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?
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 …