Fracastoro, Girolamo

views updated May 18 2018

Fracastoro, Girolamo

(b. Verona, Italy, ca. 1478; d. Incaffi [now hamlet of Affi, Verona], 6 August 1553)

medicine, philosophy

Descendant of a patrician Veronese family and the sixth of seven brothers, Fracastoro received his first literary and philosophical instruction from his father; his mother, Camilla Mascarelli, seems to have died when he was still very young.

As an adolescent, he was sent to the Academy in Padua, where he was entrusted to a family friend, Girolamo Della Torre, a Veronese who taught and practiced medicine there. Fracastoro studied literature, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy (the latter under the guidance of Pietro Pomponazzi and Nicolò Leonico Tomeo), and medicine, in which he was instructed by Girolamo Della Torre and his son Marcantonio, and Alessandro Benedetti. Fracastoro was a fellow student of the brothers Giovan Battista and Raimondo Della Torre, of the future cardinals Ercole Gonzaga and Gaspare Contarini, and of Andrea Navagero; and he established relationships with Giovanni Battista Ramusio and Pietro Bembo that proved of primary importance. Immediately after receiving his degree (1502) he became an instructor in logic at the University of Padua, where he was also conciliarius anatomicus. His contacts with Copernicus, who had enrolled in medicine at Padua in 1501, date from this time. While he was still young, Fracastoro married (1500?) Elena de Clavis (or Schiavi), by whom he had five children: four sons—Giovanni Battista; Paolo and Giulio, who died at an early age and were lamented by their father in one of his odes; and Paolo Filippo, born in 1517 and the only son to survive his father—and a daughter, Isabella.

After the death of his father and the closing of the University of Padua and with the threat of war between Venice and the Emperor Maximilian I, Fracastoro left Padua and in 1508 followed Bartolomeo d’Alviano to Porto Naone (now Pordenone) in Friuli, where Alviano presented him at the Accademia Friulana. After a short stay, he followed Alviano to the border of the Veneto, apparently as a doctor. Alviano was taken prisoner at Giara d’Adda, after the Venetian defeat at the battle of Agnadello (1509). Fracastoro returned to Verona and established residence in the area of the church of Santa Eufemia.

He then dedicated himself to his studies, to reorganizing his estate, and, for a while, to medical practice, treating patients from all over Italy. He actively participated in the life of the local collegio dei fisici, where he had already matriculated in 1501 and of which he was four times prior and eight times councillor. Although interested in politics, he never held public office.

From 1511 he began to alternate his residence in Verona with long sojourns at his villa in Incaffi, on the slopes of Monte Baldo, where his learned friends gathered for philosophical and scientific meetings. Meanwhile he maintained relations with such leading figures as Gian Matteo Giberti, bishop of Verona, a man of great culture and patron of writers, scientists, and artists, whose guest Fracastoro was at Malcesine. He was also expanding his cultural interests, which touched not only on philosophy and medicine but on the liberal arts and natural sciences in general; and he attained noteworthy erudition and competence in each area, as his surviving writings testify.

Fracastoro’s fame, esteem, and acquaintances in ecclesiastical circles contributed to his nomination by Pope Paul III in 1545 as medicus conductus et stipendiatus of the Council of Trent, to which he went upon request, a guest of Cardinal Madruzzo. His presentiment of a terrible epidemic seems to have influenced the transfer (1547), which the pope desired, of the Council from Trent to Bologna. Around 1546 Fracastoro was made canon of Verona, with special dispensations.

His mental faculties undimmed by age, Fracastoro suffered a stroke that killed him within the day, on 6 August 1553, almost certainly in his house at Incaffi. His body was transported to Verona and was buried in the church of Santa Eufemia, where it rested probably until 1740; the remains have since been lost. In 1555 a statue was erected to him in Verona, in the Piazza dei Signori, near the existing statues of Pliny and Catullus.

Fracastoro’s scientific personality matured in the atmosphere of Padua, where he had ample opportunity to enter into the disputes of the Scholastics and the followers of Alexander of Aphrodisias and Ibn Rushd (Averroës). Philosophical considerations were thus always inherent in his more purely scientific work. His thought, although not always organic, is framed in those philosophies of nature which were developed by various writers of the Italian Renaissance and which are the result of two components, a diminished interest in theological subjects and metaphysics in general and an increased interest in the study of nature, in which man lives and which is held to be the only subject appropriate to his understanding, which requires certainty. (Significant in this regard is the beginning of the posthumously published Turrius sive de intellectione dialogus.) This interest in nature differs from that of the preceding era, that is, of the humanists: the contemplative aspect gives way to the operative one. That is, nature is considered as an autonomous reality, upheld by its own laws, in which a mixture of good and bad is inherent and before which any recourse to supernatural intervention is useless; to derive the most profit and happiness, man must rely only on himself and on his capacity for progressive understanding of the world’s regulating principles. These ideas emerge in the narrative poem Syphilis sive morbus Gallicus (1530), which brought Fracastoro universal fame, as is attested by numerous editions and translations in various languages; in it the nature and cure of lues are illustrated.

