Vallisnieri (or Vallisneri), Antonio

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(b. Trassilico, Garfagnana district, Lucca province, Italy, 3 May 1661; d Padua, Italy, 18 January 1730)

biology, medicine.

Vallisnieri’s father, Lorenzo, was governor of the territory of Camporgiano, Garfagnana, and married Maria Lucrezia de’ Davini. He later moved to Trassilico, where Antonio spent his first years and was educated by his father. After attending school in Modena he was sent to a Roman Catholic college in Reggio nell’Emilia, where he studied grammar and rhetoric and received a bachelor’s degree in Aristotelian philosophy(1982). On the advice of one of his teachers that Vallisnieri learn other philosophic systems more congenial to his interest in nature, he became a pupil of Malpighi, who was then professor at the medical faculty of the Univeristy of Bologna. In 1684 Vallisnieri took his doctorate in medicine and hilosophy at Reggio, then returned to Bologna for another year of study with Malpighi. He spent 1687 and 1688 at Venice and Parma, where he completed his medical training. He then settled in Reggio, practicing medicine but spending considerable time collecting and dissecting animals and observing natural phenomena. The results of his experiments on and observations of the generation of insects were published as “Sopra la curiosa origine di molti insetti.”

Federico Marcello, a magistrate of the Republic of Venice and one of the “Riformatori dello Studio di Padova,” read Vallisnieri’s work and persuaded the government of Venice to appoint him to a chair at the University of Padua. On 26 August 1700 Vallisnieri was appointed to the chair of modern experimental philosophy, which was soon changed to that of practical medicine. From 1710 until his death he occupied the first chair of theoretical medicine at Padua. After Lancisi’s death in 1720, he declined the posts of first physician to the pope and the first chair of medicine at Turin. Most of Vallisnieri’s colleagues at Padua still favored the scholastic philosophy and were dubious about the experimental method that Vallisnieri used in his scientific investigations. He was clever enough, however, to praise the Scholastic tradition in his inaugural lecture(14 December 1700). The text of the lecture has been lost, but the title is significant:“Studia recentiora non evertunt antiquam medicinam, sed confirmant” (“Recent Studies Do Not Subvert the Old Medicine, They Confirm It”). He was active at Padua for the rest of his life as both teacher and physician, and especially as naturalist; and he assembled a rich library and a large collection of mineralogical, geological, zoological, anatomical, and archaeological objects, which after his death was given by his son to the university.

Known throughout Europe, Vallisnieri was a fellow of many learned academies, including the Royal Society of London (1705). In 1718 Duke Rinaldo 1 of Modena made him a member of the hereditary nobility (knight), and the city of Reggio included his name on the list of nobility. Vallisnieri’s exceedingly varied cultural interests were reflected in verses and in his extensive correspondence (both mostly unpublished) with private citizens as well as university professors.

Vallisnieri married Laura Mattacodi; eleven of their children survived childhood but only three daughters and one son survived their father. The son, named for his father, succeeded him in the chair of theoretical medicine and edited his father’s collected works (1733).

Vallisnieri’s first important scientific contribution was a complement to Redi’s demonstration of the fallacy of the hypothesis of spontaneous generation. In 1668 Redi had shown through precise experiments that flies produced in putrefying flesh do not originate by spontaneous generation but derive from eggs previously laid by other flies of the same species. As for the insects forming galls, he was unable to solve the mystery of their origin and left the possibility that they are generated by the vegetative force of the plants that bear the galls. Malpighi, in Anatomes plantarum (1675-1679), had already denied the vegetal origin of insects, observing that females lay the eggs in the plant buds by means of a long ovipositor and considering the galls as tumors produced by the presence of the insect eggs. The fact was confirmed by Vallisnieri, who observed that all parasite insects of plants, whether or not they produce galls, derive from eggs. The same is true of entomophagous insects. Thus Vallisnieri enforced his own opinion on the existence of “a perpetual law of nature that like always generates like.” His thought was less clear regarding the generation of the parasites of man and domestic animals. The latter belong to two categories: dipteran insect larvae (flies, oestrids) and true worms (ascarids and tapeworms). The former originating from eggs introduced from outside, eventually metamorphose into flies. While denying the alleged origin of intestinal worms from earthworms or fruit worms Vallisnieri believed that they are transmitted from mother to child “through the passages that carry chyle for the nourishment of the fetus” or through the milk.

