The legacy of Enrico Fermi

At the end of 2019 the “Enrico Fermi” Historical Museum of Physics and Centre for Study and Research (CREF) finally took possession of the historic monumental complex of via Panisperna, completely restored, as the definitive seat for its activities.

The building, inaugurated in 1881, was completely designed by the physicist Pietro Blaserna (1836-1918), from Gorizia, who also supervised its total construction, to house the Royal Institute of Physics.

Called to Rome in 1872 to the chair of Experimental Physics and to the direction of the future Institute of Physics, as part of a broader project for ‘Rome capital’ advocated by Quintino Sella, since then Blaserna has dedicated himself to the creation of an Institute based on a side, about the centrality of the laboratory and experimentation; on the other, open and attentive to the programs and progress of international science. Thanks to these peculiarities, the Institute became a real ‘creative environment’ and for decades represented an essential point of reference for the most advanced Italian physics research.

Starting from 1918, the year of Blaserna’s death, Orso Mario Corbino directed the Institute: Corbino too was a great organizer of research policy and in 1926 he succeeded in obtaining the establishment of the first chair of Theoretical Physics in Italy, to which he called the young Enrico Fermi.

Here Fermi organized and prepared the conditions that will lead to the birth of that group of young scholars who, starting from the 1930s, will become famous as “i ragazzi di via Panisperna”. Besides, under his scientific direction began an outstanding season for Italian science whose success will be crowned in 1938 with the award to Fermi of the Nobel Prize for the Physics thanks to the first experiments on the phenomenon of neutron-induced radioactivity.

As a research center and a museum, the mission of CREF is also to preserve and spread in Italy and in the world the memory of Enrico Fermi’s life and works and to favour a wide dissemination and communication of scientific culture. This is possible thanks to the setting up of the historical museum of physics ‘The scientific legacy of Enrico Fermi’.

Since 2013 a multidisciplinary working group, composed of physicists and physics historians, has been established, with the task of defining the scientific contents of the future Museum.

The result has been the identification of a dozen significant “steps” of Fermi’s life and discoveries, from Roma to America. Starting from these steps a path has been defined and enriched by modern technologies (touch-screen, graphic views, interactive panels and holographic screens)and more traditional tools, in order to involve and excite the visitor, regardless of his specific scientific knowledge.

To assess the validity of the solutions chosen, the CREF set up a temporary exhibition entitled “Enrico Fermi – A creative balance between theories and experiments”, which debuted in Genoa, as part of the 2015 Science Festival.

With minor modifications and the title “Enrico Fermi – A double genius between theories and experiments”, the exhibition was then moved to Bologna and opened to the public from the 10th February 2016 to the 22nd May 2016, at the former church of San Mattia with the support of the Polo Museale of the city.

The two exhibitions enjoyed great success with almost 15,000 visitors each one, including students from elementary to high school.

Based on these experiences, the final project of the Museum was defined and set up in the ‘palazzina’ of Via Panisperna: the exhibition has become a permanent historical museum of physics, housed on the ground floor of the building.

Nowadays Enrico Fermi’s extraordinary figure as a teacher and as a giant of the XX century physics is presented within this museum itinerary entitled “The legacy of Enrico Fermi”.

The path of the Museum is naturally enriched of its venue, with the charming inner courtyard, in the center of which stands the famous ‘goldfish’ fountain (EPS historical site since 2012); the entrance stairway, immortalized in 1931 on the occasion of the first congress of nuclear physics attended by the most famous theoretical physicists of the time; up to the wide corridors with vaulted ceilings on the first floor, along which Fermi and his collaborators ran, when they were carrying out the famous experiments on neutron-induced radioactivity.

Pianta del Museo

The Museum houses also also original documents, instruments and historical relics are preserved.

The Museum also houses original instruments of the Royal Institute of Physics, some of which are directly used by Fermi and his collaborators; unpublished and first-hand documents; historical relics (the tailcoat worn in Stockholm in 1938 in the occasion of the Nobel Prize ceremony); artworks, including two busts by the sculptor Ducrot portraying Enrico Fermi and Ettore Majorana.

The Museum was presented to the public on 28th October 2019 and is now open by appointment. In the 4 months of its opening (2 days a week), the Museum was visited by over 600 people, with a large turnout of students from secondary schools.


