Giovanni Battista Benedetti, the Renaissance scientist, has received ambivalent historical judgements by scholars in the past. The historian of medieval science and philosophy Anneliese Maier, for one, viewed him with mixed feelings. To her, Benedetti appeared to be a sort of intellectual companion of Galileo Galileo
In order to correctly locate Benedetti in the knowledge economy of the Renaissance, it is expedient to consider him against the background of the material and intellectual conditions of early-modern science, and as a figure between the intentions and identities of a new genre of intellectuals who formed the archetype for modern scientists. Benedetti’s case helps us to reflect upon the social position and intellectual identity of these new types of scholars as well as on the way socio-cultural coordinates penetrated science, as far as its demarcation, content, form, and justification are concerned. With social coordinates we refer to the institutional setting involving Benedetti’s role as a courtier and thus to his function as a court mathematician, which, in turn, was linked to the wider socio-economic interests of a Renaissance territorial state.7
In his seminal work on the sociological roots of modern science, Zilsel discussed the scientific relevance of the social transformations taking place in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In particular, he argued that the emergence of modern science depended on the rise of capitalism. We could aptly refer to this phase as a pre-capitalistic or early-capitalistic “knowledge society.” Technical knowledge proved to be a key element in the organization of life and production while the status of the artisans, those whom Zilsel called the “artist-engineers,” increased and received high recognition among civil and political authorities. The town of Florence
According to a corollary of the Zilsel thesis about the social origins of modern science, scientific culture was reshaped by the merging of three intellectual strands: the artisanal/technical, the scholastic/logical, and the humanistic/rhetorical. This fusion was accomplished by mediators, who were social actors with an in-between status bridging different intellectual and social realms. “Hybrid experts” became increasingly necessary because of their capacity to bring together the technical and the theoretical dimensions of knowledge. Their socio-cultural relevance would never diminish from the late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution and beyond.11
During the Renaissance, this mediation was secured by a new group of “scientist-engineers,” a series of court mathematicians of which Galileo
The most specific socio-political aspect of Benedetti’s time is the affirmation of court society as a particular social formation whose features show continuities and fractures both with the earlier aristocratic setting of the feudal society and the later capitalist one. A distinguishing feature is the centralization of power and administration around the court. As Norbert Elias argued, this formation culminated in the absolutism of the Ancien Régime but was preceded, on a smaller scale, by early attempts at territorial centralization.14 Although such social formations apparently gravitated around an individual sovereign who made all decisions (as much of the literature of the time on the Principe and its privileges boasted), it was in fact a hierarchical system in which the group of experts surrounding the princely ruler constituted an oligarchy who operated the complex organization of modern states. The Duchy of Savoy
Benedetti shared the enthusiasm of his patrons (especially Emanuele Filiberto
From the perspective of a court scientist such as Benedetti, mathematics was the key to practice and theory. It was his specific field of expertise among the Turin
The intellectual distribution of labor in the Renaissance ensured that Benedetti was at the heart of the courtly milieu by virtue of his family’s social status and not through his ambition alone. His work exhibits many similarities with the work of other Italian court mathematicians, most eminently that of the aforementioned Del Monte
To summarize the most evident features of Benedetti’s endeavor: it was courtly, secular, anti-Academic, unsystematic, occasional, elitist, learned, abstract, pleasant, and useful. It was secular, that is, non-theological, as it was linked to the interests of the ruling class and the state. It was a useful and pleasant science: on the one hand, it was practice-oriented but not purely empirical; on the other hand, it proved witty and fit for courtly sociability. It was abstract and disinterested: superior to the vulgar and tuned to aristocratic values. Learned: fit to be exhibited at court alongside the other arts. Elitist: Benedetti elevated mathematics from a practical discipline of scientist-engineers to a refined cultural activity. Occasional: linked to the variegated political and cultural interests of the court. Unsystematic: fragmented, lacking the inner coherence of scholasticism. Anti-Academic: free from concerns about respect for university scholarly traditions. All of these characteristics of Benedetti’s science were the hallmark of court science: it was technical and abstract without losing contact with practice and experience—a mathematical-empirical science in nuce; it was (relatively) free from bookish tradition and theology but not from the contingencies of courtly life.
