First of four children, he was born in Lecco in 1868.
He showed early a marked interest in natural sciences, induced and fed by frequent excursions to the Alps and Lombard Pre-Alps. By the age of twelve he had put together a remarkable collection of animals, plants and minerals. He was always very close to the mountain, dedicating numerous conferences and publications, and assuming the presidency of the Lecco section of the Italian Alpine Club since December 1889.
The youth of Cermenati is marked by his friendship with the abbot A. Stoppani, his fellow citizen, of whom he was later an attentive biographer. Meanwhile, at the age of seventeen, he had founded the monthly magazine The Naturalist from Valtellina, which was published only for the year 1885 and hosted his first articles. Two years later he began to publish an interesting and useful bibliographic work, La Valtellina and the naturalists, in which he reviewed all the writings on natural sciences concerning the valley.
After completing his secondary studies at Sondrio, he attended courses in natural sciences at the University of Turin. After graduating in Catania, where he had gone to specialize in volcanology, he was appointed assistant to A. Portis in the chair of geology and paleontology at the University of Rome. The following year he began to publish, in collaboration with A. Tellini, the Review of Geological Sciences in Italy, with the intention of signaling and summarizing all the works of geology and mineralogy published in Italy.
His interests, however, soon turned out to be more of a historical than a scientific nature, always concerned to go back to the original source to accurately reconstruct the work and thought of the authors treated. The studies of Cermenati in the history of science, a discipline then in its first steps in Italy, are characterized by a mixture of erudite quotations and celebratory intent, together with a willing search for original sources and a careful cataloging of bibliographic material; on the other hand, these were the salient features and limits of the historiography of science at the time, devoid of a broader philosophical and cultural scope, of that critical and interpretative capacity capable of linking science to the developments of thought and society, of to grasp the constitutive dialectic between theory and experiment.
After obtaining his teaching in the history of natural sciences, thanks to the support of Antonio Stoppani, he obtained his teaching at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Rome. Of his university courses, very learned and philologically accurate, he only published the summaries, from which it is possible to deduce that he had a very broad historiographical culture. In 1900 with the archaeologist Antonio Magni and the naturalist Carlo Vercelloni he founded the Civic Museums of Lecco, of which he was the first president.
Mario Cermenati and Leonardo da Vinci
But the scientific and organizational activity, to which the name of Cermenati remains essentially linked, is that addressed to the figure of Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, he spent most of his energy, not only as a scholar but also as a politician, to investigate, value and make the great scientist known. A passionate lover of Leonardo’s work, he had collected a considerable amount of material in his vast library (destroyed during the last war) and had dedicated many works to particular aspects of his figure and activity.
Among the most significant we mention “Around the” Mappello “, On the publication of the manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci, Leonardo da Vinci in Valsassina, The national edition and the fourth centenary of Leonardo da Vinci, Collection of the Vincentians. But the preeminent and constant concern of Cermenati was that of being able to reach the publication of the entire CorpusVincianum. The Italian political class had meanwhile become sensitive to the issue and, in 1905, the then Minister of Public Education had appointed a royal commission, which had the task of preparing and directing a national edition of all the works of Leonardo.
The political commitment, after that of a historian of science, in fact represents the second important aspect of his personality. In March 1909 he was elected Member of Parliament in the ranks of the liberal-democratic bloc for the Lecco college and was confirmed there until the elections of 1923, to which he did not appear. He received numerous government positions including that of president of the Vinciana Commission and of the Italian Geological Society. He died in October 1924, after seeing the first volume of Vincentian writings published, containing the first part of the Arundel 263 code of the British Museum.
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