dubrovnik’s important historical figures, let’s meet one of the greatest minds the city ever gave to the world…

(image credit: DuList)


Rudjer Boskovic was born on May the 18th 1711 in what was then the Republic of Ragusa (modern day Dubrovnik). He was an extremely intelligent man, claiming the titles of physicist, mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, poet, diplomat, theologian, polymath and priest. He was a man of broad horizons, a fluent speaker of several languages and full of ideas, studying and living in both France and Italy where he published a great many of his works, he was even given the nickname ”Croatian Leibniz” by the German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg.

Boskovic produced a precursor of atomic theory and was a valued contributor to the field of astronomy. He is credited with the very first geometric procedure for determining the equator of a rotating planet from three observations of a surface feature, and for computing the orbit of a planet. He was also the first to discover that the Moon has no atmosphere, all the way back in 1753. It can be safely said that Boskovic, if anyone, was born long before his time.

Despite his incredible acheivements and contributions to the sciences, Boskovic came from a relatively humble background. He was born to Nikola Boskovic, a Dubrovnik merchant and Paola ”Pavica” Bettera, the daughter of a local noble of Italian origin. He was the seventh child of a large family. His father was an expert when it came to experience in trading and knowledge of the Ottoman empire, but the young Rudjer unfortunately only knew him as a sick and paralysed bedridden invalid, dying when Rudjer was only ten years of age. His mother, on the other hand, was an active, robust woman with a naturally positive outlook and extroverted personality, she died at 103 years old.

At the age of 9, one year before his fathers untimely death, Boskovic was sent to school at the local Jesuit (Colleguim Regusinum) after acquiring the rudiments of reading and writing from the priest Nicola Nicchei of the Church of Saint Nicholas. It was soon clear that he possessed an abnormally high level of intelligence and displayed a propensity for further intellectual development, gaining a reputation for having a fantastic memory and a very quick mind. On the 16th of September 1725, Boskovic left Dubrovnik and headed to the Italian capital of Rome under the care of two Jesuit priests. He was taken to the Society of Jesus, renowned for its excellent education of young people with 200,000 pupils under its care all over the world. He studied mathematics and physics in Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, where his academic progress was noted to be so brilliant that he was appointed as Professor of Mathematics at the college in 1740. Boskovic was well suited for this position as he was keenly interested in recent scientific advances, only several years before his new role as Professor of Mathematics, Boskovic had made himself known by offering a workable solution to the problem of locating the Sun’s equator and accurately determining the period of its rotation, using observation alone.

Despite the often hectic and rather mundane duties as university professor, he somehow managed to allocate time to further investigation in numerous fields of physical science, eventually publishing an impressive number of dissertations. Among them were the transit of Mercury, the figure of the Earth, the Aurora Borealis and the observation of fixed stars. He also wrote extensively about the inequalities of terrestrial gravitation, the application of mathematical science to the theory of the telescope, the tides of the sea and various problems relating to spherical trigonometry. He was consulted, alongside various other men of science, by Pope Benedict XIV as to the most stable means of securing the stability of the dome of Saint Peter’s in Rome following the unwelcome discovery of a large crack. Boskovic’s quick suggestion of placing five concentric iron bands on it was explained, accepted and soon adopted. Boskovic was ordained to Roman Catholic priesthood shortly after, in 1744. In 1745, the year following his entrance into the world of priesthood, Boskovic published ”De Viribus Vivis”, a large work in which he attempted to find middle ground between Isaac Newtons undisputed gravitational theory and Gottfreid Leibniz’s metaphysical theory of monad-points.

After having spent such a long time away, Boskovic only visited his hometown of Dubrovnik once in 1747 and never returned. He was involved in various scientific expeditions and findings, but was persuaded by the Pope to remain in Italy and undertake similar tasks with an English Jesuit who had measured an art of two degrees between the city of Rome and Rimini, Christopher Maire. Their joint project began in the dying weeks of the year 1750 and was completed in approximately two years, with accounts published in 1755 under the title ”De Litteraria expeditione per pontificiam ditionem ad dimetiendos duos meridiani gradus a PP. Marie et Boscovicli”. The works value increased thanks to addition of a carefully prepared map of the States of the Church and more publications slowly began to appear, with a French translation coming to light many years later in 1770.

