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Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library & Renaissance Culture
Interest in science at the papal court embraced not only mathematics and astronomy but also the more obviously practical fields of medicine and natural history. In these areas too the Vatican Library developed rich holdings, which extend from the classic general works of Plato and the challenging poem of Lucretius to standard medieval textbooks. The city became a lively center of research and publication.
In the fifteenth century scholars in the curia translated the complex and important biological works of Aristotle, and presented splendid manuscripts of their finished products to their patrons. They thus dramatised the fact that the greatest Greek philosopher had also been a great empirical scientist, who waded out into the ocean to catch interesting fish and dissected starfish in order to try to understand how their organs functioned. In the sixteenth century, Roman scholars edited and translated the oldest corpus of Greek medical texts, the works ascribed to Hippocrates. These were full of fascinating case studies and suggestive remarks about scientific method. Roman doctors adopted the new anatomical methods of the day, based on systematic dissection of the muscles and bones. They held dramatic public demonstrations of their skill, and sometimes found that they could criticize the work of the most influential anatomist of the time, Andreas Vesalius.
Copies of works on natural philosophy by standard authorities of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance reached the papal library from many sources. Calcidius's version of Plato's cosmology, produced in the fifth century A.D., was an influential source for medieval ideas about the natural world. In the late sixteenth century, this manuscript belonged to Leiden University professor Daniel Heinsius who gave it to his son Nicholas. Nicholas, whose signature appears on the manuscript, was the librarian of Queen Christina of Sweden, whose collection came to the Vatican Library after her death.
This copy of Aristotelian philosophical and scientific texts, regularly studied in Latin translation in medieval and Renaissance universities, once belonged to the Florentine humanist Giannozzo Manetti (1396-1459), friend and biographer of Pope Nicholas V. Manetti applied humanist Greek scholarship to the study of Aristotle. He copied part of the Greek text of the Physics in the margins of the Latin translation. After his death, Manetti's numerous books became part of the Palatine Library at Heidelberg. They entered into the papal collections when the Heidelberg library was carried off to Rome in the course of the Thirty Years War.
The early Greek commentators on Aristotle's accounts of the natural world, of whom Simplicius (sixth century A.D.) was one of the most influential, offered challenging accounts of and objections to his theories. Their study expanded in fifteenth- century Italy. This manuscript is signed by a former owner, Cardinal Bessarion, whose household in Rome was an important center of Greek studies.
This elegant manuscript of Lucretius's philosophical poem, copied by an Augustinian friar for a pope, is an example of the interest in ancient accounts of nature taken by the Renaissance curia. The work, written in the first century B.C., contains one of the principal accounts of ancient atomism. The poem was little known in the Middle Ages and its author dismissed as an atheist and lunatic, but after the discovery of an early manuscript in 1417 by the humanist and papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini, it circulated widely in Italy. This is one of numerous copies made at that time. The coat of arms of Sixtus IV appears on this page.
Pope Nicholas V was an enthusiastic and informed patron of the translation of ancient scientific works from Greek into Latin, the language of intellectual life in the Renaissance. New translations of Aristotle's books on animals, which describe over five hundred different species and are the principal ancient works on the subject, played an important part in this pope's intellectual program. George Trebizond's translation, completed in 1449-50, was commissioned by Nicholas V, and is dedicated to him.
Pope Nicholas V became dissatisfied with Trebizond's work and commissioned a second translation by a rival Greek scholar, Theodore of Gaza. This manuscript is a revised version of Theodore's translation dedicated to Sixtus IV. The richly decorated title page centers on an imaginative depiction of Aristotle at work surrounded by animals and a naked human couple- -perhaps Adam and Eve. The medallion below portrays Sixtus IV and is inscribed sacricultor (keeper of sacred things); the medal above shows the Ponte Sisto and alludes to Sixtus's building program and role as ruler of the city of Rome. The writing is ascribed to Bartolomeo San Vito.
The Renaissance saw new forms of medical study flourish at Rome. Scholars like Raphael's friend Marco Fabio Calvo studied the ancient medical works attributed to Hippocrates. These had been known only in part in the Middle Ages. Read as a whole (and translated into Latin), they offered an important new model for medicine based on close observation and unemotional, precise case histories (of which the Hippocratic texts contained a good many). Anatomists like Juan Valverde de Amusco and Bartolomeo Eustachi followed the lead of Andreas Vesalius, basing their accounts of human bones and blood vessels on the direct evidence they found by dissection, and publishing their results, magnificently illustrated, as improvements on Vesalius's work.
The papal library also acquired copies of standard medical works used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Portions of the twelfth-century Latin translation of Avicenna's medical encyclopedia were used as textbooks in universities, and the work as a whole served as a medical reference tool. In this copy, numerous miniatures vividly depict patient problems with which the medical practitioner was likely to be confronted. Here a patient has hemorrhoids.
Galen's De usu partium (second century A.D.) was one of the most important ancient contributions to physiology and anatomy and this work greatly influenced the development of those subjects in the Renaissance. The copy shown here is one of the earliest and best manuscripts, of great significance for establishing the text. It is one of many books that came to the papal library from the libraries of the cardinals. In the fifteenth century, it belonged to Cardinal Jacopo Ammannati Piccolomini, who was a member of humanist circles in Rome.
The first Latin translation of the complete corpus of treatises ascribed to Hippocrates (fifth century B.C.) was an important development in Renaissance medical learning. This undertaking, accomplished at Rome by Marco Fabio Calvo (d. ca. 1527), greatly enlarged knowledge of one of the most important ancient medical writers, even though some Hippocratic books had long been available in older translations. Marco Fabio Calvo based his transcription and translation of the corpus on this fourteenth- century manuscript in the mistaken belief that it was of great antiquity.
Calvo originally planned to publish a Greek edition as well as a Latin translation of the complete Hippocratic corpus and transcribed the whole Greek text from the older manuscript.
Marco Fabio Calvo's Latin translation of the Hippocratic corpus was completed in 1515 and printed at Rome in 1525, by Francesco Calvo, then "apostolic printer" to the papacy. The following year Marco Fabio deposited this holograph manuscript of his Latin translation in the papal library, so that it could serve as an archetype (official text) for future editions of his work. The papal library thus still served as a library of record, as it had for Lorenzo Valla 75 years before.
Valverde was one of a group of anatomists who worked in Rome in the middle years of the sixteenth century, when anatomy based on the dissection of the human cadaver was the focus of much scientific and public interest in Italy. In this work, dedicated to Amusco's patron Cardinal Juan Alvarez de Toledo, the author refers to the greater opportunities for anatomical study in Italy, including Rome, as compared to his native Spain. Sharp rivalries existed among anatomists.
Here, a muscle man holds up his own flayed skin; the accompanying text points out the independence of the illustration from that of the pioneer Andreas Vesalius and discusses the differences with the latter's teaching.