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G u id o G ig lio n i

Girolamo Cardano represents one of the most complex personalities of
the Italian Renaissance. The multi-faceted nature of his thought has been
recently subjected to careful investigation by distinguished historians, so
much so that it is not an exaggeration to speak of a Cardano revival in Re
naissance studies. In 1994 Eckhard Kessler edited a collection of essays
which can be taken as the starting point in this process of reassessment of
Cardanos work1. In 1999 another collection of essays, edited by Marialuisa Baldi and Guido Canziani, has provided further high-standard contri
butions2. To cap it off, two remarkable monographs recendy published
(Nancy G. Siraisi, The Clock and the Mirror. Girolamo Cardano and Renais
sance Medicine, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1997; Anthony Graf
ton, Cardanos Cosmos. The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer, Har
vard University Press, Cambridge (MA) and London, 1999) shed further li
ght on Cardano3. Nevertheless, the richness of Cardanos world is such
that much remains to be explored. Using a vivid but telling image, An
thony Grafton likens the future students of Cardanos intellectual legacy to
caterpillars exploring tiny portions of an enormous flowering garden* (p.
Three main topics can be extracted from the two books published by Si
raisi and Grafton: the centrality of divinatio in Cardanos intellectual enter
prise, the philosophy of history underlying his medical environmentalism
and astral worldview, and the delicate interplay of texts and contexts in the
understanding of Cardanos unsettling personality.
Among the threads which the two books provide us to find our way in
the labyrinth of Cardanos work, one is represented by his lifelong engage
ment with the divinatory arts. Medicatio et vaticinatio cognatae sunt inter
sese, said Hippocrates in the pseudepigraphal letters which had a great
* I am particularly grateful to David Marshall for revising the English of this
1. Girolamo Cardano. Philosoph, Naturforscher, Ar& ed. by E. Kessler, Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 1994.
2. Girolamo Cardano. Le opere, le fonti, la vita, ed. by M. Baldi and G. Canziani,
Angeli, Milano 1999.
3. An article written together by the two authors [Between the Election and My Ho
pes: Girolamo Cardano and Medical Astrology) is announced as forthcoming in one of
the next issues of Archimedes*.



success during the Renaissance. This statement quoted by Siraisi can well
be used to characterize Cardanos view on the interrelationship of medi
cine, astrology and prophecy. As Siraisi points out, the pursuit of forekno
wledge is at the core of Cardanos interests. We can define Cardanos in
volvement in the whole range of the interpretative and predictive techni
ques as an hermeneutical enterprise focusing on divinatio. As is well
known, Cardano condensed all that concerns interpretative skill in his no
tion of subtilitas. It takes subtlety whenever one has to master a puzzling si
tuation or to unravel an entangled case, be it an algebraic problem or a
metoposcopic consultation. More specifically, Cardano speaks of conjecturales disciplinae to refer to those sciences the main aim of which is to inter
pret signs (constellations and meteorological phenomena, dreams and vi
sions, lines in palms and foreheads, odors and sounds). All these discipli
nes require interpretative skills because they have to take into account a
huge amount of details and circumstances (food, humors, age, sex, wea
ther, countries, stars), because they constandy have to cope with unpredic
tability and randomness in explaining the past and fortelling the future,
and because they have to manage data open to diverse readings and capa
ble of yielding countless consequences.
Both Siraisi and Grafton highlight the importance of the art of interpre
tation in Cardanos work on many levels. After all, Cardano wrote impor
tant commentaries in several fields (medicine, astrology, and oneiromancy
included). In commenting upon ancient textbooks Cardano seems often
engaged in defining philological criteria of attribution and in identifying
semantical shifts occurred in the translation of relevant medical terms from
the Greek texts. From Graftons minute analysis we learn that Cardano
tried hard to restore the technically and quantitatively authentic tradition
of the ancient astrology, expurgating from it the corruptions of the AraboLatin astrological practice. Renaissance anatomy, too, can be viewed as an
interpretative enterprise. As Siraisi emphasizes, Cardanos interest in ana
tomy was highly dependent on his perception of autopsy as a technique
of retroactively interpreting signs*. Furthermore, the anatomical practice
still relied on the knowledge of the ancient texts recovered, edited and
translated by humanist scholars. Anatomy was still largely a descriptive
and literary enterprise, focused on the careful perusal of authoritative te
xts. Finally, astrology may be seen as another instance of interpretative ac
tivity in Cardanos work. As Grafton righdy argues, the model underlying
Cardanos astrological agenda is hermeneutical, not geometrical* (p.
121). For this reason, historians cannot deal with the phenomenon of astro
logy starting from Popperian assumptions. Astrology was a science of its
own which demanded complex interpretative techniques. In this light, re
trospective analysis cannot be seen as an excuse for covering up mistakes
and failures, but, quite the contrary, it is a standard practice demanded by
the very nature of a discipline in which a totality of external and contin
gent factors constantly falsifies what has been promised by the inexorable


