Vallisneri's life and work
At the turn of the eighteenth century, human knowledge had not yet undergone the massive diversification that we see nowadays. In a time when interdisciplinary borders did not exist or were still easily and frequently crossed, it was not infrequent for savants to broaden their interests beyond the limits of their professional competence.
Antonio Vallisneri was a prime exponent of this eclectic approach to knowledge. In spanning well beyond medicine, his research interests encompassed the whole range of Life and Earth sciences and included topic such as biology, botany, zoology, embryology, mineralogy, stratigraphy, petrography, paleontology, entomology, geomorphology, hydrogeology, geography, mining, meteorology, chemistry: not to mention, of course, the various humanistic forays (like philosophy, history, literature, archaeology, lexicography, and even anthropology and folklore) which were a typical feature of many early modern savants.
Vallisneri’s early education followed the traditional path reserved for the children of the noble and wealthy families of the time. From 1679 to 1682 he attended the Jesuit College in Modena, where he received a solid training in classical culture and in the Latin and Italian languages. Then, in 1682, he enrolled at the University of Bologna, where he came into contact with the most advanced medical center of its time in Italy, and one of the most advanced in Europe – although not the most peaceful. In those years, in fact, the impact of Galilean experimentalism on medicine and natural philosophy had triggered a heated debate in the university, which was troubled by strife between two radically different epistemological traditions. On one side stood empirical and Galenic medicine, whose leading exponents were the physicians Giovanni Girolamo Sbaraglia (1641-1710) and Paolo Mini (1642-1693). On the other side was Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694), a fellow of the Accademia del Cimento who had merged the experimental method with the theoretical frameworks of Baconian philosophy and Cartesian mechanism and corpuscularism.
Being an enthusiastic student of Malpighi, Vallisneri took the side of his mentor and of the Galilean experimental tradition that he upheld. This stand, however, did not prevent him from getting acquainted with the most useful and constructive aspects of empirical medicine, which he carefully (and secretly) learned from Sbaraglia. In fact, in the following years the union of experimental rationalism and empiricism became a distinctive trait of Vallisneri’s research, both in medicine and in natural philosophy.
In 1685, the Collegio of Reggio (Emilia) awarded Vallisneri a degree in medicine, following which he extended his practical knowledge and experience in Venice, Padua and Parma. Having become a doctor in 1687, he returned to the Duchy of Modena and Reggio and started serving as a general practitioner. During his leisure time, he performed a wide array of observations and experiments which he methodically wrote down in seven notebooks, now partially published by the National Edition as Quaderni di osservazioni (“Observation Notebooks”). Most of the content of the Quaderni focused on entomology: eventually, these notes were assembled, developed and published with the title Dialoghi sopra la curiosa origine di Molti Insetti (“Dialogues on the Curious Origin of many Insects”) in the first (1696) and third (1700) volumes of the journal La Galleria di Minerva. In these essays, Vallisneri described the anatomy and the reproduction cycle of various insects, also supporting Francesco Redi’s confutation of spontaneous generation with new experimental evidence and with more refined theoretical arguments.
The Dialoghi brought Vallisneri early scientific fame and, therefore, the appointment as Professor of Practical Medicine at the University of Padua (where the Republic of Venice was attempting to foster the development and teaching of experimental science). He would spend the rest of his life in this academic environment, which in 1710 appointed him the First Chair of Theoretical Medicine.
Just like Redi and Malpighi before him and, more generally, like many upholders of Galilean experimentalism, Vallisneri considered the study of natural philosophy essential to the advancement of medical science (such relationship, on the contrary, being generally denied by the Aristotelians and by the orthodox followers of the Galenic tradition). However, although Vallisneri tended to distrust the theoretical principles of Hippocratism and Galenism and the therapeutic efficacy of traditional pharmacopoeias, he also acknowledged the importance of using empirical and statistical criteria in order to discover, evaluate and administer actually effective medicines: an approach which, in fact, was common to traditionalists and experimentalists alike.
The year 1710 marked the beginning of a period of feverish scientific activity for Vallisneri, an activity which allowed him to step onto the international stage. He published the anatomical essay Considerazioni, ed Esperienze intorno al creduto Cervello di Bue impietrito (“Considerations and Experiences on the allegedly Petrified Ox’s Brain”), the parasitological work Considerazioni ed Esperienze intorno alla Generazione de' Vermi ordinari del corpo umano (“Considerations and Experiences on the Generation of the Ordinary Worms of the Human Body”), and the Prima raccolta d'osservazioni, e d'esperienze... cavate dalla Galleria di Minerva (“First Collection of Observations and Experiences... extracted from the Gallery of Minerva”), which featured a digest of scientific articles previously published by him in this journal. In the same year, Vallisneri embarked in an ambitious editorial project together with the Veronese nobleman Scipione Maffei (1675-1755) and the Venetian literate Apostolo Zeno (1669-1750), establishing the Giornale de’ Letterati d’Italia (“Journal of Italian Scholars”). As editor of the medical and naturalistic sections of this journal, he strived to promote Italian scholarship (especialy in the fields of natural philosophy and erudite historiography) and the legacy of Galilean experimentalism in Europe. Thanks to this effort, he soon became a leading voice in the cultural and scientific scene of early modern Italy, as well as an acknowledged benchmark figure within the international Republic of Letters.
