Beginnings of General Relativity and Cosmology
in Napoli at Physics

ruggiero de ritis     giovanni platania

by Paolo Scudellaro []
retired from the Physics Department "Ettore Pancini" of Federico II University, Naples

Research on and teaching of gravitational physics as a field theory on curved spacetimes have a long and sometimes outstanding tradition in Napoli. Since 1919-1920, local mathematicians had already been teaching a university course on Riemannian spaces and general relativity  [Roberto Marcolongo, Bibiopolis textbook, photo], so showing a variety of interests merging mathematics and physics, triggered by relativistic theories, which still lasts. This slowly built a cultural environment in which, much later, more physical investigations could arise and, then, rapidly grow. People working in physics at Napoli have not in fact been involved systematically in relativity until the 70's, even if Ettore Pancini [physics department naming] had already been teaching here.

Since their very beginning, Neopolitan research in relativistic gravitational physics was built as an interdisciplinary investigation in areas of knowledge not really communicating before in the local physics community. As a matter of fact, the first naive studies and research in general relativity and cosmology at the former Theoretical Physics Institute of the Napoli University officially began, more or less, in 1974-1975. They were originally conceived as a joint venture between astrophysics and theoretical physics.

The first paper was in fact written by Ruggiero de Ritis, Laura Franchini, and  Giovanni Platania, and entitled The H.S. Group: Its Algebra and Its Galilei Limit (Il Nuovo Cimento B 34, 305-318 (1976)). With its main emphasis on some classical field aspects of Newtonian cosmology, it nonetheless timidly signaled the beginning of an activity that still goes on, now subdivided into several different branches. 

On the way, already in the early nineties, many health problems made it hard for Platania to efficiently continue his studies, finally leading him to early retirement in 2003. More seriously, as we said, de Ritis suddenly passed away in 2000, just at the apex of his scientific activity. While the last four years of institutional activity of Platania were dedicated to studying universes with torsion, including neutrinos, fermions, and scalar fields, by his side — as we will better see below, de Ritis concluded his work examining scalar-tensor theories and the problem of a varying cosmological constant, in connection with the presence of dark energy in cosmology.

These two theoretical physicists, Platania (first involved in producing evolutionary stellar models of white dwarfs at the local astrophysical observatory, OAC) and de Ritis (initially devoted to foundational aspects of quantum mechanics), can certainly be considered as the unique protagonists of the onset of most of the physics research and teaching on general relativity and cosmology in Napoli, later gathering a small group of students and researchers, who were first involved in the university course held by Platania.

In Erice (1973) Platania got inspired for the first time by some lectures about the cosmic microwave background radiation and since then he began to study and understand relativity and cosmology. Following the more or less contemporary publications of Weinberg's book, Gravitation and Cosmology  and Misner-Thorne-Wheeler's book, Gravitation, he in fact decided to change completely the usual programs of the traditional Spatial Physics course (essentially for the 4th-year astrophysics students), which he was appointed to teach starting in 1974. Formerly dedicated mostly to the physics of the interactions between charged solar winds and our atmosphere, the course changed completely and became an interesting bridge between the phenomenological and theoretical worlds, trying to conjugate cosmographic and cosmological issues, so containing both material like galaxy formation and classification as well as general relativity and standard cosmological models. 

Later on, while Platania still continued teaching in that course (which, with a lessening of the cosmography part, went on substantially unchanged till his retirement), also other students and researchers began to consider it as a valuable means to enter the field of gravitational physics. This, of course, made wider and wider the audience that, in so many years, has come in contact with many general-relativistic tools not only for cosmology, but also for other studies in astrophysics and theoretical physics.

On the other hand, while travelling to some other observatories and universities to get in touch with the most prominent Italian scientists at that time in the field (as Marcello Anile, Francesco De Felice, Mauro Francaviglia, and Francesco Lucchin), from the very beginning Platania asked de Ritis to join the researches. On his side, de Ritis also began to teach on topics related to relativity and gravity. As a matter of fact, most of (if not all) the students who got their degrees under the supervision of Platania and/or de Ritis had anyway followed the Spatial Physics course.