Composed in 1521, the poem was initially divided into two books. In the final draft it was published in three books, despite advice to the contrary by Pietro Bembo (in his letter of 5 January 1526 to Fracastoro, in which he also firmly asserted that some passages be eliminated), to whom it is dedicated and by whom it was esteemed and praised, both when it was sent to him by Fracastoro for a preliminary reading in 1525 and subsequently.

The poem, drafted in Latin hexameter (about 1,300 verses) of exquisite beauty, occupies a prominent place in the literature of the times and represents a magnificent paradigm of formal sixteenth-century virtuosity in refined Latin of a didactic quality reminiscent of Vergil’s Georgics. Through the work the name of the sickness became definitively established; the name was, in fact, considered to derive from that of the hero of Fracastoro’s treatise, the unfortunate shepherd Sifilo. Others believe that the word sifilo derived from sifilide, a term already in use in the local dialect of the Veneto.

According to Fracastoro’s mythological tale, the terrible disease originated as the punishment (an unclean ulcer on the body) inflicted by the sun god on the young shepherd Sifilo, who had become unfaithful to him. The misdeed was, however, forgiven, and the guaiacum, a great leafy tree, was born. Humanity learned to extract from it the medicament that cured the disease. Also effective against lues is mercury, which the nymph Lipare advised the shepherd Ilceo to use. The ample and exhaustive description of the various luetic manifestations demonstrates Fracastoro’s lucid knowledge of the clinical events and the related course of the illness.

In De morbo Gallico the author lays the first foundations of his doctrine of infections, since he was already familiar with the semina morbi of Lucretius through Andrea Navagero’s edition of De rerum natura (1515). The concepts of contagion indicated in De morbo Gallico were further developed in Fracastoro’s prose treatise on syphilis, written in 1553 but not published until 1939, which served as preparation for the subsequent formulation of the Fracastorian doctrine of contagion. Some authors consider noteworthy in De morbo Gallico not so much the illustrations of the pathological phenomena as Fracastoro’s manner, his feeling for human suffering, as exemplified in the episode of the death from syphilis of a young man from Brescia, and in the vivid description of the misfortunes that pervaded Europe, and especially Italy, in the first half of the sixteenth century. The work also provided the poet with an opportunity to celebrate the great geographical discoveries of the century.

The theory has also been advanced that the subject dealt with in De morbo Gallico is only a pretext for posing a problem of greater significance. The dominant theme of the first book is that of the mutations that take place in nature. Nature creates and destroys and gives misery and happiness, and it is useless to try to appease the gods. Science, whose power alone can give joy, dictates man’s actions.

For the construction of a philosophy of nature that starts from the above premise, a fundamental question obviously is posed—that of method. For Fracastoro the only valid one is that of experience, as he does not hesitate to declare in the Homocentrica sive de stellis (1538), a work on astronomy in which the movements of the heavens and the celestial spheres with their orbits, the seasons, and various types of days (civil, solar, sidereal) are illustrated, and in which Fracastoro again reinstates in a place of honor the most ancient astronomical theory, the Eudoxian. Apart from the intrinsic value of the work, its attempts to solve certain problems in astronomical and terrestrial physics are interesting, as are the studies on refraction. In the course of the latter Fracastoro points out the apparent enlargement and approach of celestial objects (as well as the moon) observed through two superimposed lenses, analogous to the appearance of a body immersed in water, which varies exactly according to the quantity and density of the water itself.

The discourse on experience, begun in the Homocentrica, is developed in De causis criticorum dierum libellus (1538). Experience, in order to be fruitful, must be collected and examined by secure concepts; these keep it from degenerating into a dispersion of multiplicities or into fantasy and magic, which would constitute a renewed victory of the transcendentalist attitude toward nature. In De causis Fracastoro gives an example of badly interpreted experience: critical days really exist in the course of an illness, but it is an error to look for the explanation of this solely in astral influences or certain numerological relationships. The cause lies in the nature of the disease itself, that is, in the humoral modifications; the crisis is an expression of the organic actions and reactions determined by the qualitative and quantitative alteration of the humor or humors involved.

That which unifies experience is the Aristotelian concept of cause. The type of cause capable of unifying natural phenomena is not of the order of most general causes; Fracastoro considers these useless because they are remotissimae a rebus. It is, rather, that of the closest and most particular causes, that is, the middle causes; furthermore, one must strive to arrive at those causes which are propinquissimae et propriae. Thus the traditional position of philosophy is turned upside down: philosophy is such to the extent that it investigates not abstract but concrete nature. To proceed along the path of universals and principles of things is to condemn philosophy—so far as it concerns nature— and to leave innumera intacta and other things non plana discussa.

