Francesco Faa di Bruno, priest, mathematician, & ?

As I wandered through the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia the other day I stumbled over Father Francesco Faa di Bruno. Born in Alessandria, Piemonte (later part of Italy) in 1825, he died in Turin, Italy in 1888. 

The Encyclopedia said that he was an Italian mathematician and priest. It also said he was a captain in the (Sardinian) army, studied under Cauchy in Paris, hung out with Leverrier (discoverer of Neptune), and enjoyed the company of Hermite, another Catholic mathematician. (The description of Hermite’s mathematical contributions is so elevated that I have never had any idea what it means.) Faa di Bruno taught at the University of Turin and was eventually ordained as a priest. Also he invented some stuff, composed some melodies, and made important contributions to mathematics (forty papers). Sounded interesting if a bit dry.

Well … I have found that the University of Saint Andrew in Scotland has a fabulous website about mathematical history and it’s always a good idea to look up my Catholic scientists there for more information. So I did.


Faa di Bruno is best known for his formula for the nth derivative of a composition of functions.

He was beatified in 1988.

!!! That was a surprise! According to the article, Blessed Francesco Faa di Bruno was originally working on a career in the army, for which purposes he studied topography and languages. He did not enjoy the fighting and gave up that career. When Victor Emmanuel became King of Sardinia, he wanted Faa di Bruno as a tutor for his children because he recognized the man’s exceptional scholarly qualities. However, says the article, Faa di Bruno was well known to be devout and the king was under pressure to appoint a secular candidate. ***

Instead Faa di Bruno went to Paris to study. There he also helped in local parishes and visited the poor. When he returned to Turin, he wished to continue this work. Inevitably, in Turin he met (Saint) John Bosco, and ended up helping Bosco in various charitable works, besides his own efforts. In particular, he was good about hospitals and sanitation, as well as educational opportunities for the poor (especially teaching them religion and science). He did compose well-respected music, and he set up a Foucault Pendulum in one of his churches.

Also in 1859 Faà di Bruno founded … a Society to promote Sunday observance and to protect workers who were being forced to work on Sundays. He was president of the Society and Bosco accepted the role of vice-president.

I have skimmed over the difficulties of the time in being an Italian patriot and being a Catholic but they were very real and entangled many of the Italian Catholic scientists.

It makes a certain amount of sense that the University of Saint Andrews has a better article about Faa di Bruno than the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1908. Maybe … ??

*** As you might have seen, reading about some of the medieval saints and Dante, “Italy” was a collection of city-states, and other kingdoms of various kinds. Included in the general area were the northeastern territory around Milan, known as the Piemonte, and the Island of Sardinia. These two bits, Piemonte and Sardinia, were early allies in the effort to unite parts of the Italian peninsula into a nation called Italy. Other parts such as Naples and Sicily, were united in the later 1800’s, either peacefully or violently. Victor Emmanuel became King Victor Emmanuel II, the first head of the united Italy.

In the process the Vatican lost any territory besides Vatican City. Estrangement lasted until the 1930’s. A lot of people insisted that because Catholics would not put the state above ALL, they should be banned from jobs. Some of Blessed Faa di Bruno’s troubles came from this secularizing effort.

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