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Leoniceno, Nicolò


(b. Vicenza, Italy, 1428; d. Ferrara, Italy, 9 June 1524),

medicine, philology. For the original article on Leoniceno see DSB, vol. 8.

In 1991, the catalogue of Nicolò Leoniceno’s library was brought to light, something that renewed interest in Leoniceno’s activity. Compared with earlier work, this new research emphasized epistemology, which opened new avenues for fresh research.

Leoniceno received in his youth a classical education that deeply influenced his activity, because of the emphasis put on philological rigor and a practical orientation: reading of classical texts aimed at knowing the things (res) referred to by the words, rather than the words themselves (verba).

In his collection of more than 300 volumes (manuscripts and printed), he had dictionaries, lexica, and philological works for a right understanding of texts, as well as ancient and medieval philosophical, medical (particularly Galen) and mathematical texts (above all, in Greek). The driving force behind the library was not collectionism or antiquarianism, but the attempt to renew science and knowledge, mainly by bringing to light previously unknown texts. To this end, Leoniceno collaborated actively with the printing activity of Aldo Manuzio in Venice by lending his manuscripts as models for printed editions and participating in the emendatio of texts. This he did with Aristotle (published in five volumes, 1495–1498), Dioscorides (1499), and Galen (published after his death, in 1525).

The epistemological and scientific principles underpinning Leoniceno’s teaching, scientific production and editorial activity were explicitly stated in his 1492 booklet De Plinii aliorumque in medicina erroribus. As the introductory letter by Angelo Poliziano suggests, Leoniceno’s principles were inspired by the method used by humanist-philologists to restore ancient texts. Best represented by Poliziano’s Centuriae, this method consisted of identifying the most ancient version of literary texts, correcting the mistakes resulting from hand-copying by means of a careful philological scrutiny and analysis, and eliminating all other possible transformations and additions introduced into the texts in successive accretions. Leoniceno transferred and adapted the method to scientific texts: On the basis of a comparison of classical Latin texts (mainly the books of Pliny’s Natural History devoted to botany and pharmacology), Salernitan and post-salernitan translations of Arabic medical works (especially pharmacological treatises), and classical Greek medico-pharmaceutical texts (particularly Dioscorides’ De materia medica), he concluded that the former two descended from the latter and thus could be omitted, all the more because they often contained mistakes, mainly incorrect translations and interpretations of plant and disease names. Such mistakes were of particular concern at Leoniceno’s time, as they exposed patients to medical mistakes (for example, confusions of plants to be administered as medicines or wrong diagnosis of medical conditions). Consequently, Leoniceno proposed abandoning the Latin and Arabic pharmacological and scientific literature as later epiphenomena of an earlier textual body, thus returning to Greek science. Since even Greek texts were corrupted because of manual reproduction, he suggested submitting them to a rigorous philological examination aimed at restoring them in their purity.

Leoniceno’s attack against Pliny provoked a harsh polemic, as it seemed to undermine the scientific authority and the role played by the Natural History in teaching and science during the Middle Ages. To overcome the opposition and to show the validity of his methodological proposals and scientific enterprise, Leoniceno collaborated in the publication of Dioscorides’ De materia medica in Greek by Aldo Manuzio in 1499 by lending one of his manuscript copies of the text and probably also by establishing the text. Such editing made it possible to systematically compare Dioscorides’ and Pliny’s works and to recognize the best value of the Greek work.

Over time, Leoniceno’s method became more of an epistemological nature. After the opposition to his De Plinii ceased, he published four other works in which he gradually exposed his theory of knowledge. Again, he insisted very much on the exigence of using exact terms of an unambiguous nature, that is, words (verba) allowing an unequivocal identification of the thing referred to (res). But, at the end of this group of works and of his personal evolution, he arrived at the conclusion that the words used (verba) had no importance provided that the things referred to (res) were properly known. Though apparently

logical, such a conclusion was paradoxical, for it was anti-lexical and maybe also anti-philological, and put more emphasis on the knowledge itself than on the discourse aimed at communicating it.

