Scaliger (Bordonius), Juluis Caesar

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(b. Pauda, Italy, 23/24 April 1484; d. Agen, France, 21 October 1558)

natural philosophy, medicine, botany.

An evident desire to claim noble descent led Julius Caesar Bordonius (later called Scaliger) and his son, the great classical scholar Joseph Justus Scaliger, to trace their origins to the della Scala family, sometime rulers of Verona. Conveniently for the Scaliger claim, Julius Caesar’s family died for the Scaliger claim, Julius Caesar’s family died out around 1512, which thus made it difficult for contemporaries to verify the alleged genealogy. Although the Scaliger account has been widely accepted, recent research has exposed the elaborate camouflage surrounding Julius Caesar’s birth and early life.

According to the Scaligers’ version, Julius Caesar was born at Riva on Lake Garda on 23/24 April 1484. The parents were held to be Benedetto and Berenice Scaliger (della Scala). Julius was named Caesar at the insistence of Paul of Middelburg, the noted astronomer and astrologer, who had cast the infant’s horoscope. Styling himself Count of Burden. Julius Caesar fought in the Imperial army against the Venetians, hereditary enemies of the della Scala. Afterward he toyed with monastic life at Bologna in the hope of becoming pope and of regaining the family property but, dis-illusioned, quit the monastery for the University of Bologna, where he studied Aristotelian philosophy and physics, before reentering the army. During his second tour, Julius Caesar studied medicine and collected medicinal herbs in northern Italy. Following his second military retirement, Scaliger in 1524 accompanied, as personal physician, Bishop Antonio della Rovere to Agen in southern France.

After the departure for Agen in 1524, the details of Scaliger’s life are not in dispute, but the account of the period before 1524 is open to doubt. Although Scaliger was probably born in 1484, it was not at Riva but at Padua. His father was Benedetto Bordon, an expert illuminator of manuscripts and a graphic artist, and also an astronomer and geographer who had perhaps known Paul of Middelburg, when the latter was teaching at Padua in 1479. The Bordon family was of Paduan, not Veronese, stock, although it is possible that Scaliger’s father held dual Paduan and Veronese citizenship. Certainly there is no possibility that Scaliger’s father held dual Paduan and Veronese citizenship. Certainly there is no possibility that Scaliger was a true descendant of the della Scala.

Scaliger seems to have grown up in his father’s household at nearby Venice and may have entered a Franciscan convent there. It is conceivable that he knew the architect and mathematician Fra Giovannni Giocondo, also a Franciscan, who was at Venice after 1506. If Scaliger’s tales of military service are largely true, then he was fighting from 1509 to 1515 and may, as he says, have fought at the great battle of Ravenna in 1512. After leaving the army, Scaliger did not go to the University of Bologna but to the University of Padua, where, as “Giulio, son of Benedetto Bordon”, he received the doctorate in arts in 1519 and the following year seems to have been appointed lecturer in logic, a post that he did not accept. The refusal of the appointment may have been due to his pursuit of a doctorate in medicine, although there is no proof of Scaliger’s medical degree. There is evidence, however, that Scaliger was working at Venice (1521–1524) on a translation of Plutarch that was published there in 1525. Interestingly, Joseph Justus Scaliger implied that his father had studied at Padua (despite his banishment from the city as a della Scala), when he said that his father had been taught mathematics by Pomponazzi as well as by Luca Gaurico. Scaliger himself claimed that his instructors in philosophy had included Marc’ Antonio Zimara, Nifo, and Pomponazzi, all of whom were teachers at Pauda.

After his arrival at Agen in 1524, Scaliger entered a new life as “Julius Caesar de l’Escale de Bordons.” He became a well-known and respected physician and in March 1528 was naturalized as a French citizen. In April 159 he married Andiette de la Roque Lobejac, who bore him fifteen children and was reckoned a restraining influence on Scaliger’s combativeness. Acctive in civic life. Scaliger served as consul of Agen (1532–1533). In 1538, as a Huguenot sympathizer, he was summoned before the Inquisition but was acquitted. (Scaliger’s Poetics and his commentaries on Theophrastus were later placed on the Index of Prohibited Books.) The Huguenot historian Théodore de Béze regarded Scaliger’s career as a paradigm of the relation between enlightened intellectual views and Protestantism. After prolonged attacks of gout, Scaliger died at Agen in 1558, possessed of a European reputation.

