Umberto Puppini

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16 August 1884
Bologna, Italy
21 May 1946
Bologna, Italy

Umberto Puppini was an Italian mathematical physicist who worked in hydraulics and became a member of the fascist govermant in the 1920s and 1930s.


Umberto Puppini was the son of Raffaele Puppini and Adele Rocchi. Raffaele Puppini was an assistant in electrical communications at the University of Bologna but tragically he died before his son Umberto was born. With no father to provide an income, the family would not have been able to afford to send the young Umberto to secondary school without financial support but, fortunately, he did receive support from the Saint Bartholomew orphanage.

After graduating from high school, Puppini spent two years, 1903-05, attending preparatory courses in the Faculty of Mathematical Sciences of the University of Bologna then, in 1905, he entered the Royal Application School for Engineers in Bologna. Among his professors at this School was Luigi Donati (1846-1932). Donati, born 4 April 1846 in Fossombrone, had studied at the Scuola Normale Superiore and the University of Pisa before becoming a professor of physics at the Milan Polytechnic in 1876. In the following year he moved to the University of Bologna where he taught mathematical physics. He was also a professor of technical and electrotechnical physics at the Royal Application School for Engineers in Bologna, where he became the director. Puppini graduated from the Royal Application School for Engineers in July 1908 with distinction.

Luigi Donati had been very impressed with his student so, after Puppini graduated, Donati appointed him as an assistant of technical physics and electrical engineering at the Institute of the University of Bologna. After four years at the Institute, Puppini was appointed in 1912 as an assistant in hydraulics working for Giovanni Cicali (1875-1952). Cicali, born on 25 July 1875 in Montecatini Terme, studied engineering at the University of Pisa and then in Turin where he graduated in industrial engineering in 1899. In 1912 he became professor of thermal and hydraulic machines in the engineering faculty of the University of Bologna. Puppini became a docent in hydraulics in 1912 and, starting in the following year, he was in charge of hydraulics teaching.

In 1913 Puppini published Sui fondamenti scientici dell'Idraulica where a reciprocity theorem for water flow in permeable rock is formulated, formally analogous to results in other areas of physics. This work led to him being awarded the Boileau prize from the Paris Académie des Sciences in 1915. The report to the Academy putting forward the case for Puppini being awarded the prize was written by Joseph Valentin Boussinesq.

On 22 September 1913 Puppini married Luisa Giordani; they had four children, Federica, Vittoria, Adele and Raffaele.

World War I began in August 1914. Italy had an alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany but did not enter the war to support them. The Allies tried to convince Italy to join them with promises of giving Italy the Austrian South Tyrol. On 23 May 1915 Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary. Puppini served as an artillery lieutenant. Warfare in the mountains of the Dolomites required engineering skills from both sides. Puppini served for ten months in 1916-17 involved in the construction of fighting tunnels which, as well as providing cover, led to better logistics support.

After the war ended, Puppini returned to the University of Bologna where, in 1920, he became an extraordinary professor of hydraulic engineering, being made a full professor in 1924. He published Analogie formali fra moti di acque filtranti e flussi di correnti elettriche in 1922. He then embarked on a political career, in parallel with his academic career.

In January 1923 his name was on a list of candidates for the municipal council of Bologna. The list was supported by a committee from several parties, including the National Fascist Party. The list candidates received over 40,000 votes in the elections and, in March 1923, Puppini was elected mayor of Bologna [2]:-
Initially reluctant to accept due to the fear of having to neglect academic commitments, he declared that he assumed the office in order to return to the city the good he had received, with specific reference to the institution through which he had been able to study.
He became a member of the National Fascist Party on 2 November 1923.

As mayor, Puppini was able to allocate funds for projects which were close to his heart. For example, he launched a plan to urgently upgrade Bologna's sewers, roads and school buildings. Even more closely concerned with his academic interests, he wanted the municipal administration to fund the construction of new building for the Royal Application School for Engineers in Bologna. In May 1924 he was able to inform the Council of Engineering Professors that the municipal administration would increase its funding for the University of Bologna [2]:-
His idea was to allocate funds especially to building works and the strengthening of scientific laboratories, while the director of the Application School for Engineers and municipal councillor Attilio Muggia would have preferred to assign the funding to the task of teaching.
We note that Attilio Muggia (1861-1936) attended the Application School for Engineers of Bologna where he graduated in 1885 as best pupil of his course. After graduating, he continued working at the School for Engineers, producing very high quality research and, between 1923 and 1927, he was Director of the Application School for Engineers. We will return to Puppini's work supporting the University of Bologna as mayor but first let us note that Puppini was still actively working on fluid dynamics.

The International Congress of Mathematicians was held in Toronto, Canada, in August 1924. Puppini attended the Congress, giving his affiliation as R Scuola di Ingegneria di Bologna, and representing the Associazione Elettrotecnica Italiana. He was one of the Chairmen of Section IV, Engineering, and gave two invited talks to this Section: Le Principe de Réciprocité dans les diverses branches de la physique ; and Azioni sismiche sussultorie su montanti verticali incastrati alla base e con carichi e vincoli elastici all' estremo superiore .

