The fall of L’Aigle, in 26 April 1803, is commonly regarded as the event that turned skeptics into believers that stones do fall from the sky; however, Siena which fell almost a decade earlier, on 16 June 1794, set in motion the belief that stones fall from the sky, and the inception of meteoritics.
Historians have often argued that L’Aigle in the French province of Normandy in 1803, sparked the early investigation of meteorites. Dr. Ursula B. Marvin of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and former president of the Meteoritical Society, presented evidence that the modern science of meteoritics had its roots in the Siena, Italy fall, nine years earlier than L’Aigle. Before Siena, few believed that a shower of stones could come from the sky or at least consider it.
Siena was the first meteorite fall to occur in the vicinity of a sizeable European city, and the first meteorite to be witnessed by so many people, including English visitors, that the fall of the stones from the sky could not be denied. James Smithson of England, whose bequest led to the founding of the Smithsonian Institute, wrote a convincing report about Siena. Smithson happened to be in Florence and immediately headed to Siena upon hearing of the phenomenon. Smithson extensively interviewed local residents, and he reported it to Henry Cavendish, the British scientist who discovered hydrogen. At the time, almost no one believed rocks fell from the sky, it defies physics, and Frederick A. Hervey, Earl of Bristol, visiting Siena after the fall commented, “My first objection was to the fact itself [stones falling from the sky], but of this there are so many eyewitnesses, it seems impossible to withstand their evidence.” When subsequent meteorite falls were reported, such testimony was treated in Europe with less skepticism – except in France, where a number of highly regarded scientists remained unconvinced. Siena also was the first fall to be seriously investigated by scholars, at several universities in Italy, who collected eye-witness reports and specimens and formulated hypotheses of its origin. Their task was greatly complicated by the timing of the fall which occurred 18 hours after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Some believed that the two events were entirely coincidental; others thought that the stones were ejecta from the volcano (which was about 320 km (199 miles) from Siena and explained why rocks were burned and fell from the sky). No explanations seemed entirely satisfactory, but the well-observed fall at Siena opened a new dialog on this subject.
Afterwards, skeptics could no longer dismiss accounts of falling rocks as the tall tales of unschooled peasants, notes Marvin. For these reasons, the Siena event represents the most significant fall in modern times, Marvin asserted at an annual meeting of the Meteoritical Society in Washington, D.C. Thus, says Marvin, “the fall at Siena began a line of investigations that led to acceptance of Chladni’s hypothesis in 1802–a full year before the famous showers of 3,000 stones in Normandy.”
Marvin boldly claims, “That is why I conclude that Siena was the most consequential of historic meteorite falls.” I concur with Marvin.
About a year after Siena, the case for fallen stones was further strengthened by the fall at Wold Cottage in Yorkshire, England, on 13 December 1795. In 1796, Edward King, a Fellow of the Royal Society, published the first book in English on fallen stones. In it, he focused primarily on the Siena event, including Soldani’s book, and mentioned Wold Cottage. King’s 36-page book was widely read.
Wold Cottage and similar events convinced Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, that an investigation was warranted. He asked Edward Howard, a young chemist, to analyze the chemical composition of the alleged rocks from the sky. Howard read Chladni’s book and began acquiring samples of the stones and iron masses. Working with the French mineralogist Jacques-Louis de Bournon, he made the first thorough scientific analysis of meteorites and eventually confirmed Chladni’s work and his status as the father of meteoritics.
