In 1749, the celebrated French physicist Jean-Antoine Nollet set out on a journey through Italy to solve an international controversy over the medical uses of electricity. At the end of his nine-month tour, he published a highly influential account of his philosophical battle with his Italian counterparts, discrediting them as misguided devotees of the marvelous. Paola Bertucci’s In the Land of Marvels brilliantly reveals the mysteries of Nollet’s journey, uncovering a subterranean world of secretive and ambitious intelligence gathering masked as scientific inquiry.
The advent of electricity was a pivotal phenomenon not only in the history of physical experimentation, but also in the cultivation of popular scientific interest. Nollet’s journey was supposedly inspired by the need to investigate, and subsequently report on, claims of the use of electrified “medicated tubes” by their Italian inventor Gianfrancesco Pivati. Motivated by economic interests in the silk industry, Nollet’s journey was in fact an undercover mission commissioned by the French state to discover the secrets of Italian silk manufacture and possibly supplant its international success. The event that sparked the medical controversy—the unusual cure of a bishop—was a complete fabrication.
Bertucci insightfully contrasts published accounts of the event with private documents and discusses how eighteenth-century scientists published fictional events and results to bolster their careers, ultimately leading to long-lasting misrepresentations of scientific practice and enduring stereotypes. In the Land of Marvels reveals the constellation of historical actors, from reputed physicists to travel writers and electrical amateurs, who manipulated information to gain authority and prestige.