This work examines the life of Giovanni Fortunato Bianchini and his first studies on the
subterranean course of the river Timavo.
By reading some of this author’s writings sent to Count Guido Cobenzl in 1754 some
interesting aspects on the hypothetical subterranean course of the river Timavo come to
light: such works, carried out in the ancient County of Gorizia, can be considered as the
first scientific research on the subject.
Giovanni Fortunato Bianchini e le prime ricerche sul Timavo
sotterraneo nell'antica Contea di Gorizia.
Nel presente lavoro, attraverso la rivisitazione della vita e gli studi di Giovanni Fortunato
Bianchini, vengono prese in esame le prime ricerche sul percorso sotterraneo del Timavo.
Dalla lettura di alcuni scritti di questo Autore, inviati al conte Guido Cobenzl nel 1754, si
vengono a conoscere alcuni particolari molto interessanti su quelle che potrebbero essere
considerate le prime indagini scientifiche, per determinare l’ipotetico percorso sotterraneo
del Timavo, condotte nell’antica Contea di Gorizia.
We can talk about a personality as that of Giovanni Fortunato Bianchini only
considering the historical period in which he lived.
It is a common place to believe that in the area of the ancient County of
Gorizia we can’t find famous scientists of the Karst phenomenon (Carsism).
If we consider this particular area of geographic sciences, we can find in the
past different authors who studied Carsism and investigated about the
subterranean course of river Timavo.
There is also a legend about Dante who, during his continuous wandering, was
guest by Enrico II Count of Gorizia; it is told that during his short stay in this
city, he visited the famous Caves in Postumia.
In the past it was believed even to recognise Dante’s signature among the
graffiti that appeare on the surfaces of the so-called cave: “Grotta dei nomi
Only few people know instead that he was attracted by a small cave near
Tolmino (Slovenia).
The cave and the atmospheare of the river Tolminca impressed the great poet
so much, that it was told he foud inspiration in these places to write the
beginning of his Inferno 1.
For people who know this place, his lines: “nel mezzo di cammin di nostra vita mi
ritrovai in una selva oscura, chè la dritta via era smarrita“, are suitable to the place
visited by the poet.
We don’t know if this information is true or if it is only a legend, but as a
memory of this visit not far from Tolmino - at that time part of the Country of
Gorizia- we can still find a cave called “Grotta di Dante” (Dantejeva Jama).
By its entrance there is a slab on which it is written that the cave was visited by
Dante in 1319 (picture n.1).
Picture n. 1. Old postcard copy of an ancient engroving of Dante in the Tolmino cave.
According to Tiraboschi’s “Storia della Letteratura Italiana” -Tome VIII, page 388- the
Divina Commedia was inspired to the poet by the atmospheare around the Castle of
Tolmino. (Collection M. Tavagnutti).
With regard to the “Divina Commedia”, Tiraboschi says in his “Storia della Letteratura Italiana” tomo
VIII page 388: “... Altri danno per patria a questo poema la città di Udine e il castello di Tolmino nel
This can be considered the most ancient proof of a “speleological” exploration
in the area of Gorizia.
Although the first written documents of possible speleological activities are
dated by the second half of 1800, we have to point out that we can find older
sporadic news about solitary cave-explorations.
Usually these explorations were made by men, the so-called “Christalhunters”, who explorate the subterranean areas to search minerals and precious
materials, as in particular, iron.
In this way a noble man from Cividale, named Virgilio Formentini, ruler of the
territory of Tolmino and Idria -whose family will have lived permanentely in
Gorizia- finded out in 1497 and exploited the mercury-mines of Idria.
We know that at the time the christal-search was made often following the
mineral vein inside the natural caves. This activity was quite diffused in the
valleys of high-Isonzo and probably was made also in Idria by family
I visited one of that caves in the high Trenta valley (Slovenia) and finded out
that these ancient explorators were real speleologists. At first explorations in
the territory of Gorizia were only practical activities with economical results;
on the contrary in Triest the speleology was born as a real need to find potable
The geographical position of Gorizia, which is a hilly and mountain district
crossed by the river Isonzo and already provided with water, led speleological
searches in a different and more profitable direction: in Trenta, infact,
developed a quite good mining activity of iron minerals.
