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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/November 1892/The Scientific Societies of Italy

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 42‎ | November 1892

By Dr. W. C. CAHALL.

TO Italy, more than to any other country, belongs the Renaissance. The soil was particularly favorable. Upon the fall of the Byzantine Empire its rich treasures of Greek manuscripts found their way from Constantinople to western Europe. The fleets of Venice brought the greater part of them to Italy, where they found liberal purchasers. The Greek scholars, finding their vocation destroyed in Constantinople by the Turks, flocked to Italy to teach and translate. The awakening mind of Italy viewed with eager delight this new world in literature. The eternal freshness and beauty of Homer and Plato, and the marvelous knowledge of Nature displayed by Hippocrates and Aristotle, when read in these full transcriptions of their writings, came with the force of a revelation to those accustomed to garbled extracts, loaded down with scholastic commentaries and absurd elucidations. The study of the classics became a passion of the few, and then the fashion of the many. In every city and large town of Italy academies were formed for the critical study of the manuscripts.

George Eliot, in her historical romance Romola, furnishes us with a very interesting account of the proceedings of the Platonic Academy of Florence, then under the patronage of the Medici. Not only pure literature and philosophy but scientific inquiry gained an impetus from these societies. Under the direction of such men as Alberti, Da Vinci, Toscanelli, and Da Porta, Nature came to be questioned in the proper scientific spirit.

Hitherto the scholastics would have had Nature to conform with man and not man conform with Nature. To these teachers thoughts only were real, and all attempts to gain the secrets of Nature were considered useless and contemptible. And, strange as it may seem, the authority appealed to in support of these views was Aristotle himself—not the Aristotle as he was known in Greece and as he has come to be known later, but the Aristotle as he appeared under a double Arabian and Latin disguise. His commentators had no hesitation in ascribing to him just the contrary to what he had advanced. He was to be made orthodox at any price.

All knowledge of Nature that was accidentally unearthed was made to bear a theological import. Even the philosopher's stone was made a theological agent. It was supposed to be able to free man from sin. The search for the stone was commended, since God had promised it to all good Christians, and that passage from Revelation, "To the conqueror I will give a white stone," was quoted in support of this view. Even zoölogy was obstructed with miracles and legends, as witness the wide-spread popularity for centuries throughout Europe of that curious book the Physiologus, or the Beastiary. Without a doubt this book contains a greater number of errors to the page than any other treatise on natural history ever published. It had its origin in the early Christian centuries, when the tendency was to interpret the Bible in an allegorical method, especially resorted to in the earlier commentaries on the account of creation in Genesis.

Among the most astonishing of the statements of this remarkable authority on natural history are the following: "The lion (footprints rubbed out with the tail; sleeps with eyes open, cubs receive life only three days after birth by their father's breath); the sun-lizard (restores its sight by looking at the sun); the pelican (recalls its young to life by its own blood); the eagle (renews its youth by sunlight and bathing in a fountain); the phœnix (revives from fire); the viper (born at the cost of both its parents' death); the serpent (sheds its skin; puts aside its venom before drinking; is afraid of man in a state of nudity; hides its head and abandons the rest of the body); the hedgehog (pricks grapes upon its quills); the panther (spotted skin; enmity to the dragon; sleeps for three days after meals; allures its prey by sweet odor); the sea-tortoise (mistaken by sailors for an island); the hyena (a hermaphrodite); the otter (enters the crocodile's mouth to kill it); the salamader (quenches fire); the tree called peridexion (protects pigeons from the serpent by its shadow); the fire-flints (of two sexes; combine to produce fire)."

It was not because there was nothing better than this book that it gained such a popularity, for there were the works of Pliny and those of Aristotle, though abridged and perverted from their original meaning by commentators. It was because the mind of the middle ages was childish, and, like a child, desired not so much what was accurate as what appealed to the imagination and to the love of the marvelous.

But in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries there was an awakening in Italy, and when these correct copies of the works of Aristotle, which Cuvier pronounced "fresh after so many copies and young after two thousand years," and those of other classic writers became accessible, they found eager students.

From his study of the ancient authors Columbus received knowledge of cosmography and geography, which materially assisted him to his discovery of the New World. Anatomy found diligent students; Italian anatomists attained European reputation; it was at the school of Fabricius de Aquapendente at Padua that Harvey acquired that knowledge which afterward made his name immortal. Even the pencil of Titian was not above illuminating the pages of the great anatomical work of Vesalius. Titian was not alone among the artists of this period who became enamored with the new sciences. The greatest of these was Leonardi da Vinci, the most universal genius, perhaps, who ever lived. His Last Supper is one of the chief masterpieces of the world; he distinguished himself in sculpture, architecture, poetry, and music; he performed clever feats in engineering; anatomy, botany, geology, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, and geography all received valuable contributions from his investigations. He anticipated many of those wonderful discoveries in physical sciences which fell to the succeeding generation to fully develop.

