storia servizio

The Geological Survey of Italy, from the origin till now



From the elaboration of the first geological maps since the end of the XIX century, the geological mapping has played a decisive role in understanding of Earth history and in the collect of the fundamental information needed to solve the technical problems on the land use, such as the identification and the evaluation of the mineral and energetic deposits, the nature and the origin of the rocks, the use of the underground waters, all essential elements for the social and economic development.

The main task of the Geological Survey of Italy, from the date of its foundation, has been the " elaboration and publication of the Geological Map of Italy", playing a decisive factor both for the development and the diffusion of the Geological Sciences and for the knowledge of the territory of our Country.

The foundation of the Royal geological Committee

Few months after the formal act of unification of the Kingdom of Italy, the 17 March 1861, was founded an advisory board with the aim "to discuss the methods and to establish the norms for the elaboration of the Geological Map for the Kingdom of Italy"; the board produced a final relation for Filippo Cordova, the Minister of the agriculture, industry and commerce (MAIC). Cordova entrusted Quintino Sella to visit the various European countries already active in the field of the geologic cartography, to verify the systems adopted for the geological field survey and the cartographic techniques. Sella compiled a relation with an emblematic title "On the way to produce the Geological Map of the Kingdom of Italy", together with a draft of decree that was emanated by the King Vittorio Emanuele II. With this formal act , started the project for the elaboration of the Geological Map of Italy, and was founded a specific Geological Office established under the control of the MAIC. Sella was nominated Director of the office and the geological survey was submitted to a team of engineers of the Royal Corp of the Mines.

Nevertheless, Sella worked in the organization of the new office for a short period, up to his designation as Minister of the Finance. In virtue of such position it was forced, to balance the State debts, to cut the public funding to the cartographic project, suspending the activities of the Office.

Despite the difficulties, the project of geological mapping was pursued and Sella, supported by his close friend and colleague Felice Giordano, succeeds in developing his new operative model. In 1867 was ratified that the "Geologic Section of the Mines Council is established in Geological Committee in the Ministry of agriculture, industry and commerce". The charge of the Committee was the elaboration and publication of the Geological Map of the Kingdom of Italy, the direction of the field surveys, the collection and maintenance of samples and documents. The seat of the Geological Committee was established in Florence and the presidency assigned to Igino Cocchi.

The foundation of the Royal Geological Survey

Few years later, Sella proposed again his idea to have a central Geological Office and only a director responsible of the cartographic project. He convinced the Minister Cordova to submit a decree to the King Vittorio Emanuele II with which "The elaboration and the publication of the Geological Map of Italy is entrusted to a Section of the Royal Corp of the Mines under the scientific direction of the Geological Committee. The geological section of the Royal Corp of the Mines constitutes the Royal Geological Survey, composed by engineers and by assistant geologists”. The publication of the Royal Decree n. 1421 of the 15 June 1873, constitutes the foundation act of the Royal Geologic Survey. In the same decree was established the build of a special cabinet to keep the rocks, the mineral and the fossils picked up in the field surveys, and the foundation of a library for to the books and the papers collected by the Geological Committee.

The act of the R. Geological Survey started, however, only in 1876, when Felice Giordano received the direction of the office. In the following years, started the systematic geological survey of Sicily and Sardinia, in 1878 of the Roman Country, of the Apuan Alps, of the Elba island, of the Western Alps and Calabria. The first international event in which the R. Geological Survey was involved was in 1881, in the occasion of the 2° International Congress of Geology in Bologna, where was published the first edition of the Geological Map of Italy at 1:1,000,000 scale.

The history of the Geological Survey continues among alternate events; after the death of Quintino Sella and a progressive lack of attention of the MAIC to the geological cartography, the geological survey activity of the Italian territory continued with a slow and constant cadenced, with the publication of a certain number of geologic sheets at 1:100,000 scale every year, alternated by phases of great productivity every times the politics put in evidence the necessity of the geologic knowledge of the territory. It was so, in fact, in the first and second post World War periods, when the necessity of provisioning of energetic resources (lignite, coal, oil) resurfaced, or in the '60s, that there was a gold period for the geology in Italy and in the world.

The cartographic production of the Geological Survey, however, can represent a pride of the Italian geological science. It’s useful to put in evidence some maps that highlighted the history of the geological cartography in our country: the "Geologic Map of the Apuan Alps ", at 1:50,000 scale, realized by D. Zaccagna, B. Lotti and P. Fossen in 1894; the "Geologic Map of the Western Alps", at 1:400,000 scale, realized in 1908 by D. Zaccagna, E. Mattirolo, V. Novarese, S. Franchi, A. Stella, defined by Emile Argand a "magistral work of the R. Geological Survey”; The “Geological Map of the Cimini Volcanoes” at 1:75,000 scale, drawn by V. Sabatini in 1909.