In De sympathia ed antipathia rerum (1546) Fracastoro recognizes that the principle immanent in nature and explaining it is simpatia, which Fracastoro conceives of in a sense different from that of the humanists. To Fracastoro sympathy is a principle of spiritual order; it is the species spiritualis that unifies the world. In particular, it is to be brought down to the plane of natural things that are to be studied naturalistically.

Bound to the cosmological principle of sympathy are Fracastoro’s anthropological and esthetic concepts. It is sympathy, in fact, that gives nature an unbroken gradualism, so that there is no disruption in man’s faculties; sense and intellect are both passive and both have a species, even though of a different unifying power. That which really belongs to the intellect is judgment, conceived as a synthesis of sensory data and of the universal. The pure sensations, on the other hand, attain a unity of their own in the forces of the subnotiones, which distinguish them from one another and place them in interrelation. Fracastoro expresses these ideas in the Turrius sive de intellectione dialogus, in which he conceived of knowledge as a progressive unification of multiplicities, rather as did Kant. Similarly, in the Naugerius sive de poeticadialogus (1549), the essence of poetry is rendered neither by the content with which the poet deals nor by the form, which can be various, but rather by the intuition of beauty, which is then the universal, present in all things and expressing itself in the sympathy that regulates them. This differentiates the poet from the historian, who deals with particulars.

Fracastoro’s scientific thought culminates and concludes with De contagion et contagiosis morbis et curatione (1546), which assures him a lasting place in the history of epidemiology. In it he clearly describes numerous contagious diseases, with chapters of principal interest, such as that on phthisis, whose contagion and affinity for the lungs he affirms. whose In the work’s most significant part Fracastoro illustrates the three means by which contagion can be spread; by simple contact (as in scabies and leprosy); by fomites, corresponding to carriers (clothing, sheets); and at a distance, without direct contact or carriers (as in plague, smallpox, and the like). Fracastoro imagines that in the last case the seminarian propagate either by choosing the humors for which they have the greatest affinity or by attraction, penetrating through the seeds of contagion are in fact responsible for contagion; they are distinct imperceptible particles, composed of various elements. Spontaneously generated in the course of certain types of putrefaction, they present particular characteristics and faculties, such as that of increasing themselves, having their own motion, propagating quickly, enduring for a long time, even far from their focus of origin, exerting specific contagious activity, and dying

In de contagion the epidemiological problems and the principia contagionum are delved into with great acuteness. Fracastoro’s sheer prophetic intuition yielded hypotheses on causes and ways of infections that were verified in succeeding centuries

In certain passages the Fracastorian seminaria seem to be like our microorganisms. Undoubtedly, the seminaria derive from Democritean atomism via the semina of Lucretius and the gnostic and Neoplatonic speculations renewed by St. Augustine and St. Bonaventura (rationes seminales); but the Fracastorian seminaria differ greatly from traditional semina. It is difficult—perhaps impossible—to establish incontrovertibly whether Fracastoro really foresaw, as some would like to belive, the existence of microbes. He seems to attribute certain vital faculties to his seminaria and to use suggestive terminology for them (such as generation, birth, and life), but in light of the state of knowledge at the time—the inability to distinguish clearly between the organic and inorganic and belief in spontaneous generation—Fracastoro could not assign to his seminaria all the typical characteristics of microorganisms

Fracastoro left works on other subjects, including botany, geology, and medicine. Among those in which the philosophical and literary content merits mention are the Fracastorius sive de anima dialogus, in which he affirms the immortality of the soul; and the short poems Alcon seu de cura canum venaticorum and Ioseph.


I. Original Works. Fracastoro’s works were published in one vol. as Opera omnia (Venice, 1555); there were various reprintings, of which the Cominiana ed. (Padua, 1739) is important. Included in the first ed. are Homocentricorum sive de stellis, liber unus; De causis criticorum dierum libellus; De sympathia et antipathia return liber unus; De contagionibus et contagiosis morbis et eorum curatione libri tres; Naugerius sive de poetica dialogus; Turrius sive de intellectione dialougs; Fracastorius sive de anima dialogus; De vini temperatura sentenia; Syphilis sive morbus Gallicus, libri tres; Ioseph libri duo; and Carminum liber unus.