No better illustration of Da Vinci's acuteness of reasoning could be obtained, perhaps, than by quoting his observations on the origin of fossils. It must be remembered that geology did not become a science or the origin of fossils fully settled until two and a half centuries after this remark was made. He strenuously asserts the contents of the rocks to be real shells, and maintains the reality of the changes of the domain of land and sea, which these spoils of the ocean supply.

"You will tell me," he says, "that Nature and the influence of the stars have formed these shelly forms in the mountains; then show me a place in the mountains where the stars at the present day make shelly forms of different ages, and of different species in the same place. And how, with that, will you explain the gravel which is hardened in stages at different heights in the mountains?" Had Leonardo labored assiduously in art alone, there never would have been the need of Michelangelo and Raphael; had he confined himself strictly to one science, Galileo and Torricelli would have found their occupation gone. That which proved Leonardo's personal loss was Italy's gain, for his fertile mind started trains of thought which lesser men could prosecute but could not have originated.

The Academy of Milan, instituted in 1485 for the study of the arts and sciences, of which he was director, had a far-reaching effect upon the youth of Italy of that day.

Later on Bruno and Da Porta arose to carry on a similar work for southern Italy. Bruno early espoused the Copernican system, and by the brilliant and fearless manner of his teaching did much to popularize this condemned doctrine.

Bruno was a philosopher rather than an experimenter, and his influence upon the science of the times was not so much what he himself contributed as what he inspired others to do after him. Yet in his work, Del Infinito Universo e Mundi, he makes an advance upon the Copernican system in declaring his belief in innumerable worlds besides that on which we live, and also that each star is a sun, about which revolve planets like our earth. In no country at this date was science being approached from so many sides or by such an array of minds as in Italy during the sixteenth century. With such a beginning the Renaissance ought to have done for Italy in science what it did for her in art, music, and architecture—made her the master and teacher of all Europe. But there was a repressive power in Italy, which chilled and stunted every shooting tendril which science put forth, and only when transplanted in France and England attained those fair proportions natural to its growth.

Art and architecture could be appropriated to the service of the Church, and flourished under the favor of the authorities; but the sciences as they grew became iconoclastic, and threatened the existence of some of the most cherished doctrines of the Church. It was decreed in Rome that all such dangerous questionings should cease, or else, as the shrewd politicians there foresaw, the authority of the Church over men's minds and thoughts would be soon overturned.

Adverse indeed were the times for the organization of a scientific society; yet the generous and enthusiastic Frederico Cesi undertook this very thing, in establishing the Accademia dei Lincei, within three years of Bruno's execution, and in Rome at that.

The story of this unfortunate young nobleman's unselfish yet misjudged labors is one of the most pathetic in the history of science. The Accademia dei Lincei antedates the Royal Society by sixty years, and the French Academy of Sciences by even more; yet, though at times its torch burned fitfully, this venerable body still exists and fills a place of honor and influence in its country similar to that occupied by the Royal Society and the French Institute in theirs. Considering the adverse spirit surrounding it throughout the two centuries and a half of its existence, one can not but wonder that it ever survived or ever was revived.

Frederico Cesi, son of the Duke of Acqua Sparta, was but eighteen years of age when he founded the Academy in 1603, having been born in 1585, nor had either of his three associates passed the age of twenty-three. Young as was Frederico, he already enjoyed the acquaintance, personally or by correspondence, of the foremost scientists and philosophers of his time. His first associate in his undertaking was Francesco Stelluti, who appears to have been prompted by an ardor for study and a nobility of character similar to that of Frederico. The third of this little band was Heck, Eckius, or Reckius, as he was variously called, a Hollander and a Catholic, who found the Calvinistic inhabitants uncongenial, left the Low Countries and settled in the town of Scandriglia, in Sabina, where he practiced medicine. His fame as a profound student in all the branches of philosophy reached the ears of Cesi, who invited him to Rome as an attaché to his family. A fourth member was added in the person of Anastasio de Filiis, a relative of the Cesi family, residing with them, and who was devoted to mechanics.

In order to give method to their studies these young men organized an Academy upon the 17th of August, 1603, which date was to be annually remembered by a day of festivity, and gave it the title of dei Lincei or the Lynx, from the well-known acuteness of vision of this animal, and with the motto, "Sagacitas ista." The plans were drawn upon an ambitious scale. With the orders of the Church and the Masonic fraternity in their mind, they conceived of the organization of a world-wide society, embracing at the same time investigations of a scientific character with a broad philosophical brotherhood connected by affiliated lodges.