Leoniceno’s scientific and epistemological method— including the shift in the focus—had a deep impact on contemporary science, not only because it led to the production of several printed editions of important scientific texts (many of which were previously unknown, not even in Latin translations), but also—if not more—because it stressed the primacy of Greek scientific literature and, as a consequence, required understanding it correctly and translating it in an unambiguous way. Such a method required time before producing its effects, as is shown by the fact that no botanical work depending on classical sources was published until 1532 with Brunfels’s Herbarum vivae eicones. Furthermore, it could not be equally applied to all fields. Although a pupil of Leoniceno, Antonius Musa Brasavola, made a systematic inventory of all medicines then used in pharmacies in order to submit them to examination, the natural substances described and prescribed in ancient texts were not properly identified and known until late sixteenth century, thanks to the Republic of Botanists and the travelers to the Eastern Mediterranean. Whereas Leoniceno was right in considering from a philological viewpoint that Latin and Arabic translations of Greek texts did not reproduce ad litteramthe original and, as a consequence, he did not take into consideration the scientific nature of the differences in the texts. Apart from containing obvious mistakes resulting from textual tradition, they were in many cases adaptations of the texts to the context of the societies in which they were received, translated and used, specifically different natural resources and epidemiological conditions. Returning to Greek texts for philological reasons would have required eliminating all the new data and updates introduced into ancient texts up to Leoniceno’s time. This was probably impossible to implement and, in any case, might have put at risk the population’s health. Traditional (that is, medieval) handbooks of therapeutics and the traditional practice of pharmaceutical therapy thus continued to be used until late in the sixteenth century.



De Plinii in medicina erroribus. A cura di Loris Premuda. Milano, Italy: Edizione de Il Giardino di Esculapio, 1958. On the controversy on Pliny.


Bylebyl, Jerome J. “The School of Padua: Humanistic Medicine in the Sixteenth Century. In Health, Medicine and Mortality in the Sixteenth Century, edited by Charles Webster. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979. See especially pp. 339–342.

Edwards, William F. “Niccolo Leoniceno and the Origins of Humanist Discussion of Method.” In Philosophy and Humanism. Renaissance Essays in Honor of Paul Oskar Kristeller, edited by Edward P. Mahoney. Leiden, Netherlands: E. P. Brill, 1976.

Ferrari, Giovanna. L’esperienza del passato: Alesandro Benedetti filologo e medico umanista. Biblioteca di Nuncius, XXII. Florence, Italy: L. S. Olschki, 1996. See especially pp. 256–296.

Franceschini, Adriano, ed. Nuovi documenti relativi ai docenti dello studio di Ferrara nel sec. XVI. Deputazione Provinciale Ferrarese di Storia Patria, Serie Monumenti, Vol. 6. Ferrara, Italy: Stab artistico tip. Editoriale, 1970. On Leoniceno’s teaching.

French, Roger K. “Pliny and Renaissance Medicine.” In Science in the Early Roman Empire: Pliny the Elder, His Sources and Influence, edited by Roger French and Frank Greenaway. London: Croom Helm, 1986.

Hoffmann, Phillipe. “Un mystérieux collaborateur d’Alde Manuce: l’Anonymus Harvardianus.” Mélanges de l’École française de Rome, Moyen age, Temps modernes, 97 (1985): 45–143. See pp. 133–138 on the manuscripts Leoniceno asked to be copied.

———. “Autres données relatives à un mystérieux collaborateur d’Alde Manuce: l’Anonymus Harvardianus.” Mélanges de l’École française de Rome, Moyen age, Temps modernes 98 (1986): 673–708. See pp. 704–708 on the manuscripts Leoniceno asked to be copied.

Mani, Nikolaus. “Die griechische Editio princeps des Galenos (1525), ihre Entstehung und ihre Wirkung.” Gesnerus 13 (1956): 29–52. See p. 38 and notes 34–36 on Leoniceno’s role in the editing of ancient texts.

Mugnai Carrara, Daniela. “Fra causalità astrologica e causalità naturale. Gli interventi di Nicolo Leonico e della sua scuola sul morbo gallico.” Physis 21 (1979): 37–54.

———. “Profilo di Nicolò Leoniceno.” Interpres 2 (1979): 169–212.

———. “Una polemica umanistico-scolastica circa l’interpretazione delle tre dottrine ordinate di Galeno.” In Annali dell’Istituto e Museo di storia della scienza di Firenze, VIII (1983), pp. 31–57.

———. “La polemica ‘de cane rabido’ di Nicolò Leoniceno,Nicolò Zocca e Scipione Carteromaco: un episodio di filologia medico-umanistica.” Interpres 9 (1989): 196–236.———. La biblioteca di Nicolò Leoniceno. Tra Aristotele e Galeno, cultura e libri di un medico umanista. Accademia Toscana di Scienze e Lettere “La Colombaria,” “Studi,” 118. Florence, Italy: L.S. Olschki, 1991. On Leoniceno’s library and his philosophico-medical interests.

