Francesco Bianchini’s meridian allowed him to calculate the length of the year

Time doesn’t fly in Bianchini’s company

As a representative of Enlightenment culture, Bianchini is almost without equal

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

For many enlightenment figures, time was less a phenomenon than a predicament. Never had its role in physics been better understood, nor its passage measured more accurately. Yet the more tangible it seemed, the more elusive it became. Despite the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, Catholics were still not sure when they should celebrate certain festivals. Major questions of world history were unresolved, and political upheavals had left many rulers out of step with the times.

The Incomparable Monsignor: Francesco Bianchini’s World of Science, History and Court Intrigue, J.L. Heilbron (Oxford University Press, £20)

If anyone could put things right, it was Francesco Bianchini (1662–1729). As John Heilbron points out in this biography, contemporaries regarded him as the greatest Italian of his day. According to a Roman epigram, there was nothing he could not understand — and everything seemed to interest him, especially time.

Born in Verona to a family of merchants, Bianchini had a voracious appetite for learning, even as a young man. At the University of Padua, where he was sent to study theology, he steeped himself in Galilean science, plotted a comet’s path and observed “fickle” variable stars — all whilst boning up on numismatics and ancient history in his spare time. It was in Rome that he came into his own. Under the patronage of Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (later Pope Alexander VIII), he embarked on a history of the world from Creation to the present.

This was hardly new. Such “universal” histories were two-a-penny. What set Bianchini apart was his approach. Rather than relying on documentary evidence, he also drew on monuments, paintings, coins and inscriptions — as well as mathematics and astronomy. On this basis, he “proved” that the Creation took place 4,000 years before Augustus’s reign and “reconciled” biblical chronology with Egyptian and Greek history.

Bianchini’s history catapulted him to the forefront of Roman intellectual life. No longer “just” a brilliant scientist, he became known as time’s foremost wrangler. It was no surprise that, when in 1700 Roman churches inadvertently celebrated Easter a week late, Pope Clement XI asked Bianchini to prevent such a scandal from happening again. This was no easy task. Since the date of Easter was determined by the moon, Bianchini had to verify whether the Gregorian calendar itself was at fault and find a way of predicting when Easter should be celebrated in any given year.

His meridian saved the Gregorian calendar from disaster

To do this, it was decided he should build a meridian in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The idea was simple. A line would be drawn on the floor, from north to south. At noon each day, the sun would shine onto the line through a small hole in the wall. At the winter solstice, the light would touch the line furthest away from the wall, whilst at the summer solstice, it would appear closest. With this information, it should be possible to calculate the length of the year — as well as the relationship between the solar and lunar cycles needed to fix Church holidays.

The trouble was, if the line was out by even a fraction of a degree, it would be useless. Bianchini was more than up to the challenge. Still in perfect working order, his meridian was the most accurate ever built — and it saved the Gregorian calendar from disaster.

Bianchini’s success brought new opportunities. After declining an invitation to head a “Republic of Italian Letters”, he accepted a commission to serve as a papal diplomat. At the time, Europe was in chaos. The War of the Spanish Succession was raging, and James Stuart — the son of the deposed James II — was desperate to reclaim the English crown. Following a trip to Naples, Bianchini was sent to bolster the papacy’s ties with Louis XIV and to gauge Jacobite support in England.

Whilst abroad, he jumped at the chance to meet with other scientists. In London, he befriended Isaac Newton and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. The Stuarts remained his focus, however. On his return, he was tasked with keeping James company in Urbino. He was then sent to Bologna to welcome the pretender’s bride, Maria Sobieska, on her arrival from Poland. Gamely, he tried to interest James in astronomy, but their relationship grew strained. Like many of James’s other endeavours, it ended bitterly.

Freed from distractions, Bianchini threw himself back into research. When remains of Domitian’s palace were unearthed, he reconstructed the floor plan and later oversaw the excavation of a columbarium on the Appian Way. That wasn’t the half of it. With unfailing energy, he produced an edition of the Liber pontificalis (a history of the popes), used astronomical data to “prove” the crucifixion occurred on Friday, 26 March in the year 28, surveyed the Papal States and even mapped the features of Venus. He was still planning new projects when he died.

Unfortunately, Heilbron’s enthusiasm is rarely infectious

No one could claim that Bianchini was a pioneer. For all its accuracy, his meridian did no more than confirm Cassini’s earlier findings; his historical research had no lasting impact; his “observations” of Venus hindered rather than helped our understanding of the planet. Yet as a representative of Enlightenment culture, Bianchini is almost without equal — and in Heilbron, he has found a worthy biographer. As a work of scholarship, this book is impeccable. Marshalling a vast array of material, Heilbron does an excellent job of explaining Bianchini’s importance. He writes with authority and — what is more unusual — genuine passion.

Unfortunately, Heilbron’s enthusiasm is rarely infectious. He is so caught up in the detail that he often struggles to see the wood for the trees. Particularly when discussing Bianchini’s historical writings, the narrative thread disappears amid a mass of inessential (and confusing) information. Now and then, Heilbron seems aware of this. “[A]re you following, dear reader?” is a typical aside. Still he goes on.

To his credit, Heilbron does try to inject some drama into an otherwise dry story — but it almost invariably misfires. Early on, we are told that Bianchini’s father was implicated in a murder “closely enough that it took his … son two years to persuade the authorities to drop the charges”. This is exciting stuff. Yet we are never told who was murdered, why Bianchini’s father was caught up in the affair or how his innocence was established.

It is the same with Maria Sobieska’s journey to Italy. This was a real adventure, full of danger and derring-do, and Heilbron leads us to expect that Bianchini played a pivotal role. Aside from greeting the bride with a cantata and a speech, he doesn’t seem to have done much. It’s quite the anti-climax.

Most frustratingly, Bianchini the man barely gets a look-in. We are left with little sense of his personality or motivations. We hear a lot about the people he met on his travels, the gifts that were offered and the clothes that were worn. That’s about it. Although Heilbron asserts that Bianchini “enjoyed playing politics” and engaged in “court intrigue”, there is little sign that he did much of either. It all feels rather hollow.

This is not to impugn Heilbron’s biography. For all its flaws, it is still a fine achievement. Time spent reading The Incomparable Monsignor will certainly not be wasted — just don’t expect it to pass quickly.

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