In those sciences that did not affect theology Italy continued to make such moderate progress as could come from a nation predominantly disposed to art and literature, and in reaction against an intellect that had discarded conscience. Varoli, Eustachio, and Fallopio, whose names are imbedded in the terminology of modern anatomy, date from this brief age. Niccolò Tartaglia found a way to solve cubic equations; he confided his method to Jerome Cardan (Geronimo Cardano), who published it as his own (1545). Tartaglia challenged him to an algebraic duel, in which each was to propose thirty-one problems to be solved by the other. Cardan accepted, but disdainfully delegated one of his pupils to solve Tartaglia’s problems. The pupil failed, Tartaglia succeeded, but Cardan wrote a strange and fascinating autobiography which has kept his head above the Lethe of time.
It begins with the startling candor that characterizes it to the end:
Although various abortive medicines, as I have heard, were tried in vain, I was born on September 24, 1501…. Since Jupiter was in the ascendant and Venus ruled the horoscope, I was not maimed save in the genitals, so that from my twenty-first to my thirty-first year I was unable to lie with women; and many a time I lamented my fate, envying all other men their good fortune.12
This was only one of his disabilities. He stuttered, suffered all his life from hoarseness and catarrh of the throat, frequently from indigestion, palpitation of the heart, rupture, colic, dysentery, hemorrhoids, gout, itching skin, a cancerous growth on the left nipple, the plague, tertian fever, and “an annual period of sleeplessness lasting about eighty days.” “In 1536 I was overtaken with an extraordinary discharge of urine; and although for nearly forty years I have been afflicted with this trouble, giving from sixty to a hundred ounces in a single day, I live well.”13
Endowed with all this clinical experience, he became a successful physician, cured himself of almost everything except vanity, achieved the reputation of being the most sought-for physician in Italy, and was called as far afield as Scotland to cure an incurable archbishop, whom he cured. At thirty-four he gave public lectures in Milan on mathematics, and at thirty-five on medicine. In 1545, borrowing a title from Raymond Lully, he published a book, Ars magna, wherein he made substantial contributions to algebra—which still speaks of “Cardan’s rule” for solving cubic equations. He was apparently the first to perceive that quadratic equations might have negative roots. With Tartaglia, and long before Descartes, he considered the application of algebra to geometry.14 In De subtilitate rerum (1551) he discussed painting and color; in De rerum varietate (1557) he summarized the physical knowledge of his time; both of these books owed much to Leonardo’s unpublished manuscripts.15 Amid sickness, travels, and devastating tribulations, he wrote 230 books, of which 138 have been printed. Some he had the courage to burn.
He taught medicine in the universities of Pavia and Bologna, but so mingled his science with occultism and braggadocio that he forfeited the respect of his colleagues. He devoted a large volume to the relations between the planets and the human face. He was as expert and absurd as Freud in interpreting dreams, and as firm a believer in guardian angels as Fra Angélico. Yet he named, as the ten greatest intellects in history, men not overwhelmingly Christian: Archimedes, Aristotle, Euclid, Apollonius of Perga, Archytas of Tarentum, al-Khwarizmi, al-Kindi, Gebir, Duns Scotus, and Richard Swineshead—all scientists except Duns. Cardan made a hundred enemies, invited a thousand calumnies, married miserably, and fought unsucessfully to save his eldest son from being executed for poisoning an unfaithful wife. In 1570 he moved to Rome. He was arrested there for debt or heresy or both; but Gregory XIII released and pensioned him.
At seventy-four he wrote De vita propria liber (A Book of My Own Life)— one of three remarkable autobiographies composed in this period in Italy. With almost the garrulousness and fidelity of Montaigne, he analyzes himself—body, mind, character, habits, likes and dislikes, virtues and vices, honors and dishonors, errors and prophecies, illnesses, eccentricities, and dreams. He accuses himself of obstinacy, bitterness, unsociability, hasty judgment, pugnacity, cheating at gambling, vengefulness, and mentions “the debaucheries of the Sardanapalian life I led in the year when I was rector of the University of Padua.”16 He lists “things in which I feel that I have failed”—especially the proper rearing of his sons. But he lists also seventy-three books that mention him; tells of his many successful cures and predictions, and his invincibility in debate. He bemoans the persecutions to which he was subjected, and the hazards “that beset me on account of my unorthodox views.”17 He asks himself, “What animal do I find more treacherous, vile, and deceitful than man?” and offers no reply. But he records many things that give him happiness, including change, food, drink, sailing, music, puppies, cats, continence, and sleep. “Of all ends that man may attain, none seems more worthy or more pleasing than the recognition of truth.”18 His favorite pursuit was medicine, in which he achieved many surprising cures.