Some letters of Fracastoro to G. B. Ramusio, of interest because they refer to the scientific life of the era, were published in 1564 in Tommaso Poracchi,Lettere di XIII huomini illustri. A later ed. (Venice, 1632) also contains a letter from Fracastoro to Paolo Ramusio. See also the prose treatise on syphilis, Codice CCLXXV-I, Biblioteca Capitolare, Verona (Verona, 1939); and a vol. of Scritti inediti (Verona, 1955); other works are scattered in various publications. Many MSS, partially unpublished, are preserved in the Bibliotea Capitolare

II. Secondary Literature. The indicated works serve as bibliograbhical sources; L. Baumgartner and J.F. Fulton A. bibliography of the Poem Syphilis sive Morbus Gallicuts by Girolamo Fracastoro of Verona (New Haven, 1935); E. Cassirer, Storia della filosofia moderna, A. Pasquinelli, G. Colli, and E. Aranud, trans., I (Turin, 1964), 258–264, passion; B. Croce, “II dialogo di Fracastoro sulla poetica,” in Quaderni della critica, no. 9 (Nov. 1947), 627–629, passim; II. Rinaseimento, 2nd ed. (Turin, 1948); F. Pellegrini, G. Alberti, A. Spallicci, et al., Studi e memorie nel IV centenario (Verona, 1954); and G. Saitta, II Pensiero italiano nel l’umanesimo e nel Rinascimento, II. Rinascimento, 2nd ed. (Florence, 1961), 177–212, passim.

Bruno Zanobio

Girolamo Fracastoro

views updated May 29 2018

Girolamo Fracastoro

The British medical journal Lancet called Girolamo Fracastoro (1478-1553) "the physician who did most to spread knowledge of the origin, clinical details and available treatments of [the sexually-transmitted disease syphilis] throughout a troubled Europe." A true Renaissance man, Fracastoro excelled in the arts and sciences and engaged in a lifelong study of literature, music, geography, geology, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy, as well as medicine.

Girolamo Fracastoro (pronounced jee-RO-luh-mo Frock-uh-STO-ro), the sixth of seven brothers, was born in 1478 into an old Catholic family from Verona (now in Italy.) His mother, Camilla Mascarelli, reportedly died when Fracastoro was still a child. Many members of the family had careers in law or in civil service.

Fracastoro spent his childhood in his father's villa, Incaffi, which was set on Lake Garda, fifteen miles from Verona. He later inherited his father's handsome estate and went on to enjoy a life of prosperity, though his family was not of the nobility. Fracastoro received his first schooling from his father, who taught him about literature and philosophy. As an adolescent he attended the University of Padua, where he was entrusted to the watchful eye of Girolamo Della Torre, a physician and family friend. There he studied mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, as well as literature and philosophy. Fracastoro received his medical degree in 1502. He later published works on the philosophy of nature and studied the medicinal properties of plants.

In 1502 Fracastoro became an instructor of logic at the University of Padua, where soon after he also began teaching anatomy. During this period, he was a colleague of the Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543), who had enrolled at Padua to study medicine at about the same time.

Fracastoro married Elena de Clavis (or Schiavi) about 1500. The couple produced five children. Three, Giovanni Battista, Paolo, and Giulio, died at an early age, and were commemorated in one of their father's poems. The only children to survive their father were son Paolo Filippo (born in 1517) and daughter Isabella.

Began Medical Career

In 1508, after the death of his father, Fracastoro left Padua. At that time a threat of war between Venice and the army of Emperor Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor) had caused the closing of the University of Padua. Fracastoro's friend, Bartolomeo d'Alviano, the leader of the army of Venice, was appointed to the rank of Duke of Pordenone for his victorious battles. He invited Fracastoro to live with him and teach at Alviano's short-lived school, the Accademia Firulana.

Fracastoro stayed with Alviano, working as a physician, until Alviano was taken prisoner after his defeat at the battle of Agnadello in 1509. Fracastoro then returned to Verona, where he continued his studies, reorganized his estate, and served as a physician to patients who came to consult with him from all over Italy. His practice, from which he earned a living, extended from the years 1509 to about 1530.

Wrote Poem on Syphilis

At Verona, Bishop Gian Matteo Gilberti, a man of great culture and a patron to scientists and artists, provided Fracastoro with a house on Lake Garda. Beginning in 1511, Fracastoro alternated his time between his Verona home and his mountain villa at Incaffi. The villa became a center for intellectuals living in the area, who met there to discuss philosophical and scientific issues. Along with his friend, Cardinal Pietro Bembo, Secretary of Briefs to Pope Leo X, he belonged to the prestigious academy of Manutius. Fracastoro was interested in politics but apparently never held public office. He wrote frequently about the liberal arts, the natural sciences, and medicine.

In 1521 Fracastoro wrote the narrative poem that made him famous: Syphilis Sive de Morbo Gallico (Syphilis or the Gallic Disease ). The poem, which contained nearly 1,300 verses and was written in Latin, was dedicated to Pietro Bembo, who praised the poet's artistry when Fracastoro sent the poem for his review. The first two parts of the poem were published in 1525; a third part was added in 1530. The poem was eventually published in more than 100 translations and editions throughout Europe.