What is the common denominator of the great variety of subjects dealt with by Benedetti? What is the center around which they all gravitate? Is there one unifying principle behind the apparent disorder and heterogeneity? It should be emphasized that Benedetti first established his fame as a mathematician. His early treatment of motion by mathematical means was explicitly directed “against Aristotle
Benedetti’s intellectual identity, however, proves much more complex than his corporate identity as a mathematician.16 His pronounced titles vary. In a short biographical note accompanying the birth horoscope published by Gaurico
As for the epistemological debates mirroring the disciplinary and social divides and hierarchies of the time, heated controversies began over the “certainty of mathematics.” The determination of the degree of certainty of mathematics also concerned the legitimacy of using mathematics in physics. In the case of Benedetti, the tension between his function as court mathematician and his identity as philosopher—and patrizio—lies beneath his science. While philosophical legitimacy was essential for the acknowledgment of the intellectual dignity of his endeavor, the practical dimension of mathematics remained fundamental for the social justification of his function as a court expert.
One could single out the social and the political-cultural coordinates of Benedetti’s science as two complementary drives. On the one hand, his position as a court mathematician directly determined much of the content of his writings, occasioned by the requests addressed to him as a court expert in technical issues pertaining to mathematics. His position also determined formal aspects of his work, in particular its occasional character and fragmentation. On the other hand, Benedetti’s identity as a philosopher was directly related to his cultural ambitions and his engagement aimed to affirm mathematical philosophy in the intellectual arena against scholastic thinkers and humanistic literati. His political identity as a lay aristocrat made him an organic part of the centralizing project of the court and marked his distance from Counter-Reformist drives which sought to impose Roman universal interests over territorial states’ autonomy. His support for a sort of party of the politiques resulted in treatises advising on politically relevant technical and cultural issues (e.g., navigation on the occasion of the battle of Lepanto
The fact that Benedetti never established a scientific school around himself can be seen as an indication of the precarity of patronized science, linked to the person of a particular ruler and not institutionalized at the level of an academic body. In the course of the seventeenth century, these limitations of early court society would be solved by securing scientific continuity for patronized science through the foundation of scientific societies. These societies constituted an improvement over the volatility of Renaissance patronage, which depended on the humors and interests of a prince, by replacing him with a corporative persona ficta deputed to protect, credit, and promote science. This did not imply a diminution of the political relevance of science. As has been argued, the institution of the Académie Royale des Sciences as a means to patronize all of the sciences also meant the conquest of a new kingdom, la république des lettres tout entière, for Louis XIV
Greatness is not the only courtly quality to enter Benedetti’s science. As Montesquieu further observed: “At court one finds a delicacy of taste in all things, which comes from continual use of the excesses [superfluités] of a great fortune, from the variety, and especially the weariness, of pleasures, from the multiplicity, even the confusion, of fancies, which, when they are pleasing, are always accepted.”23 To be sure, one cannot say that Benedetti’s knowledge was superfluous in the sense that it had no concrete application. In the Renaissance, it was evident to anybody how closely mathematics was connected to practical realms ranging from war technology to fortification, navigation, and administration. Benedetti’s work and activities related to these realms; even his astrological consultancies can be appreciated for their practical orientation—as astrology notably coincided with the so-called astronomia practica, as opposed to mathematical astronomy, or astronomia theorica. Still, Benedetti insisted on his lineage as a “philosopher” (connected with his claims about the Pythagorean universality of his method and the fragmentation of its applications) despite the attention given to practice and concreteness in Renaissance mathematics. Such a contention was aimed at confirming his superiority over the immediate application of knowledge or the material origin of arts such as mechanics.
His stress on theory—on “speculation”—is well attuned to the spirit of court society, which was centered on nobility, that is, on disinterest and rank, rather than efficacy. The “superfluity of Benedetti’s science” corresponds to the leisure character of knowledge in general, due to fact that its bond with materiality and practice was sublimated. Whereas corporative and merchant societies like those of the Italian Quattrocento (or, more generally, bourgeois and democratic ones like those emerging in the seventeenth century) would emphasize the practical origin and meaning of science, a court society stresses its symbolic value rather than direct usefulness and economical importance.