In 1712, Vallisneri started collaborating with the Naturae Curiosorum Ephemerides, journal of the Leopoldina Academy of Sciences. In 1713 he published the essay Nuove Osservazioni, ed Esperienze intorno all'Ovaia scoperta ne' Vermi tondi dell'Uomo, e de' Vitelli (“New Observations and Experiments on the Ovaries Discovered in the Round Worms of Men and Calves”), a new parasitological essay in which he described the reproductive system of various genres of intestinal worms and supplemented the observations published in Considerazioni ed Esperienze of 1710. He also published Esperienze ed Osservazioni intorno all'Origine, Sviluppi, e costumi di vari Insetti, con altre spettanti alla Naturale e Medica Storia (“Experiments and Observations on the Origin, Development, and Habits of Various Insects, together with other [Observations] Concerning the Natural and Medical History”), a volume featuring new entomological studies and other articles that had previously been published in journals.
In 1714, Vallisneri joined a pressing debate on the origin of epidemics, sparked by a widespread case of rinderpest that from 1711 to 1714 ravaged the Italian countryside and killed thousands of livestock, especially in the Po Plain. Given the extreme virulence of this disease and the enormous economic damage it caused, the authorities from the Republic of Venice and from other Italian states asked scholars and physicians to tackle the issue and find a remedy. To this purpose, Vallisneri engaged in an epistolary exchange with a brillant student of his, the physician Carlo Francesco Cogrossi (1682-1769). The ideas which emerged from the correspondence were then edited and published in Nuova Idea del Male Contagioso de’ Buoi of 1714 (“New Theory of the Contagious Disease among Oxen”), an essay where Cogrossi and Vallisneri refuted the conventional interpretation of epidemics provided by Hippocratic and Galenic medicine (according to which contagious diseases originated from filth and putrefaction and spread through “miasmas,” or “bad air”). Instead, the authors suggested that epidemics were caused by the passage of microscopic “vermicelli” (“little worms”) from one organism to another: this proto-form of germ theory was based on both empirical data and theoretical considerations, and had also been influenced by Athanasius Kircher’s theory of pestis animata (“living plague”).
In 1715, Vallisneri published a collection of three essays entitled Opere diverse (“Various Works”). One of these essays, Raccolta di vari Trattati (“Collection of Various Treatises”), was itself a digest of scientific articles that had been previously published, mostly in the journals Galleria di Minerva and Giornale de’ Letterati. Of the two other essays, the first one – entitled Istoria del Camaleonte Affricano (“History of the African Chameleon”) – was a thorough study of the habits, anatomy, and on the peculiar ability to change color of some chameleons that the author had received from his friend Diacinto Cestoni (1637-1718). In the second essay, Lezione Accademica intorno all'Origine delle Fontane (“Academic Lecture on the Origin of Springs”), Vallisneri dealt with an issue that had been challenging the Republic of Letters for centuries: the comprehension of the hydrologic cycle. By supporting the exclusively meteoric origin of fresh water with strong empirical evidence, he confirmed measurements and observations made previously by engineers, scholars, artisans, and experts all over Europe, and dealt a lethal blow to the competing theories of a compound origin – like, for example, those which supposed the existence of hidden underground channels connecting the oceans to the earth and the partial or exclusive distillation and/or filtration of sea water through rock layers. Vallisneri’s thesis relied on a mass of experimental data that he had collected during his journeys across the Northern Apennines. Already in 1705, he had noted most of these experiences in the Primi Itineris per Montes Specimen Physico-Medicum (“Physico-Medical Example of a First Journey through the Mountains”): a Latin manuscript which served as a foundation for the ideas later expressed in the Lezione Accademica, and which can be considered as one of the earliest and most well-documented attempts to define a systematic approach to field research and to extend the use of experimental method to the Earth sciences.
Already during his lifetime, Vallisneri was renowned for the great attention he devoted to both experimental evidence and theoretical interpretation. This distinctive approach to medicine and natural philosophy shines through in two other seminal (and controversial) works that he published in 1721: Istoria della Generazione dell'Uomo, e degli Animali (“History of the Generation of Man and Animals”) and De' Corpi marini, che su' Monti si trovano (“Of Marine Bodies found on the Mountains”).
