HistMap : the european network dedicated to history of geology and maps

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The HistMap Project

The First Big Science Geological Maps, 1800-1900

The study of geological mapping during the nineteenth century and beyond raises crucial issues concerning the complex relationship between modern European States, science and public opinion. Yet, the subject has been so far very poorly covered by historians of science, of the formation of contemporary European States, of administration and legislation. This is in our view astonishing. Indeed, the constitution and functioning of State agencies devoted to geological cartography represented one of the first examples of "big science" established in the western world, and exported to selected colonial settings such as British India or Dutch Indonesia. The surveying, drawing and publishing of a geological map covering the whole of a country required a sustained effort lasting for over sixty years on average. Continuing Parliamentary and public opinion support proved vital when many of these ventures faced crucial crisis and damaging criticism (as it was the case with Italy during the 1880s, with France during the 1860s, or with Belgium during the 1870s), or when it was pointed out that none of the major economic advantages emphatically promised had ever materialized. Geological maps involved the work of scores of geologists, collectors, draftsmen, printers; the constitution of collections, schools and museums; the solution of litigations between state agencies or institutions, concerning the right to access private or military property, the disclosure of information on potential hazards or riches within a region or province. Finally, it remains to be explained why the Geological services of certain countries (England and the United States, for instance) managed to keep their momentum and prosper throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whereas others, the Italian in particular, or the French (in part at least) underwent dramatic ups and downs, amid general indifference. Geology applied to cartography, it has been claimed, has no place within the Pantheon of contemporary science. Thus, understanding the historiographic as well as the epistemological neglect towards one of the first instances of contemporary "big science" constitutes in itself one of the goals of the website we are launching, and invite historians of geology and general historians, geologists, archivists and research libraries staff from throughout the world to contribute to.

The Geological Map of Italy

In spite of a distinguished heritage and a strong comeback at international level, the complex history of Italian geology is a vastly neglected field. A handful of young historians are doing much to recover the significant past of a discipline Italy had contributed to establish, from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century. The relative neglect for the history of Italian geology turns into oblivion as far as the history of the Italian geological map is concerned, from the official inception of the project, in December 1861, up to very recent polemic surrounding the partial withdrawal of the State from its historic surveying mission. This is partly due to the haphazard preservation of official papers concerning the Italian Geological survey. Recent recovery and reordering by the Archivio Centrale dello Stato in Rome of an important and voluminous collection of folders monitoring the daily life of the difficult and often unhappy relationship between the Ministry of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce and the Geological Service, will undoubtedly favour much needed research. The State Archive papers should however be complemented with records once kept at the Head office of the Ufficio Geologico in Rome. However, a series of reorganizations, architectural restructuring and lack of finances have much reduced the survival rate of documents relating to an essential chapter in the history of contemporary Italy. Important sections of the Ufficio Geologico archives have been photocopied by Pietro Corsi during the mid 1990s. The original documents are at present unavailable. This is the reason why we have chosen to open this website by making available an online reconstruction of the archive as it stood between 1992 and 1994. Important archival material will be added, including newly discovered correspondence between key protagonists of Italian geology and of the geological map project. The website, opened on the occasion of the 32d International Congress, is www.crhst.cnrs.fr/histmap . As far as Italy is concerned, the HistMap Project relies on the team lead by professor Luigi Carmignani at the University of Siena, which has made available all the historic geological maps of the country, from the early nineteenth century to today. These can be consulted at the address http://www.egeo.unisi.it/.

Pietro Corsi, Universty of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. July 2004.

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Editeur/editor : Pietro CORSI, pietro.corsi@history.ox.ac.uk - Le site internet est hébergé sur la grille de services de la TGIR Huma-Num.