Syphilis Sive de Morbo Gallico established the use of the term "syphilis" for that sexually transmitted disease. The term was most likely derived from the name of the hero of the poem, the shepherd Sifilo. According to the poem, a mythological tale, the disease was originated and inflicted by the sun god on Sifilo, who had become unfaithful to him. However, in time the god forgave Sifilo and cured him through the use of a leafy tree he had created called guaiacum, from which people learned to extract a medicine that provided the cure. In the poem, the nymph Lipare also advised the shepherd that mercury could be used to cure the disease. The poem was translated from Latin to English by the English poet laureate Nahum Tate in 1686.

Poem Brought Acclaim

Zanobio referred to Fracastoro's poem as "a magnificent paradigm of formal sixteenth-century virtuosity in refined Latin." Particularly noteworthy, he pointed out, were "Fracastoro's manner, his feeling for human suffering, as exemplified in the episode of the death from syphilis of a young man from Brescia, and in the vivid description of the misfortunes that pervaded Europe, and especially Italy, in the first half of the sixteenth century."

Syphilis became one of the most prominent poems of its time. In the poem, Fracastoro referred to syphilis as "the French disease." However, it was also called by other names, including "the Neopolitan disease" by those who believed it had been brought to the city of Naples from America by Christopher Columbus's sailors.

Margaret M. Hudson noted, "Whatever its origin the disease was brought to Naples by the Spanish troops sent to support Alfonso II of Naples against Charles VIII of France in 1494-95. It is generally believed that the disbandment and dispersal of Charles VIII's army of [soldiers-for-hire] who had themselves been infected by the Neapolitan women, was responsible for the rapid spread of syphilis throughout the continent." Hudson added that Fracastoro "outlines the incubation period and the symptoms [of syphilis] and correctly reports a decline in the severity of the disease with time."

Scientific Contributions Honored by Pope

Another of Fracastoro's great scholarly contributions was his 1538 volume on astronomy entitled Homocentricorum Seu de Stellis Liber Unus (Homocentricity or the Book of Stars ). It espoused the theory, wrote Hudson, "that the earth and planets rotate around a fixed point in spherical orbits, thus foreshadowing by some years the publication of the far better work of his fellow-student Corpernicus."

In Homocentricorum Fracastoro made mention of superimposing lenses, which may be the first suggestion of the use of the telescope; he also observed that comet tails point away from the sun, a phenomenon studied by modern scientists. Fracastoro also discussed the forces of attraction and repulsion between bodies, later examined by the famed English scientist Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). In Fracastoro's honor, later astronomers named a feature on the moon after him. In the realm of geography, Fracastoro was the first to use the term "pole" to refer to the ends of the Earth's axis and to suggest the use of rectilinear maps (maps with lines.)

In 1545 Pope Paul III nominated Fracastoro, who served as his personal physician, as medical adviser to the Council of Trent, which the physician attended as a guest of the noted Cardinal Madruzzo. The Council of Trent (1545-1563), the longest council ever convened by leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, was called to examine and condemn the doctrines taught by Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers, and to reform discipline within the Roman Catholic Church.

Together with another physician by the name of Balduino, Fracastoro voiced the opinion that the Council should leave Trent because a pestilence was raging there. As a result, in 1547 the Pope transferred the Council to the city of Bologna. In 1546 Fracastoro received a special honor by being appointed canon of Verona, a non-religious patronage position.

Early Proponent of Germ Theory of Disease

Fracastoro's 1546 work, De Contagione et Contagiosis Morbis (On Contagion and Contagious Diseases ) developed the older notion that infection results from tiny, self-multiplying bodies that can be spread by direct or indirect contact through infected objects, such as clothing, or can even be passed through the air over long distances. For this work, he has been called by some a pioneer of epidemiology, the branch of medical science that deals with the incidence, distribution, and control of disease in a population.

Hudson explained that "Originality cannot be claimed for De Contagione or for [Fracastoro's] poem on syphilis, nor was it claimed. Both classical and medieval writers had advanced similar seeds of disease [theories] and there had been at least two other poems on syphilis. Fracastoro, however, gave a clearer and more coherent and comprehensive presentation of these concepts."

How widely Fracastoro's views on the spread of disease were accepted at the time remains controversial. However, they were undoubtedly overshadowed by the more popular, though erroneous, miasma theory, which held that exhalations from the earth or air caused diseases. It was to be nearly 300 years before French microbiologist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) determined the role of bacteria in causing diseases and German bacteriologist Robert Koch (1843-1910) defined the procedure for proving that specific diseases are caused by specific organisms.

Late Career and Death

Fracastoro wrote a Latin dialogue in memory of his friend Andrea Navagero. In the work, entitled Naugerius, Sive de Poetica Dialogus (Navagero, or a Dialogue on the Art of Poetry, not published until 1555, after Fracastoro's death), the writer discussed in dialogue form the various literary problems and theories of the time of the Renaissance.