His research on the reproductive systems of man and animals led Vallisnieri to observe tubal motility and the movement of the ends of the fallopiian tubes to the ovaries. But his general conclusions were mostly mistaken: he denied the function of spermatozoa in fertilization (and was followed by Spallanzani and many others), and he failed to recognize the significance of the Graafian follicle, believing that the mammalian egg is formed in the corpus luteum. In considering the origin of the embryo, he adhered to the ovistic branch of preformism.

Vallisnieri developed to a considerable extent the theory of the “chain of beings” –the progression and connection of all created things, with man at the apex. He was thus a precursor of the “ladder” established by Charles Bonnet (1779). The chain was interpreted not in what modern biologists would call an evolutionary sense, but merely as a realization of a design preexisting in the mind of God. Such ideas were, nevertheless, forerunners of evolutionary concepts. It is remarkable that Vallisnieri considered man to be related to animals. In one of his letters he speculated on the hypothesis that souls progress in such a way that the beast’s soul and man’s immortal soul are of equal nature. The letter, which remained unpublished by Vallisnieri and by his son because it would have put them into a very difficult position with the Church, was published by G. Brognolico (1895) and then in part by L. Camerano (1905).

Carlo Francesco Cogrossi, a physician from Crema, published Nuova idea del male contagioso de’ buoi (1714), dedicated to Vallisnieri, in which he proposed the hypothesis of Contagium vivum– that a contagious disease such as cattle plague is due to microscopic parasites. Vallisnieri replied in a long letter of the same title, published in Nuove osservazioni fisiche e mediche (1715), in which he supported Cogrossi’s hypothesis with many personal observations and considerations. These works were a very important step toward understanding the etiology of infectious diseases.

Vallisnieri’s curiosity about all natural phenomena led him to make excursions on which he did much geological and geophysical work, including a description of salt waters in Emilia-Romagna, studies of a freshwater spring in the Gulf of Spezia, and investigations of earth movements and the origin of alluvial valleys. In Del corpi marini accepted Fracastoro’s concept that fossil shells found on mountains were there because the land had once been under the sea and had not been carried there by the Flood. In Lezione acacademica, Vallisnieri rejected the theory that spring water originates from seawater that evaporates and recondenses after being percolated through the earth. He demonstrated with sound arguments that it comes from atmospheric precipitation.

In comparison with contemporary scientific thought, Vallisnieri’s work has a very modern character. Following–as Redi had already done–the way opened by Galileo (whom he quotes only twice) and Francis Bacon (whom he also quotes) he rejected Scholastic knowledge and trusted solely in direct observation and in experiments. His evaluation of the statements of the ancient naturalists, and especially of Aristotle, was critical and objective. A very important characteristic of Vallisnieri’s work was the constant search for general laws and the denial of every miraculous or occultist interpretation of natural phenomena. Even monsters, he believed, must have their laws’ even errors have their fixed terms. Vallisnieri was thus one of the first modern naturalists to have a clear awareness of the character of scientific phenomena. Because the static desing that he discovered in natural objects reflected the mind of God, Vallisnieri’s outlook was essentially still Aristotelian and compatible with Christian belief, while containing the germs of future scientific development.


I. Ooriginal Works. All of Vallisnieri’s works, including many letters on scientific subjects, were reprinted in Opere fisico-mediche stampate e manoscritte del . . . Antonio Vallisneri raccolte da Antonio suo figliuolo 3vols . (Venice, 1733).

