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Scilla, Agostino

SCILLA, AGOSTINO

(b. Messina, Sicily, 10 August 1629; d. Rome, Italy, 31 May 1700)

geology.

Having shown an aptitude for painting since childhood, scilla was sent to Rome to study art. After his return to Messina, he soon became well known and is still considered one of the best painters of the seventeenth-century Sicilian school. The failure of the Messina revolt against the Spanish (1674–1678), in which Scila had taken part, forced him into exile, first at Turin and then at Rome. He is famous not only as a painter but also as a scholar, a man of culture well vrsed in science and the humanities; the latter field is illustrated by his knowledge of ancient Sicilian coins. In the domain of science he was a good mathematician, but he is particularly remembered as the author of La vana speculazione disingannata dalsenso (1670), today considered one of the classics of geology.

In the seventeenth century most scientists still considered fossils to be lusus naturae, sports of nature, born within rocks through the influence of the stars or by other strange means. At the Accademia dei Lincei, in which the supporters of the new science gathered around Galileo, one of the first members, Francesco Stelluti, persisted in this view. It seems highly likely that Stelluti was the academician who moved Scilla to claim the right, in his book, of denouncing vana speculazione (“vain speculation”). Fabio Colonna, Scilla, and Niels Stensen put the study of geology in the seventeenth century on the right path, even if they still placed the universal deluge as the origin of those phenomena they were so carefully and objectively observing in Italy.

Convinced that “to doubt things is the best and only way to begin to know them, even approximately,” Scilla described with admirable clarity and critical sense the observations he had made on the fossiliferous sedimentary terrains of both shores of the Strait of Messina, dealing with the succession of strata, the genesis of the rocks, and particularly the nature of the fossils. He anticipated the principle that the present is the key to the past when he explained the repetition of coarse, medium, and fine-grained materials in terms of what he could see actually happening in the same places under the action of rapid torrents. He considered fossils to be animal remains imprisoned in rocks that are now hard but were originally muddy or sandy soil.

Extending his researches to other parts of Sicily and to Malta, Scilla studied the zoological features of each fossil, comparing them with those of analogous living species. He did not limit himself to the study of mollusks, the origins of which seemed obvious to him, but tackled more difficult problems, recognizing the presence of fossil corals and echinoderms and showing that the much-discussed glossopetrae are the teeth of sharks. To deny the organic origin of fossils, he concluded, was to “commit the sin of disputing a known truth.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY

La vana speculazione disingannata dal senso (Naples, 1670) includes 28 beautifully executed engravings of fossil and living marine animals that reveal the keen spirit of observation of the painter and the naturalist. The volume was later published in Latin as De corporibus marinis quae defossa reperiuntur (Rome. 1747).

The main secondary source is G. Seguenza, Discorso intorno Agostino Scilla (Messina, 1868). Other studies deal exclusively with Scilla as a painter.

Francesco Rodolico

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Scilla, Agostino (1629-1700)

Scilla, Agostino (1629-1700)

Italian painter, paleontologist, and geologist

Agostino Scilla inaugurated the modern scientific study of fossils . Born the son of a minor government official in Messina, Sicily, he studied art in Messina under Antonio Ricci Barbalunga, who arranged for him to study in Rome for five years under Andrea Sacchi (15991661). Upon his return to Messina, Scilla associated with the Accademia della Fucina and established himself throughout eastern Sicily as a painter of religious scenes for church interiors, including some decorations for the cathedral in Syracuse. A gentleman of broad humanistic learning, with particular interest in ancient local culture, he became an expert on the history of Sicilian coins. During the 1650s or 1660s he began to study natural history, especially the fossils he found in the Sicilian hills. His expeditions were sometimes in company with the botanist Paolo Boccone (16331704). Scilla's training as a painter enhanced his skill at observation in general. He was intrigued by how the petrified forms of what looked like marine life could have come to rest at such high elevations so far from the sea.

Scilla's investigations of fossils culminated in the publication of his only scientific work, La vana speculazione disingannata dal senso (Vain Speculation Undeceived by Sense, 1670). In it, he famously opposed Francesco Stelluti (15771646) and Athanasius Kircher (16021680) on the question of why marine fossils are discovered inland. Stelluti, Kircher, and their allies believed that such fossils were "sports of nature," ruses of God to test our faith, or accidents explicable only through astrology, alchemy, or other fantastic means. To Scilla that was all nonsense. He wrote in plain language that he had no idea how the remains of corals, shells, shark teeth, and fish bones ended up in the hills, that he did not know of any method to try to learn how they got there, and that to speculate about their origin would be fanciful, unwarranted, and pointless. Scilla rejected the authority of ancient authors and medieval theologians, relying instead upon naturalistic observation, skeptical empiricism, and common sense. His style and degree of skepticism anticipated that of David Hume (17111776).

Prior to the work of Fabio Colonna (15671640), John Ray (16271705), Robert Hooke (16351703), Nicolaus Steno (16381686), and Scilla, there was no consensus that fossils were the remains of organic life. The glossopetrae ("tongue stones") commonly found throughout Europe were believed to have magical properties and mystic origins, by either the actions of lunar eclipses or the miracles of St. Paul. Unknown to each other, Steno and Scilla each positively identified glossopetrae as shark teeth. Their analysis of glossopetrae effectively undermined most earlier theories and superstitions about fossils.

In 1678, having participated in an unsuccessful Sicilian revolt against Spanish rule, Scilla was exiled. He went first to Turin, then, in 1679, to Rome, where he spent the rest of his life, making a living as a painter and becoming a prominent member of the Accademia di San Luca.

See also Fossil record; Fossils and fossilization; Marine transgression and marine recession; Sedimentary rocks; Sedimentation

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