Whether writing of science, medicine, or literature, Fracastoro displayed an incisive intellect. According to Bruno Zanobio, "Philosophical considerations were always inherent in (Fracastoro's) more purely scientific work. His thought is framed in those philosophies of nature which were developed by various writers of the Italian Renaissance." Zanobio explained that they were the result of two components, "a diminished interest in theological subjects in general and an increased interest in the study of nature, in which man lives and which is held to be the only subject appropriate to his understanding, which requires certainty."

Fracastoro remained mentally vital well into old age. He died from a stroke on August 6, 1553, probably at his Incaffi house. His body was then taken to Verona and buried at the Church of Santa Eufemia. There it rested until around 1740, when the remains were exhumed; they have since been lost. A statue honoring Fracastoro was erected in Verona on the Piazza dei Signori.


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Bondanella, Peter, and Julia Conaway Bondanella, Dictionary of Italian Literature, Greenwood Press, 1979.

Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists, edited by David Millar, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972.


"Fracastoro and Syphilis: 500 Years On," Lancet, 14, 2000).

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"Microbiology," Encyclopedia Britannica, 14, 2000). □

Girolamo Fracastoro

views updated May 29 2018

Girolamo Fracastoro

CIRCA 1478-1553

Astronomer, physician, and poet


French Disease. Girolamo Fracastoro was a “Renaissance man” both in the banal sense of his historical context and in the broader meaning of an active intellect with a broad range of cultural interests and achievements. His reputation as a scholar has faded since the sixteenth century, when his contributions to mathematical astronomy and poetry were noted, and if he is remembered at all by historians, it is for his poem called Syphilis sive morbus gallicus (Syphilis, or the French Disease, 1530), which gave a new name to a disease that was new to late-Renaissance observers.

Stargazing. Fracastoro was a younger son of a wealthy family of the northern Italian town of Verona and was schooled at home in Latin literature and philosophy by his father before being sent to the University of Padua. As an undergraduate, Fracastoro studied literature, mathematics, and astronomy as well as Aristotelian philosophy, which was taught by Pietro Pomponazzi. The latter acquired a European-wide reputation as a champion of an extreme version of Aristotelian natural philosophy, which challenged some of the accepted interpretations of medieval theory. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Fracastoro would later write a treatise attempting to revive the Aristotelian model of the universe as a series of homocentric (concentric) spheres that bore the stars and planets about the central earth. This theory was rather complicated mathematically and suffered from a serious drawback— if planets are fixed to a sphere with Earth at the center, why do they seem to vary in brightness, as if they approach and recede from Earth? For both reasons, the homocentric model was superceded by the epicycle-deferent models of Ptolemy (second century C.E.), which explained that planets moved as if affixed to small circles (epicycles), which were themselves moved around Earth by larger circles or spheres (deferents). Ptolemy’s model was mathematically simpler and more accurately accounted for the observed movements of the Sun, Moon, and planets, and was therefore suitable for making predictions and casting horoscopes, and was used in one form or another by all mathematical astronomers in medieval Islam and Christendom. The Aristotelian homocentric model persisted through the Middle Ages as an explanation of how the world might be physically structured (cosmology), but no attempt to revive it as a plausible mathematical model was made before the late fifteenth century, when Georg Puerbach tried to reconcile Aristotle’s spheres with Ptolemy’s epicycles. Fracastoro’s work, which he published as Homocentrica sive de stellis (Homocentrics, or On the Stars, 1538), should accordingly be seen as an attempt to restore Aristotle’s place in natural philosophy in the face of a growing body of evidence that the old theories were inadequate. In this effort Fracastoro was less a revolutionary than a humanist scholar, seeking to understand what the ancients thought rather than overturning it.

Medical Studies. Fracastoro also studied medicine while at Padua, and upon receiving his degree in 1502 he was appointed as an instructor in logic and adjunct in anatomy. At this time he made the acquaintance of Nicholas Copernicus, who had enrolled at Padua to study medicine the previous year. When war threatened between the Venetian Republic and the Holy Roman Empire, whose lands pressed on the northeastern border of the republic, the university closed, and Fracastoro went to serve on the frontier before returning to his native Verona. Established in town and owning a villa in the mountains, Fracastoro settled down to a life of intellectual pursuit as a landed gentleman and active physician. He was a regular member of the local college of physicians and hosted philosophical meetings at his country estate. Through his expanding reputation and personal contacts within the Church he was appointed physician to the Council of Trent in 1545 and given a benefice (a salaried position in the Church). He remained active as a philosophical and medical scholar until a stroke killed him in 1553.

