The history of the Turin Society begins with the gradual decline (beginning in the mid-1500s) and resurgence (beginning in the 1700s) of Italy as a center of intellectual thought. While the Italian states led Europe academically and scientifically during the Renaissance years, the dual forces of counter-reformation and political collapse prevented Italy from continuing its lead in the intellectual sphere during the 16th and 17th centuries.
While many Italian states were falling under foreign hegemony (first Spain, then Austria), the papacy and its political arm in the Papal States was exercising a great deal of influence over the whole of Italy. The atmosphere of religious life at the time was one of Counter-reformation, in which new scientific ideas were strenuously opposed, most famously those of Galileo Galilei.
Demographics and economic factors also contributed to the decline of the Italian states during this time. While the Dutch, English, and French were experiencing considerable population growth in conjunction with a growth of industry and trade, the Italian states were chafing under slow population growth, faltering local economies, and heavy taxation. This situation led to further decline, as Italian merchants and cities could not compete with those in the rest of Europe.
Significant changes were on the horizon, however. In 1700, war broke out between the Spanish and the Austrians, in what became known as the War of the Spanish Succession. At the end of the conflict in 1714, both Spain and Austria were considerably weakened, which naturally left the Italian states in a more powerful position. The British, who sought to guarantee Italian power as a bulwark against Spain and Austria, supported this new position in part by establishing naval bases in Malta and Minorca.
In the early decades of the 18th century, the ideas of Isaac Newton and John Locke began to find their way into northern Italy. Intellectuals such as Antonio Conti, Celestino Galiani, and Cesare Beccaria brought these ideas to the forefront of Italian thinking, much to the chagrin of Pope Clement XII, who banned Locke's treatise An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1734.
Despite these setbacks, the Enlightenment began to take hold in the 1740s. Events of the time included the election of progressive-minded Benedict XIV in 1740, the first Italian publication of Galileo's Dialogue in 1744, and Beccaria's appointment to the faculty of the University of Turin in 1748.
In 1757, Beccaria and a number of his students (including a young Joseph-Louis Lagrange) started their own scientific society outside of the University's auspices; this was the Societas Privata Taurinensis. Only two years after its founding, the Societas was reestablished as the Société royale des sciences and came under the patronage of Victor-Amadeus, who was to become king of Sardinia in 1773.
The publications of the Turin Society are limited, but impressive. Their first contribution, the Miscellanae philosophico-mathematica societatis privatae Taurinesis (published in only one volume) appeared in 1759 and included numerous contributions from Lagrange, de Saluces, and Cigna. Subsequent years saw the appearance of four volumes of the Melanges de philosophie et de la mathematique de la société royale des sciences de Turin, which included contributions by Euler, d'Alembert, Haller, and Condorcet.
During this incredibly productive period, the Society's members petitioned Victor-Amadeus repeatedly to make the institution a full-fledged academy. They finally succeeded in 1783, but by this time Lagrange had left to take up Euler's former post in Berlin, and Turin had lost much of the momentum that it had built up in the 1760s.
In 1792, the Napoleonic Wars swept across the Italian peninsula and ushered in an era of major reforms and political instability. The Academy went through many changes during this period, and ultimately emerged from the Napoleonic years as the Reale Accademia delle Scienze di Torino. In spite of its short life of forty years, the pre-Napoleonic Turin Society served as Italy's most prominent voice in international scientific discourse during the 18th century and its publications represent some of the most impressive academic contributions in the early Italian enlightenment.