Vittorio Benussi, born in Trieste in 1878, founded the School of Psychology at the University of Padova in 1919.
Perfectly bilingual, Benussi became an international scientific authority between 1902 and 1918, thanks to his phenomenological-experimental research into visual perception, which he carried out at the University of Graz in Austria. There, he worked with some of the most important researchers of the time, such as Carl Stump and Georg Elias Müller, making discoveries that would go on to be used by the founders of gestalt psychology, including Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler. During the international congress held in Göttingen in 1914, he presented 23 laws about perception which he discovered himself. He designed and built innovative tools to study perception.
At the end of the First World War, Benussi chose to move to Italy, arriving at the University of Padova, where he introduced experimental psychology as a university discipline, after this had already been done in Rome, Turin and Naples. Benussi was first appointed as a lecturer and then became a full professor in the faculty of humanities and philosophy in 1922.
However, Padua had been torn apart by the war and Benussi could not count on experimental tools or substantial public funding for his cutting-edge research; instead, he received help from private individuals who were fascinated by this new science and by Benussi’s genius. The scholar also had to pay the price for his distance from the world’s leading centres for the new discipline, not so much in terms in geography but rather from a cultural and scientific point of view.
Between 1919 and 1927, when he died at the age of just 49, Benussi nonetheless carried out some extraordinarily intense and original scientific work. He was a researcher in the truest sense of the word, but he nonetheless managed to involve an increasing number of young people in his studies, educating some highly talented students such as Cesare Musatti, his successor, and Silvia De Marchi, the first woman in Italy to graduate in experimental psychology.
In the field of research into perception, Benussi successfully transferred well-known optical-geometric illusions from the spatial plane to the temporal plane. In the field of research into the perception of the passing of time, he discovered our subjective distortions only ever speed time up: when it seems that time “is dragging on”, we are actually close to perceiving its physical or objective duration, i.e. the time on the clock. Through “pneumographic analysis”, he discovered, in mathematical terms, that an individual’s breathing patterns vary if they reply honestly or if instead they lie when replying to questions. He was the first scholar in Italy to hold courses on Freudian psychoanalysis.
Benussi’s most original and surprising research projects were those published in 1925, entitled “Suggestion and hypnosis as means of real mental analysis”, which investigated, in a scientific and experimental way, a field that had been overlooked by conventional researchers. This was a conceptual revolution: for the first and only time in the history of international psychology, suggestion and hypnosis weren’t being used as clinical-therapeutic procedures, but rather as tools to study in detail and break down the complex processes of conscious thought.
Benussi had extraordinary human sensitivity – and therefore also creative vulnerability – and was often described as being an almost ethereal being, who always had a pensive look on his face, but was sweet on the whole. He committed suicide on 24th November 1927 by drinking a cup of cyanide, on the evening before a conference in his honour.