Severino, Marco Aurelio

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(b. Tarsia, Calabria, Italy, 2 November 1580; d. Naples, Italy, 12 July 1656)

biomedical sciences.

Severino was the son of Beatrice Orangia and Jacopo Severino, a successful lawyer who died when his son was seven. Marco Aurelio’s mother directed his early education, in Latin, Greek, rhetoric, poetry, and law, at various schools in Calabria. He then continued his studies at Naples, soon moving from law to medicine as his chosen field. At Naples he met Tommaso Campanella, who, although not officially one of Severino’s teachers, was nevertheless an important influence in the formation of his thought. From Campanella, he learned the rudiments of Telesio’s Philosophilcal system, which formed the basis of the critical anti-Aristotelianism that marked Severino’s later work. After taking a medical degree at Salerno in 1606 (although his studies had largely been at Naples), Severino returned to Tarsia to begin medical practice. Three year later he returned to Naples to study surgery with Giulio Iasolino. From 1610 Severino taught surgery and anatomy privately at Naples. When the university chair in these subjects fell vacant in 1615, Severino was also named first surgeon at the Ospedale Degli Incurabili.

Severino’s fame as a surgeon spread rapidly, and students came from all parts of Europe to study with him. Ultimately his published works were better known and more frequently published north of the Alps than in Italy. He corresponded with many of the important physicians and scientists of his time, including William Harvey and John Houghton in England; Thomas Bartholin and Ole Worm in Denmark; J. G. Volkamer and Joannes Vesling in Germany; and Campanella, Iasolino, and Tommaso Cornelio in Italy. Severino was called before the Inquisition for allegedly unorthodox religious and philosophical views but was eventually acquitted. He died of the plague in Naples and was buried without a marker in the church of S. Biagio de’ Librai.

Severino’s writings are marked by a general emphasis on observation and experience, which he traced back to a medical tradition stemming from Democritus. But he remained deeply influenced by metaphysical ideas and accepted teleology in nature, neo-Platonic hierarchical schemes, and the Paracelsian version of the microcosm-macrocosm relationship. His strongly anti-Aristotelian sentiments (which are especially evident in Zootomia Democritea and in Antiperipatias) derived in part from the native southern Italian intellectual heritage of Telesio, della Porta, and Campanella.

The bulk of Severino’s printed works dealt with surgery and anatomy. He published both comprehensive treatises and specific detailed monographs on these subjects. His fame as surgeon is illustrated by the broad distribution of works like De efficaci medicina, in which he championed surgery as a legitimate medical technique in opposition to the Contemporaries.

Severino’s permanent contributions, however, seem to lie in his anatomical works, especially Zootomia Democritea. This work might with som justification be called “the earliest comprehensive treatise on comparative anatomy” (Cole) and, indeed, it emphasized throughout an approach in which human anatomy is related to that of other animals. Severino viewed the study of anatomy as one way to uncover a clearer knowledge of divine creation. Since man, animals, and plants form a continuous hierarchical structure, the anatomy of all three must be studied in conjunction. Severino recognized a close similarity between the anatomy of man and of animals and considered important the detailed study of nonhuman anatomy. He himself dissected and studied a wide range of specimens, both vertebrate and invertebrate. He contended that even tiny animals and insects must be studied by the anatomist, if necessary with the aid of a microscope, although he does not seem to have made much use of that instrument himself.

The Antiperipatias illustrates Severino’s critical attitude toward the Aristotelians. He argued against the Peripatetic view—that fish do not breathe air—by trying to demonstrate, following the atomistic philosophy of Democritus, that fish actually utilize the air that is dissolved in water.

Severino’s full significance in the flourishing scientific culture of Naples during his time and also his importance as a figure of international renown in the seventeenth century have not been studied in detail. Particularly important are his relations to Harvey and his place in the discussions arising from the publication in 1628 of Harvey’s De motu cordis. Most of the key documents touching on this aspect of his activities remain in manuscript and have never been properly evaluated, nor is there an adequate survey of his other unpublished writings. Thus his place in the development of seventeenth-century biomedicine is not firmly fixed.