Aroud the first half of 1700 we meet a man, Giovanni Fortunato Bianchini,
who, following the signs of Father Pietro Imperati from Duino about the
subterranean continuity between river Recca2 and Timavo, explored
sistematically the caves of Carso looking for the subterranean river.
In spite of the present knowledge, he discovered that the first scientifical
researches to prove the subterranean course of the ancient river Timavo were
made in Gorizia around the 1800, as Forti3 said.
In the first years of 1700, following the idea of Imperati, Bianchini looked for
to find why the flow of Timavo near Duino was larger than that of Recca. At
first he supposed possible solutions of the thing; than through careful
observations he studied the problem in a scientifical way, becaming a real
This is the name of the river as you can read it in the original Bianchini’s text. Also Cantinelli used it.
Nowadays the slovenian name of the river is Reka.
Forti F. 1989. Il Timavo. Il “problema Timavo” : storia delle ricerche speleologiche. Edition B & M
Fachin, Trieste: pages 209-237. Concerning the searches on Timavo the author affirms -page 209-:
“......Indagini queste iniziate fin dalla più remota antichità, ma che solo agli inizi dell’800 ebbero una
motivazione scientifica...”
speleologist: this is a new attitude to search the geografical situation of that
Near Bianchini we can find an other famous citizen of Gorizia, who studied the
subterranean areas: the nobleman Carlo Cantinelli, born in Gorizia in 1780.
In 1797 he began to serve in the army and had a wordly career. In 1854 the
emperor decorated him with the iron crown of 3rd class and the austrian
The personality of Cantinelli is important in this case because he was the first
who wrote about river Timavo in a scientifical way. This proves the great
interest towards the misterious subterranean river at that time.
Between 1884 and 1900 Gorizia was an intellectual active city specially from
the point of view of natural sciencies. In 1884 Carl von Czörnig, a baron of
Gorizia, during a conference in Paris, presented a detailed account whose title
was: “L’Isonzo, il fiume più recente d’Italia”(picture n. 2-3).
Picture n. 2. Rapresentation of the ancient course of the river Isonzo in the medieval period
according to Czörnig. (Collection M. Tavagnutti).
Picture n. 3. Rapresentation of the ancient course of the river Isonzo in the Roman period
according to Czörnig. (Collection M. Tavagnutti).
In his account, in accordance with the ideas of ancient writers, he describes the
existence of a great lake in the high leg of the river and a second great
catchment basin in the middle leg of river Isonzo, whose water, through the
caves situated in the Carso in the south part of Gorizia, give origin to the
suterranean course of river Timavo. Czörnig wrote: “… Le acque dell’Isonzo
medio, cioè quelle dell’Idria colla Baca si volsero dall’altra parte. Esse assunsero il loro
corso presente (it refers to the year 1884 -author’s note-) fino a quella località
situata sotto la città di Gorizia, ove presso il pendio del Carso si trovava un lago che
riceveva a occidente detto fiume, (allora nominato Sontius) a oriente invece il Vipacco
(allora denominato Frigidus). Questo lago aveva un livello d’acqua circa 16 metri più alto
del fiume odierno e si riversava nelle caverne del Carso. All’uscita del medesimo (dopo
un percorso sotterraneo di circa un miglio) le sue acque causa la forte pressione del lago
molto più alto e le strette aperture, sgorgavano con straordinaria velocità e gran rumore,
costituendo l’ammirato fiume Timavo che venne illustrato da quasi tutti i poeti e geografi
dell’età classica. ...” (A. Comel, 1923). Czörnig was wrong but if we see the
ancient topographic maps we will understand why. (picture n. 4).
Picture n. 4. A rare cartographical rappresentation by Gioan Francesco Cannocio of the
gulf of Trieste and the table-land of Carso. This is to find in the unobtainable Isolario of
1571. We can see that the author draws the Timavo as a ramification of the river Isonzo. In
the same drawing there is another great river, that seems to be born from the “mountains of
Carso”. We can understand from these naif cartographical information the difficulty of
Bianchini to make his studies. (Trieste, Biblioteca civica “ A. Hortis”).
In the ancient maps it was thought that the spring of Timavo was born in the
southern slopes of the Carso goriziano or also from the same river Isonzo.