———. “Nicolò Leoniceno e Giovanni Mainardi: aspetti epistemologici dell’Umanesimo medico.” In Alla Corte degli Estensi. Filosofia, arte e cultura a Ferrara nei secoli XV e XVI. Atti del Convegno Internazionale di studi, Ferrara, 5–7 marzo 1992. A cura di M. Bertozzi. Ferrara, Italy: Università degli studi, 1994.

Nutton, Vivian. “Hellenism Postponed: Some Aspects of Renaissance Medicine, 1490–1530.” Sudhoffs Archiv 81 (1997): 158–170.

———. “The Rise of Medical Humanism: Ferrara, 1464–1555.” Renaissance Studies 11 (1997): 2–19.

Premuda, Loris. Un discepolo di Leoniceno tra filologia ed empirismo: G. Mnardo e il “libero esame” dei classici della medicina in funzione di piu spregiudicati orientamenti metodologici. In Atti del Convegno Internazionale per la Celebrazione del V Centenario della nascita di Giovanni Manardo, 1462–1536, Ferrara, 8–9 dicembre 1962. Ferrara, Italy: Università degli studi di Ferrara, 1963. On the influence of Leoniceno’s teaching.

Samoggia, Luigi. Manardo e la Scuola umanistica-filologica tedesca con particolare riguardo a Loenardo Fuchs. In Atti del Convegno Internazionale per la Celebrazione del V Centenario della nascita di Giovanni Manardo, 1462–1536, Ferrara, 8–9 dicembre 1962. Ferrara, Italy: Università degli studi di Ferrara, 1963. On the influence of Leoniceno’s teaching.

———. Le ripercussioni in Germania dell’indirizzo filologicomedico Leoniceniano della scuola ferrarese per opera di Leonardo Fuchs (Quaderni di Storia della Scienza e della Medicina, IV), Ferrara, Italy: Università degli studi di Ferrara, 1964. On the influence of Leoniceno’s teaching.

Santoro, M. “La polemica pliniana fra il Leoniceno e il Collenuccio.” Filologia romanza 3 (1956): 162–205. On the controversy on Pliny.

Sicherl, Martin. Handschriftliche Vorlagen der Editio princeps des Aristoteles. Mainz, Germany: Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur Mainz, 1976, p. 14, note 33. (Reproduced in Martin Sicherl, Griechische Erstausgaben des Aldus Manutius. Druckvorlagen, Stellenwert, kultureller Hintergrund. Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des Altertums, Neue Folge, 1. Reihe: Monographien, 10. Band. Paderborn, Germany: F. Schöningh, 1997.) On Leoniceno’s role in the editing of ancient texts.

Streeter, Edward C. “Leoniceno and the School of Ferrara.” Bulletin of the Society of Medical History of Chicago 1 (1916): 18–22. On the controversy on Pliny.

Alain Touwaide

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Leoniceno, Nicolò

Leoniceno, Nicolò

(b. Vicenza, Italy, 1428; d. Ferrara, Italy, 9 June 1524),

medicine, Philology.

Leoniceno’s father, Francesco, a physician, was from an ancient noble family of Vicenza; his mother, Madalena, was the daughter of Antonio Loschi, a humanist and secretary of Pope Alexander V. At Vicenza, Leoniceno received thorough training in Latin and Greek from Ognibene de’ Bonisoli and then studied philosophy and medicine at Padua, taking his doctorate around 1453. Little is known of his activities during the following decade, except that he is said to have traveled to England; by 1462 he was back at Padua, possibly as a teacher. In 1464 he was called to teach at the University of Ferrara, where her remained for the rest of his ninety-six years, except for a year at Bologna (1508–1509). He did not marry.

Under the celebrated Guarino da Verona, Ferrara had become a major center for the study of classical literature, and Leoniceno took his place there as one of the leading Greek scholars of his age. (He is sometimes confused with the contemporary Hellenist Nicolò Tomeo.) Among Leoniceno’s friends and correspondents were other major figures in the revival of ancient learning, including Pico della Mirandola, Giorgio Valla, Politian, Ermolao Barbaro, and Erasmus.