Scaliger first established his fame by a savage literary attack (Paris, 1531) on the satire of Erasmus against the Ciceronian stylists (1528). Later Scaliger wrote the more lasting Poetics. which represents a reworking of Aristotelian aesthetics in order to form an important early statement of neoclassicism. Among Scaliger’s literary friends were Pierre de Ronsard, François Rabelais (for a time), and George Buchanan. (Scaliger’s De causis linguae Latinae [1540] has been termed the first modern scientific attempt at a Latin grammar.)

The creative approach to classical thought is manifest in Scaliger’s writings on botany. Scaliger sought to advance botany and simples by his admirable editions of three ancient treatises: the De plantis of pseudo-Aristotle (Nicolaus of Damascus) and the two works of Theophrastus on plants. All three works benefit from the editor’s knowledge of actual specimens. The dedication of the pseudo-Aristotelian treatise (all were published posthumously) remarks that seasonal and regional variations make it difficult to identify European plants with classical descriptions, many of the regional variations also being vague or erroneous. Scaliger tried to effect a new and more consistent classification of plants but feared that ignorant physicians would continue to adhere to the older descriptions. Elsewhere he remarked; “It is necessary to submit everything to examination [and] not to embrace anything with servile adulation. The ancients must not put a brake on us.”

In medicine Scaliger considered himself an empirical Averroitst, who relied upon observation and experience rather than system, “I should like men of learning to become un-complex again and no longer consider themselves members of systematic schools.” Scaliger’s medical skills secured his appointment as physician to the king of Navarre (1548-1549). on account of Secaliger’ reputation, many students eager for instruction, including Nostradamus and Rabelais, were attracted to Agen. The relationship between Scaliger and Rabelais was exacerbated by their conceit and by Rabelais’s preference for systematic “ancient” medicine. Although Rabelais left Agen in 1530 to study under Scaliger’s rival at Montpellier, the Rabelais-Scaliger hostility continued for decades. Rabelais’s lampoon of “entelechy” and “endelechy” in Gargantua and Pantagruel (book V. chapter 19) seems directed at this former mentor’s proneness to philosophize.

Scaliger was proud of his disputatious nature. In the Exotericarum exercitationum (1557) he wrote: “Vives maintains that silent meditation is more profitable than dispute. This is not true. Truth is brought forth by a collision of minds, as fire by a collision of stones. Unless I discover an antagonist, I can do nothing successfully.” As Scaliger made his reputation by an attack on Erasmus, so he confirmed it with a spirited critique of Cardano’s De subtilitate libri XXI. The Exotericarum exercitationum runs to well over 1,200 pages. When Cardano failed to reply immediately, Scaliger, believing a false rumor that Cardano had died, was stricken with remorse and wrote a funeral oration in which he repented for the onslaught on his late opponent. Ironically, Cardano published his reply two years after Scaliger’s death.

Scaliger based his critique on a reprint (Lyons, 1554) of the first edition of De subtilitate, rather than the revised second edition (Basel, 1554) (perhaps because of difficulty of access to the latter). The full title of the Exotericarum exercitationum implies that the critique is merely the fifteenth book of Scaliger’s philosophical exercises (the first fourteen remained unpublished). Following its target, the work ranges over the whole of natural philosophy. In astronomy Scaliger ridiculed Cardano’s stress on the astrological significance of comets; and he denied that the world’s decay is proven because the apse of the sun was thirty-one semidiameters nearer the earth than in Ptolemy’s time. Scaliger also rejected several of Cardano’s beliefs in natural history: that the swan sings at its death; that gems have occult virtues (“a flea has more virtue than all the gems”); that there exist corporeal spirits that eat; that the bear forms its cub by licking; and that the peacock is ashamed of its ugly legs. Like Cardano, Scaliger was aware that lead and tin gain in weight during calcination, although he preferred to explain the increase as a result of the addition of particles of fire to the metal.

In order to refute Cardano’s theory of the origin of mountain springs, Scaliger used the strange argument that the sea is not in its natural place, since earth should be nearer than water to the center of the earth. Consequently, seawater presses upward, emerging sometimes through superior earth as a mountain spring. This view, of course, failed to account for the difference in salinity between sea and mountain water.

