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A Cold Case of Historical Bias
By Angelo Paratico
Asian Review of Books (2012)
Introduction: 450 years ago this month, in September 1562, the celebrated Basel press of Sebastian Henric Petri, published a two-volume edition of miscellaneous works by Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576?), the famous Milanese polymath whose books were always in great demand.
The first volume consisted of the Somniorum Synesiorum Omnis Generis Insomnia Explicantes, a work dealing with dreams, their classification, origin and interpretation. The second volume contained eleven shorter philosophical and medical treaties, among which was the Encomium Neronis, a new biographical treatment of Nero, the much-maligned Roman emperor. It is a work that still has much to teach us, four and a half centuries later.
Today, the name of Girolamo Cardano pop ups here and there in books dealing with certain scientific matters. But he probably left his greatest mark on the study of algebra with the publication in Nuremberg in 1545 of his Ars Magna, which contained the solution to cubic equations.
But his name also appears in fields as varied as philosophy and literature. For instance, his De PropriaVita —a sort of eccentric autobiography, published posthumously in Paris in 1643—is considered a masterpiece of the genre and, due to his disarming frankness, is often compared to that of Benvenuto Cellini and to the Essays of Michel de Montaigne. It is here that Cardano gives his famous portrait of himself, starting from his feet and moving up
I am a man of medium height; my feet are short, wide near the toes, and rather too high at the heels, so that I can scarcely find well-fitting shoes; it is usually necessary to have them made to order. My chest is somewhat narrow and my arms slender. The thickly fashioned right hand has dangling fingers, so that chiromantists have declared me a rustic; it embarrasses them to know the truth.
His frankness—which reaches its apex in his discussion of the sexual habits attributed to Nero— can be shocking to a modern reader.
Thank you to Angelo Paratico for his permission to post this article. Girolamo Cardano’s Nero: an Exemplary Life, translated into English for the first time by Angelo Paratico will be published in November 2012 by Inkstone Books.