The book De Subtilitate written by Girolamo Cardano (1501 – 1576?) – translated as On Subtlety – was published by three different printers in the same year, 1550. In Nuremberg by Johannes Petreius; in Paris, by Guillaume de Roville and by Michel Fezendat. This is a mark of popularity virtually unmatched during the Renaissance. In fact this book marked the apex of glory for Girolamo Cardano, the famous Milanese polymath, doctor, philosopher, astrologer. In 1552 Girolamo Cardano travelled to Scotland to cure John Hamilton (1512 – 1571) and on the way back, he did stop in London, where he had a private interview with King Edward VI (1537 – 1553). Several editions of De Subtilitate will follow as it came to be seen a sort of encyclopaedia – albeit scientifically not critical – of all what was by then known to mankind.
Only five years earlier Cardano had published the Artis Magnae, also in Nuremberg, with Petreius – one of the greatest printers of the Renaissance – a revolutionary text of mathematics, marking the first advancement in the field of algebra since the Arabs.
The De Subtilitate was never translated into Italian – perhaps due to the fact that a book put together with the scraps left over from it and known as De Rerum Varietate of 1557 was placed in the Index of the Forbidden Books by the Catholic Church and in 1570 Cardano suffered the humiliation of being locked in prison for several months by the Holy Inquisition. De Subtilitate was translated into French in 1556 by Richard Le Blanc and several vernacular editions did follow, an unusual practice for scholarly book at the time, when every learned person was expected to read in Latin but which clearly underline the strong popular appeal exerted by this work.
After the publication of Girolamo Cardano’s Opera Omnia in Lyon, 1663, in 10 thick folio volumes, also the De Subtilitate was forgotten. What remained in print was his De Vita Propria, a sort of autobiography or better say his Apologia. Today we normally stumble into the De Subtilitate when Leonardo Da Vinci’s engineering feats are described. Is Cardano who tells us that Leonardo tried to fly but failed. This is an extraordinary statement and an highly credible one if we consider that Cardano almost certainly met the great Florentine while he had returned to Milan for a second time, following the downfall of Ludovico il Moro. Girolamo Cardano’s father, Fazio, is mentioned by Leonardo in the Codex Atlanticus.
The popularity of the De Subtilitate, as it was expected, attracted also strong criticism, the strongest being that raised of Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484 – 1558) a Veronese living in France. He built his reputation by unleashing rabid attacks against famous writers, like Erasmo of Rotterdam, to mention one, as he was a sort of literary bully, like Piero Aretino. He set to attack Cardano by publishing his Exotericarum Exercitationorum Liber XV de Subtilitate it was a pettifogging attack on Cardano’s book and which could be classified today as unreadable trash. Scaliger tried to demonstrate that Cardano did hundreds of mistakes in his book. But this attack comically backfired when Scaliger was told that on reading his book in Milan, Cardano had a stroke and died. He quickly went out with a new book overflowing with gall and hypocrisy in which he said that he felt sorry to have killed the poor chap with his criticism and that, after all, he was not so bad. We imagine that after a few months, downing on him that Cardano was still alive and kicking, he tried to buy back all the copies on sale of his sleazy eulogia and have them burned at home.
The downfall of Cardano begun in 1560 with the execution of his son, Giambattista, accused of having poisoned his wife. It was then that he published the Neronis Encomium which I had translated in English and printed in a limited edition of 250 copies two years ago, a book where classic historiography is seen with a cynic eye.
This first complete translation of De Subtilitate in English is a great scholarly achievement and the two editors and translators, John M. Forrester and John Henry deserve great praise. Their rendering into modern English of Cardano’s obscure Latin is impeccable and the great number of notes available to the readers is a clear proof of their deep research into several fields.
The resurrection of Girolamo Cardano into the Arizona desert, at Tempe, reminds me of Franz Werfel personal profecy, waking up after ten thousand years of death wearing the tail coat he had been buried with…or another great encyclopaedist like Cardano, Denis Diderot, who argued that since he did not believe in Heavenly rewards for philosophers, the only hope left was that of being part of the collective memory of posterity as a substitution of Christian immortality of the soul.
THE SUBTILITATE of Girolamo Cardano
Edited by John M. Forrester, with an Introduction of John Henry and John M. Forrester
The Arizona Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies, Tempe, Arizona, 2013.
2 Vol. Hardback, p. 1058.