The meetings were to be private, and the members were required to be "philosophers eager for real knowledge, who will give themselves to the study of Nature, and especially to mathematics."

They met three times a week and had five lectures at each meeting, each one performing his own duty. Heck was reader in Platonic and Transcendental Philosophy. In one of his theses he proposed a medicine of his own to "keep the soul alert" and to prevent it from growing sluggish by reason of the heaviness of the body. Unfortunately, he could not have taken his own medicine, if it possessed the virtues claimed, neither does he inform us of what his medicine consisted. So we can never know whether Brown-Séquard's mixture had a prior discoverer or not. Each worked industriously, and besides their literary labors they had, within two months of their foundation, constructed a great planisphere upon which they drew both the ancient and modern systems of astronomy.

But evil days came. Investigations, questionings, or any sort of freedom of thought was never looked upon with favor by the ecclesiastical authorities of Rome. Columbus had appeared before the great Council of Salamanca to have his claims of the sphericity of the earth and the existence of an attainable antipodes pronounced by the dignitaries "contrary to Scripture and absurd in philosophy"; but he, with a persistence inconsistent with a good Catholic, at last sailed across the waters and discovered what his judges declared did not exist.

Copernicus had written and submitted to Pope Paul III a system of astronomy which was also pronounced contrary to Scripture and erroneous in philosophy, and the books were condemned and publicly burned.

Bruno had just been silenced by fire for upholding this Copernican system and other heresies; Porta was soon to appear before Pope Paul III for trial and to be warned against resorting to the black arts, because of his scientific. attainments; and Galileo was to undergo more shameful treatment for "thinking different to what the Dominicans allowed." So, when Cesi and his friends began their investigations of Nature, studies which had hitherto brought nothing but disturbance, unrest, and revolt at the authorized doctrines, it is not surprising that efforts were made to stop them.

The young men were asked if they had not the works of Aristotle and of Thomas Aquinas, both accepted authorities by the Church for centuries; and if so, why not be content with them, for surely they did not imagine they were greater than these masters in science? But these tactics did not avail. Then appeal was made to Cesi's parents. The old duke was a man of domineering disposition and violent passions, and was unscrupulous of means in gaining his end.

He was told his son's morals were being undermined by his associates, and sought to alienate him from them, but without success.

Attempts were made to reach him through his mother, by arousing her fears as to his morals; but she, with a mother's instinct, could not be poisoned against him.

The duke threatened dissolution of the Academy by force. On Christmas-day young Cesi called his friends together, and, in order to remove all suspicions against immorality, recast their constitution and laws, by which it was ordered that all future meetings should be opened by reading one of the Psalms of David and by prayer. According to the custom of the times, the Academy was put under the patronage of one of the saints—St. John, the "apostle of hidden visions," being chosen, to whose church they repaired in order to gain his assistance in their troubles. But all this only increased the duke's resentment, and young Cesi saved himself from his father's wrath by flight, while Stelluti and De Filiis were sent home under guard.

Though separated, they found means of correspondence. Eckius did not escape so easily. It appears that while in Holland he was compelled to take a man's life in order to save his own, but so clearly in the right that he was not even put upon trial.

The duke, with dark treachery, through pretended friendship, secured from Eckius the names of all the witnesses and his personal enemies, then hurried them to Rome to appear against him before the ecclesiastical authorities. His rooms were ransacked for any damaging evidence against him; and his instruments and manuscripts destroyed.

After lying concealed until almost starved he surrendered, when he was turned over to a troop of soldiers to be returned to Holland.

But, though footsore and weary from the forced marches, the scientific spirit was still alert and uppermost. His observations of natural history, written during this unhappy journey, he sent, together with the drawings illustrating them, to Rome, where they, with other valuable manuscripts of the Academy, were kept treasured in the Albani Library until the French invasion.