A still lasting sign of such a situation can be seen, for example, in the INFN Research Project Gravitation and Inflationary Cosmology (NA12), strongly wanted by Platania and de Ritis, who first led it. Later on, since June 2001, it was coordinated by Giampiero Esposito [Physics Department of Federico II University, Naples].

Other people also contributing to teaching and spreading relativity and cosmology in Napoli have come out, even independently, and they are now those who bring the whole thing on. Briefly listing some of them here, together with their main goals, we have to cite G. Esposito (for quantum gravity), Giuseppe Marmo (for geometrical approaches to field theories), Gennaro Miele (for quantum field theories and astroparticle physics), Roberto Pettorino (for quantum field theories and strings), Claudio Rubano (for general relativity and cosmology). Of course, others should also be recalled here, such as Paolo Scudellaro (general relativity and cosmology), Cosimo Stornaiolo (cosmology and black holes), Giuseppe Bimonte (gravitational waves), just to mention the most important ones. Sometimes they were responsible for specific courses only for short times, but they all nonetheless participated efficiently in developing and strengthening research on general relativity and cosmology.

Important but later roles have had Salvatore Capozziello and Massimo Capaccioli, who—for different and complementary reasons, contributed to the development of many of the now more present aspects. They essentially refer to the last decade of life that de Ritis could share with us. It is in the very first part of this period, after a meeting with M. Capaccioli and D. Sciama, that the underground interest towards many astronomical issues revitalized. With the collaboration of Philip Jetzer the project on gravitational lensing began to grow. The AGAPE group then took form, linking the university group led by de Ritis with some astronomers working on observational aspects of cosmology.

Skipping all of the many public and academic events set up by such a group of people, let us remember the local organization of Peter G. Bergmann's Celebration and the Ninth Italian Conference on General Relativity and Gravitational Physics, both held in Capri (September 1990). It was in this occasion that the Italian Society of General Relativity and Gravitation (SIGRAV) was conceived and organized as a society, a process which saw de Ritis not only as a very active participant but as a promoter (since then, he took part in all subsequent SIGRAV conferences, always bringing his cultural and organizative contribution). The SIGRAV was initially founded ``to contribute to the development of research on General Relativity and Gravitational Physics, including their mathematical, theoretical, experimental topics and their applications''. It now represents an important presence in the national general-relativistic community, still organizing various events, schools and meetings for Italian and international researchers in relativity and cosmology.

Also, it appears important to note that, in the years, some foreign collaborators joined the gravitational physics research. After the initial works with Daniel Pisello (New York), it is important to remember the way ‘torsion scientists’ helped to open new trends.

Following a personal suggestion by Tullio Regge (lecturing on general relativity in Napoli at the beginning of 80's), an investigation on relativistic theories with torsion and general relativity as a gauge theory of Poincaré group in fact began. At that time, only few groups in the world were apparently interested in torsion and only two or three of them concretely studied its introduction into the framework of relativistic cosmology. The small group in Napoli soon gathered some attention from abroad and got the possibility to stay in contact with Friedrich Hehl (Köln), one of the main scientists in the field, and the relativity Polish dean, Andrzej Trautman (Warsaw), who finally proposed Marek Demianski (Warsaw) as an ideal coworker. The first visit of Demianski to  Napoli (in 1986) lasted one month only, but was the beginning of a still lasting collaboration, signing a real turning point in the work of the Napoli group. Since then, many were the meetings with other remarkable researchers as, for example, George F. R. Ellis, Isaak M. Khalaktnikov and V. A. Belinski, while other later international collaborations were born, such as those with Irina Dymnikowa, Vladimir Lukash and Peter Dunsby.