The Istoria della Generazione was written at the request of no less than Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), who contacted Vallisneri through their “common friend” Louis Bourguet (1678-1742) and invited him to take part in the heated embryological debate with his scientific and medical knowledge. This essay became Vallisneri’s most successful and internationally influential work (a German edition of it was published in 1739). By explaining his theories on “ovistic preformationism” (i.e., on the central role of the maternal egg in the embryological development of humans and animals), Vallisneri upheld a view that had already been advocated by his mentor Malpighi, and which was reputed to be fairly compatible with Christian orthodoxy and with the Leibnizian theories of a pre-established harmony, of the Great Chain of being (or scala naturae), and of the recognition of divine providence in creation. This substantial (yet not uncritical) adherence to Leibnizian and Cartesian principles is also evident in De’ Corpi marini: a book where the author faced the thorny issues of the organic origin of fossils, diluvialism, and geochronology. In this essay, Vallisneri summarized the main diluvial theories proposed by famous European scholars such as – for example – Thomas Burnet (1635-1715), John Woodward (1665-1728), and Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672-1733). However, he disproved these theories, for he disagreed with the biblical notion of a miraculous and universal Deluge. Relying on empirical data, he instead suggested (though remaining within the narrow rhetorical borders of a careful self-censorship) that mountains and fossils were the results of multiple localized flood/emersion sequences, and that the Earth was far older than a literal interpretations of the biblical text would allow. This explanation was much more agreeable to a theoretical system which understood nature as a great and flawless mechanism where divine intervention was limited to a single act of creation at the beginning of time. For the same reasons, Vallisneri considered the very idea of miracle (and of a miraculous Deluge) to be useless, unnecessary, and even dangerous for religion: God’s omnipotence – he wrote – was to be recognized and admired in the regular and immutable harmony of natural laws.
With these crucial books, Istoria della Generazione and De’ Corpi marini, Vallisneri thrusted himself into the forefront of the European Republic of Letter as the leading Italian scholar of his time with respect to medicine and natural philosophy. After the publication of these essays, he devoted most of his efforts to promoting his theories, consolidating his scientific reputation, and – of course – fulfilling his academic and medical duties. At the same time, he continued his proud advocacy of Italian science, language and culture, which he tirelessly defended against the attacks of the “oltramontani” (literally, “those beyond the mountains”). In line with this ideal, in 1722 he published anonymously a text entitled Che ogni italiano debba scrivere in lingua purgata italiana, o toscana (“Every Italian should write in clear Italian, or Tuscan, Language”), which urged Italian savants to embrace the use of Italian language in their work and, therefore, to contribute promoting the reputation and influence of Italian culture and science in the international context.
In 1725, Vallisneri published a new medical essay called Dell’Uso, e dell'Abuso delle Bevande, e Bagnature calde, o fredde (“On the Use and Abuse of Hot or Cold Drinks and Baths”). This work was published together with Giovanni Battista Davini’s De potu vini calidi dissertatio (“Dissertation on drinking Warm Wine”), and discussed the therapeutic properties of cold and warm water. In the following years (1726-1728), Vallisneri published the second editions of some of his most successful works (Lezione Accademica intorno all’Origine delle Fontane; Esperienze ed Osservazioni intorno all'Origine, Sviluppi, e costumi di vari Insetti; Nuove Osservazioni, ed Esperienze intorno all'Ovaia scoperta ne' Vermi tondi; De’ Corpi marini, che su’ Monti si trovano). He also published two collections of essays, Nuova Giunta di Osservazioni e di Esperienze intorno all'Istoria Medica, e Naturale (“A New Addition of Observations and Experiments concerning the Medical and Natural History”) e Raccolta di varie Osservazioni spettanti all'Istoria Medica e Naturale (“Collection of Various Observations concerning the Medical and Natural History”).
In 1726, Vallisneri started working on a new ambitious endeavor which would engage him throughout the last four years of his life: the Saggio alfabetico d'istoria medica, e naturale (“Alphabetical Essay of Medical and Natural History”). In the author’s intention, this book was meant to fill a linguistic gap in Italy through the definition of a standardized scientific vocabulary for the Italian language, with special regard to medicine and natural philosophy. Unfortunately, the Saggio alfabetico remained unfinished due to Vallisneri’s death in 1730. It was published in 1733 in the posthumous Opere fisico-mediche (“Physico-Medical Works”), officially edited by his son Antonio jr (1708-1777).
Vallisneri’s passionate commitment to the promotion and popularization of Italian science and culture remained a distinguishing trait of his character until the end of his life. Even in 1728, he played a key role in fostering the publication of the Raccolta d’opuscoli scientifici e filologici (“Scientific and Philological Booklets”), a new journal founded by the Benedictine monk Angelo Calogerà (1696-1766). In contributing enthusiastically to this journal with articles and advices, Vallisneri was consistent with his unitary concept of knowledge – a concept which was greatly influenced by the Galilean experimental legacy and by the empirical model, as well as by the theoretical frameworks of Baconian philosophy, Cartesian mechanism, and the philosophies of Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1715) and Leibniz. In merging successfully different streams of knowledge and practice into an interdisciplinary (and yet consistent and original) approach to medicine and natural philosophy, Vallisneri exerted a crucial impact on many scientific debates of his time and established himself as a key figure in the transition of early modern science from the seventeenth century into the early Enlightenment.