The year 1609 was a memorable one in the annals of the Academy, as it was of science in general, as the date of the invention of the telescope. When, in the spring of this year, a rumor of the accidental discovery at Middelburg of the magnifying power of certain lenses, which suggested to the alert mind of Galileo the telescope, reached Italy, Della Porta, in a letter dated August 28th, from Naples to Cesi, gives a drawing of a telescope with a reference for its principles to his work on Optics, published in 1589. Since Porta did not see the telescope until Galileo brought his to Rome in 1611, the Neapolitan, by his own great knowledge of optics, conceived of the correct principle on which it must be built, and thus far forestalls Galileo; but—and the but is here all-important—Porta simply made a sketch, while Galileo built the instrument. The records of the Academy of this date determine that the words "telescope" and "microscope" were first used by Frederico Cesi. "In 1609 the Government of Venice made a considerable present to Signor Galileo, of Florence, Professor of Mathematics at Padua, and increased his annual stipend by one hundred crowns, because, with diligent study, he found out a rule and measure by which it is possible to see places thirty miles distant as if they were near, and, on the other hand, near objects to appear much larger than they are before our eyes."

In 1610 Porta became a member of the Academy. The first academy for scientific investigation to be established in modern times was the Accademia Secretorum Naturæ, which he founded at Naples in 1560. Porta was the President and leading spirit of this Academy until it was interdicted by the Pope, and Porta compelled to go to Rome to defend himself against the charge of magic and black arts. Porta became Vice-President of the Lincei, and some of his greatest works were published under its auspices, among which were Magiæ Naturalis; De Humana Physiognomonia, from which Lavater is said to have borrowed so extensively; Phytognomonica, a treatise on the physiology and virtue of plants; De Refractione, optices parte, in which he speaks of binocular vision; on Pneumatica, and various other works. In the Magiæ Naturalis he describes the camera obscura, which he had discovered, and mentions the many optical experiments he had made with it. He considered the eye a camera obscura, and thus approximated the true idea of vision. Here we find the passage, written several years before, in which he speaks of a combination of lenses by which "we may contrive to recognize our friends at a distance of several miles, and those of weak sight may read the most minute letters from a distance. It is an invention of great utility, and grounded on optical principles, nor is it to be understood by the vulgar, and yet be clear to the sharp-sighted." Who knows what Porta would not have done, with these facts in his possession, had he not been deterred by the charge of resorting to black arts, already resting upon him! Why should he, he may have reasoned, put to practical test that which, in his then present position, would almost certainly lead him to the stake. Galileo was a bolder man, and enjoyed the patronage of the powerful Medici, yet even he paid the penalty of his boldness.

When Galileo brought his little telescope to Rome in 1611, and set it up in the Vatican gardens, very naturally his most enthusiastic supporters were the Lynceans. Early in the year he became a member of the Academy. His signature runs as follows: "Ego Galileus Galilæus Vincentii filius Florentinna ætatis mese anno LII, Sal. 1611 die 23 April: Romæ manu propria scripsi." The whole of this, the first visit of Galileo to Rome, was one continued ovation, being received with the most marked distinction by the ecclesiastics and scientists alike. The experience of one looking through a telescope for the first time, at the moon, for instance, must have been novel indeed.

Those of us who remember the sensations they experienced when witnessing for the first time the workings of the telephone or phonograph can make only an imperfect comparison; for we, unlike Italy in 1611, live in a day when mechanical wonders are becoming commonplace. The whole relation of the Academy with Galileo is full of interest. The Transactions of the Academy give accounts of the members studying the heavens through Galileo's telescope. Cesi makes haste to write to his friend Stelluti in April, 1611, of what he had observed. The moon he finds to be "mountainous, cavernous, sinuous, abounding in water," and the heavens are "either in a state of flux and not different from our own air, or else are such as the Pythagoreans held them to be." What a contrast to these days of revelation was Galileo's second reception in Rome four years later! In his work on the solar spots he was led to espouse the Copernican system. This was a heresy already tabooed. All the old warm friendships and smiling faces became suddenly cold. Galileo still hoped to placate the authorities, and demanded a test by experiment to prove the correctness of his hypothesis; but this was the last thing his enemies would have allowed.

They remembered his challenge to the Aristotelians to test their and his views on the laws of falling bodies from the leaning tower of Pisa, and its result.

The only pleasant feature about this whole unhappy affair is the almost unanimous support and sympathy given by the members of the Lincei. And this meant not a little sacrifice on the part of the Academy, considering the condition of affairs at this time.

Throughout the long controversy with the Church, Galileo received nothing but encouragement and assistance from the Academy.

Some of his greatest works were printed at the expense of the Academy; and when one of its own members became Galileo's accuser, the Academy censured and practically expelled him from the body. Not the least among the splendid achievements of the Academy was the publication of the observations of Hernandez upon the natural history of New Spain (Mexico).