  • VEROSH-Virtual ExploRation Of Science History Project (participant in the call “Ricerca e sviluppo di tecnologie per la valorizzazione del patrimonio culturale” LazioInnova DTC and selected as the winner for an initial design phase, for a total budget allocated equal to at € 73,840). The aim of the project is to realize an immersive virtual reality experience developed in ‘interior of the Museum whose environments, through a detailed historical reconstruction and by virtue of the collaboration with virtual designers and experts for the development of virtual reality and innovative interfaces, will become a virtual and interactive theater in which to observe and interact with the events and the great characters who have followed one another over the years in order to enhance the history of the building in Via Panisperna in Rome. From a technological point of view, the interaction with the visitor will allow to calibrate the virtual experience on the characteristics of the visitor himself (age, schooling, cultural environment, etc.), directing the museum experience towards a modern anthropocentric perspective.
  • “Fermi in popular culture”: thanks to historical and archival research, a large amount of material has been found concerning the presence and image of Enrico Fermi and his scientific achievements in popular literature, in magazines and newspapers of his time. This provides a new and unprecedented point of view of Fermi’s reception in the collective imagination, which will be made available to the visitor through the creation of dedicated workstations, as well as through the possibility of directly consulting the original material that will be kept inside the institution’s library.
  • Reorganization of the entrance hall of the Museum with new contents: thanks to the setting up of a new wall close to the entrance and equipped with capacitive buttons, it will be possible for the visitor to select informative and explanatory contents about scientific life, discoveries and legacy of Enrico Fermi through the choice of films, interviews, images that will scroll and will be accessible from a dedicated touchscreen.
  • Organization of a thematic library / reading room on the history of the Physics Institute in via Panisperna (from its origins until 1936, when it was transferred to the new university city of Sapienza); about the history of the group ‘i ragazzi di via Panisperna’; of Italian physics from the end of the nineteenth century to the 1940s. The library is meant to be ‘in progress’ and will gradually be enriched with contents and materials, becoming an integral part of the museum path.
  • Project for the opening of a new passage in Via Balbo to make access to the Museum independent from the Viminale complex and the Ministry of the Interior and therefore make it accessible to a greater number of visitors.


  • Presentation of the Museum in the new website, where a virtual tour has been organized which re-proposes, through images, writings and multimedia devices, the fundamental steps of the museum. In the video gallery, historical testimonies and original movies on the figure and legacy of Enrico Fermi have also been collected, and are being collected, in order to pursue one of the objectives of the Cref, that is to spread the widest communication of the memory of Fermi’s life and works, as well as the history of the historical complex of Via Panisperna.
  • Collaborations and agreements with other museums, research institutions, scientific societies and universities:
  • an agreement has been signed with the Physics Department of Sapienza University in Rome in order to collaborate both at the research level, by virtue of the precious Amaldi Archive kept at this Department; and to organize exchanges and loans of exhibition materials to be preserved at the museum spaces in via Panisperna;
  • 4 PhD scholarships in Physics have been activated with Sapienza University in Rome and the University of Tor Vergata in Rome: the presence of the museum and experts in the history of physics within the Cref represents an unprecedented resource of undisputed value for the programs of the courses in question;
  • an agreement was signed with the Alma Mater Studiorum University of Bologna to carry out research projects on the history of physics and projects for the high diffusion of scientific culture;
  • with INFN, the agreement was renewed to organize and implement the EEE-Extreme Energy Event project
  • Organization of laboratories for students and / or visitors to link innovative research activities – in different scientific fields – to the Museum: from scientific investigations of Cultural Heritage using the most modern chemico-physical techniques of the VIEWLAB laboratory; to the study of the composition and origin of cosmic rays, thanks to the installation, inside the building, of an Extreme Energy Event telescope
  • Invisible Colors project (selected by EPS Activity Project 2019): the project will set up innovative multidisciplinary and interactive dissemination events aimed to the general public. The goal is to inform, but also to create an interactive and engaging approach to the museum’s scientific collections, also through scientific research applied to archeology and art. In this approach the keywords will be “curiosity”, “creativity”, “inclusion” and “having fun with science”.
  • Dedicated courses for children through a fun approach to science through quizzes, games and exhibits
  • Contacts with journalists and science communicators: from Rai Storia to TG3 Leonardo, up to the BBC. In particular, the Museum was among the protagonists of the docufilm ‘Nobel Minds. Enrico Fermi and Emilio Segrè’. The documentary was first broadcasted on June 23, 2020, on Rai Storia, within ‘Italiani’, conducted by Paolo Mieli. CREF researchers and associates actively collaborated on the program. Also for the docufilm ‘Una cattedra per Laura Bassi. Bologna 1732’ the contribution of the Cref was fundamental: both in terms of financing the work and for the historical and scientific skills of some of its researchers and associates.
  • Organization of events (seminars, conferences, film festivals)

Selected bibliography

  • Guerra, N. Robotti, The Lost Notebook of Enrico Fermi, 2015, poi 2017;
  • Focaccia, Pietro Blaserna and the Birth of the Institute of Physics in Rome -A Gentleman Scientist at Via Panisperna, 2016, poi 2019;
  • Leone e N. Robotti, I Fisici Senatori: 1848-1943, 2019
  • Battimelli, G. Paoloni, University, industry and politics: Orso Mario Corbino as organizer of physical research in Italy (1908–1937), 2020
  • Focaccia, Orso Mario Corbino. Un manager della ricerca all’Istituto fisico di Roma. Antologia di scritti, (in press)

Regio Istituto di Fisica, Roma, 1931: Convegno Volta di fisica nucleare