Cesi, Federico

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Cesi, Federico

(b. Rome, Italy, 13 March 1585; d. Acquasparta, Italy, 1 August 1630); botany, scientific organization.

The historical place of Federico Cesi as a precursor of modern scientific botany has been eclipsed by his stature as the founder of the first truly modern scientific academy, the Accademia dei Lincei. He was nevertheless a pioneer in systematic botanical classification as well as in the microscopic study of plant structure.

Cesi, hereditary marquis of Monticelli and duke of Acquasparta, acquired those titles in 1628 and 1630. He was made prince of San Angelo and San Polo in 1613 and assumed administration of all family estates in 1618, His noble status, together with the moral and financial support of his mother, Olimpia Orsini, assisted him in carrying out his scientific program against his father’s strong opposition and, in later years, against growing antagonism toward science in theological and academic circles. Educated at Rome by private tutors, Cesi founded the Lincean Academy there in 1603, with four members. In 1610 Giovanni Battista Porta was enrolled, and after the election of Galileo in 1611 the Academy grew rapidly. Among its eventually thirty-two members were such foreign scientists as Mark Welser, Theophilus Müller, and Johannes Faber. Cesi was its principal administrator and sole financial supporter until his death, which was soon followed by the condemnation of Galileo and the collapse of the Academy.

The Praescriptiones Lynceae, drafted by Cesi in 1605 and published in 1624, fixed the objectives of the Academy as the study of science and mathematics, the pursuit of new knowledge, and the publication of scientific discoveries. The Academy’s first important publication was Galileo’s book on sunspots (1613). That work had in turn been inspired by Welser’s publication at Augsburg in 1612 of Christopher Schemer’s letters on sunspots, sent by Welser to Galileo, whom he knew through Cesi, In 1616, when the Holy Office forbade the Copernican doctrine, Cesi supported freedom of opinion within the Academy against the Lincean mathematician Luca Valerio, who moved to dissociate the membership from the forbidden views. The Academy published Galileo’s Saggiatore in 1623 at Cesi’s expense and would have published the later Dialogue also, if Cesi had not died before the imprimatur was obtained.

Either personally or through his Academy, Cesi sponsored publication of scientific works by Porta, Johannes Eck, and Francesco Stelluti. His wide correspondence circulated scientific information in early seventeenth-century Italy and Germany, as did Mersenne’s shortly afterward in France and England. Cesi also informed his colleagues of currents favorable or adverse to science at Rome and represented their interests in tactful discussions with authorities there. He tried (without success) to establish branches of the Academy at Naples and in other cities, both in Italy and abroad, envisioning an international scientific society. He labored for many years with three fellow academicians on a Theatrum totius naturae—a projected “Cosmos” in the Humboldtian sense. All that was eventually published of this was a folio broadside, the Apiarium, dedicated in 1625 to Pope Urban VIII and containing the first anatomical drawing made with the microscope, and the Nova plantarum et mineralium mexicanorum historia. edited from manuscripts of Francisco Hernandez. To the latter work was appended Cesi’s Phytosophkae tabulae; although printed in 1630, the work was not published until 1651, funds for its completion and assembly having been cut off by Cesi’s death.

Cesi’s phytosophic tables anticipated by more than a century the work of Linnaeus in formulating a rational system for the classification and nomenclature of plants. Not only did Cesi conceive a natural system based on morphology and physiology, but he is reported to have discovered the spores of cryptogams and described the sexuality of plants in the course of his studies of microscopic plant anatomy. Except for the tables, however, his botanical work remains in manuscript.

Cesi was married in 1614 to Artemisia Colonna, who died late in 1615. From his marriage to Isabella Salviati in 1617, he left two surviving daughters. His own health had long been precarious, and in 1630 he died after a brief high fever. His library, scientific instruments, and manuscripts, dispersed after his death, have now been largely reacquired by the present Accademia dei Lincei at Rome, which was reconstituted as a national academy in 1875.


I. Original Works. Cesi’s major works are Praescriptione.s Lynceae (Rome, 1624; repr. Rome, 1745); and phytosophicae tabulae, in Nova plantarum et mineralium mexicanorum historia a Francisco Hernandez… compilata… (Rome, 1651; Cesi’s tables extracted and repr. Rome, 1904) II carteggio Linceo, Giuseppe Gabrieli, ed. (Rome, 1938–1944), includes all of Cesi’s surviving correspondence, much of which was also included by A. Favaro in Le opere di Galileo Galilei (Florence, 1890–1910; repr. Florence, 1929–1939; a 2nd repr., completed in Florence in 1965, was almost entirely destroyed by flood before issuance).

II. Secondary Literature. Biographical sources on Cesi are Baldassare Odescalchi, Memorie istorico-critiche dell’Accademia dell’ Lincei (Rome, 1806); Domenico Carutti, Breve storia dell’ Accademia dei Lincei (Rome, 1883); R. Pirotta and E. Chiovenda, Flora Romana (Rome, 1900–1901), parte storica, pp. 146–150; and Giuseppe Gabrieli, “Federico Cesi Linceo,” in Nuova antologia, 350 (July-Aug. 1930), 352 –369. See also the prefatory sections to the various parts of II carteggio Linceo, above, and bibliographies therein.

Stillman Drake