A Living Bond between Idrija and
by Branko Soban
Translated by Christina Strojan
Science has been ahead of the political unification of Europe
for several centuries and required no highflying empty phrases
or (too) expensive summit meetings. Scientists’ deep commitment
to their work, a passion for discovering new things and of course
the need to share their findings and knowledge with other similar
scientific souls around the Old Continent were sufficient. Two
great scientists of the 18th century – Carl Linnaeus and
Joannes Antonius Scopoli – were living proof of this.
They established a link between Uppsala in Sweden and Idrija
through their letters 250 years ago, while politicians only
recently achieved this when Slovenia became a member of the
EU on the 1st of May 2004.
Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) – who when knighted changed
his name to von Linné – was a scientific genius
of the 18th century. At the time of his correspondence with
Scopoli he had been a professor of medicine and botany at the
University of Uppsala for almost two decades. He was the co-founder
and the first chairman of the Swedish Academy of Science, the
court doctor and the favoured “princeps botanicoricum
mundi”, a sort of prince of flowers. He was the first
to put all of nature into encyclopaedic order. On the basis
of dividing the natural world into three kingdoms, Systema Naturae,
his great work, was developed. It came out in three volumes;
for flora, fauna, and minerals. “Deus creavit, Linnaeus
disposuit”, “created by God, arranged by Linnaeus”,
was how the great man himself assessed his work.
Linné renovated the taxonomy of animals and plants by
introducing a two-name system or binominal nomenclature. He
classified each species by the name of its order and species,
thus eliminating multi-word and often varying naming of species.
He categorised around 7700 plant and 4400 animal species. It
was he who proclaimed man to be Homo sapiens.
Joannes Antonius Scopoli (1723–1788) began cooperating
with Linné while working as a young doctor in the quick-silver
mine in Idrija, which at that time belonged to the Habsburg
monarchy. The mine had employed no doctor before Scopoli. As
an enthusiastic natural scientist Scopoli began exploring the
unknown environment around him immediately after arriving in
Idrija (that is in 1754 or 250 years ago). Thus he published
a book called Flora Carniolica, the first monograph which contained
around 1100 plant species of the north-western part of Slovenia,
the then Kranjska or Carniola region. He informed Linné
of this achievement by letter on the 1st of September 1760.
Giovanni Antonio Scopoli, as Italians write his name, was also
one of the great scientists of the 18th century. His biographer
Guglia declared him to be the first a-national European and
also “the Karl Linné of the Austrian Empire”.
He was born in Cavalese in the region of Trenton in Italy, which
was then a part of the South Tyrol. After three years of studying
medicine in Innsbruck he graduated with his paper on “The
Nutrition of Intellectuals” which would still be an interesting
read today. As the licence for practising medicine could only
be obtained in Vienna, Scopoli, after a few years of working
for Bishop Firmian, went to the capital to complete this state
exam. The examination lasted for six hours and Scopoli passed
with honours. Some sources claim that her enlightened highness,
the Empress Maria Theresa herself, came to listen.
The young doctor was promised an important state job in Linz
but due to court intrigue the position went to someone else.
Instead, Scopoli was sent to Idrija, where quicksilver had been
mined for 250 years but constant medical care had never been
provided. When he set out on his long voyage with his wife and
daughter, their craft hit a log on the river Inn and sank. All
of them survived, but they lost their possessions including
Scopoli’s books and medical equipment. Similar misfortunes
accompanied him in Idrija where he was to remain for 15 years.
He again lost everything in a fire which destroyed his home
and all of his family. He was later remarried in 1758, to a
noblewoman from Ljubljana.
The manager of the mine, who had so eagerly awaited its first
doctor, soon died and his successor was more concerned with
profit than the health of his workers, so he and Scopoli were
always at each others throats. Scopoli’s yearly salary
of 760 goldinars, for instance, had to be covered by the Miner’s
Fraternity Fund from profits made by selling wine. How ironic,
if we consider that alcoholism was an additional hardship that
plagued the families of miners already facing constant exposure
to poisonous fumes.