At Ferrara, Leoniceno taught mathematics, then Greek philosophy, and finally medicine, in which area he made his most important contribution. The teaching in European medical schools at this time was ultimately derived from the Greek physicians, especially Galen, but as interpreted and systematized by the Arabic authors. In the several stages of textual transmission, translation, and interpretation that separated European Arabist medicine from the original Greek sources, considerable distortion and corruption had been introduced; but it was obscured by the poor quality of such translations of genuine Galenic works as were generally available. Humanists had long ridiculed the Arabist medical tradition for its “barbarous” Latinity and the sterility of its scholastic disputations, but not until the late fifteenth century were serious attempts made to provide an alternative by reviving Greek medicine in its pristine form. Leoniceno was one of the chief pioneers in this effort to recover and edit the works of the Greek physicians and to prepare faithful Latin translations, and he was the first to develop this new approach into a serious rival to the established Arabist tradition. Under his leadership Ferrara became the main center for studying the revived Galenic medicine, and from there the movement spread to the other Italian medical schools and then to the rest of Europe. Among Leoniceno’s students were Giovanni Manardi, Antonio Musa Brasavola, and Lodovico Bonacciolo; and others who were influenced by him included Giovanni Battista da Monte (Montanus), Thomas Linacre, and Leonhard Fuchs.

In accordance with the general humanist credo, Leoniceno placed great emphasis on the study of individual words and their meanings as the key to understanding the works of the Greek medical authorities. In his preface to his translations of Galen (1508) he cited examples of how an error in transcribing or translating a single word could distort the meaning of an entire passage; and in other works he sought to demonstrate that the words of the Greek physicians had been so often misconstrued by the Arabists as to make the resulting medical system a menace to human life. In his tracts on the errors of Pliny he cited numerous mistakes made by the Arabists in the identification of medicinal herbs described by the Greeks, and he also pointed out many corruptions, both terminological and factual, introduced into Galenic anatomy by Ibn Sīnā, Mondino de’ Luzzi, and Benedetti. He based the latter criticisms in part on such Galenic treatises as the Anatomical Procedures and Whether Blood is Naturally Contained in the Arteries that were not generally available for another generation. In his treatise on syphilis he discussed similar errors in the naming and identification of diseases.

On the more constructive side, Leoniceno supplied the texts for the first genuine Galenic works to be published in Greek (1500) and published Latin translations of eleven Galenic treatises, beginning with the Ars medica (1508) and the Commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, together with the Aphorisms themselves (1509). He was very proud of these translations and in 1522 published a lengthy apologia against three men, each of whom had criticized his translation of only a single word or phrase. He also translated into Latin and Italian a number of works by nonmedical authors.

In 1497 Leoniceno published the first scholarly treatise on syphilis, a very influential work that went through numerous editions during the following century. He tried to show that although the disease had only recently appeared in Europe, it had occurred at various times in the remote past and was therefore not an essentially new disease.

Leoniceno’s work On the three ordered doctrines according to the opinion of Galen(1508) was of some importance in the discussion of method during the sixteenth century. At the beginning of Ars medica Galen had stated that there are three ways of teaching a subject in an orderly manner: analysis, synthesis, and the explication of definitions. The medieval commentators had sought, with somewhat confusing results, to relate these three ways to the various methods of demonstration and dialectic referred to by Plato, Aristotle, and other authors. Leoniceno showed that as an exegesis of the Ars medica the entire discussion was pointless, because Galen was referring simply to didactic techniques and not to methods of philosophic inquiry or demonstration. His clarification of this point seems to have been widely accepted, although around 1517 a professor at Padua (possibly Ludovico Carenzio) defended the medieval authors, leading an anonymous Roman disciple of Leoniceno (or possibly Leoniceno himself) to publish a refutation.

In 1490 Leoniceno inaugurated a famous controversy on the errors of Pliny the elder. In that year he sent to Politian a critique of Ibn Sīnā, in which he noted in passing that Pliny seemed to have confused the two herbs ivy and cistus because of the similarity of their Greek names (kισσóç and kίσθoç); Politian commended Leoniceno’s castigation of Ibn Sīnā but politely challenged his criticism of Pliny. Leoniceno responded with a tract, On the errors of Pliny and others in medicine (1492), in which he not only de- fended his original point but charged Pliny with many other errors stemming from verbal confusion. This work provoked an indirect response from Barbaro in support of Pliny and a direct attack on Leoniceno by the Ferrarese lawyer Pandolfo Collenuccio. Others joined in the fray on both sides, with Leoniceno himself contributing three additional tracts in 1493, 1503, and 1507, the latter in response to Alessandro Benedetti. (Leoniceno’s tracts were apparently circulated in manuscript before being printed.

