1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cecco d’Ascoli
CECCO D’ASCOLI (1257–1327), the popular name of Francesco degli Stabili, a famous Italian encyclopaedist and poet—Cecco being the diminutive of Francesco, and Ascoli, in the marshes of Ancona, the place of the philosopher’s birth. He devoted himself to the study of mathematics and astrology, and in 1322 was made professor of the latter science at the university of Bologna. It is alleged that he entered the service of Pope John XXII. at Avignon, and that he cultivated the acquaintance of Dante only to quarrel with the great poet afterwards; but of this there is no evidence. It is certain, however, that, having published a commentary on the sphere of John de Sacrobosco, in which he propounded audacious theories concerning the employment and agency of demons, he got into difficulties with the clerical party, and was condemned in 1324 to certain fasts and prayers, and to the payment of a fine of seventy crowns. To elude this sentence he betook himself to Florence, where he was attached to the household of Carlo di Calabria. But his free-thinking and plain speaking had got him many enemies; he had attacked the Commedia of Dante, and the Canzone d’Amore of Guido Cavalcanti; and his fate was sealed. Dino di Garbo, the physician, was indefatigable in pursuit of him; and the old accusation of impiety being renewed, Cecco was again tried and sentenced, this time to the stake. He was burned at Florence the day after sentence, in the seventieth year of his age.
Cecco d’Ascoli left many works in manuscript, most of which have never been given to the world. The book by which he achieved his renown and which led to his death was the Acerba (from acervus), an encyclopaedic poem, of which in 1546, the date of the last reprint, more than twenty editions had been issued. It is unfinished, and consists of four books in sesta rima. The first book treats of astronomy and meteorology; the second of stellar influences, of physiognomy, and of the vices and virtues; the third of minerals and of the love of animals; while the fourth propounds and solves a number of moral and physical problems. Of a fifth book, on theology, the initial chapter alone was completed. A man of immense erudition and of great and varied abilities, Cecco, whose knowledge was based on experiment and observation (a fact that of itself is enough to distinguish him from the crowd of savants of that age), had outstripped his contemporaries in many things. He knew of metallic aerolites and shooting stars; the mystery of the dew was plain to him; fossil plants were accounted for by him through terrene revolutions which had resulted in the formation of mountains; he is even said to have divined the circulation of the blood. Altogether a remarkable man, he may be described as one of the many Cassandras of the middle ages—one of the many prophets who spoke of coming light, and were listened to but to have their words cast back at them in accusations of impiety and sentences of death.
The least faulty of the many editions of the Acerba is that of Venice, dated 1510. The earliest known, which has become excessively rare, is that of Brescia, which has no date, but is ascribed to 1473 or thereabouts.