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course of the stars. In Cardanos view, the serious astrologer, being perfec
tly aware of the conjectural status of his science, far from devising hypothe
ses ad hoc to readjust the disproved prediction, is forced to reintepret inces
santly the data in order to have a better understanding of the situation un
der scrutiny.
More specifically, Siraisi identifies three main areas in the domain of
predictive knowledge: medical prognosis, astrological prediction, and
dream premonition. The medical doctrine of critical days, for instance, is
meant as an astrologically-based view. The analysis of the great planetary
conjunctions is used as a way to shed light on the grand movements of
world history. Autobiographical accounts, genitures, and dreams are regar
ded as powerful diagnostic resources. In this respect, the different frame
works that can be found in Cardanos work - medical, astrological, divinatory and historical - complement one other in attempting to devise what
Grafton calls a project of rational prediction* (p. 175). Medicine, astrology, prophecy and history make use of narrative patterns, aim at reliable
predictions and prognoses, and do not rule out the possibility of revisions,
retrospective explanations and increasingly refined interpretations. Graf
ton shows more than once how the format of the horoscope commentary
represented the narrative embryo of Cardanos autobiographical project.
Siraisi rightly interprets Cardanos passion for accumulating narratives of
experience* as a tool for understanding both human society over time
and in its physical environment and the health and fortunes of individuals*
(p. 195).
Any interpretation is committed to the problem of mediating between
the general rule and the particular instance, an aspect of the broader que
stion of how law and contingency intersect. This relationship always captu
red Cardanos attention and accounts for his longlife fascination with parti
culars, in terms of collected data, descriptions of minerals, plants and ani
mals, historical anecdotes, and medical consilia. Once again, interest in
particulars satisfies medical, astrological and divinatory demands. The
identification of a particular situation - a sick patient, an astral conjun
ction, or a particular position in chess - presupposes an intricate and everchanging web of factors.
Particulars have a transient and ephemeral status. They share a preca
rious condition with other objects of Cardanos research like dreams, pre
sages, vaticinal monstra, planetary positions, and combinations of probabi
lity. Their fluctuations and evanescent being in the apparendy messy situa
tion of the sublunar world demand readiness of mind and sophisticated in
terpretative skills. As Grafton argues throughout his book, astrology suited
very well Cardanos capacity for seizing the contingent in the experience
by providing a language for describing the indescribable, the momentary,
the felt* (p. 197). Since human experience is made up of a mosaic of mi
nima which, in turn, may be further divided to infinity, any success in disci
plines and activities presupposes the ability to master these minima: isque



solus in artibus, in consiliis, in negociis civilibus praestantissimus erit, et ad

summum culmen perveniet, qui haec intelliget, et in opere ipso observare
noverit: quamobrem in quibuslibet eventibus talia m inima erunt observanda*4. Cardanos obsession with details and particulars inspires Grafton
with an appropriate methodological perspective: to maintain both a de
tailed, even microscopic investigation of an individuals mind and envi
ronm ent and a wide-angled survey of the millennial intellectual traditions
which shaped both* (p. 21).
Siraisis book focuses specifically on Cardanos medicine. Needless to
say, though, her book is also full of references to astrology. And this cannot
be otherwise in a work on Cardano5. In Cardanos astral worldview stars
and heavens are the source of innumerable effects: cosmological cycles,
astral sympathies, demonic interventions (among which that of his own
guiding genius), human will, blows of fortune, and chance effects. But
astral powers are not the only causative factor. Climate determinism, envi
ronmental influences and dietary customs are also to be taken into account
in order for medical and astrological practice to be successful. Hippocratic
treatises such as Airs Waters Places, Regimen, and Epidemics are originally in
terpreted in connection with Ptolemys Tetrabiblos in order to provide an
authoritative foundation for a typically medical environmentalism. Car
dano characteristically invoked the Hippocratic art of Ptolemy* to refer to
the doctrines of critical days and fetal development - the traditional ways
of linking astrology to medicine - not to mention the astrologically propi
tious time that a physician had to wait for before applying his therapeutical
The notion of hermeneutics as divinatio underlies Cardanos metaphysi
cal views on divine and natural causality, his mathematical interests in
chance and probability, and his practical concerns in forms of occult causa
tion. The web of events is made up of convergences of chance, knots of
probabilities and apparent interruptions in the necessary course of natural
causality. All this entails degrees of certainty, from the unique and unpre
dictable event to the inevitable outcome of a causal chain (hoc quod in ipso
fa ti ordine constitutum esi)h. Concerning occult causes and marvelous ef
fects, Cardanos position is suggestively examined by Siraisi against the
background of Pomponazzi, Nifo, and Fem els theories. Cardano was well
4. G. Cardano, De propria vita liber, in Opera omnia, ed. C. Spon, Lugduni, sumptibus loannis Antonii Huguetan & Marci Antonii Ravaud, 1663, I, p. 36.
5. On Cardanos astrology see Germana Ernsts seminal essay Veritatis amor
duldssimus. Aspetti deWastrologia in Cardano, in Religione, ragione e natura. Ricerche su
Tommaso Campanella e il tardo Rinascimento, Angeli, Milano 1991, pp. 191-219 (an
English translation of this essay will appear in a forthcoming volume of Archimedes).
6. Somniorum Synesiorum libri, in Opera omnia, V, p. 705.