Only in 1923 Alvise Comel will discover the real spring of Timavo.
Giovanni Fortunato Bianchini lived in the first half of 1700. We have no
information about his life or origins as scientist. From his documents and in
general from his way of writing to the Count Guido Cobenzl (… Signor Conte
mio Signore), I think he was a citizen of the County of Gorizia (picture n. 5ab-c).
Picture n. 5a. Title-page of the study about the observation of the river Timavo made by
Giovanni Fortunato Bianchini; send to the count Guido Cobenzl in 1754. (Collection M.
Picture n. 5b. Page and part of the study about the observation of the river Timavo made
by Giovanni Fortunato Bianchini; send to the count Guido Cobenzl in 1754. (Collection M.
Picture n. 5c. Page and part of the study about the observation of the river Timavo made
by Giovanni Fortunato Bianchini; send to the count Guido Cobenzl in 1754. (Collection M.
He was well-known and also quite important in this city. In fact also Cantinelli
quoted him in his work about Timavo. Probably the person of Guido Cobenzl
to whom Bianchini refers, is the same of Guidobaldo Cobenzl as we can
understand from the birthdate and from the assonance of the name. Guidobaldo
Cobenzl was Giovanni Gasparo and Carlotta von Rindismaul’s son. He was
born in 1716 in Gorizia and his noble family had a palace there since 1597.
In 1780, together with Coletti, he founded the Academy of Arcadi Romano
Sonziaca. He was brilliant and his favourite subjects were many, in particular
natural sciences.
Cobenzl was also baron of Prosecco, Luegg, Mossa and ruler of S. Daniele
and Reiffniz.
Therefore the nobleman to whom Bianchini refers is certainly Guidobaldo
Cobenzl as we can understand from their correspondance and from the fact that
Cobenzl was ruler of the Castle in Luegg, the famous castle built at the
entrance of a high cave not far from Postumia. Nowadays it is called the
Predjama Castle (picture n. 6).
Picture n. 6. The Predjama Castle (Slovenia). In 1700 the ancient Castle of Luegg was
propety of the Family Cobenzl, counts of Gorizia. At first Bianchini thought that the river
under the castle was the same to flow in the subterranean course of Timavo (Collection M.
As we can read in “Osservazioni intorno al fiume Timavo” wrote by Bianchini
to his Lord: “ ... e ‘l Fiume di Luego, sotterraneo Fiume non piccolo che passa sotto
Luego nobile Castello di vostra giurisdizione. ... “
When reading Bianchini’s work we are positively surprised of the many careful
observations about the phenomenon of Carsism in the area between Duino and
San Canziano.
During his searches the peculiarity of the landscape of Carso is decribed in a
simple but very incisive way. I’ll write down some of Bianchini’s notes made
during one of his escursions. He writes that only River Recca enlarges the
Timavo in the leg between San Canziano and Duino.
So he writes: “ ... E mi confermai nella massima camminando nel mese di Ottobre
dell’anno 1753 per lungo tratto di que’ monti più vicini al Castello di Duino, senza
incontrar mai né fiume né fonte né ruscello né pozzo: gli vidi però da capo a piedi e per
ogni parte pieni di mille fori, di scavature e di fosse profondissime: esaminato in più
luoghi il sasso che gli compone, lo trovai sempre fragile, e pieno di fessure e di pori
facilissimi a dare alle pioggie ed alle nevi libero adito di penetrare in dentro: conobbi
benissimo la facilità dell’acqua in penetrare il sasso, dal considerare la troppo stentata
coltivazione che quivi si pratica; poiché scelgono i poveri Abitatori certi siti più bassi e
scavati a guisa di larghi pozzi (he is speaking probably of the “doline” -author’s
note-), ne coprono il fondo sassoso di terra e letame, vi seminano le biade per metterle in
salvo da’ venti gagliardissimi, ne ritraggono giusta ricolta, e questa vien sovente
pregiudicata dal secco, e non mai dalle piene o dalle pioggie più dirotte ... “.
Bianchini’s work purpose, as we already said, was to find out why the leg of
Timavo near San Giovanni of Duino is larger than that we can see at the
entrance of river Recca in the San Canziano caves.
