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Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe.

Gianna Pomata and Nancy G. Siraisi, eds. Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern Europe.

Transformations: Studies in the History of Science and Technology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005. x + 490 pp. index. illus. bibl. $50. ISBN: 0-262-16229-6.

A development from a workshop held at the Max Planck Institut of Berlin in June 2003, this volume brings together highly refined versions of the eleven papers discussed there (with unified bibliography and analytical index). Scholars from different fields investigate the manifold cultural practices associated with the term historia in early modern Europe, when that term enlarged the span of its multi-layered meanings to cover a variety of disciplines, including medicine, natural history, philology, and antiquarianism, as witnessed by the flood of books with historia in their title in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Most of the papers follow a fil rouge (against the traditional scheme of the two cultures): that is, the underlining of reciprocal influences between historia naturalis and historia humana. This happens when natural history is shaped by ethical purposes (see Brian Ogilvie's "Natural History, Ethics and Physico-Theology") or when it relies both on philological criticism and quantitative aspects of chronology and geography (see Pinon on Gessner and Peter Miller on "Peiresc's Archive"). But sometimes civil history too somehow appropriates quantitative criteria. Anthony Grafton ("The Identities of History in Early Modern Europe") challenges the traditional reduction of humanist history to a rhetorical form of civil history: authors like Jacopo Aconcio and Francesco Patrizi (among others) reveal theories and practices of history-making where objective and empirical knowledge play a role (as with chronological tables and maps). Martin Mulsow shows how "The Historia of Religions in the Seventeenth Century" was enriched by combining study of texts with that of material objects. Renaissance historia as a preamble to modern systems is the main topic for Donald Kelley ("Between History and System"), while Ann Blair's "Historia in Zwinger's Theatrum humanae vitae" suggests "analogies between Zwinger's collection [of historical excerpta] and the gatherings of facts of a Baconian kind" (270).

A second main thread is the dialectic between historia-format and direct experience. Chiara Crisciani's "Histories, Stories, Exempla, and Anecdotes: Michele Savonarola from Latin to Vernacular" is dedicated to this learned fifteenth-century court physician who wrote histories both on medicine and humane affairs, skillfully combining monumental history and memory from the past with anecdotal contents that linked it to everyday experience. Nancy Siraisi's "Historiae, Natural History, Roman Antiquity, and Some Roman Physicians" shows how sixteenth-century learned physicians in Rome "integrated medicine with natural historical, historical, and antiquarian learning" in a polemic on public health: "a battle of the books over the potability of Tiber water" (325), thus connecting ancient authors, narratives of their own cases, and public utility (a purpose shared with civil history). By means of references to Benedetti, Aselli, Harvey, and Champier, Gianna Pomata ("Praxis Historialis: The Uses of Historia in Early Modern Medicine") describes the development of historia anatomica and historia medica (that is, collection of case histories) as tranformations, respectively, of Aristotelian empiricism and Hippocratico-Galenic background. Partly mirroring Arno Seifert's generalizations, Pomata emphasizes a supposedly Scholastic "opposition" between historia as cognitio effectuum and philosophy as cognitio ex causis: "the shift from Scholastic Aristotelianism to Renaissance Aristotelianism implied a shift from historia as knowledge without causes to historia as knowledge preparatory to the investigation of causes" (111). Indeed, this is not exact. Suffice it to recall what such a champion of Scholastic Aristotelianism as Albert the Great writes at the beginning of his commentary on Aristotle's books on animals (1258-62): "In these first ten books (Historia animalium) we will deal with animal parts as regards differences, compositions, anatomies, behavior and sexual life; then in the nine following books (De partibus and De Generatione animalium) we will explain the real and natural causes of it all."

Two papers are devoted to zoology. Ian MacLean ("The Reception of Aristotelian Logic and Biology from Pomponazzi to Bacon") first discusses the debate on definition and classification in Renaissance Aristotelianism, with particular emphasis on the tradition of commentaries on Aristotle's biological works, then he sketches connections with early modern natural histories. Laurent Pinon's paper is focussed on one of these, Konrad Gessner's Historia animalium, as regards strategies of description, inclusion from ancient and contemporary sources, and criteria for validation of data.

It is impossible to do further justice here to this rich and multifaceted work, which will interest cultural historians, as well as historians of philosophy, medicine, and science.


Universita di Pisa
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Author:Perfetti, Stefano
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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