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acquainted with the debates sparked by Pomponazzis naturalistic expla

nation of mirabilia in terms of astral influences, imaginatio and occult pro
perties of things, but he did not completely rule out benevolent and male
volent demons from the domain of nature. The characteristic point in Car
danos position is his looking at spirits in terms of genii lavishing predictive
powers and good dispositions. This does not clash with his accentuated na
turalism. Siraisi summarizes this well: Cardanos medical theory c o m b i
ned Galenic rationalism with nondemonic magia naturalis in an astrally go
verned universe* (p. 169).
Graftons book is specifically devoted to Cardanos astrology. The au
thor proves himself very familiar with the technically sophisticated litera
ture of astrology and he is at ease in such a complicated topic as the deve
lopment of different traditions of astrology from antiquity to the early mo
dem period. According to the astrological doctrine of the time, great con
junctions of planets, processions of equinoxes, and transits of comets could
determine the fates of kingdoms and the birth and decline of religions.
Take, for instance, the heated astrological debate (in which Cardano, too,
intervened) concerning Luthers birthday and his horoscope. Here Graf
ton develops W arburgs pioneering hypothesis concerning the political im
plications of astrology' and the propagandistic use of prophecies in the Re
formation milieu around Luther'. Grafton sets Cardanos first attempts to
gain credit as an astrologer and prophet in the turbulent context of the po
litical and religious crisis of the Holy Roman Empire and in the highly
competitive world of healers and prophets offering varied forms of
Cardanos involvement in astrology is also investigated by Grafton as a
part of his self-fashioning strategies. In 1538 Cardano published in Milan
two short texts Supplementum almanack and De temporum et motuum erraticarum restitutione. Grafton reconstructs meticulously the story of how the Libelli duo brought Cardano from local obscurity to international fame*.
W hat is even more interesting is that the book drew the attention of the
theologian Andreas Osiander, the astronomer Georg Joachim Rheticus
and the Nuremberg publisher Johannes Petreius, all acting within the orbit
of the Lutheran Reformation. By reprinting Cardanos Libelli duo with an
enlarged collection of horoscopes of famous men in 1543, Petrius contribu
ted to shape Cardanos career as an international astrologer. A large part
of Cardanos astrological success relied on the use of the horoscope as an
original literary genre. Collections of genitures called the attention of a
7. See A. Warburg, Heidnisch-Antike Weissagung in Wort und Bild zu Luthers Zeiten,
Heidelberg 1920; repr. in Gesammelte Schriften, ed. by G. Bing, Leipzig-Berlin 1932.
The book 'Astrologi hallucinate. Stars and the end of the world in Luthers lime, ed. by P.
Zambelli (Walter de Gruyter, Berlin-New York 1986), may be considered as ano
ther important development of the same issue.