Lastly, we have to say something about the role of the Istituto di Studi Filosofici, directed by Giovani Marotta, and Bibliopolis (a Napolitan editing house held by Francesco del Franco, an old friend of Platania, first, and de Ritis, then). Through them, Marmo and de Ritis could let scientists and students in Napoli know many interesting relativity scientists, both in cycles of lectures and publications.

addendum by Robert T Jantzen:
 [Welcome message for the Workshop in Honour of  Cosimo (Stornaiolo), December 1-3, 2021]

   "Transitivity of Friendship: the Human Side of Napoli GR"


cosimo stornaiolo
Born: Quito, Equador [but from Napolitano roots]
Laurea with Ruggiero and Giovanni 1982
PhD: U di Napoli 1987
[1991-1993 multiple visits to the Syracuse relativity group]
INFN Napoli researcher, retired
bob's FB friend since Christmas 2016

Why me? Why now? It's a long story.

I met Remo Ruffini (thanks to Edoardo Amaldi) as a sophomore physics major (class of 1974) at Princeton University in the spring of 1972 in a student initiated (thanks Jim Isenberg, class of 1973) seminar he taught on differential geometry for general relativity while in John Wheeler's modern physics class as Gravitation proofs were coming back to its authors. Remo never knew what to make of Bianchi's work used in spatially homogeneous cosmology, and as a project wanted me to help translate Bianchi's original long article from Italian. He would dictate, I would clean up. Of course he never had time, and I only had 3 semesters of college Spanish as a language background, but Spanish is almost Italian so I studied up a bit and managed to translate perhaps 90 some percent (it was mathematics after all!) and he did help me with the rough spots. It was later published decades later with the extraordinary help of Andrej Krasinski as a Golden Oldie in the journal General Relativity and Cosmology.

Without going into too much more detail about me, I went to UC Berkeley in 1974 for my PhD to work with Abe Taub his last 4 years before retirement in 1978, and in November 1975, Remo organized a late fall Erice school on relativistic cosmology (Mauro Francaviglia, Jurgen Ehlers, Isaak Khalatnikov, Volodia Belinski (?), Alexei Starobinsky, Kenji Tomita, Michael P. Ryan, Jr. were also participants, but the proceedings were never published and there is no record of it on the web)  and my first impact with Italy brought me together with Giovanni Platania and his then wife Laura Franchini with whom we struck up a friendship that resumed in the fall of 1979 when I spent a year at the University of Rome la Sapienza Instituto di Fisica (before the age of Departments in Italy!)  as a postdoc with Ruffini, followed by the next year in Munich as a postdoc with Juergen Ehlers at the relativity group at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, only an overnight train ride from Rome and then Napoli, where I had been firmly implanted in the circle of family and friends of Laura and Giovanni (although by then he had moved on to Teresa, also a close friend, and later Silvana, likewise). Ruggiero de Ritis was Giovanni's close friend (and the partner of Giovanni's sister for a time) so naturally he became my friend and struck me as the ultimate "gentleman" in spirit and action, so his sudden death due to a rare "flu" virus was a terrible shock. After Munich I was a fixture in Rome (and Naples) for at least 4 months a year (winter break, spring break, summer), always including Napoli in my travels, making it my second Italian city after Rome that I feel at home in, until my marriage with Ani in 1991 when my travel was usually limited to shorter summers, though we spent New Years Eve in Napoli (a unique experience!) the first two years of our marriage. Four decades and counting as a part-time American ex-pat in Rome!

[I later learned that Giovanni had traveled to join the Bergmann-Goldberg relativity group in Syracuse in 1970 as a grad student but left after 2 weeks out of homesickness for Napoli, but comparing Syracuse with Napoli, I can understand why! He got his laurea in Napoli 1972.
I also have 4 books from the Napoli publishing house  Bibliopolis foundedi n 1976 by a close friend of Giovanni named Francesco del Franco  whom I met once or twice, including those by Trautman, Francaviglia, Cartan.]

giovanni 1980  giovanni 1988

Giovanni Platania 1980                                                 1988 return to USA, guest of bob