I. Original Works. A more complete bibliography is in Schmitt and Webster (below). See alsoTherapeuta Neapolitanus (Naples, 1653), fols §§2r-§§4r and severino’s trans. of Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, Chocolata Inda (Nuremberg, 1644), 69–73.

Severino’s major works include De recondita abscessuum natura (Naples, 1632); Zootomia Democritea (Nuremberg, 1645); De efficaci medica (Frankfurt, 1646); Vipera Pythia (Padua, 1650);Trimembris chirurgia (Frankfurt,1653); Therapeuta Neapolitanus (Naples, 1653); Seilo-phlebotome castigata (Hanau, 1654); Quaestiones anatomicae quatuor (Frankfurt, 1654);Antiperipatias. Hoc est adversus Aristoteleos de respiratione piscium diatribe ... De piscibus in sicco viventibus ... Phoca illustratus, 2 pts. (Naples, 1655, 1659); Synopseos chirurgiae (Amsterdam, 1644).

At his death Severino left numerous unpublished works, some of which appeared in print posthumously. Most of his MSS went first to Antonio Bulifon, then to Giammaria Laneisi; they remain in the Biblioteca Lancisiana in Rome. For some information see V. Ducceschi, L’epistolario di Marco Aurelio Severino (1580–1656),” in Rivista di storia delle scienze mediche e naturali, 5 (1923), 213–223, and the article by Schmitt and Webster, which summarizes the extant MS sources thus far uncovered. For a list of the seventy-seven vols. of MSS in the Biblioteca Lancisiana, which contains Severino materials, see P. De Angelis, Giovanni Maria Lancisi, La Biblioteca Lancisiana, L’Accademia Lancisiana (Rome, 1965), 151–163.

II. Secondary Literature. The anonymous Vita, prefaced by Severino’s Antiperipatias (1659), fols, 3v-4v, remains the most important comtemporary source for his life. Of the more recent works, see esp, L. Amabile,“:Marco Aurelio Severino,” in Rivista critica di cultura calacrese, 2 (1922); “Due artisti ed uno scienziato ... Marco Aurelio Severino nel Santo Officio Napolitano,” in Atti della Reale Accademia di scienze morali e politche (Società reale di Napoli), 24 (1891), 433–503: N. Badaloni, Introduzione a G. B. Vico (Milan, 1961), 25–37:L. Belloni, “Severino als Vorläufer Malpighis,” in Nova acta Leopoldina, n.s.27 (1963), 213–224, and “La dottrina della circulazione del sangue e la Scuola Galileiana, 1636–61,” in Gesnerus, 28 (1971), 7–33; and Biographisches Lexikon der hervorragenden Ärzle, V (MuniCh-Basel, 1962), 242–243.

See also P. Capparoni, Profili biobibliografici di medici e naturalisti celebri italiani dal secolo XV al secolo XVIII, II (Rome, 1925–1928), 75–78; F. J. Cole, History of Comparative Anatomy (London, 1949), 132–149; Pietro Magliari, Elogio istorico di M. A. Severino (Naples, 1915): A. Portal, histoire de L’anatomie et de la chirurgie, II (Paris, 1770), 493–505: C. B. Schmitt and C. Webster, “Harvey and M. A. Severino: A Neglected Medical Relationship,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 45 (1971), 49–75; and “Marco Aurelio Severino and His Relationship to William Harvey: Some Preliminary Considerations,” in A. G. Debus, ed., Science, Medicine and Society in the Renaissance, II (New York, 1972), 63–72; and J. C. Trent, “Five Letters of Marcus Aurelius Severinus ....” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 15 (1944), 306–323.

An immense amount of material concerning Severino was collected by Luigi Amabile, who was prevented by his death from publishing a major work on him. His notes, including transcriptions from manuscripts in various libraries, are preserved in Naples, Biblioteca nazionale, MSS XI.AA.35–37.

Charles B. Schmitt