The superstitions of the people, rather than the opposition of the Church, retarded the development of science. Censorship of publications did not become a substantial hindrance to science until the Counter Reformation that followed the Council of Trent (1545f). Sixtus IV brought to Rome (1463) the most famous astronomer of the fifteenth century, Johann Müller “Regiomontanus.” During Alexander’s pontificate Copernicus taught mathematics and astronomy in the University of Rome. Copernicus had not yet come to his world-shaking theory of the earth’s orbital revolution, but Nicholas of Cusa had already suggested it; and both men were churchmen. Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the Inquisition was relatively weak in Italy, partly through the absence of the popes in Avignon, their quarrels in the Schism, and their infection with the enlightenment of the Renaissance. In 1440 the materialist Amadeo de’ Landi was tried by the Inquisition at Milan, and was acquitted; in 1497 Gabriele da Salò, a freethinking physician, was protected from the Inquisition by his patron, though “he was in the habit of maintaining that Christ was not God but the son of Joseph.”16f Despite the Inquisition, thought was freer in Italy, and education more advanced, than in any other country in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Her schools of astronomy, law, medicine, and literature were the goals of students from a dozen lands. Thomas Linacre, English physician and scholar, after completing his university courses in Italy, set up an altar in the Italian Alps as he was returning to England, and, taking a last view of Italy, dedicated the altar to her as Alma mater studiorum, the fostering mother of studies, the postgraduate university of the Christian world.
If, in this atmosphere of superstition beneath and liberalism above, science made only modest advances in the two centuries before Vesalius (1514–64), it was largely because patronage and honor went to art, scholarship, and poetry, and there was as yet no clear call, in the economic or intellectual life of Italy, for scientific methods and ideas. A man like Leonardo could take a sweeping cosmic view, and touch a dozen sciences with eager curiosity; but there were no great laboratories, dissection was only beginning, no miscroscope could help biology or medicine, no telescope could yet enlarge the stars and bring the moon to the edge of the earth. The medieval love of beauty had matured into magnificent art; but there had been little medieval love of truth to grow into science; and the recovery of ancient literature stimulated a skeptical epicureanism idealizing antiquity rather than a stoic devotion to scientific research aiming to mold the future. The Renaissance gave its soul to art, leaving a little for literature, less for philosophy, least for science. In this sense it lacked the multiform mental activity of the Greek heyday from Pericles and Aeschylus to Zeno the Stoic and Aristarchus the astronomer. Science could not advance until philosophy had cleared the way.
Therefore it is natural that the same reader who knows by name a dozen Renaissance artists will find it hard to recall one Renaissance Italian scientist, barring Leonardo; even of Amerigo Vespucci he will have to be reminded; and Galileo (1564–1642) belongs to the seventeenth century. In truth there were no memorable names except in geography and medicine. Oderic of Pordenone went to India and China as a missionary (c. 1321), returned via Tibet and Persia, and wrote an account of what he had seen, adding much of value to what Marco Polo had reported a generation before. Paolo Toscanelli, astronomer, physician, and geographer, noted Halley’s comet in 1456, and is reputed to have given Columbus knowledge and encouragement for his Atlantic venture.16g Amerigo Vespucci of Florence made four voyages to the New World (1497f), claimed to have been the first to discover the mainland, and prepared maps of it; Martin Waldseemüller, publishing them, suggested that the continent be called America; the Italians liked the idea, and popularized it in their writings.16h
The biological sciences were the last to develop, for the theory of the special creation of man—almost universally accepted—made it unnecessary and dangerous to inquire into his natural origin. For the most part these sciences limited themselves to practical pursuits and studies in medical botany, horticulture, floriculture, and agriculture. Pietro de’ Crescenzi, at the age of seventy-six (1306), published Ruralia commoda, an admirable manual of agriculture, except that it ignored the still better writings of Spanish Moslems in this field. Lorenzo de’ Medici had kept a semipublic garden of rare plants at Careggi; the first public botanical garden was founded by Luca Ghini at Pisa in 1544. Almost all rulers of style had zoological gardens; and Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici kept a human menagerie—a collection of barbarians of twenty different nationalities, all of splendid physique.