In 1757, an argument over the drainage of a lake arose between the Republic of Lucca and Francis the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Boskovic was sent to Vienna, Austria, to try to calm tensions and find a solution to the problem, which he did. While in Vienna in 1758, Boskovic published the very first edition of his most famous work which laid bare his atomic theory and his theory of forces, it was published under the title ”Philosophia naturalis theoria redacta ad unicam legem virium in natura existentium” (Theory of natural philosophy derived to the single law of forces which exist in nature). The second edition was published in 1763 in Venice, the third in Vienna. Further editions followed decades later in London, the United States and the Croatian capital of Zagreb. Different editions of Boskovic’s work continued to be published until as recently as 1974.

Boskovic soon found another excuse to express his talent for diplomatic relations when the British government voiced their suspicions that warships in the service of France were located in the port of Dubrovnik, suggesting that the famed and admired neutrality of the Republic of Ragusa had been violated. Boskovic undertook an ambassadorship to London in 1760 in an attempt to prove the British wrong and save the character of his hometown. His attempts proved successful and after having adequately satisfied the concerns of the British government, he was elected a fellow of the high-flying Royal Society, making him a credit to his fellow Ragusans.

1761 saw the trigger pulled on numerous significant scientific advances as astronomers prepared to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun. Boskovic was infatuated by the idea and decided to travel to Constantinople. Travelling to Poland, Bulgaria and Moldavia before proceeding to Saint Petersburg, Russia, where he was elected as a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Sadly, a bout of poor health soon saw him return to Italy to rest.

After his recovery, Boskovic travelled to Laibach, the capital of Carniola (now Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia). He made himself known to the Jesuits and the Franciscan Friars in the city, who went on to incorporate his teachings into their lectures at the Laibach Jesuit College. His teachings in the field of physics soon became the foundation of physical lectures in the Habsburg Monarchy, creating a snowball effect and influencing the beliefs of some of the most well respected physicists of the time, including Carl Scherffer, Gabriel Gruber and Jurij Vega. The Rationalist philosopher Franz Samuel Karpe and Jurij Vega both taught their students about Boskovic’s ideas and discoveries.

He was called to to take up the role as the chair of mathematics at the University of Pavia in 1764, holding his position for six years with the directorship of the observatory of Brera in Milan. In 1769, the Royal Society of London requested him to undertake an expedition to California to observe the transit of Venus, but this was obstructed by the decree of the Spanish government expelling Jesuits from its dominions. He was ready to retire to his hometown of Dubrovnik when in 1773 the news of the suppression of his order in Italy came to his attention, this saw him driven into uncertainty and led him to accept an invitation from the King of France to move to Paris and become the director of optics for the French navy. Boskovic stayed in France for a decade, but he eventually grew tired of his position, claiming it to be irritating and sometimes hard to tolerate. Despite this attitude, he continued to publish many important works in the field of science, among them was a solution to the problem of determining the orbit of a comet and works on micrometer and achromatic telescopes.

By 1783 he had grown restless and abandoned his position in France. He returned to Italy, spending two years at Bassano before resuming his previous position at Brera in 1786. Boskovic’s health had started to fail and he saw himself frequently bothered with inconspicuous illnesses. His reputation had also lost some of its shine and his works were not selling well, he slowly but surely descended into sickness and depression.

Rudjer Boskovic died in Milan and was laid to rest at the Church of Saint Maria Podone.

Rudjer Boskovic is remembered and celebrated today, particularly in Dubrovnik and Croatia but by the world as a whole. His immeasurable contributions to astronomy saw a lunar crater named after him. The largest Croatian institute of natural sciences and technology (Zagreb) is called the Rudjer Boskovic Institute, and the controversial philosopher Nietzsche wrote a fragment titled ”Time Atom Theory” in 1873, a reworking of Boskovic’s most famed work. 


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