From the postwar until now.

After the break of the First World War, in the '20s the Geological Survey resumed the geological mapping activity; the emanation of the Royal Decree n. 19/1920 reiterate the assignments of the office and conferred the petrographic and chemical analysis of minerals and rocks to solve the geologic problems and for their possible use as raw material. In 1923, the office was under the Office of the National Economy, in the Underground Exploration Division of the Inspectorate of the Mines and the National Fuels (R.D. 2125/1923).

In 1927, a new Decree confirms the assignments and the reiteration of the cartographic activity, with the collaboration of the Royal Office for the Po basin aimed to the elaboration of the Tre-Venezie geological sheets.

In that period some of the geologists of the office were assigned to geologic and hydrogeologic researches in the Italian colonies in Africa, participating in exploratory missions financed by the National Government. With the colonial expansion during the fascist period the Geological Survey was reorganized and the office strengthens within the Royal Corp of Mines with the R.D.L. n. 237/1936. Other reorganizing of the office were in 1943, extending the competences to the geophysical studies, and in 1958.

Finally, with the Law n. 68, dated 2 February 1960, the Geological Survey of Italy was designated as Cartographic State Office. Some days before, the Law n. 15, dated 3 January 1960, known as “Sullo Law”, authorized the extraordinary expense of 2,5 million Liras for the completion, the updating and the publication of the Geologic Map of Italy and the relative Descriptive Notes. The work, that had to be completed within 30 June 1970, could be produced in collaboration with the Universities, the public and private Institutions and the Autonomous Regions, under the supervision of the Geological Committee.

The cartographic project at 1:100,000 scale was completed with the printing of the last sheet in 1989. In 1971, nevertheless, it started also the project for the elaboration of the new cartographic series at 1:50,000 scale for which, with an undersized staff, could be surveyed and printed only some “experimental” sheets.

An important step was the publication of the L. 464 dated 4 August 1984, that obliged the executors of water wells of depth more than 30 m or excavations/galleries of length more than 200 m to give stratigraphical/technical communication to the Geological Survey; this Law allowed the Survey to create a national database on stratigraphic, geological and hydrogeological characteristics of underground.

Prime Minister Decree of 15 January 1987 stated to trasfer the Geological Survey to the Ministry of the Environment, with several tasks: compiling, publishing and updating the geological map and the geothematic maps at different scales, establishing collections and national databases, making researches and controls in order to investigate and protect the national territory and provide to the public administration general consultancy in the field of Earth Sciences.

Law No. 183/89 on the soil protection established the Geological Survey, together with the Hydrographic and Mareographic Survey, Seismic and Dams, as a coordinated as a unique system under the presidency of the Council of Ministers, named "National Technical Services Department", with scientific, technical, organizative and operative autonomy, in order to ensure the soil conservation, the rehabilitation of waters, the use and management of water resources taking into account environmental aspects. Law No. 305/89 and the relating CIPE Resolution, decided to include the activities related to the CARG project in the three-year plan for environmental protection.

In 1999, Legislative Decree No. 300/99, the Department for National Technical Services joins the National Agency for Environmental Protection (ANPA): the new Agency for Environmental Protection and Technical Services (APAT) was therefore established, carrying out the tasks and the scientific and technical activities of national interest for the environmental protection, water resources and soil conservation. As a result of this new structure, and in light of the new legislation, the Geological Survey loses its historic designation and falls with its tasks within the new structure. Finally, the Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, ISPRA (Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale), has been established by Decree no. 112 of 25 June 2008, converted into Law no. 133 (with amendments) on 21 August 2008.


This synthesis of the history of the Geological Service of Italy aims to describe the driving and propulsive role of the Office during this long period. Despite the social and economic changes that have taken place in the country, which have always had significant repercussions on the role, structure and funding needed for the activity of the Office, the Geological Service of Italy has always been a point of reference for the geology in general and for geological mapping in particular for all those who, for their profession, for research, didactics, or simply for scientific curiosity, have sought geological, soil and subsoil information, relative to the territory of our country.

The geologists and engineers in the staff of the Service have traced their studies and research into the many geological and thematic papers, the numerous works and the wide range of gray literature in the archives of the Service. Their teachings have formed several generations of detective geologists, contributing widespread to the diffusion and growth of geological sciences.