This polemic was primarily an internal dispute among humanists, in contrast to Leoniceno’s attacks on the Arabists. Pliny’s Natural History was avowedly a compilation from earlier sources, chiefly Greek, and Leoniceno charged that he had often garbled the information that he transcribed. The controversy stemmed from the reluctance of some humanists to admit that an authentic Roman, who wrote in “eloquent” Latin and was fluent in Greek, could have made the same kinds of linguistic errors as the despised “barbarous” authors. To soften the blow Leoniceno sought to show that the Arabs had made even worse errors than Pliny in interpreting the Greeks and that the medieval Latin authorities were worse still. However, this argument did not placate his opponents, who thought that textual emendation and sympathetic interpretation would absolve Pliny of Leoniceno’s charges. In this assumption they were partly justified, since some of the errors that Leoniceno singled out were in fact due to corruptions of the text he had used, and some of his interpretations of Pliny were unnecessarily harsh. Collenuccio also objected strongly to Leoniceno’s assumption that the testimony of the Greek authorities, unconfirmed by observation, was an adequate standard of the truth of Pliny’s statements, but the immediate outcome of the dispute, as of most of Leoniceno’s work, was to enhance the authority of the Greeks at the expense of their Roman, Arabic, and medieval Latin followers. (Leoniceno eventually concluded that Celsus had similarly misinterpreted the Greek medical writers on whom he had relied.) Serious criticism of the Greeks themselves, based on independent observation and reasoning, was to begin a generation later, but it was to take many generations to overthrow completely the Hellenist tradition in medicine that Leoniceno had done so much to establish.


1.Original Works.De Plinii et aliorum in medicina erroribus (Ferrara, 1492) is the of first Leoniceno’s tracts on Pliny; De Plinii, and Plurimum aliorum medicorum in medicina erroribus (Ferrara, 1509) contains all four, as do subsequent eds. His other works are Libellus de epidemia, quam vulgo morbum gallicum vocant (Venice-Milan-Leipzig, 1497); De tiro seu vipera and De dipsade et pluribus aliis serpentibus(Venice, ca. 1497), both repr. as De serpentibus (Bologna, 1518); De virtute formativa (Venice, 1506); In libros Galeni e greca in latinam linguam a se translatos prefatio communis. Ejusdem in artem medicinalem Galeni... prefatio. Galeni ars medicinalis Nicolao Leoniceno interprete.... Ejusdem de tribus doctrinis ordinatis secun- dum Galeni sententiam opus (Venice, 1508), repr. with Galeni in aphorismos Hippocratis, cum ipsis aphorismis, eodem Nicolao Leoniceno interprete (Ferrara, 1509); Medici Romani Nicolai Leoniceni discipuli antisophisia [antisophista] (Bologna, 1519), of uncertain authorship; and Contra obtrectatores apologia (Venice, 1522). Most of Leoniceno’s works went through one or more subsequent editions; all except his translations, thePrefatio communis, and the Prefatio in artem medicinalemare included in Opuscula, D. A. Leennium, ed. (Basel, 1532). A facs. of the first ed. of De morbo gallico, with intro., is included in K. Sudhoff, The Earliest Printed Literature on Syphilis, adapted by C. Singer, Monumenta Medica, III (Florence, 1925). Loris Premuda edited De Plinii... erroribus, with intro. and Italian trans. (Milan-Rome, 1958). R. J. Durling, “A Chronological Census of Renaissance Editions and Translations of Galen,” in Journal of the Warburg and CourtauldInstitutes, 24 (1961), 230–305, lists Leoniceno’s trans. of Galen, p. 297. P.O. Kristeller gives references to Italian archival material about Leoniceno in Iter italicum, 2 vols. (London-Leiden, 1963–1967).

II. Secondary Literature The only full-length study is D. Vitaliani, Della vita e delle opere di Nicolo Leoniceno Vicentino (Verona, 1892); see also Premuda’s intro. to his ed. of De Plinii... erroribus. On the Galenic revival and Leoniceno’s role in it, see Durling’s intro. to his “Chronological Census,” esp. p. 236. On Leoniceno’s influence, esp. in Germany, see Luigi Samoggia, Le ripercussioni in Germania dell’ indirizzo filologico-medico leoniceniano della scuola Ferrarese per opera di Leonardo Fuchs, Quaderni de Storia Della Scienza e Della Medicina, IV (Ferrara, 1964). On method, see N. W. Gilbert, Renaissance Concepts of Method (New York, 1960), pp. 102–104. On the errors of Pliny, see Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, IV (New York, 1934), 593–610; A. Castiglioni, “The School of Ferrara and the Controversy on Pliny,” in E. A. Underwood, ed., Science, Medicine, and History (London, 1953), I , 269–279; and F. Kudlien, “Zwei medizinisch-philologische Polemiken am Ende des 15,. Jahrhunderts,” in Gesnerus, 22 (1965), 85–92.

Jerome J. Bylebyl

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"Leoniceno, Nicolò." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . 22 Aug. 2017 <>.

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