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Star Trek

Cardano’s Cosmos: The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer

by Anthony Grafton
Harvard University Press, 284 pp., $35.00

Giordano Bruno and Renaissance Science

by Hilary Gatti
Cornell University Press, 257 pp., $45.00

Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love

by Dava Sobel
Penguin, 420 pp., $14.00 (paper)

The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories

by J.L. Heilbron
Harvard University Press, 366 pp., $35.00

Now the great Bear and Pleiades where earth moves
Are drawing up the clouds of human grief,
Breathing solemnity in the deep night.
Who can decipher
In storm or starlight
The written character of a friendly fate—
As the sky turns, the world for us to change?
But if the horoscope’s bewildering
Like a flashing turmoil of a shoal of herring,
Who can turn skies back and begin again?

—Montague Slater, libretto for Peter Grimes, Act I, Scene 2

We who awaken with the sun and sleep beneath the stars, we whose busily earthbound lives can still be pulled up short by the sudden sight of a full moon, even we know that our existence is patterned on the movement of the heavens. In some senses, moreover, we are no closer to understanding those patterns than the Pharisees and Sadducees so famously challenged by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew:

When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather today: for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?

(Matthew 16:1–3)

The fact is that, with our scientists and weathermen, we are still unable to carry out the work of discernment with perfect precision, any more than the Pharisees, Sadducees, astrologers, fortunetellers, scribes, philosophers, and magi of Roman-ruled Palestine could do so two thousand years ago. Always, however, it has been an inveterate human temptation to connect these different kinds of discernment, to believe that somehow the face of the sky is the sign of the times.

Remarkably, one of the most cataclysmic upsets in our own reading of the heavens occurred before the invention of the telescope. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) published his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543, half a century before Galileo Galilei ever pointed a telescope at the moon and sketched its pockmarked countenance. During the sixteenth century, the two sciences that focused specifically on reading the face of the skies, astrology and astronomy, began the separation proceedings that would eventually lead to their divorce. In Copernicus’s day both of these starry pursuits involved highly complex studies based on intimate observation of the heavens. Their difference lay in how their practitioners interpreted the same data.

Girolamo Cardano (1501–1576), for example, was an astrologer, a younger contemporary of Copernicus who sought information about the stars just as avidly as his Polish counterpart. Anthony Grafton’s new biography, Cardano’s Cosmos: The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Astrologer, accords Cardano all the respect the crusty Italian’s industry and intelligence once warranted without question. As Grafton says, “I wanted to do justice to both the rationalism and the irrationality of Renaissance astrology, to both its traditional and its novel contents, to both its ancient sources and its modern social role…. Above all, I wanted to be surprised.” Happily, his book delivers satisfaction on all these accounts.

Some of the irrationality of Cardano’s astrological enterprise originated in the man himself, a self-absorbed, eccentric polymath who openly admitted at least some of his own flaws: “I lack piety and have an uncontrolled tongue, and my temper is so quick that I am sick with the shame it causes me.” But then Cardano, like so many outstanding figures of the European Renaissance, was a self-made phenomenon who overcame illegitimate birth and its attendant poverty to become a figure of international renown. He did so by exploiting his many-faceted ingenuity, his pen, and the power of the printing press. Still, as Grafton shows with great empathy, the process was never easy.

In his own day Cardano was regarded as an expert on medicine and astrology—linked disciplines—along with mathematics, palmistry, and anatomy (his two manuscript works on this subject, he alleged, were spoiled by an incontinent cat). An inveterate gambler, he parlayed his vice into one of the earliest essays on statistics, The Book on Games of Chance. He wrote an introspective autobiography in Latin, On His Own Life, and an oft-reworked volume On His Own Books. But Cardano’s most revealing métier, as Grafton’s biography proves by example, was always the delicate blend of psychology, fortunetelling, astronomical observation, and publicity-mongering that went into the profession of astrology in the mid-sixteenth century.

After some years spent as a country doctor in the hinterlands of Padua and Milan, Cardano began to pursue his true calling in the 1530s, the very years when Copernicus was drafting his own dryly mathematical description of the cosmos through a series of numerical tables. Copernicus told his readers how the heavens moved; Cardano, working from a traditional earth-centered perspective, told them what those movements meant. His first published effort was a cheap pamphlet of predictions, the Pronostico (Prognostication) of 1534. In this work, a good example of an extraordinarily popular form of literature in the mid-sixteenth century, he offered inside information on the long-term trends of history and detailed reports on forthcoming weather, all based on reading the face of the heavens: “I say in general that men must become worse than they are now, so far as the faith is concerned,” but, he said, the Church would begin to improve in 1764; a planetary conjunction in 1564 “denoted the renovation of all the religions, the Christian and the Muslim.”