His writings include “Sopra la curiosa origine di molti insetti,” in G. Albrizzi, Galleria di Minerva(Venice 1700): Cansiderazioni ed esperienze intorno alla generazione dei vermi ordinari del corpo umano (Padua, 1710, 1726); Considerazioni intorno al creduto cervello di bue intorno alla origine, sviluppo e costumi dei vari insetti (Padua, 1713); Istoria del camaleonte affricano (Venice, 1713): Nuove osservazioni ed esperienze intorno alla ovaia scoperta ne’ vermi tondi dell’uomo e de’ vitelli, con varie lettere (padua, 1713): Varie lettere spettanti alla storia medica e naturale (Padua, 1713); Lezione accademica intorno all’origine delle fontane (Venice, 1715); Nuove osservazioni fisiche e mediche fatte nella costituzione verminosa ed epidemica eguita nelle cavalle, cavalli e puledri del Mantovano e del Dominio di Venezia (Venice, 1715); Dei corpi marini che sui monti si trovano (Venice, 1721); Istoria della generazione dell’uomo e degli animali, se sia de’vermicelli spermatici, o dalle uova . . .(Venice 1712); and Dell’uso e dell’-abuso delle bevande e bagnature calde e fredde (Modena, 1725; Naples, 1727).

A chapter of Esperienze ed osservazioni intorno all’ orgine . . . “Ragionamento dell’estro dei poeti e dell’estro degli armenti,” has been republished separately (Rome, 1885).

The location of the MSS and correspondence of Vallisneiri if given by B. Brunelli(see below).

II. Secondary Literature. The best source for Vallisnieri’s biography is Giannartico di Porcia, “Notizie delle vita e degli studi del Kavalier Antonio Vallisneri dalle memorie di lui vivente,” in Opere fisicomediche. . . , xli–lxxx. Further information is in Nicolò Papadopoli, Historia gymnasii Patavini, I (Venice 1726), 169 ff.; Angelo Fabroni, Vitae italorum doctrina excellentium, qui saeculi XVII et XVIII floruerunt (Pisa, 1778–1805), VII, 9–90; Girolamo Tiraboschi, Biblioteca modenese (Modena, 1781–1786), V, 322–338; G. B. Venturi, Storia di Scandiano (Modena, 1822), 143 ff.; Camillo Ugoni, biography of Vallisnieri in E. de Tipaldo, ed., Biografia degli italiani illustri nelle scienze, lettere ed arti, III (Venice, 1836), 460 – 466; and Bruno Brunelli, Figurine e costumi nella corrispondenza di un medico del Settecento (Antonio Vallisnieri) (Milan, 1938).

On his scientific and medical work, see Luigi Configliachi, Intorno agli scritti del cav. Antonio Vallisnieri (Padua, 1836): Ercole Ferrario, Su la vita e gli scritti di Antonio Vallisneri (Milan, 1854); Bernardino Panizza, Di un autografo inedito del Vallisnieri sopra la peste bovina (Padua, 1864); Lorenzo Camerano, “Antonio Vallisnieri e i moderni concetti intorno ai viventi,” in Atti dell’Accademia delle science, 2nd ser., 55 (1905), 69 – 112; Joseph Franchini, “Antonio Vallisnieri on the Second Centenary of His Death,” in Annals of Medical History, n.s. 3 (1931), 58 ff.; and IL metodo sperimentale in biologia da Vallisneri ad oggi, symposium held at the University of Padua on the third centenary of Vallisnieri’s birth (Padua, 1962), supp. to Atti e memorie dell’Accademia patavina di scienze, lettere ed arti, 73 .

On the spelling of the name, see D. Carbone and L. Castaldi, “Vallisnieri o Vallisneri?” in Rivista di storia delle scienze mediche e naturali, 19 (1937), 306; B. Brunelli and L. Castaldi, “Ancora su Vallisnieri o Vallisneri,” ibid., 20 (1938), 37–38: and P. Capparoni, “Di nuovo su Vallisnieri o Vallisneri,” ibid., 85.

Giuseppe Montalenti