Clavius. Fracastoro’s Homocentrics, like other sixteenth-century attempts to force Aristotle’s cosmology to agree with observation, was not successful, but was important enough in contemporary astronomical and philosophical discussions to be considered a threat to the prevailing Ptolemaic cosmology by Christoph Clavius. The latter was the leading teacher of astronomy at the Collegia Romano in Rome, which was the academic center of Catholicism of the new Jesuit order, which was interested in using science education as a tool for winning converts to the Catholic religion. Clavius’s assessment and refutation of Fracastoro’s ideas points out that Copernicus’s heliocentric hypothesis was not the only challenge to the Ptolemaic system, which Clavius defended in his book Commentary on Sacrobosco’s Sphere (1570) even after Galileo’s discoveries seemed to deny its validity.

Cause and Effect. Of greater significance to sixteenth and seventeenth century philosophical discussion was Fracastoro’s De sympathia et antipathia rerum (On Sympathy and Antipathy, 1546), which addressed a persistent problem in medieval, Renaissance, and early modern natural philosophy, namely how one thing could affect another at a distance—without physically touching it. Such causation was obviously fundamental to the action of celestial bodies on terrestrial objects, including people, but also governed the observed behavior of magnets, the attraction of dry bits of straw to a piece of amber that was rubbed with a cloth, and even magical and medical phenomena, such as why amulets seemed to “work like a charm,” why people could inflict harm on each other by giving “the evil eye,” and why menstruating women would cause a mirror to become discolored merely by looking at it. Obviously such cases, attributed to sympathy or antipathy between the forms or souls inherent in people and objects, were of wide significance, from physical theory to medical practice and even the prosecution of witches.

Contagion. Fracastoro did not deny the existence of a spiritual order in the material world that was responsible for the evident sympathies and antipathies between remote objects, but he did explain such actions with material mechanisms in the specific case of contagious diseases. He discussed this situation in De contagione et contagiosis morbis et curatione (On Contagion, Contagious Diseases, and Their Cure, 1546), which was appended to his treatise On Sympathy and Antipathy. Contagion, related to the root word for “contact,” was by the Renaissance a well-established popular explanation for how epidemic diseases could spread from person to person or object to person, accounting for some of the public health measures that were enforced in response to plague. However, Fracastoro elaborated the theory in terms of the atomic hypothesis that had been promoted by Cicero’s contemporary Lucretius, which had been considered and discarded as atheistic in the Middle Ages. Lucretius’s lengthy poetic treatise De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things, written in the first century B.C.E.) was printed and again was a topic for discussion in late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth-century Italy. Fracastoro used Lucretius’s idea that the material world was composed of small bits of atomic matter, which he called “seeds,” to explain how disease could spread by remote contact, carried by the air or lodged in clothing, from one person to another, or from a dog or cat or a garment to a person. Fracastoro’s theory helped legitimize unpopular public health measures, which called for the destruction of cats and dogs and expensive cleaning and fumigating (or burning) of infected belongings during outbreaks of plague. However, his idea of disease as caused by a physical agent, a seed or particle of disease, also contributed to the perception that epidemic diseases and all other natural actions must occur through contact—a point made in 1569 by Fracastoro’s contemporary Francisco Valles. This idea was to become a founding principle of the much-touted mechanical philosophy that is associated with Rene Descartes and the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century.


Girolamo Fracastoro, Fracastoro’s Syphilis, edited and translated by Geoffrey Eatough (Liverpool, U.K.: Cairns, 1984).

James M. Lattis, Between Copernicus and Galileo: Christoph Clavius and the Collapse of Ptolemaic Cosmology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Vivian Nutton, “The Reception of Fracastoro’s Theory of Contagion: The Seed That Fell Among Thorns?” Osiris, 6 (1990): 196-234.

Girolamo Fracastoro

views updated May 23 2018

Girolamo Fracastoro


Italian Physician

Girolamo Fracastoro was born in Verona, Italy, in or near 1478 (historical sources differ on this). Although his family was untitled by the crown, they were nonetheless an old family with a history of several prosperous generations. Fracastoro enjoyed a sheltered childhood, living on the family estate, Incaffi, which was situated on Lake Garda and located about 15 miles (24.1 km) from the city of Verona.

Although his greatest recognition came from his medical discoveries, Fracastoro had many other academic gifts. His father was his first instructor in philosophy and literature, but he went on to the University of Padua where he studied astronomy, mathematics, more philosophy and literature, and finally earned his M.D. degree in 1502.

In that same year he began teaching philosophy at the university, but engaged in the private practice of medicine in Verona. Eventually he became interested in medical research, specifically in the contagious disease we know today as syphilis. It had been known by various other names in different parts of the world, but Fracastoro (being also a poet and writer), created a story about a shepherd named Syphilis who had cursed the Sun and been punished by the gods who infected him with the loathsome disease that spread throughout the kingdom, even to its king.

Fracastoro's research led to other forms of contagion and how diseases were contracted. His speculation about germs and their transfers was remarkable in that the microscope was not invented until the end of the sixteenth century. Despite this, he is considered the first person to advance the germ theory and its importance in medical advancement.

