The Clock and the Mirror: Girolamo Cardano and Renaissance Medicine.
Although both of these books focus on Italian medical writing in the sixteenth century, it is difficult to imagine two more divergent treatments. Siraisi offers a nuanced and highly textured analysis of the medical work of a single man, Girolamo Cardano, who taught at the universities of Pavia and Bologna, practiced in Milan and several other north Italian cities, and wrote extensively and influentially not only on medicine, but also on astrology, mathematics, and natural philosophy. Cunningham, in contrast, proposes an ambitious and wide-ranging new "master narrative" of the history of anatomy, from the Greeks to the early seventeenth century; in particular, he aims to replace the old story that portrayed sixteenth-century anatomists, most notably Andreas Vesalius, as heroes who used their own experience of the dissected body to liberate their field from the dead hand of Greek textual authorities, such as Galen, and thereby to usher in a modern, "scientific" anatomy.
Cunningham's argument, like his book, has two parts. In the first, he surveys the history of anatomy, in order to show that Renaissance anatomists not only did not reject the authority of the Greeks, but that each of three major sixteenth-century Italian writers in the field aimed literally to revive the investigative program of a different Greek predecessor or predecessors: Galen, in the case of Vesalius; Herophilos and Erasistratos, in the case of Realdo Colombo; and Aristotle, in the case of Girolamo Fabrizi. In the second part, he proposes a radical rethinking of the project of Renaissance anatomy, rejecting the utility of the historiographical category of the "Renaissance" (defined in classic Burckhardtian terms) to account causally for the shifts in the field of anatomy, and substituting for it the category of the "Reformation." This involves not only emphasizing in general the religious element in the anatomical project, but also establishing a set of one-to-one "homologies," argued with varying degrees of conviction, between "important moments of new anatomizing . . . and significant moments of the Reformation" (203): thus the work of Sylvius and Guinther in Paris corresponds to the religious project of Erasmus; that of Vesalius to Luther's Protestantism; that of Paracelsus and Servetus to the Radical Reformation; that of Colombo to the spirituality of the Roman Oratory of Divine Love; and that of Fabrizi to what Cunningham characterizes as the broadly tolerant Catholicism of the Venetian republic.
There are a number of useful elements in this book: Cunningham supplies lucid synopses of the anatomical works he discusses and rightly emphasizes the religious resonances of the Renaissance anatomical project. His chapter on Vesalius, including a suggestive reading of elements of the Fabrica's titlepage, is effective and well presented. Nonetheless, his overall argument fails to live up to its ambitious claims. The aspects of it that are convincing (religious motivations for the study of anatomy, anatomy as a branch of natural philosophy as well as medicine, the Hellenism of the sixteenth-century Italian anatomists) are in general not new, and the aspects of it that are new (the procrustean correspondences between particular anatomical writers, particular Greek authorities, and particular strands of Reformation and Counter-Reformation religiosity) are in general not convincing. Unaccountably, Cunningham does not appear to be familiar with any of the recent historiography on either sixteenth-century anatomy or Renaissance Italy: there is virtually no evidence of reading in either field after about 1970, including Andrea Carlino's important book on the topic. As a result, much of his general historical material is outdated, and he spends considerable time recapitulating points already made by others - compare his account of Vesalius's novelty to Carlino's - interspersed with spirited critiques of positions that no serious historian has held for twenty years.
Siraisi, on the other hand, has produced a wide-ranging and thoroughly up-to-date reading of Cardano's medical writing, organized topically around such themes as theory and practice, tradition and innovation, wonders, and narrative. Like Cunningham, she embeds her texts in their broader cultural context, but in her treatment, this context emerges as an intellectual and social world depicted with great nuance and precision: the tricky relationships between patient and practitioner in the hothouse marketplace of Italian cities, for example, the ways of integrating new material into a university curriculum that had not changed significantly since the fourteenth century, the complex interactions between textual authority and personal experience. Cardano is presented not as the emblem of a single ancient tradition (despite his Hippocratism) or a single religious moment; he appears rather as a writer who in was in some respects typical of more general trends in sixteenth-century Italian medicine (including its Hippocratism, its growing attention to particulars and unusual cases, its interest in occult causation) and in some respects idiosyncratic, as in his ongoing project of self-construction through periodic interpretations and reinterpretations of his horoscope and dreams.
It is impossible to do justice here to the contents of this rich and varied book; its topical organization and excellent index, footnotes, and bibliography invite readers interested in exploring specific themes in sixteenth-century medicine, as well as those interested in Cardano's thought as a whole. But a survey of Siraisi's discussion of Cardano's writing on anatomy (chap. 5) may give a sense of the ways in which a close reading of the works of this sixteenth-century physician enriches our understanding of what Cunningham calls the "anatomical Renaissance."
Cardano was a user and consumer of contemporary anatomical texts, rather than a research anatomist like Vesalius; his writing on anatomy thus allows Siraisi to get away from the focus on great anatomists that has largely characterized histories of the subject (including Cunningham's), to see how medical professionals received and interpreted their work. Siraisi stresses the continuities between medieval and Renaissance anatomical learning and practice: the persistence of textual approaches to anatomy, despite the emphasis of contemporary anatomists on personal experience; and the persistent use of Mondino's fourteenth-century textbook, even by anatomists like Cardano, who admired Vesalius's Fabrica and read it with great care.
Siraisi also notes the variety of possible uses of anatomy: while Vesalius presented his work as part of the theoretical field of natural philosophy, in emulation of Galen and in an attempt to elevate the rather lowly status of his discipline, Cardano was interested in its relationship to medical practice, stressing less its revelation of the handiwork of the Creator than its relevance to the diagnosis and cure of disease. But Cardano was profoundly influenced, and excited, by Vesalius's elaboration of visual aids for teaching and research, fantasizing about even more wonderful possibilities, like a lovingly described life-size anatomical model constructed out of colored metal and composed of detachable internal parts. Siraisi's account of Cardano's enthusiasm in this area suggests the growing importance of visually oriented pedagogies and epistemologies in the later Renaissance, supporting and echoing recent work on visuality and the history of the book.
Sixteenth-century Italian anatomy, like sixteenth-century learned medicine as a whole, thus emerges in Siraisi's work as a multi-layered enterprise, embedded in a rich context of practices and institutions. If Siraisi's writing has a weakness, it is to emphasize complexity and particularity at the expense of overarching generalizations: if Cunningham's account of sixteenth-century medicine is too reductionist, Siraisi's may not be reductionist enough. But by immersing herself in the details of what her texts actually say, she both gives the lie to Cunninham's caricature of the historiography of anatomy, and suggests a host of new themes and fruitful connections that should interest cultural and intellectual historians of sixteenth-century Italy, as well as historians of medicine and science.
KATHARINE PARK Harvard University
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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