Medicine was the only science that made any significant progress in this period of Italy’s decline. The greatest scientists of the age spent many years in Italy as students and teachers—Copernicus from 1496 to 1506, Vesalius from 1537 to 1546; but we must not steal them from Poland and Flanders to further honor Italy. Realdo Colombo, who succeeded Vesalius as professor of anatomy at Padua, expounded the pulmonary circulation of the blood in De re anatomica (1558), probably unaware that Servetus had proposed the same theory twelve years before. Colombo practised the dissection of human cadavers at Padua and Rome, apparently without ecclesiastical opposition;19 he seems also to have vivisected dogs. Gabriele Fallopio, a pupil of Vesalius, discovered and described the semicircular canals and the chorda tympani of the ear, and the tubes, now named after him, that bear the ova from the ovaries to the uterus. Bartolommeo Eustachio described and gave his name to the Eustachian tube of the ear and the Eustachian valve of the heart; to him also we owe the discovery of the abducens nerve, the suprarenal bodies, and the thoracic duct. Costanzo Varoli studied the pons Varolii—a mass of nerves on the undersurface of the brain.
We have no figures as to the effects of medicine on human longevity in the Renaissance. Varoli died at thirty-two, Fallopio at forty, Colombo at forty-three, Eustachio at fifty; on the other hand Michelangelo lived to eighty-nine, Titian to ninety-nine, Luigi Cornaro to approximately a century. Born at Venice in 1467 or earlier, Luigi was rich enough to indulge in every luxury of food, drink, and love. These “excesses caused me to fall a prey to various ailments, such as pains in the stomach, frequent pains in the side, symptoms of gout… a low fever that was almost continuous… and an unquenchable thirst. This evil condition left me nothing to hope for except that death should terminate my troubles.” When he was forty his physicians abandoned all medicaments and advised him that his only hope of recovery lay in “a temperate and orderly life…. I was not to partake of any foods, either solid or liquid, save such as are prescribed for invalids; and of these in small quantities only.” He was allowed to eat meat and drink wine, but always in moderation; and he soon reduced his total daily intake to twelve ounces of food and fourteen of wine. Within a year, he tells us, “I found myself entirely cured of all my complaints…. I grew most healthy, and have remained so from that time to this”20—i.e., age eighty-three. He found that this order and moderation of physical habits made for similar qualities and health of mind and character; his “brain remained constantly in a clear condition;…. melancholy, hatred, and the other passions” left him; even his esthetic sense was sharpened, and all lovely things seemed to him now more beautiful than ever before.
He spent a quiet and comfortable old age at Padua, undertook and financed public works, and wrote, at eighty-three, his autobiographical Discorsi della vita sobria. Tintoretto has pictured him for us in a delectable portrait: bald head but ruddy face, eyes clear and penetrating, wrinkles spelling benevolence, white beard thinned with years, hands still revealing, so near to death, an aristocratic youth. His octogenarian vivacity encourages us as he rallies those who thought life after seventy to be a meaningless valetudinarian procrastination:
Let them come and see, and wonder at my good health, how I mount on horseback without help, how I run upstairs and uphill, how cheerful, amusing, and contented I am, how free from care and disagreeable thoughts. Peace and joy never quit me…. All my senses (thank God!) are in the best condition, including the sense of taste; for I enjoy more the simple food that I now take in moderation than all the delicacies that I ate in my years of disorder…. When I come home I see before me not one or two but eleven grandchildren.… I take delight in hearing them sing and play on different musical instruments. I sing myself, and find my voice better, clearer, and louder than ever…. My life, therefore, is alive, not dead; nor would I exchange my old age for the youth of such as live in the service of their passions.21
At eighty-six, “full of health and strength,” he wrote a second discourse, expressing his joy at the conversion of several friends to his way of life. At ninety-one he added a third essay, and told how “I constantly write, and with my own hand, eight hours a day, and…. in addition to this I walk and sing for many other hours… For I feel, when I leave the table, that I must sing…. Oh, how beautiful and sonorous my voice has become!” At ninety-two he composed “A loving exhortation… to all mankind to follow the orderly and temperate life.”22 He looked forward to completing a century, and to an easy death through the gradual diminution of his senses, feelings, and vital spirits. He died peacefully in 1566; some say at ninety-nine, others at one hundred and three or four. His wife, we are told, obeyed his precepts, lived to nearly a century, and died in “perfect ease of body and security of soul.”23
We must not expect to find a major philosopher in so small a span of space and time. Iacopo Aconzio, an Italian Protestant, in a treatise De methodo (1558), prepared part of the way for Descartes; and in De strata-gematibus Satanae (1565) he had the audacity to suggest that all Christianity might be reduced to a few doctrines held by all Christians, and not including the idea of the Trinity.24 Mario Nizzoli made a path for Francis Bacon by inveighing against the continued reign of Aristotle in philosophy, appealing for direct observation against deductive reasoning, and denouncing logic as the art of proving the false to be true.25 Bernardino Telesio of Cosenza, in De rerum natura (1565–86), Joined Nizzoli and Pierre La Ramée in the spreading revolt against the authority of Aristotle, and called for empirical science: Nature must be explained in her own terms through the experience of our senses. What we see, said Telesio, is matter acted upon by two forces: heat coming from the sky, cold rising from the earth; heat producing expansion and motion, cold producing contraction and rest; in the conflict of these two principles lies the inner essence of all physical phenomena. These phenomena proceed according to natural causes and inherent laws, without the intervention of deity. Nature, however, is not inert; there is a soul in things as well as in man. Tommaso Campanella, Giordano Bruno, and Francis Bacon would all take something from these ideas. Some measure of liberalism must have survived in the Church to let Telesio die a natural death (1588). Twelve years later the Inquisition would burn Bruno at the stake.