The Natural Science of the Biblical World in Late Renaissance Italy


Andrew Berns University of Pennsylvania

My PhD thesis investigates how Italian medical doctors studied the Bible during the late Renaissance. Specifically, it identifies and explores connections between medical and biblical commentaries. Philadelphia’s numerous libraries and archives contain extensive resources pertinent to both Renaissance medicine and early modern biblical studies. My one-month PACHS fellowship provided essential support that propelled my research forward. Historical scholarship assumes that only theologians studied the Bible in early modern Europe. In turn, historians of medicine focus on the strictly scientific pursuits of pre-modern physicians. My work attempts to expand and alter our knowledge of biblical studies and renaissance medicine by underlining the conspicuous role Italian physicians of the late -16th and early-17th centuries played in exploring the natural philosophy of the biblical world. A broad community of educated non-specialists scrutinized the portions of the Bible that concerned the natural world. The objective of my project is twofold: to bring these little-studied sources to the attention of scholars across several fields— including the History of Science, Jewish Studies, and Renaissance History—as well as to probe the close connections between medical science and biblical studies in early modern Europe. A one-month PACHS fellowship helped me further both goals. During my tenure at PACHS I discovered new sources for my project and developed ideas concerning the centrality of medical and scientific culture to the shifting character of biblical studies in late -Renaissance Italy. In the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Pennsylvania I located and studied several fascinating texts, which John Pollack and Lynne Farrington kindly placed at my disposal. I had the opportunity to deepen my knowledge of commentaries on classical scientific texts by Pliny and Dioscorides. Renaissance physicians such as Niccolò Leoniceno and Jacques Daleschamps each upheld the utility of Pliny’s Natural History and defended it against charges of irrelevance. Their discussions about proper translation and the relationship between words and things have clear echoes that may be heard in contemporary works of biblical scholarship. Specifically, their insistence that scientific books be judged according to different criteria than those proposed by classical scholars who edited literary texts encouraged naturalists to plumb Pliny’s and Dioscorides’s compendia for information germane to the natural world of the ancient Near East. Renaissance physicians such as Amatus Lusitanus, Andrea Bacci, David de’ Pomis, Ulisse Aldrovandi, and Abraham Portaleone pioneered a new, critical study of the Bible that placed Holy Scripture alongside pagan texts of classical antiquity. Theologians active at the same time were much more conservative and conventional in their approach to biblical studies. At Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library I also studied 16th-century works on ancient scribal culture. One of my dissertation’s protagonists, the Bolognese naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi, wrote at length about ancient paper, papyrus, and styluses. In these writings Aldrovandi frequently quotes the Bible, often in multiple languages. In fact, Aldrovandi treats the Bible as an historical source as opposed to a sacred one. At Penn I was able to study contemporary works by Mutio Pansa and Angelo Rocca, early bibliographers whose histories of the written word mention the Bible as well, although not nearly as extensively as Aldrovandi did. On the subject of ancient bibliography, I also carefully studied Melchior Guilandino’s work on papyrus; Guilandino was another Italian physician interested in the Bible. And my renewed absorption in the culture of scientific commentary, prompted in part by discussions I had with other PACHS and Chemical Heritage Foundation fellows, led me to look at Guilandino’s published letters, ostensibly on technical topics, which contained numerous digressions into biblical natural history. I also spent productive time working in the Historic Collections of Pennsylvania Hospital, where Stacey Peeples generously assisted my work. One text I studied there was Niccolò Leoniceno’s introductory work on Galen which, while not as well known as his other writings, contains insights and pronouncements concerning the authority of ancient texts, the proper method of translation, and the importance of discerning which objects medical authors referred to in their works. Renaissance physicians applied Leoniceno’s findings to their analysis of the Bible’s natural world. During my time as a PACHS fellow I also visited the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, where I worked on the genre of encomia medicinae, or praises of the medical profession in early modern Europe, and the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, where I studied early modern polyglot Bibles. I would like to thank the attentive and accommodating staffs of those institutions. During my PACHS fellowship I also had the opportunity to give two different talks based on my research. At a Brown Bag Lecture at the Chemical Heritage Foundation I spoke about the role of the Bible in Renaissance medicine, and at Penn’s Center for Italian Studies I discussed the intersections between Hebraism and natural philosophy in late Renaissance Italy. My PACHS affiliation stimulated audience questions concerning the history of science, questions I don’t often receive and which helped me formulate my ideas more sharply. My PACHS fellowship allowed me to spend significant and productive time in libraries and archives throughout Philadelphia. The fellowship also permitted sustained time to formulate interpretative concepts integral to my dissertation, especially the crucial role medical commentaries played in directing biblical research. Finally, engaging with scholars steeped in the history of science helped me to see just how key medical and scientific ideas were in directing the biblical studies of Italian Renaissance physicians.

Andrew Berns