Scaliger casts aside Cardano’s Aristotelian view that the medium is a motive force. This view is refuted experimentally when a thin wooden disk, cut from a plank, is set to spin within the plank. According to Scaliger, the air between the disk and the surrounding plank is insufficient to act as a motive force, as postulated by the Aristotelians. Instead, as an admirer of Parisian dynamics, Scaliger preferred to use the impetus theory (which he called motio. Following Albert of Saxony and Jean Buridan, Scaliger stated that accelerated motion is a result of a persisting gravity within the moving body. This gravity generates from instant to instant a new impetus, which, intensifying, produces acceleration. The impetus, although evanescent, is an efficient cause, and as such need not be coterminous with the effect.

The Exotericarum exercitationum won a celebrity that survived its author’s death. Lipsius, Bacon, and Leibniz were among its later admirers: and Kepler, who read it as a young man, accepted its Averroist doctrine of attributing the movement of each star to a particular intelligence.


I. Original Works. Scaliger’s works and commentaries include Hippocratis liber de somnüs cum J.C. Scaligeri commentarüs (Lyons, 1539, 1561, 1610, 1659); In libros duos. qui inscribuntur de plantis. Aristotele autore, libri duo (Paris, 1556: Geneva, 1566; Marburg, 1598); Exotericarum exercitationum liber XV. De subtilitate ad Hieronymum Cardanum (Paris, 1557); Commentarü et animadversiones in sex libros de causis plantarum Theopharasti (Geneva, 1566); M. Manilü astronomicon cum commentarüs J. C. Scaligeri (Paris, 1579, 1590, 1599, 1600, 1655); Animadversiones in Theophrasti historias plantarum (Lyons, 1584, 1644); and Aristotelis de animalibus historia J. C. Scaligeri interprete cum eiusdem commentarüs (Toulouse. 1619).

The funeral oration for Cardano is in Epistolae aliquor nunc primum vulgatae, Joseph Justus Scaliger, ed. (Toulouse, 1620–1621), 63–66 . Other writings of Scaliger are in Epistolae et orationes, F. Donsa, ed. (Leiden, 1600). Autograph codices by Scaliger in the Bibliothéque Universitaire. Leiden, include MSS Scaligerani 18 (Galen in Greek); 27 (Latin miscellany); 34 (Aristotle. De animalibus, dated 17 Dec. 1538); and MS Graecus 44 (autographed letters). For the Scaligerani from the collection of Joseph Justus, see Bibliotheca Universitatis Leidensis: codices manuscripti. II , codices Scaligerani (Leiden, 1910). Cardano’s reply to Scaliger, “Actio prima iin calumniatorem librorum de subtilitate,” was first published in De subtilitate, 3rd ed. (Basel, 1560), 1265–1426: cf. Girolamo Cardano, De vita propria, (Paris, 1643), ch. 48.

II. Secondary Literature. On Sealiger and his work, see Joseph Justus Scaliger, Epistolae (Leiden, 1627), which includes the misleading life of Julius Caesar; and V. Hall, Jr., “The Life of Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484–1558),” in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s. 40 (1950), 85–170. The Scaliger version is refuted by P.O. Kristeller, in his review of Hall in American Historical Review. 107 (1952), 394–396; and by J.F.C. Richards, “The Elysium of Julius Caesar Bordonius (Scaliger),” in Studies in the Renaissance, 9 (1962), 195–217. Much new material appears in Myriam Billanovich, “Benedetto Bordon e Giulio Cesare Scaligero,” in Italia medioevale e umanistica. 11 (1968), 187–256. For the botanical commentaries, see Charles B. Schmitt, “Theophrastus,” in Catalogus Translationum: Mediaeval and Renaissance Latin Commentaries and Translations, P.O. Kristeller and F. Edward Cranz, eds., II (Washington, D.C., 1971), 239–322, 269–271, 274–275. Remarks on Scaliger’s natural philosophy appear in Pierre Duhem, Études sur Léonard de Vinci, 3 vols. (Paris, 1906–1913), esp. I , 240–244; III , 198–204.

Paul Lawrence Rose

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