Antonio Vallisneri was born at Trassilico, in Garfagnana, on 3 May 1661. Initially, his education followed the traditional path at the Jesuit schools, reserved for the sons of the “best” families of the times. In 1682, he started attending Bologna University, where he was one of Malpighi’s students. In 1685, the College of Reggio (Emilia), awarded him a degree, following which he extended his practical knowledge and experience in Venice, Padua and Parma.
He subsequently returned to his homeland, where he practised his profession in various different districts and, at the same time, initiated an extremely intense period of natural history studies. During these years, his interests focused mainly on entomology, leading him to publish the Dialoghi sopra la curiosa origine di molti Insetti, which appeared in 1696 and 1700 respectively, in the first and third volumes of «La Galleria di Minerva». Here he confuted the theory of spontaneous generation, illustrating the reproduction cycle of various insects and showing how they developed from the egg.
With the publication of the Dialoghi, Vallisneri became a prominent figure in the scientific sphere. He was thereupon appointed to the chair of Practical Medicine at the University of Padua by the Venetian authorities, who wished to foster the successful development of experimental philosophy within that environment. Here Vallisneri spent the remaining thirty years of his life, gradually ascending every step of the academic ladder, until he was finally appointed to the most prestigious chair of Theoretical Medicine.
During the years which followed his appointment in Padua, Vallisneri concentrated on his medical studies, in order to keep up with the new institutional duties he had taken on. In harmony with the thinking of Redi and Malpighi and in contrast with the Aristotelian and Galenic tradition and with Sbaraglia’s empirical reductivism, he committed himself to showing the close connection between the ideas of the former and natural history research.
As of 1710, together with Scipione Maffei and Apostolo Zeno, he started up the «Giornale de’ letterati d’Italia», a ground-breaking initiative which he used as a personal means of acquiring cultural hegemony and as a support for experimental science in the medical and natural science spheres.
From the earliest years of his teachings in Padua, Vallisneri had a highly significant relationship with the Swiss scientific environment. His extensive correspondence with Johann Jakob Scheuchzer and Louis Bourguet bears witness to this. The letters were mainly devoted to discussions of his own theories regarding the course and the characteristics of primordial events on Earth and the origin of fossils, plus those of his two correspondents. Vallisneri’s intellectual exchanges with the Swiss cultural world became so intense both quantitatively and qualitatively speaking, that he became one of the most famous and quoted symbols of experimental science in Switzerland during the mid eighteenth century. Indeed, the professor of Padua not only cooperated with other key leaders in the fields of medicine and natural science of the times, such as Jean Jacques Manget and Daniel Le Clerc, but he also involved himself both in the attempt to secure the appointment of Johann Scheuchzer, Johann Jakob’s brother, to the chair of Mathematics at the University of Padua, and in the work supporting the journalistic initiative of Bourguet’s «Bibliothèque italique», the specific objective of which was to promote the spread of Italian science and culture in Switzerland.
Several of his most significant works are worthy of special mention: to start with, Lezione Accademica intorno all’Origine delle Fontane. The lucidity of its experimental approach makes it a perfect example of the Galileian method. Others are Istoria della Generazione, conceived at the instigation of Leibniz which, in the embryogenetic debate of its times, took a stand in favour of egg preformation in the emboîtement version, and De’ Corpi marini, che su’ Monti si trovano, where Vallisneri negated the theory attributing the presence of fossils from the sea on the mountains to the effect of the Great Flood and affirmed that this was instead due to a series of partial floods and geological transformations, which had led to the rising of lands that had previously been submerged and vice versa. Another major work was Saggio alfabetico d’Istoria medica e naturale, which he left unpublished and which came out only posthumously in 1733, in Opere fisico-mediche. Here we see the first attempt to define a scientific, Italian lexicography in the natural history field.
