You cannot see the stars: the curious history of the Monte Porzio Catone Observatory

From the Monte Porzio Catone Observatory it is not possible to do the simplest and most natural thing for an observatory: to observe the sky. Yet it is the seat of the Rome Observatory of the National Institute of Astrophysics.

The observatory does not have a telescope. The large metal dome that dominates the structure, built on Mount Tusculum, cannot be the site of observational activity as it is dazzled by the lights of Rome. From here the sky is not observed. The dome, now the headquarters of the Observatory Library, is used for the collection and processing of data from all over the world.

And yet, this should have been the home of the largest telescope in Europe and the world.

Many will wonder why such nonsense. However, no one has ever managed to give a complete answer. Only a step back in time could help us understand better.

During the Second World War, Hitler and Mussolini, wanted to create for each other “gifts”. After years of courtship, Mussolini decided to give the Fuhrer the Discus Thrower “Lancellotti” (as a symbol of race purity). The Duce, in return, would receive a 65 cm Zeiss Refractor.

In reality it was Hitler who so desperately wanted the sculpture that was to become the symbol of the Berlin Olympics and set out to woo Mussolini for it. And since by law a work of art could not be sold, it was decided to send it to Germany in exchange for the construction of a large astronomical observatory.

As history teaches us, relations between Italy and Germany degenerated. The fall of Mussolini before, the armistice of 8 September 1943 then, resulted in all news about the telescope being lost. From that moment, Italy was considered a “traitor” by Hitler and therefore not worthy of having access to culture, so the Germans disassembled the dome and the telescope and brought it back to Germany.

Only at the end of the war Italy recovered the Discus Thrower, but did not receive the refractor back. The “Mussolini telescope” ended up in Russian hands, after the USSR took all German telescopes as compensation for the destruction of astronomical material by the Nazis during the various raids on Russian soil. The 65 cm refractor that once was in Monteporzio, today is located in Polkovo and is still used by Russian physicists for studies of asteroids and comets.

Many years later, even today one wonders why it was decided to build an observation point in Monte Porzio Catone in such an unsuitable place and why the choice of an instrument, the refractor in fact, is now considered outdated.

The then director of the Observatory, Dr. Bianchi, in an interview explained that it was decided to support the two leaders in the exchange, and then transfer the telescope to a more appropriate location (it was initially thought at the base of Campo Imperatore).

Italian scholars, who held academic power at the time, were much more skilled in mathematics than in physics. Perhaps this is the reason why Italy decided to opt for a refractor (more suited to the calculations of positional astronomy), and not for a reflector.

The observatory of Rome, deprived of the instrument that was supposed to change the fate of Italian astrophysics, took the decision to change course and take the road that would have made one of the leading institutions of astrophysics worldwide (more at the level of theoretical studies than of observational research).

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