Besides the superfluité (which applies to Benedetti only if it is not taken too literally), all of the other qualifications Montesquieu attached to the court atmosphere suit his endeavor: good taste (we can add, “wit”), variety, pleasure, multiplicity, even confusion. The main virtue of a court society rested on the sense of honor and ambition: “Honor, meddling in everything, enters into all the modes of thought and all the ways of feeling and even directs the principles.”24 Norbert Elias
The sense of honor and superiority typical of such social formations appears in Benedetti’s intended distance (social, intellectual, moral, and epistemological) from artisanal practice and the erudition of university professors. He appropriated the results and methods of both fields, in particular those of the practical arts, but at a higher level of generalization. He particularly envisaged a reformed natural philosophy as the most cherished fruit of his “mathematical-physical speculation.” Such theoretical distance from immediacy is the epistemological parallel of the sense of honor and social distance and, as such, it became an essential ingredient of Benedetti’s science and added symbolic value. As a court intellectual, he did not identify himself with traditional forms of higher culture such as Scholastic Aristotelianism or humanistic rhetoric. He proudly affirmed himself as a courtier, free to think and philosophize in the protected space of the court, independent of the most immediate material needs, of academic constraints dictated by tradition, and concerns about systematicity and completeness. Ambition, the companion of aristocratic honor, “meddled in everything” and directed Benedetti’s search for the most general principles of a new vision of nature, both mathematical and physical. The court protected and promoted a science and philosophy in which disinterestedness was foremost. In its favorable womb, a daring mind could venture out to explore new realms beyond established disciplinary boundaries. The speculative freedom of the court also determined the specific form of Benedetti’s work, its occasional character, and the amazing variety exhibited by his diversae speculationes mathematicae et physicae.
The economy of honor in the court society left an enduring epistemological imprint on the social fabric of science. Symbolic capital governed modern science long after it became coupled with economic capital and, in many ways, it still significantly influences science and research. The legacy of courtly ingenuity and leisure has to be acknowledged as a lasting influence upon scientific practice as well. Moreover, the topos of a protected space, so attractive to the emergent category of philosopher-scientists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, contributed to creating the myth of the independence of pure science. Constant claims and controversies about scientists’ autonomy have accompanied the modern path to science in its migration from the court to the scientific academy and from the scientific academy to the laboratory. The connections of modern science to the economy and society at large, politics, and cultural structures can be appreciated by considering the complex historical ties that link knowledge with its material and cultural conditions reaching far beyond the perception of the individual historical actors. The spirit of Benedetti’s science can be seen as typical of an age of profound social transformation and political reconstitution, which is reflected in the exceptional re-structuring of knowledge and the transition to novel forms of scientific acquisition, legitimation, and transmission.
Anneliese Maier established a connection between Benedetti’s treatment of motion and that of Galileo in Maier 1951, 304–305.
Copernicus’s revolutionary role malgré soi already puzzled Thomas S. Kuhn, who called him at once “radical” and “conservative” and regarded De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, the book propounding the first modern heliocentric theory in mathematical astronomy, “revolution-making” rather than “revolutionary.” Cf. Kuhn 1959, 135 and 148.
For further considerations on Benedetti in light of a discussion on methodological and historiographical approaches, see Renn et al. 2018.
Valleriani 2010, 208: “Except for the period of the apprenticeship, an engineer-scientist was almost never personally employed in workshops or building sites, but he was aware of the work procedures followed in these locations and was able therefore either to commission craftsmen or other persons involved with practical activities, to supervise or teach them, or simply be consulted to evaluate their works.”
Girolamo Cardano, Encomium geometriae recitatum anno 1535 in Academia Platina Mediolana in Cardano 1966, vol. 4, 440–445.
By “corporate” we refer here to the esprit de corps of a group that considers itself a bounded entity whose interests are marked as separate from other groups. The guild culture of the Middle Ages originated this particular meaning of corporation, which precedes the modern sense of a professional group or legal body.