This celebrated naturalist was sent by Philip II to New Spain. The result of several years' faithful labor was embodied in a voluminous work, with numerous illustrations, describing the natural objects of the country with such fidelity and thoroughness that, in spite of the researches of more recent naturalists, it still enjoys the highest reputation. The expense attending the collection of material, drawings, and specimens for this great work is said to have amounted to sixty thousand ducats. Yet for fifty years this manuscript was neglected, no serious effort having been made to publish it. Then the indefatigable Cesi discovered it, had three of his colleagues of the Academy—Terentio, Fabro, and Colonna—to edit and annotate it, when the work was published at the expense of the Academy, several years later. It is curious to find prefaced to this edition a brief, dated 1627, of Pope Urban VIII, in praise of the Academy.

Cesi dedicated his work on his microscopic studies of the bee to the same Pope.

When we remember that this was the Pope under whom Galileo was condemned, we learn to what extent the casuistry of the day carried men, when it allowed the Pope to praise science yet condemn the results of science, and to lead the Linceans, as indeed Galileo himself, to insist that the Copernican system was not necessarily true in fact, but true ex hypothesi.

So long as Cesi could remain at the head of the Academy it continued to flourish, but began to suffer and decline after he was obliged to remove from Rome to his estates, about a hundred miles from the capital.

The old duke, by his reckless and extravagant mode of life, had so involved the estates that they became unremunerative. So, with characteristic selfishness, after reserving for himself an annuity, he turned over the estates to his son, who assumed all debts.

Cesi bravely struggled to meet these extra responsibilities and cares, and bore with uncomplaining patience the increased petulance and tyranny of his father, but his slender frame was unequal to the task, and in a few weeks after his father's death he was laid beside him in the grave, having died on the 2d of August, 1630, in his forty-fifth year.

A charming, learned, noble-minded man, he died too soon for science, a victim of filial duty. "What Cesi had done for others he failed to have done for himself, for the result of his own labors, Theatrum Naturæ, was never published, but remains in manuscript, in the Albani Library at Rome, to this day. Cesi was one of the earliest to make accurate observations on fossil woods, and to discover the system of propagation of ferns.

The Academy struggled on for twenty years after Cesi's death, and finally lapsed, to be revived again in 1784, since which time it has forced itself into the fore-front of the scientific bodies of Europe.

The unfortunate circumstance attending the lapse of the Accademia dei Lincei was the lack of unity of the states of Italy, each state or republic having its own academy, thus precluding a strong central representative body, such as the Royal Society of London, the Institute of France, the Academy of Sciences at Berlin, and the Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg, stood in relation to their own kingdom. The Accademia del Cimento at Florence, and the Academies at Bologna, Turin, Milan, Naples, all flourished at different times under the presidency of some great leader in science, as Viviani, the great geometer, and Torricelli, the inventor of the barometor, at Florence, the Morgagni at Bologna, and Da Vinci at Milan.

If all these could have been consolidated into one central corporation, their Transactions would have compared favorably with those of any other similar society. Another source of the unfruitfulness of Italian scientific societies was the emigration of some of their most eminent members to foreign cities, induced by the wider fields and richer rewards which such cities as Paris and St. Petersburg offered in contrast to those of one of their narrow republics.

But more than all this, more than all else combined, was the deadening influence of ecclesiastical disapprobation. In this atmosphere no freedom of thought or independence of research was possible.

To what purpose were life and energies to be devoted to the discovery of some great law of Nature, to find the results, if displeasing to the ecclesiastical authorities, interdicted from publication, and the person, instead of decorations, subjected to imprisonment, or worse? But the present and future are more hopeful. The atmosphere is clearer and healthier, although it required the thunder and lightning of Garibaldi and Victor Emanuel to effect it.

The old Italy has passed away.

There is now a Giovine Italia, and there is every indication of a new impetus to scientific research.

When we recall such names as Columbus, Cardan, Leonardo da Vinci, Bruno, Galileo, Porta, Cesi, Fabricius, Torricelli, Viviani, Telesio, Campanella, Vanini, Bovelli, Cassini, Bellini, Morgagni, Malpighi, Galvani, and Volta, it is but to be reminded of many of the most glorious achievements of science, though some of the authors were obliged to go to other countries to obtain them, while of those who remained in Italy some were rewarded with the stake. If so much was done under such adverse circumstances, one can not but wonder what would have been the result had science received the same encouragement in Italy that fostered art and music, and which science received in London, Paris, Berlin, and St. Petersburg.


The present position of anthropology, says Dr. Alexander Macalister, of the Anthropological Section of the British Association, is critical and peculiar; for while on the one hand the facilities for research are daily growing greater in some directions, the material is diminishing in quantity and accessibility—treasures both of the structure and the works of man are accumulating in our museums, but, at the same time, some of the most interesting tribes have vanished, and others are rapidly disappearing or being absorbed in other races.