In 26 April 1803, L’Aigle was witnessed to fall by numerous prominent citizens including political leaders and business owners. Jean Baptiste-Biot, a French scientist, was commissioned to study the event and presented evidence to the French Academy of Science. His comprehensive report that included the first strewn field map on record, was the tipping point for Academy’s acceptance that rocks fall from space. Soldani, King and Chladni, father of meteoritics, were the first to write that rocks fell from the sky, but it was Baptiste-Biot whose report was accepted by the scientific community, including the French who had enormous influence as to what was accepted, that started the acceptance that rocks fall from the sky. These events earned L’Aigle a rightful place in meteoritic history. Soldani and Chladni’s books were ridiculed when they were first published. The combination of the thoroughness of Baptiste-Biot’s report and the large number of credible witnesses led to L’Aigle being the fall in which the scientific community accepted that rocks fall from space. It probably did not hurt that Baptiste-Biot was French to convince the French scientific critics. It should be noted that Baptiste-Biot was not completely accurate since he speculated that the stones and irons came from volcanoes on the moon, but he should be forgiven since he was pivotal in the scientific community starting to accept that rocks fall from the sky at the dawn of meteoritics.
Excerpt from my friend, Mike Bandli’s Historic Meteorites.com website about Abbe Ambrogio Soldani’s book “Sopra una pioggetta di sassi accaduta nella sera de’ 16 Giugno del MDCCXCIV” (“Over a Shower of Stones Which Occurred on the Eveneing of 16 June 1794”) which is part of my library collection, and deaccessioned from Mike Bandli’s library collection.
When it comes to early books on meteorites, few are rarer than Soldani’s dissertation on the fall of stones in Siena, Italy in 1794. The fall at Siena and subsequent publication of Soldani’s book were part of a decade long chain of events that helped propel the idea and acceptance that stones could fall from the sky.
In September 1794, only three months after the fall at Siena, Soldani published his 288-page treatise, which included sworn testimonies from eyewitnesses, distribution and descriptions of stones, and a fold-out plate with beautiful line-art engravings. In the end, Soldani concluded that the Sienese stones were of atmospheric origin and were of no relation to volcanism. [Soldani incorrectly concluded that the stones had “congealed” in the high, dark cloud and had no link to the eruption of Vesuvius, but he correctly deduced that stones fall from the sky.] Despite being wrong, Soldani’s work, along with the important works of Chladni, King, Howard, and Biot, would contribute to the founding of a new science – Meteoritics.
After nearly a decade of searching, we finally located an original copy of Soldani’s book. Soldani’s book is more than rare – it is absolutely scarce. WorldCat lists only six original copies preserved worldwide, including those in the prestigious libraries of the Smithsonian and the Museum of Natural History, Paris. Through extensive resources, we were able to identify only one other copy in a private Italian collection, bringing the total, including our own, to eight known copies. [There are more copies of the Gutenberg Bible or U.S. Constitution, then of the original Soldani book on the Siena fall.]
Below we present the stunning line-art drawing contained in Soldani’s book. The large fold-out plate is titled “Stones fallen from the stormy cloud on the 16th of June, 1794.” The plate depicts five of the Sienese meteorites as well as the “high dark cloud” that appeared during the fall. For many scholars, this was the first time seeing the depiction of a meteorite.
The provenance of the antiquarian books can often be as fascinating as the book itself. It turns out that our particular book has quite an interesting history. First, if we examine the title page, we will see a curious 18th century stamp (shown below): “Bibl. S. Eremi Camald.” The Bibliotheca S. eremi Camaldolensi, or the Library of the Hemitage of Camaldoli, was established in the year 1622. According to ItalyThisWay.com, the library “has a coffered ceiling including paintings depicting the Evangelists, the Apostles Peter and Paul, SS. Fathers Benedict and Romuald, the Fathers and Doctors of the Eastern and Western Churches, and the thinkers of the Benedicting Order.” Needless to say, it is a fascinating to think that our book once rested on such historic shelves during part of the 18th and 19th century. As an interesting side note, the Hermitage itself is celebrating its 1,000 year anniversary this year (1012-2012).
Some 80 years later, our book would continue its journey to the library of noted Italian naturalist and paleontologist Roberto Massimo Lawley (1818-1881) at Montecchio, as confirmed by his own private library stamp shown below. Photo courtesy of M. Bandli.
