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Galileo's People: Mapping Scientific Networks and Reading Practices in Early Modern Italy

This project feeds into my teaching of Aristotle in Bucharest, is directly related to my recent work on Gian Vincenzo Pinelli as well as the reception of Euclid in sixteenth-century Venice, and it consolidates my current research interests around three main objectives: (a) reflect on the epistemic unity of Galileo's method in his Paduan years, around the time he wrote the Sidereus nuncius, almost as a side-effect of the household’s centrality in Peripatetic culture and as a site of tension between Latin and vernacular; (b) study neglected aspects of intellectual exchange beyond the practice of epistolary culture and courtly patronage in order to reassess a mobility of labor that ranged from the Aegean Sea to the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth; and (c) suggest how to write a new social history of early science in the Veneto, seen at the intersection of two disciplines that rarely talk to one another—namely, natural empiricism and history of collecting. What follows here is a formal exposition of my point of departure, as I see it now.

Introduction and state of the art

This project aims to reassess the influence of a particular form of vernacular Aristotelianism upon the formation of Galileo’s method, focusing on a heterogeneous collection of materials written in question and answer format commonly designated under the title of “Problems.” While the scholars who have approached Aristotle’s problems have said comparatively little on the ‘democratization’ of such tradition, I look at it from a fresh angle: the interrelation between practices of reading (and collecting) and other expert practices. The best way to understand a ‘problem’ is to study what Aristotelian readers made of it, an approach that is particularly timely given the systematic analysis begun on vernacular Aristotelianism by an increasing variety of scholars. Only by considering Renaissance “problems” as being simultaneously tools and objects of inquiry can one properly account for their unity as an epistemic genre. Furthermore, I am particularly interested in the mechanical ideas that were disseminated in print, because I claim (a) that it was through the presses that the discussion really caught fire and (b) that this tradition significantly impacted early modern philosophy and science. Spurious Aristotelian material are more widespread than previously thought. However, the scholars working on the afterlife of pseudo-Aristotelian thought have mostly confined themselves to medieval Latin, and a thorough examination of pseudo-Aristotelian production and reception—particularly of how Venetian imprints facilitated a retuning of scientific readership from the Aristotelians to Galileo—has never been attempted. Such texts should be forefronted in historical scholarship both as crucial intermediaries to reconstruct works whose originals are lost and as an early modern stream of fresh ideas, consciously bridging East and West. In sum, the innovative bibliography and interdisciplinary approach of the project speak to its timeliness and originality, while also testifying to the urgency of the reconstruction it proposes. Ultimately, my experience as a historian of scholarship, Renaissance humanism, the book trade, and early science make me uniquely positioned to write a history of Galileian science based on cross-cultural exchange, the mobility of labor, and scholarly networks.

Main objectives

My project comes appropriately timed to fill this gap through a complete revision of the Aristotelian problems and their importance in the Galileian debates that developed before and after the scientist’s tenure in Padua among Renaissance philosophers and writers. It is therefore positioned against a philological framework of reception and diffusion of ancient Greek and Arabic sources related to the pseudo-Aristotelian corpus (roughly between 1450—1650) and presents two specific objectives: the first is to investigate how Aristotelian ‘problems’ are employed by the Renaissance book industry to reverse the dominant academic perspective and validate the vernacular as a central instrument in public life as well as an efficacious antidote against all dogmatism. The second is to analyze the relationship between pseudo-Aristotelian science and the philosophical traditions promoted in the vernacular and disseminated in Galileo’s Venetian entourage, paying specific attention to the tools of the trade, such as the humanist methods of reading, printing, note-taking, recording, and corresponding with peers. As a consquence, my exploration, by providing a complete, multi-disciplinary reconstruction of the impact of pseudo-Aristotle in Renaissance Italy, will offer the first and most complete analysis of the topic in decades.