In the later 1990s my collaborator  Donato Bini managed to win a CNR position at the IAC Napoli at Vomero and through a friend of his father rented a room in a half built building on a godforsaken hill behind Napoli (where a major hospital is?) which I visited in the winter once, nearly freezing. By chance another friend in our circle (through Laura) had a small studio apartment she wanted to rent within walking distance of IAC so I hooked Donato up with pleasant living quarters for the remainder of his 6 year stay (weekdays) in Napoli. A crazy American able to help out a Roman find a better place to live in Naples! All thanks to the extended circle of Giovanni. And Donato has cultivated so many connections with the succeeding generations of GR people in Napoli, and now one of you Gabriele Gionti has found his way to Rome to continue my long friendship with the Specola Vaticana (Vatican Observatory).
[I was the first guest of the scientific guest apartment of the Specola in Castel Gandolfo in the modern era of its director George Coyne [search, bob quote] and I was responsible for my friend Rita Callegari becoming the first administrative assistant to the director who was not a nun, and her brother Sergio designed their logo. vatican observatory logo  I spent all my summers in the 1980s as their summer guest, commuting into Rome.]

specola group photo 1998 gabriele gionti and friends 2019
Donato Bini center front at the Specola Vaticana 1998                     Gabriele Gionti final Jesuit step 2019

[Laura was close friends studying physics together at the University of Naples with Chiara Nappi (who wrote a 1975 article on 2-d spacetimes), physicist wife of Ed Witten, and when their oldest daughter got married in 2003, a whole gang of relatives and friends from Napoli came over to Princeton for the wedding including Laura, and Ani and I got to participate in their big Italian dinner (ositalitá napolitana!) before the wedding and I got to play tour guide for the group the next day when they did a tourist visit to Philadelphia.]

laura franchini in philly chiara nappi family and friends visit philly 2003
  Laura in philly 2003                           Chiara and friends/relatives from Napoli 2003 for daughter's wedding

Over the years I helped Ruffini with his  Marcel Grossmann Meetings every three years and got to regularly meet some of the people from the Napoli relativity community. I think for me at least physics was not just an intellectually satisfying field of play, but the key to initiating so many wonderful personal relationships on an international arena. Rome obviously through my chance meeting with Ruffini at Princeton that changed my life was the center of most of these, but Napoli has always had a close place in my heart as well. Cosimo Stornaiolo is one of the extended Napoli family I met a few times through the MG Meetings, but now for years we have been Facebook friends and we seem to agree on the many issues he posts about. Although I am not the best person to introduce this meeting in his honor now in 2021 after his retirement, I accepted this invitation to do so in order to remember the human aspect of our small community that we all spring from and the sharing of friendships that Napoli's GR community has been so effective in doing. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to learn more about it through Paolo's summary above.

Now my wife and I  anxiously await season 4 (if Netflix approves) of I Bastardi di Pizzofalcone to see how Alessandro Gassman extricates himself from the season 3 cliffhanger and enjoy many more scenes of the bella citta' di Napoli da lontano.

[For an overview of the Neopolitan side of gravitational wave physics within the larger Italian context, see
Adele la Rana, Leopoldo Milano: 
The early history of gravitational wave detection in Italy: from the first resonant bars to the beginning of the Virgo collaboration (2017) from a conference held in Napoli]

[Tullio Regge's wife Rosanna Cester was my junior year research advisor at Princeton: his autobiography L'infinito cercare  only in Italian is a gem!]

 bob jantzen 1-dec-2021

bob sapienza fisica ID
my only brief legal ID during 4 decades of Roma Sapienza Fisica life!
[Italian bureaucracy...]

quick links for 10 minute welcome presentation

a trip down memory lane about the Naples GR community as seen by an outsider.

If I run out of time, my main message is that physics is a social activity that bonds us together in friendship,
and Napoli has been a great example of this.
I wish you a successful meeting but it is way past my bedtime now!

Webpage with hyperlinks:

Postscript. Poem by Cosimo written for the occasion:

  We do not need
  to look for happiness
  beyond the horizon
  of our dreams
  when we have
  so many good friends
  and we love
  who love us.