The care of 2000 miners and their families, scattered over the
surrounding hills, was for Scopoli a torment so, after nine
years, he applied for a transfer. As the Empress Maria Theresa
wanted to keep the scientist where he was she opened a Miner’s
School in Idrija and made Scopoli Professor of Chemistry and
Mineralogy with an additional salary of 460 goldinars. In 1769,
when he moved to Banska Štiavnica in Slovakia, the then
Hungarian Schemitz, the school closed down. In Slovakia he worked
as a professor at the Miners’ Academy and for the last
12 years of his life lectured chemistry and botany at the University
The rich flora and fauna of the unexplored surroundings was
a sort of counterweight for his personal and professional difficulties.
His key works were written in Idrija; the afore-mentioned Flora
Carniolica, Entomologia Carniolica (the first publication on
insects and other invertebrates which he was able to find on
Slovenian land all the way to Trieste) and Annus historico-naturalis,
five chronicles of nature which were completed and printed after
he had left Idrija. He communicated all of his research, findings,
and descriptions (for example, proteus and dormouse, two little
animals which were not known to Linné) to the famous
Swedish explorer for several years, but because of the great
distance they were never able to meet. Letters and packages
containing seeds, insects, or rocks also took widely varying
times to travel between Uppsala and Idrija; anywhere from five
weeks to 18 months.
Carl von Linné was a great scientist, but though he was
much older than Scopoli he had a great respect for his work.
The letters he sent to Idrija also plainly reveal his passionate
love for nature. What childish delight he experienced when Scopoli
sent him an unknown plant, the scopolia which grows in abundance
in the forests of Idrija.
Later this plant was named after Scopoli – Scopolia carniolica
– and an alkaloid, scopolamine, also bears his name; it
was one of the first anaesthetics made from Scopolia carniolica.
This plant is also a symbol of the Slovene society of anaesthesiology
and intensive care, although scopolamine was replaced with synthetic
anaesthetics a long time ago.
Though Linné and Scopoli are giants among the natural
scientists of the world, not much was known about their correspondence
even in Slovenia. Scopoli's letters in particular were only
known in fragments while Linné’s had been already
translated into Slovene by 1995. Thanks to Dr Darinka Soban,
a retired professor at the medical University of Ljubljana and
a well known anaesthesiologist who also has a lifelong interest
in botany and its history and evolution, these troubles are
over. Dr Soban has, after some years of diligent and in a way
arduous work, translated all of the correspondence between the
two men into Slovene and English from Latin (which was the lingua
franca of the scientific circles at that time). The work is
published bearing the title Joannnes A. Scopoli – Carl
Linnaeus: Dopisovanje/ Correspondence 1760–1775.
Thirty letters are collected in the work: 17 Scopoli’s
and 13 by Linné. The greatest merit of the book, which
was presented at the Slovene Academy of Arts and Science at
the end of October and given as a present to the visiting Swedish
royal couple this summer, is that for the first time all the
correspondence between Idrija and Uppsala is collected, neatly
arranged, translated into two modern languages and equipped
with the appropriate expert comments. The book contains the
facsimile of the manuscripts, Latin transcription, and the translations
of the letters into Slovene and English with comments. Thus
the reading public at home and abroad can equate the originals
to the translation.
The author and all those who helped prepare the book for printing
have renounced any payment in the hope that the technically
demanding book would be priced as low as possible. The publisher
– the Natural Science Society of Slovenia – intended
the book, which was published on the occasion of the society’s
70th anniversary, to represent to the scientific circles at
home and abroad Slovenia’s 250 years long involvement
in the European scientific space and as a celebration of Slovenia’s
membership in the EU. As the financial support provided by the
Ministry of Sport and Education did not even cover one fourth
of the cost of printing, the Society offered the book to five
ministries, Parliament and the State Council as appropriate
promotion material. The suggestion was greeted with complete
silence. This clearly shows how today’s political elite
values science and the great men who carried the name of Slovenia
and Carniola into the wide world centuries ago.
(Content abstracted from "Slovenija.svet January 2005"