Methodology and Approach

This study is a natural extension of my previous and ongoing output of intellectual history, namely articles devoted to the philosopher Francesco Patrizi, to the polymath Girolamo Ruscelli, to Galileo, and to the vernacularization of Aristotelian learning. Such output supports and will expand on Charles Schmitt’s argument that there were multiple Aristotelianisms in Renaissance Italy. Aristotelian philosophy was internally divided between authentic and spurious texts, which were continually integrated within the canon; and it differed among courtly elites, university professors, members of Catholic religious orders, artisans, and the entourage of the printing press. Because of this variety of thought and practices, the Problems resonated with larger trends of early modern intellectual life. In short, this project demonstrates, first, that there was no complete separation between the universities and the academies and the presses that worked for them, and, second, that their relationship was subtle and complex. My thesis is strongly revisionist: I see these “two cultures” are no longer opposed but interrelated. In order to overcome previous shortcomings in this regard, my approach entails: 1) a biographical study of the principal interlocutors in Galileo’s correspondence who are located in the Veneto, using a network analysis of scholarly communication to assess who used Aristotle and how, and to raise issues of communal behavior and the coordination of collective enterprises; 2) an intellectual history of the debates around pseudo-Aristotle that draws heavily on “expert reports” and the mechanics of trade to underline how the problems, as a genre, were a collection of discoveries and how even Galileo’s telescope was, in essence, a problem-solving device, to be improved by new collections of data.

Originality and Innovative aspects

My proposal’s novelty is threefold. First of all, I intend to create a much more complete portrait of Renaissance Aristotelianism, one based both on canonical and spurious production, and the intellectual discussions that it fueled—especially in light of the remarkable importance of “problems” for the history of science. Moreover, given its comprehensive nature, my findings will be beneficial for Aristotle’s scholarship, and even paradigm-shifting for the history of philosophy and the history of science as a whole. Finally, focusing on lesser-known Venetian collections such as the Problemata by Guidobaldo del Monte—Galileo Galilei’s mentor in Urbino, whose work was printed in 1609 by the bookseller and intelligencer Giovanni Battista Ciotti—will allow for a comparison between historical practices that are rarely considered together: Venetian print culture in the mid to late sixteenth century and the literary academies in Padua, the humanists who worked as writers-for-hire and their Aristotelian interlocutors. The main achievement will be to test at least three among the newest and most quickly developing goals of Renaissance scholarship in the context of sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Italy: (a) abandon the well-known notion that the Renaissance was an age of classical revival, with no significant technical or intellectual expansion; (b) completely revise the equally familiar view according to which Italian Peripatetics were unreconstructed pedants; and (c) use a neglected part of Aristotle’s thought to appreciate the mutual interaction between Europe and Eastern Mediterranean communities in Galileo’s day.

Gender Aspects

By championing a more expansive view of Galileo’s reception of Aristotelian philosophy, my project appeals to gender equality and shows how the development of a new experimental method in Venice was made possible by an active community of craftsmen, readers, invisible technicians and laboratory workers which included non-elite members and women. Indeed, the surprisingly close association between “problems” and anthologies of secrets or recipes primarily addressed to a female and domestic audience remains understudied. Here and in other publications I reframe the boundaries of ‘expert culture’ and I discuss technologies such as printing, traditionally understood as an early modern male practice, in terms of an activity in which both women and men participated; this project as well demonstrates how a mechanical view of nature, coalescent in the early seventeenth century, did not exclude women.

Interdisciplinary aspects

I reached the conclusion that my project should blend the methodologies of intellectual history and the history of the problems. The basic idea is that reassessing a neglected corpus of Renaissance philosophy is like investigating it as a translatio studiorum, a “translation”—as well as coexistence and interaction—of knowledge, languages and cultures. This means emphasizing break-points, refusals and transformation of concepts within specific traditions, but it also means accepting that a doctrinary background allowed much more flexibility to its practioners than our current scholarship accounts for, as is the case of the mechanical use of pseudo-Aristotle made by Galileo and his entourage in the early seventeenth century. Studying the Aristotelian problemata from a Renaissance angle, as opposed to a medieval Latin one, raises interdisciplinary questions related to the context of every individual problem, such as: How is a problem born? What are the social and cultural conditions that characterize its emergence? What are the proposed solutions? Do they vary in time? What are the intentions of the authors involved? Aristotelian communities are inherently diverse, ranging from hands-on artisans to humanists, and from elite to non-aristocratic actors. The debates that took place at Galileo’s house in Padua, and its interlocutors, particularly the collector Gian Vincenzo Pinelli, the diplomat Gianfrancesco Sagredo, and man of letters Paolo Sarpi, have been neglected for too long. In sum, my project aims to prove the advantages of trespassing disciplinary boundaries. First, I draw on recent developments in early modern empiricism. Second, I offer a continuation of my own inquiry into forms of early modern cosmographical communities. Finally, I advance our understanding of Venetian “expert knowledge” in mechanical arts one step further than in available studies. My multi-disciplinary reconstruction of sixteenth-century intellectual life based on the Aristotelian legacy will be a novelty for historians of both Italian literature and philosophy since it bridges a traditional gap between science, politics, rhetoric, and natural history.