His observations about this subject let us know also an other personality:
Father Pietro Imperati4, who lived in the second half of 1500. He was the first
who proved the subterranean continuity of the river Recca and Timavo. In
1752 Bianchini was acquainted with the existence of a voluminous
correspondance between Imperati and the great naturalist from Bologna Ulisse
Aldrovandi. Bianchini in his work quotes one of these letters, in latin, that
describes the observations of Father Imperati to prove the real subterranean
continuity of the two rivers (picture n. 7).
We don’t know much about Father Pietro Imperati’s life. Surely he lived by the monastery of Santo Spirito
in Duino, in 1598 ruled by the Count Raimondo della Torre. He was member of the Order of Padri Serviti
and died in 1605 in Bologna.
Picture n. 7. Part of the letter written by Father Pietro Imperati and probably send to Ulisse
Aldrovandi. The letter, in latin, describes in particular Imperati’s experiments about the
waters of river Timavo.
As we can see Imperati’s work was important and foundamental for
Bianchini’s studies, so I will illustrate Father Pietro Imperati’s work.
Bianchini describes the personality of Imperati as that of a scrupulous and
credible writer. He wrote in a good latin. The father’s letter in latin, quoted by
Bianchini, was send to answer to Aldrovandi about the subject: “ ... Timavum
amnem pluris invisi, plura de ipso scrutatus sum. Non te fugit, veteres vel septem, vel
novem huic dedisse ostia: ipse ego plura quam duodeviginti numeravi, & quidem majora;
quorum alia vasto scatent gurgite, alia innumeris ebullitionibus. ... “ 5
Translation: “ ... More and more times I went to observe river Timavo to know more about it. You know
well (he refers probably to Aldrovandi -author’s note-) that ancient people said the river had seven or nine
Father Imperati, in his work, talks about experiments made to prove the real
subterranean continuity between the rivers Recca and Timavo. We don’t know
how he made this obsevations, but his descriptions are precise as he refers: “ ...
Mersi fluminis cursus a voragine usque ad ostia tribus experimentis fatis innotuit, primò
injecta alga marina bene sicca, dein foliis quarundam plantarum alienigenarum, &
praesertim pini atque cupressus, demum paleis frumenti in frusta redactis; at nondum satis
exploratum est, undenam tanta aquae copia; ostia enim longe superant fontes. ...”.6
As we can see the Father realised the relation between the two rivers and,
through naif and intuitive experiments, wanted to prove their real subterranean
continuity. Certainly it was a naif approach, but with positive results.
Bianchini continued his investigations about the different water leg between the
mouths of San Giovanni in Duino and the larger leg at the entrance of the San
Canziano caves.
First of all he thought that other subterranean rivers could add the waters of
Timavo so he quotes the lake of Circonio (Cerknisko polje –Slovenia “ ... e
tosto mi venne in pensiero il Lago di Circhnizza, ampio Lago posto all’Oriente del
Cragno, ed assai famoso per le maraviglie riferite da’ Geografi e dagli Storici, e che
tuttavia si appalesano per vere al giorno d’oggi ....” and the river Lokva that flows in
the cave under the Predjama Castle.
Than he realised that these waters flow away towards the valley of river
Vipacco: “ ... E poca fatica costò l’esame intorno al Fiume (the river Lokva -author’s
note), per essersi scoperta subito la sua corrente del tutto opposta al declivio del Recca e
del Timavo: e di più si trovò vera alla prima l’antica costante tradizione degli Abitanti
vicini, la quale porta ch’egli rinasca più gonfio alle sorgenti del Vipacco; appalesandosi
quivi la polvere e le raschiature molte del legno, provenienti dal molino a sega eretto nelle
pertinenze del Castello, e girato dalle stesse acque prima di perdersi sotterra. ...”.
Bianchini thought that his first hyphotesis about other subterranean rivers could
be true because of a popular belief. It was told, every time that lake Circonio
dried up there was a rising of the river Timavo, in fact Bianchini says: “ ... Ma
non tanto facili e piane riescirono le ricerche intorno al Lago, e le difficoltà si resero
sempre maggiori da certa mal fondata credenza invalsa fra’ Contadini del Carso, facili ad
asserire, che alle maggiori crescenze del Recca sepolto, abbia parte il Lago Circhnizza,
benchè egli sia in distanza di quaranta e più miglia da San Giovanni di Duino: e di ciò
(dicono essi) abbiamo prova sicura dall’anitre gittate nel Lago, e comparse dopo qualche
tempo sane e vispe giù per la corrente del Timavo. ... “.