While conducting his lucrative medical practice in Verona, Fracastoro found time to study the medicinal properties of flowers and other plants. He wrote several treatises on botanical subjects and, in light of the widespread interest in herbs and natural medicines today, could certainly be considered an early founder of the movement.

Fracastoro led an interesting, multifaceted life. When the University of Padua was forced to close because of the war between the Holy Roman Emperor and League of Cambrai, a high-ranking officer invited Fracastoro to Pordenone to stay with him and to be active in the short-lived Academia Friulana. Upon another occasion, another of his patrons, Bishop G. M. Giberti, presented Fracastoro with a house on Lake Garda in Malcasine, near his childhood home.

Another religious affiliation was enhanced when Fracastoro dedicated his syphilis research to Cardinal Pietro Bembo, Secretary of Briefs to Pope Leo X. The Cardinal had been an active assistant in the research and stated (in writing) that the dedication was the highpoint of his life and the most highly valued gift he had ever received.

While he lived in Verona, Fracastoro's residence was a gathering place for the elite intellectuals of the time. Many gifted students of philosophy and the sciences shared their knowledge with Fracastoro and corresponded with him frequently.

Even though he received many honors and the patronage of important officials, Fracastoro takes his place in the history of medicine for his work on the diagnosis and treatment (of that time) for syphilis. There were many theories of how the disease originated, one of them being that Christopher Columbus (1451?-1506) brought it back from his journeys to the New World, and another linking it to the importation of African slaves into Europe. The disease was known as "the calling card of civilized man," and was becoming more prevalent in all parts of the world.

Fracastoro began a series of treatments and believed that if treated in its earliest stages, syphilis could be cured. He prescribed a rigorous schedule for the afflicted that included exercising until heavy sweating occurred. In addition, he developed a mixture of mercury, sulfur, and hellebore that he smeared all over the patient, then encased the sufferer in wool fabric and confined him to bed to await profuse sweating and salivation. Fracastoro firmly believed that this procedure would cleanse the body of its infestation. Other treatments included purges, near-starvation food restrictions, and equally painful regimens. Fortunately, modern medicine has more effective and less painful treatments.

By any standard, Fracastoro was a remarkable man with numerous talents in both the arts and sciences. He lived to the age of 75 and died in 1553, near Verona and his first home on Lake Garda.


Fracastoro, Girolamo

views updated May 23 2018


The scholarship and erudition of the Veronese physician Girolamo Fracastoro (14831553) were recognized earlyhe was appointed to the chair of logic and philosophy at the University of Padua at the tender age of nineteen. Also known by his Latin name, Hieronymus Fracastorius, he is best known for two works. The first, Syphilidis sive Morbi Gallici (Syphilis, or the French disease, 1530), is a description in verse of the then relatively new (to Europe) epidemic disease known, from that point on, as syphilis. The disease is named after Fracastoro's protagonist, the shepherd Syphilis, who offended the sun god and whose people (residents of an unidentified island in the Caribbean) were punished with the disease, which they transmitted to Spanish sailors, and, thereby, to the inhabitants of Europe. In his poem, Fracastoro provided a graphic description of the secondary and tertiary phases of the disease, recognized its venereal origin and its transmission by breast-feeding (though he did not seem to believe it was exclusively transmitted by contact) and suggested treatment with mercury.

Fracastoro is equally famous for his prose treatise on communicable diseases, De Contagionibus et Contagiosis Morbis et Earum Curatione (On contagion and contagious diseases, 1546), one of the earliest theoretical conceptualizations of something approximating germ theory. Fracastoro attributed epidemic diseases to living agents too small to see that were transmitted by physical touch or contagion. Plague was viewed by Fracastoro as contagious, as was smallpox. Contagion via microscopic agents was not returned to as a major explanatory theme in medicine until the work of Athanasius Kircher (16021680) in the seventeenth century. Fracastoro was an astrologer, and he embellished his theory of contagion with a strong belief in the powerful influence of the stars on the progress of epidemic diseases.

Nigel Paneth

(see also: Communicable Disease Control; Contagion; History of Public Health; Syphilis; Theories of Health and Illness )


Wright, W. C. (1930). Hieronymus Fracastorius. Contagion, Contagious Diseases and Their Treatment. New York: G. P. Putnam's.

Girolamo Fracastoro

views updated May 17 2018

Girolamo Fracastoro

c. 1478-1553

Italian physician and astronomer remembered for his pioneering work in epidemiology. Syphilis, then rampant in Europe, derives its names from his poem Syphilis sive morbus Gallicus (1530). His work De contagione (1546) lists the three modes by which contagion spread—simple contact, carriers (such as cloths, bedding, etc.), and from a distance (in which some have seen his unlikely anticipation of microbes). Fracastoro was also the last to defend a theory of solid celestial spheres.