wide and variegated readership (specialists, humanists, and common rea

ders) attracted to the lives and exploits of leading intellectuals, princes, po
pes, and other famous historical figures. Astrological consultations became
very fashionable among members of the European elite. The astrologer,
by showing his technical, psychological, medical, and political expertise,
was in possession of a means to secure patronage and establish networks of
There is a danger, though, in stressing too much the ritualized schemes
of self-advertisement. It is easy to depict Cardano as a picaresque adventu
rer, a stubborn provocateur or a cunning opportunist, but that can be also
the most common way of losing track of such a shifting personality as Car
danos. In a sense, it is precisely what Cardano wanted: illud inter vitia
mea singulare et magnum agnosco, et sequor, ut libentius nil dicam, quam
quod audientibus displiceat: atque in hoc sciens, ac volens persevero8. If
the historian forgets this crucial hermeneutical clue, he misses the opportu
nity to focus on what really mattered to Cardano. Instead, the historian is
titillated by the pile of wondrous facts and futile anecdotes, by the gossipy
details of his hazardous career as a scholar, by the thrilling vicissitudes of
his awkward apprenticeship as a courtier. Cardano must have known this
very well, if after four centuries readers are still interested in the story of his
impotence, in the memories of his disfunctional family, in his defiant and
unpleasant manners, and in his rodomontades. Being perfecdy aware that
Cardanos account of his own life is not always full and frank* and that
lesser revelations are often used to distract the reader (p. 188), Grafton
avoids the above-mentioned risk by carefully unpacking the famous selfportrait and showing its composite nature, made up of blocks of different
materials from different periods of his life. Also in this case, astrology plays
a relevant role: its intellectual capaciousness*, in Graftons words, enabled Cardano to make his book a partial mirror of his fractured self* (p.
A strong desire for self-expression characterizes every aspect of Carda
nos work, not only in his renowned autobiography. He never misses a
chance to fashion his own reputation as physician, astrologer, mathemati
cian and philosopher. Cardanos own self-presentation includes his natal
horoscope, the bibliography of his books, and dream narratives, in a scho
larly histrionism incessandy open to revisions and additions of data. He
also kept rewriting his own health history by periodically recasting his ho
roscope, self-diagnosing diseases, experimenting on his body, and chec
king his lifelong poor health. As Siraisi notices, Cardanos narratives
about his health tell a unique story: that of one mans developing under
standing of his own body through highly personal applications of a com
plex learned tradition* (p. 224). While his Vita remains an outstanding
8. Cardano, De propria vita liber, cit., p. 10.


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example of the Renaissance cult of individuality and self-fashioning, Car

danos writings as a whole are interspersed with endless references to epi
sodes of his life, professional successes and difficulties, physical ailments
and oustanding interpretative skills, the whole thing told in a matter-of-fact
style which never betrays any kind of reserve, embarassment or self-pity.
Nostra autem sine fuco, et non doctura quemquam, sed pura historia contenta, vitam non tumultus habet, as Cardano writes referring to the gene
ral account of his own life9.
Both Siraisi and Graftons books are masterly examples of historical
analyses based on the interplay of texts and contexts. A figure like Car
dano - a m an both outsider and insider in many institutional and profes
sional situations - requires on the part of the historian an ability to move
with agility from text to context and back. Siraisi maintains that the task
of struggling with the texts and endeavoring as far as possible to explain
the ideas they transmit remains inescapable* (p. 23), but at the same time
she does not ignore that Cardanos writings are an exceptionally rich
source of information about this complex medical world* (p. 17). Referring
to the medical professional context m ade up of university teaching, m edi
cal practice, and publication of learned works, Siraisi singles out the origi
nal feature of Cardanos career in his being simultaneoulsy within and
outside the milieu of academic medicine*. Like Paracelsus and Femel, he
represents a new type of practitioner in some ways emblematic of the
complex interaction - in medicine as in so m any other areas of Renais
sance culture of old and new, academic and civic or courtly, elite and po
pular* (p. 12). Siraisis fine-grained analysis is extremely sensitive to the
delicate question concerning the dialectic of innovation and tradition in
the Renaissance medicine.
The luxuriant garden to which Grafton com pare Cardanos work is the
product of one of the most elusive personalities of the sixteenth century*,
to use Siraisis words (p. 18). Never lukewarm or reticent in his writings,
Cardano was much too idiosyncratic to be typical of anything* (p. 8) and,
when we refer to the ^typically Cardanesque*, it is only to point to that
characteristic blend of queemess, deepness and egotism which distingui
shes Cardanos literary production. Siraisi reminds us that in examining
Cardanos work one has not to be afraid of being exposed to shifts, contradictions* and ^revisions*. Grafton is essentially in agreement with Si
raisi when he says that his first intention in writing the book was to be sur
prised. Graftons methodological procedure (which is also a historians ge
neral frame of mind) to develop specific analytical question not in ad
vance, but as [he] worked through primary sources* (p. 15) remains un
doubtedly the best way to develop a sympathy for the workings of Carda
nos mind.
9. Cardano, De propria vita liber, cit., p. 1.