Returning to Puppini's time as mayor of Bologna, he wanted to support the University by awarding them a special 25 year grant. He presented an outline of a plan for the renovation of the University, agreed by all relevant institutions, to the Ministry of Public Education in 1926. The Italian Society for the Progress of Science held their 15th conference in Bologna from 30 October to 5 November 1926 and the plan was presented to Benito Mussolini at the Conference where he delivered a speech.

The 31st October was a festival of triumph for the Italian fascists when they celebrated the fourth anniversary of Mussolini's coup when he marched on Rome in 1922. Mussolini was in Bologna and, of course, was being looked after by Mayor Puppini. Mussolini inaugurated the new sports stadium in the city, gave a speech to the Italian Society for the Progress of Science, and then after addressing a medical conference was driving down via Rizzoli in an Alfa Romeo with Puppini when a gunshot rang out. The bullet missed Mussolini and passed through Puppini's top hat which he was holding on his knees. The gun had been fired by 15 year old Anteo Zamboni who was immediately set on and beaten to death by the crowd. [Although irrelevant to Puppini's biography, we note that some believe that Anteo Zamboni was not the person who fired the shot.]

The long dormant office of podestà for the head for the municipalities of Italy was revived by Mussolini in February 1926. The office of mayor was abolished and, on 26 December 1926, Puppini ceased to be mayor of Bologna; Leandro Arpinati assumed the office of podestà at this time. Puppini returned to teaching hydraulics at the Application School for Engineers and, in November 1927, he was appointed as director of the School for Engineers when Attilio Muggia ended his time in that role. Puppini continued as director until 1932 and during that time he played an important role in getting the agreement for the renovation of the University of Bologna, which he had worked on as Mayor, put into law which happened on 11 April 1930.

The International Congress of Mathematicians took place in Bologna, Italy, in from 3 to 10 September 1928. Puppini, who gave his affiliation as Director of the Royal School of Engineering of Bologna, was an organiser and a plenary speaker at the Congress giving the lecture Le bonifiche in Italia . Puppini was a member of the Ordinary Committee and a member of the Executive Commission. He also represented the National Union of Fascist Engineers. To see a version of Puppini's plenary lecture, see THIS LINK.

At the Congress, Puppini led the trip to Ferrara on Friday 7 September. The report of this trip in the Proceedings of the Congress is as follows:-
Seventy-eight members of the Congress participated in the trip to Ferrara, accompanied by Professor U Puppini, professor of hydraulics and director of the engineering school of Bologna, who guided them in the visit to the important work in progress in the basin of the Boicelli canal, which will have to connect the Po with the Ferrara dock, and of the grandiose aqueduct intended to supply water to the whole municipality of Ferrara, deriving it from the Po, by means of a very modern filtration and purification system. After the visit, the building company and the River Navigation Company offered lavish refreshments to the members of the Congress, who then, by means of numerous cars made available to them by the municipality of Ferrara, went to the city and were welcomed in the Castello Estense by the Vice-prefect and the President of the provincial deputation. They then visited the city monuments. At 11.30, in the diamond palace, the Podestà of Ferrara, Mr Ravenna, addressed the members of the Congress welcoming them to Ferrara, recalling the glories of his university, which had the pride of hosting the immortal Copernicus. Professor U Puppini replied on behalf of the members of the Congress.
Puppini was back in politics even while he served as director of the Royal School of Engineering. He had been elected to the Academy of Sciences of Bologna in 1917, becoming a full member in 1924. In February 1929 the Academy of Sciences of Bologna nominated him to be put on the list for election to the Chamber of the Kingdom of Italy. In April 1929 he was elected to the Chamber, serving as president of the parliamentary council for the budget from December 1930 to July 1932.

He did find time to attend the International Congress of Mathematicians in Zurich in September 1932 but at this Congress he did not present any lectures. Politics, however, was playing a large part in his life at this time [2]:-
In 1931-32 he was a member of the Superior Council of Public Works. In July 1932 he was appointed Undersecretary for Finance (a position he held until April 1934): Minister Guido Jung entrusted him with some technical tasks such as supervision of the Land Registry, State Monopolies and State-owned assets (Canale Cavour, Salsomaggiore , Montecatini, Postumia, Taranto). In his capacity as undersecretary, he also dealt with: relations with the Federal Institute of the Venetian regions and with some industrial companies; of technical and fiscal aspects of the road transport industry; with the Catasto (photogrammetric surveys, technical revenue services, realisation of the Technical Review of the Cadastre); with the consolidated text on surface and underground waters; with the electricity tax, and with expropriations for public utility. Finally he presided over the Commission for the regulation of local finance. In 1934, on the occasion of the elections for the 29th legislature, Puppini was again nominated by the Academy and elected to the Chamber of Deputies. At the end of April 1934 he assumed the post of Minister of Communications: his mandate lasted nine months.
On 25 January 1935 he received a letter from Mussolini saying that he wished to end Puppini's role as Minister of Communications and asked him to take on the role as President of the General Italian Oil Company (Agip). Puppini said later that his time as President of Agip had been one with many difficulties which had repercussions on his health. It appears that the many difficulties resulted from much corruption with people trying to take advantage, often in dishonest ways.