He studied other rivers of the valleys near the lake Circonio. Finally he came to
the conclusion that there were no others rivers flowing into the subterranean
Timavo eccept for the Recca. To achieve his study Bianchini turned himself
mouths. I counted more than eighteen of these mouths and certainly there are more. Part of these gush with
enormous whirls, others with countless ebullitions...”
Translation. “ ...We know the course of the swallowed river till the mouth through three experiments; at
first with a dry seaweed, than with the leaves of a type of foreign plant and above all of pine-tree and
cypress. At third with broken leaves of grain. But there’s more to know about it and about the spring of
waters. The mouths, in fact, are larger than springs....”.
into a “speleologist” and visited numerous caves between San Canziano and
Duino, “ ... scopersi infine molte voragini aperte qua e là, e tutte profonde; e non seppi
in più d’una di esse trovare il fine, a motivo della troppo scabra tortuosa frattura; in altre
gittando più volte sassi, gl’intesi bene dopo lungo cadere perdersi nell’acqua; e massime
in due aperte a perpendicolo trovai una profondità di venticinque braccia di sasso, e di tre
braccia e più d’acqua stagnante. ... “.
Written in 1753, this study testifies one of the most ancient reports about a
methodical “speleological campaign” on the Carso. It is also an important
proof of the speleological activity in the territory of Gorizia.
1754. Osservazioni intorno all’uso dell’elettricità celeste e sopra l’origine
del fiume Timavo riportate in due letture. Tip. G. Pasquali, Venezia: 1-92.
BIANCHINI G. F., 1754. Osservazioni intorno al fiume Timavo scritte in una lettera al Nobile
ed Erudito Signore Guido Conte Cobenzl. Tip. G. B. Pasquali, Venezia: 44-92.
1828. Sulla identità dell’antico coll’odierno Timavo. Memoria di Carlo
Catinelli da Gorizia, colonnello pensionato di S.M. Britannica. Gorizia: 1-29.
CATINELLI C., 1859. La question italienne: études du Ch. Catinelli. Édition originale française
par Henri Schiel. Ed. Flatan, Tip. Fr. Van Meenem et C. ie, Bruxelles et Leipzig: 1-279.
CATINELLI C., 1858. Sopra la questione italiana. Studi di Carlo Catinelli. Tip. Paternolli,
Gorizia: 1-492.
CATINELLI V. K., 1850. Beantwortung eines im “Wanderer” den 13.ten und 14.ten August d.J.
mit der aufschrift die Karsterbahn. Erschienenen aufsatzes von Karl von Catinelli. Tip. Joh. Bapt.
Seitz, Görz: 1-24.
CATINELLI V. K., 1856. Beleuchtung einer die Wahl der Linie für die Fortsetzung der südlichen
österreichischenStaats - Eisenbahn betreffenden Stelle aus dem “Wanderer”, n.268, 8.ten Juni
1850, Tip. Joh. Bapt. Seitz, Görz: 1-33.
CATINELLI V. K., 1843. Kritische Bemerkungen über F.X. Hlubek’s Beleuchtung der
organischen Chemie des J. Liebig von Karl von Catinelli. Ed. Fr. Beck, Tip. J.P. Sollingen, Wien:
CATINELLI V. K., 1856. Mechanischer Bezichung besprochen von F. Pfeiffer. Tip. Joh. Bapt.
Seitz, Görz: 1-15. Articolo dell’Augsburger Zeitung del 18 marzo 1856 sulla ferrovia TriesteLubiana, litografato da Karl von Catinelli, 3 marzo 1856.
FORMENTINI L., 1984. La Contea di Gorizia illustrata dai suoi figli. Ediz. speciale a cura della
Provincia di Gorizia degli scritti del 1879 del Conte Giuseppe Floreano Formentini, Tip. Grafica
Goriziana, Gorizia: 97-99.
1999. Giovanni Fortunato Bianchini. Sopra e sotto il Carso, notiz. C.R.C.
“C. Seppenhofer”, 5, Gorizia: 27-30.

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