Luigi Ferdindo Marsigli (1658–1730)

by Anita McConnell

Marsigli coverL.F. Marsigli’s Histoire Physique de la Mer resumed and extended his earlier work and was finalised around 1710. He sent it to the Académie des sciences in Paris who read a few extracts then returned the manuscript to him. It lay untouched until in 1721  Marsigli travelled to London and Holland where he was able to negotiate with a group of Amsterdam booksellers who paid for the illustrations to be engraved and saw it into print in 1725. They expanded Marsigli’s original title of ‘Essai’ to ‘Histoire’, implying a universality that he regretted; moreover, when he received copies, Marsigli was dismayed by the numerous typographic errors.

As a young man on diplomatic service, Marsigli had been in Constantinople, where, intrigued by storiesof the two-layered Bosphorus current, he measured the saline outflow from the Mediterranean and its underflow of fresh water from the Black Sea.  In subsequent years he served as a military engineer in the Austro-Hungarian Imperial army, constructing bridges and fortifications throughout the Danubian region. During these years he continued to investigate the diverse  natural world around him, as well as its linguistic and historical background. After an unfortunate episode in 1703 where Marsigli and a colleague were judged to have surrendered the town of Breisach too soon, Marsigli was ceremonially dismissed.

Marsigli then went to Paris for a short time before moving south to the  Mediterreanean city of Montpellier, and it was here, walking along the shore, that he first encountered the accumulation of jetsam — including fragments of coral and other shells. In a word, Marsigli became fascinated by these relics of the submarine world, and he later moved to Cassis, near Marseille, where he took a house, set up a small laboratory, and began going out daily with the fishermen to see how they fished for the valuable red coral, and to pursue his own investigations of the depths of the sea, its salinity and temperature.

Marsigli initially supposed that coral was a mineral accretion. But  one day he discovered that a branch of coral taken home in a bucket of water for chemical analysis and left overnight produced ‘flowers’, convincing him that coral was in fact a plant. He spent many futile years thereafter hunting for its seeds, refusing to listen to local botanists and chemists who suggested that the flowers were rather ‘insects’ and that corals’ limy structures housed a form of animal life.

The Histoire physique de la Mer displays Marsigli’s findings in four sections. The original plan included a fifth section on fishes and other marine life but was abandoned as too much for one man. The first section, ‘The basin’ deals with the depth of the sea. Its large fold-out charts, clearly depicting the edge of the continental shelf, are well known to students able to wade through the somewhat archaic structure of the text. This section has brought Marsigli belated fame as the ‘father of marine science’. The second section, ‘Of its water’, gives his findings on salinity and temperture, with illustrations of the instruments and tabulated results. However, Marsigli recognised that there were many subsurface freshwater springs in this region, diluting the salt waters. His temperature measurements were uncompensated for depth and when Marsigli’s thermometer was broken at one stage and could not be replaced it seems that it had been graduated to some individual scale. The third section, ‘Of water’s movements’ was restricted by lack of a current meter (the instrument which he had earlier constructed for use in the Danube rivers was unsuitable at sea). A small tidal range, plus the effects of surface winds, made this an unsatisfactory topic for him. Section four: ‘Of plant growth’, is the longest and is prolifically illustrated in numerous plates. He gives the location and depth where each coral was found and in some cases its local name.  The title attests to Marsigli’s determination to prove, assisted by exhaustive chemical analysis, dissection, and argument, the botanical nature of his material. It is, inevitably, the least successful part of the book.

Robbers Hand
Plate XXXIX. A coral branch of ‘Robber’s hand’, with one arm in water, showing the supposed ‘flowers’.
Plate XXIII. The ‘salabre’ or implement used to retrieve coral from under overhanging rocks

The ‘Histoire’ was taken up throughout Europe by naturalists and by libraries. Some owners indexed their copies. A few copies are known with hand-colored plates. Over the next century it was plundered for encyclopedias. The original print run is unknown, but a bibliographic study by Jacqueline Carpine-Lancre in the editorial material prefacing the translation located one hundred and fifty-seven copies existing at the present time. An uncorrected Dutch translation was published in 1786.

The present translation into English comprises:


The life of Count Marsigli

Appendixes: (i) technical notes; (ii) Marsigli’s report to the Société royale de Montpellier of 1706; (iii) Bon’s recollection of the discovery of the flowers of coral, 1746; (iv) Monti’s report of Marsigli’s last investigations, 1746.

Jacequeline Carpine-Lancre: L’histoire physique de la mer et sa diffusion, a bibliographical study in French, with English translation.

Histoire physique de la mer

Original text, with English translation by Anita McConnell.

‘To the gentlemen of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Paris’

Preface by L.F.Marsigli

Preface by Mr Hermann Boerhaave

Natural History of the Sea

First part: The basin

Second Part: Of its water

Third part: Of the water’s movements

Fourth part: Of plant growth.

Tables and foldout charts included as part of the 50 plates.

The volume is bound in appropriate style.


Three copies of this book (original and translation) are available from the translator. The price is £100 ($165, €s 120), with payment incuding carriage, in sterling.

Apply to Dr Anita McConnell,

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