One of the tasks that Puppini had to deal with as president of Agip was taking a majority interest in the Mosul Oil Fields company which undertook research for oil fields in Iraq. In the summer of 1935 he visited Iraq to personally coordinate the research programmes and, after returning to Italy in August, he sent a long report to Mussolini on the technical and financial questions connected with the development of a crude oil transport system from the promising fields of Qayara. There was a major shift when Mussolini sent his troops into East Africa invading Abyssinia and occupying Addis Ababa by May 1936. The financial cost on Italy of the operation meant that Agip was forced to give up its shares in the Mosul Oil Fields.

In 1937 Puppini returned to his academic career by becoming dean of the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Bologna. This Faculty of Engineering was the Application School for Engineers under a new name. He once again concentrated on research, publishing papers such as: Alcune precisazioni sulla equazione del moto vario nelle correnti di acqua (1938); Sull'uso della legge di similitudine nello studio della resistenza al moto delle navi (1939); Canale in parallelo lungo un tratto di corso d'acqua. Studio delle portate e dei profili di pelo libero (1940); and La forma originaria del teorema di Daniel Bernoulli nell'idrodinamica (1943).

In [1], it states that one of Puppini's great strengths in building up hydraulics in Bologna was his belief in the importance of mathematics. He had:-
... an excellent knowledge of mathematics and the belief that the latter is indispensable for framing physical phenomena, to provide general and not just contingent solutions; and the fact of having a scientific culture not limited to its specific discipline, but with a very broad spectrum, so as to be able to grasp the many interesting analogies and possible synergies between different fields of knowledge ...
Giambattista Scarpi notes that he [3]:-
... was among the founders of the Italian Mathematical Union, President of the Institute for Applications of Calculus and of the National Research Council ...
One of his last tasks for the government was in 1938 when he was asked to advise on a project which was being pushed by Mussolini to build a seaplane base near Rome [2]:-
In 1938 he was called to be part of a commission set up by the Ministry of Public Works with the task of making proposals for the regulation of the floods of the Tiber, in order to prevent damages such as those caused by the flood of December 1937. The topic of water regulation was connected with the project - wanted by Mussolini himself and already partly funded by the ministry - of a large seaplane base and an airport to be built near the mouth of the river. Appointed as a hydraulics expert, Puppini judged the seaplane project "absurd from a technical point of view and full of unknowns." ... Invited to express himself in the plenary assembly of the Superior Council of Public Works, he presented his criticisms, without however being able to prevent the approval of the project.
During World War II, Puppini continued to undertake his research on fluid mechanics and kept out of politics. His Fascist connections and his working for Mussolini meant, however, that when the war ended he was suspended and his role was considered by a Commission set up to purge Fascists. Puppini presented a long and extremely detailed report to the Commission giving precise details of his role which he emphasised was 'technical' and not 'political'. He was reinstated as a full professor and restarted his teaching. This was cut short, however, on 21 May 1946 when he suffered a heart attack in the middle of delivering a lecture to students. He died a few hours later at the St Orsola hospital in Bologna.

Giambattista Scarpi writes [3]:-
He was a person of great moral rigour and honesty, a quality recognised even by those who did not share his political views. In this regard, I remember what Giulio Supino wrote about him in the obituary for the Bulletin of the Italian Mathematical Union: "He also had numerous public offices and they were all held with that unquestionable rectitude and that scrupulous sense of duty that guided him throughout his life and which made him admired by his disciples and friends and respected by his opponents. The renunciation of sinecures that were usually sought by those who held those positions, the courageous demeanour at the Superior Council of Public Works against the construction of the Rome seaplane base, the opposition to the chimeric sufficiency of liquid fuels, within the National Council of Autarchia (Autarky), are facts known and remembered by all.
The understand the full significance of the quote from Giulio Supino's obituary of Puppini, we note that Supino, one of Puppini's students and then a colleague, was a Jew who had lost his academic position under the Fascist racial laws.

References (show)

  1. E Mesini, D Mirri and P Macini (eds.), Nascita e Sviluppo dell"ingegneria all"università di Bologna (Bononia University Press, Bologna, 2019).
  2. D Felisini and F Salsano, Puppini, Umberto, Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani 85 (2016).
  3. G Scarpi, Le Discipline Idrauliche nlla Facoltà di Ingegneria dell"università di Bologna, in E Mesini, D Mirri and P Macini (eds.), Nascita e Sviluppo dell"ingegneria all"università di Bologna (Bononia University Press, Bologna, 2019), 259-272.

Additional Resources (show)

Other pages about Umberto Puppini:

  1. U Puppini's plenary: ICM 1928

Other websites about Umberto Puppini:

  1. MathSciNet Author profile
  2. zbMATH entry
  3. ERAM Jahrbuch entry

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update April 2020