According to Cardano, Emperor Charles V was doomed to perish (instead he thrived); Francesco Sforza, duke of Milan, to thrive (instead he perished); drought would strike between July 6 and August 9 of 1536, fog and storms on August 25, 1537. Aiming at a popular readership, Cardano wrote his little almanac in Italian vernacular, with enough of an erudite sprinkling of Latin to lend him academic credibility, and he made sure that he acquired clear-cut privileges, the forerunner of copyright, for the work in both Milan and Venice. It was a modest start, and it sank virtually without notice.

Four years later, however, Cardano, writing in Latin this time, hit his stride. His Two Little Books of 1538 displayed both his grasp of astronomical theory and his practical ability at prediction, that is, at astrological reasoning. Unlike most of his fellow astrologers, he drew up his own tables of planetary motion from which to produce the data allegedly showing influences on human character and behavior; at the same time he performed such eminently astrological operations as tracing the origins of modern religion to the former action of the stars on ancient peoples. Furthermore, Grafton tells us, he used the dedication of the Two Little Books to curry the favor of a well-placed patron, the Milanese-born governor of Rome, while aiming at a patron still more august, the Pope.

During the rest of his life Cardano tried to improve his observational skills, in medicine, mechanics, and mathematics as well as in following the movements of the stars. He made predictions that balanced optimism with calamity without erring too egregiously. He lambasted his rivals and found well-heeled sponsors for his work. In all of these efforts he succeeded splendidly, traveling as far as Paris and Edinburgh to cast the horoscopes of important clients (in Scotland it was that country’s last Catholic archbishop), writing books that sold well, eventually teaching, as Grafton writes, “with some success and considerable notoriety” at the universities of Pavia and Bologna.

He came to the attention of the Inquisition, but defended himself effectively against its inquiries. Cardano’s brand of astrology, based in careful astronomical observation, still managed to bridge what were rapidly becoming two cultures of stargazing. It is Anthony Grafton’s special gift to show in patient detail how reasonably the system to which Cardano devoted much of his long, energetic life emerged from its basic premises. Furthermore, Grafton’s pithy writing finds its ideal object in Cardano’s eternally challenging life. Here is his account of the astrologer’s family troubles:

As an old man, Cardano played the part of the hero of a tragedy or opera—perhaps a Lear. He raged and mourned when his older son, Giambattista, a gifted doctor in his own right, was arrested, tried, convicted, and executed for murdering his wife with a focaccia laced with arsenic, and when his younger son, Aldo, turned out to be a ne’er-do-well and petty thief.

The combination of telling detail and intellectual sweep in Cardano’s Cosmos is irresistible, and it shapes Grafton’s book as Cardano once shaped his disparate empirical data into system. We do not accept the system now, but Cardano himself, as his biographer makes movingly clear, still “deserves to be heard.”

A figure no less complex and no less cantankerous than Cardano, Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) also resists modern definitions of science and nonscience, rational and irrational. In 1576, the year Cardano died, Bruno fled his Dominican convent in Naples rather than face the Inquisition for his rebel-lious behavior. His subsequent travels would take him through much of northern Europe, to Geneva, Paris, London, Wittenberg, Frankfurt, Prague, and at last to Padua and Venice, where the Inquisition finally caught up with him in 1592. Extradited from Venice to Rome in 1593, imprisoned for another six years, he was sentenced to death for “obstinate and pertinacious heresy” and burned at the stake as part of the festivities for the Jubilee Year of 1600. Four hundred years later, Bruno has continued to pose an obstinate and pertinacious problem for the present pope, whose fate it has been to preside over another Jubilee; most obviously, how shall the contemporary Catholic Church reconcile the philosopher’s ghastly death with its Jubilee message of forgiveness?

Nearly as thorny, moreover, is the question of what Bruno actually stood for. We have only an approximate idea of the exact reasons for which he was convicted of heresy, because the records of his Roman trial were looted by Napoleon, carted to Paris, and lost in transit either en route or on their return journey around 1816. Bruno’s writings, banned by edict of the Roman Inquisition as part of his sentence, have been partially lost. What remains, and it is a good deal, was composed between 1582 and 1591. It turns out to be as complicated as the man himself.

Bruno, like most of his educated contemporaries, wrote in two languages. His Latin was a soberly scholastic product of his Dominican education; he spent most of fourteen years in the very Neapolitan convent, San Domenico Maggiore, that had once housed that master of theolog-ical precision, Thomas Aquinas. Yet Bruno’s vernacular comedy, The Candlemaker of 1582, presents an obscenely, savagely picaresque vision of the brawling Neapolitan street life that still teems just outside San Domenico’s walls. His six Italian Dialogues (1584–1585), written in Elizabethan London as the result of what Bruno himself might have called a furore eroico, share something of Shakespeare’s variety of tone and linguistic invention: in their pages we can find the kin of Prospero, Falstaff, Hamlet, the Sonnets.

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