When Vallisneri died in Padua, on 18 January 1730, he left a wealth of extremely important writings, both published and unpublished. These traced out scientific perspectives which marked a highly significant transition towards the age of the Enlightenment. Indeed, Vallisneri’s work and reflections showed an original interpretation of the themes and perspectives of the Galileian medical tradition followed by Malpighi and Redi and were positioned along the most advanced front of the natural history and life science debate then under way in Europe. Vallisneri was inclined to set his scientific hypotheses within a general theoretical framework, but he had a Baconian respect for empirical data, and he committed himself to overcoming the limits of Cartesian dualism and mechanicism, first with reference to Malebranchian thought and then to that of Leibniz. His teachings were based on his meticulous observations in the natural science, entomological and comparative anatomy fields, and he developed the concept of analogy between the kingdoms of nature and the idea of the great chain of living beings to the extreme horizons of pre-illuministic science and philosophy.
The scientific project
As a key figure in the Italian and European scientific scene during the first thirty years of the eighteenth century, Antonio Vallisneri produced the sort of work and reflections that exercised a remarkable influence both on his historical contemporaries and thereafter. Nevertheless, his intellectual contribution was rapidly forgotten and it is only quite recently that scientific historiographers have started to take an interest in it. What was missing from the studies on Vallisneri prior to the year 2000 was, first and foremost, an exhaustive survey of the many collections of manuscripts and a complete bibliography of his published writings, a goodly part of which were printed anonymously, in the form of extracts and news items, in the «Giornale de’ Letterati d’Italia» and other erudite periodicals of the times. Although the bibliography is now complete, many manuscripts have still to be found and reviewed.
The sheer size of a job of this nature, for which it would seem advisable to coordinate the efforts of a research group rather than relying on a single individual, has discouraged scholars from ever undertaking the task in a thorough and systematic way. Some have proved willing to tackle a single aspect, such as, for example, his voluminous mass of correspondence. Only in the year 2000 did the approval by the Italian Ministry for Cultural Assets and Activities, with the Project for the “Edizione Nazionale delle Opere di Antonio Vallisneri” [National Publication of the Works of Antonio Vallisneri], lay the foundations for filling in the gaps and setting up a collective enterprise to tackle the research exhaustively, as a whole.
The Edizione project provides for the publication of all Vallisneri’s works at the Olschki publishing house in Florence. These will total over 60 volumes, divided into three series. The first series will publish his manuscripts. The second will present the works published directly by the scientist. The third will relate to his vast correspondence. Moreover the publication of Vallisneri’s works is currently being backed up by a whole series of studies and materials functional to the publishing work. These include a Bibliography of the published works, which has already come out.
The Project, which is based at the Istituto per la Storia del Pensiero Filosofico e Scientifico Moderno, CNR – Milan Division, involves other national and international scientific institutions, such as the Institut d’Histoire de la Médecine et de la Santé at Geneva University, the “Centro studi Lazzaro Spallanzani” in Scandiano, the Department of Biology of Milan State University, the State Archives in Reggio Emilia, the Estense Library in Modena and the “Panizzi” Municipal Library in Reggio Emilia. Up to now, in addition to the aforementioned Italian Ministry for Cultural Assets and Activities (official sponsor of Edizione Nazionale), the following bodies have promised their help and support: Fonds National Suisse pour la Recherche Scientifique, the Scandiano town council, the local government bodies in Reggio Emilia, the Emilia Romagna county council, the Associazione popolare di Crema per il territorio and Fondazione Manodori (Reggio Emilia).
The enormity of this undertaking means that our group of collaborators has to be vastly extended: we need not only specialised scholars with experience in the field, but also younger people who might be interested in this research field and would like to gain experience in ecdotic work. In this perspective, we would be extremely grateful if professors and lecturers could assign doctorate theses which would interact with the work carried out by Edizione Vallisneriana, thus providing valid contributions to our project, whilst giving the young people concerned a significant opportunity to gain knowledge and experience.
Further information about the initiative, together with the email addresses of members of the National Commission and collaborators can be found on the Internet site www.vallisneri.it
Any messages or proposals should be sent to: Dott. Dario Generali, Edizione Nazionale delle Opere di Antonio Vallisneri, Via De Togni 7 – 20123 Milano – Italia