Behind the last page and fold-out engraving are 24 pages of Italian manuscript regarding the fall of Siena and Soldani’s book. Paolo del Santo at the Institute and Museum of History and Science of Florence shed light on the handwritten manuscript in Soldani’s book. It was anonymous and written by a merciless detractor, a mudslinger who contests, point by point and in a very caustic and sarcastic way, Soldani’s theory according to which the stones would have been generated in the clouds. The anonymous person writes, “On the contrary of the author [Soldani], we poor narrow-minded can’t see the pyramidal or prismatic sharp of the stones fallen from the cloud, because to see that one needs to be a mathematician, like Soldani, and to have a microscope [with reference to the microscope to which Soldani refers in the introduction of his book, and given to him by Frederick A. Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol].”
I wonder why Soldani would keep such a document? Did he keep it to remind him that this was the common belief he had to overcome or to preserve a piece of history that Soldani knew time would eventually prove wrong?
Since the document was directed at Soldani, could the book in my library collection at one time belonged to Soldani? Why else would a manuscript intended for Soldani be inside this book?
Ursula Marvin notes that Soldanite, named after Soldani, may well have been “the first official name for meteoritic stone.”
Krasnoyarsk (Krasnojarsk) was the first pallasite ever found that was studied for the first time as a meteorite in 1794 by Ernst Chladni, and led to the creation of the Pallasite group named after Pyotr Pallas. Krasnoyarsk is sometimes called the Pallas iron, the name given to it by Ernst Chladni. In 1794, two months prior to the fall in Siena, Ernst F. F. Chladni, a German physicist, published Ueber den Ursprung der von Pallas gefundenen und anderer ihr ahnlicher Eisenmassen und uber einige damit in Verbindung stehende Naturerscheinungen (Concerning the origin of the iron masses found by Pallas and other similar ones, and some natural phenomena connected with them), asserting the heretical notion that stones and masses of iron fall from the sky and deserve recognition as natural phenomena. He asserted that the falling masses might create fireballs in the atmosphere or even originate in “cosmic space.” These ideas violated a two thousand year old belief – first claimed by Aristotle, and later by Newton: except for stars, planets, moons, and comets, space was empty, and rocks do not fall from the sky. From the beginning, Chladni was severely criticized for basing his hypothesis on historical eyewitness reports of falls which others regarded as folk tales and for taking gross liberties with the laws of physics.
It would take the Siena, Wold Cottage and L’Aigle falls and the work of Soldani, Baptiste-Biot, King and Howard to start the acceptance of Chladni’s theory: that stones and iron fall from the sky. Those events, meteorites and people, in the arc of history, were the inception of meteoritics.
I would like to thank my friend, Mike Bandli for allowing me to use an excerpt and photos from his Historic Meteorite.com website on the Soldani book about the Siena fall and, photos of Siena, L’Aigle and Wold Cottage meteorites which were a part of his sublime collection. Mike has an extraordinary amount of knowledge and has taught me a lot about historic meteorites and people. I hope I can play it forward and pass along some interesting meteorite history to you. I would also like to thank my friend Martin Goff for allowing me to use his photo of the Wold Cottage monument and providing me links to interesting articles and BBC interview on Wold Cottage. I would like to thank my friend Dr. Arnaud Mignan (Tricottet Collection) for his vast knowledge on historic meteorites and people, and spending time discussing our shared interests. Lastly, I would like to thank my friend Dr. Carleton Moore, for giving me support and encouragement for writing these articles.
Ambrogio Soldani’s dissertation on Siena and a newly discovered manuscript on the Siena meteorite (historicmeteorites.com)
Siena, 1794: History’s Most Consequential Meteorite Fall by UB Marvin · 1995
July 2009 Meteorite Times – The Accretion Desk – Martin Horejsi – “A Holy Grail Met With Disbelief”
Bonhams : Siena Meteorite — Complete Slice of the First Scientifically Accredited Rock from Space
L’Aigle Collection | Falling Rocks Meteorite Collection
After the fall: in 1794, a heavenly epistle heralds the study of meteorites. – Free Online Library (thefreelibrary.com)
Wikipedia – University of Babes-Bolyai
Reddit – Literacy rate in Italy in the 18th century