Girolamo Fracastoro Biography


Article abstract: Fracastoro clearly described contagious diseases, and his prophetic hypotheses on their causes foreshadowed by centuries the modern understanding of microbial infections.

Early Life

Girolamo Fracastoro was born into an old and distinguished Veronese family. His grandfather had been a physician to the reigning Scala family of Verona. After training at home, he was sent to the University of Padua, where he was entrusted to an old family friend, Girolamo della Torre, who taught and practiced medicine there. Before his medical studies began, Fracastoro, following a well-established practice, pursued the liberal arts, which also included mathematics and astronomy, under Nicolo Leonico Tomeo and philosophy under Pietro Pomponazzi. Among his teachers of medicine was Alessandro Benedetti, through whom he could come in contact with the Ferrarese humanistic medics, as well as with Girolamo della Torre and his son Marcus Antonio della Torre. Among his fellow students were the future cardinals Ercole Gonzaga, Gasparo Contarini, and Pietro Bembo, through whom he might have met members of the Aldine circle at Venice. He also befriended Giovanni Battista Ramusio, who gained fame in later life as a geographer.

Barely finished with his studies at Padua, Fracastoro was there appointed lecturer in logic in 1501 and the next year became an anatomical councillor, thus starting a traditional academic career in medicine. By 1508, wars interrupted his academic career and the remainder of his life was spent at Verona, practicing medicine or managing his private landed estate at Incaffi. From 1505, when he had been elected to the College of Physicians at Verona, he remained its faithful member. His hour of glory arrived in 1545, when the pope made him physician of the Council of Trent.

Life’s Work

Venice had always maintained close ties with Constantinople, and when Padua came into its hands in 1404, Greek influence became dominant there as well. While in other parts of Italy Humanists strove to revive Roman glories, Venice was more interested in resurrecting the achievements of the Greeks. At the University of Padua the prevailing form of Aristotelianism, originally developed by the Parisian Averroists, was one in which Aristotle was not perceived as the ultimate “master of those who know,” and his theories and methodologies were constructively criticized. Philosophical considerations were subordinated to his scientific work. Theology and metaphysics in general were gradually replaced by a closer study of nature. It was at the University of Padua that Fracastoro’s scientific outlook was formed.

The work that brought most fame to Fracastoro was a lengthy narrative poem Syphilis sive morbus Gallicus (1530; Syphilis: Or, A Poetical History of the French Disease, 1686), written in verses similar to Vergil’s Georgics (c. 37-29 b.c.e.). Fracastoro started working on this poem as early as 1510, but it was not until 1525 that it was presented in two books to Pietro Bembo, who at the time was considered to be the premier stylist. When it finally appeared in print in 1530 at Verona, it consisted of three books of some thirteen hundred hexameters.

In the first book, Fracastoro describes the horrors of the disease that had recently appeared in Europe and in a few years after 1495 spread across the whole continent. The disease was supposedly controlled by the sublime influence of the planets, which could be interpreted as the council of gods. The epidemic of syphilis was reminiscent of previous plagues and gave Fracastoro an opportunity to make allusions to pagan science, where the cosmic change is transmitted by the Lucretian seeds (semina) through the air.

The second book is devoted to cures. Fracastoro opens by describing his times, an age when disasters have been compensated for by the voyages of discovery. By judicious selection, he lists various cures and preventatives for the disease, setting the whole in a bucolic mood. He concludes the book with the myth of Ilceo, a shepherd in Syria, who, like Adonis, kills a stag sacred to Diana. As a punishment, he is stricken with a dreadful malady of the skin for which there is no remedy. Ilceo, through a dream, is directed to the underworld, where he is met by the nymph Lipare, who instructs him to wash himself in the river of flowing silver (mercury), which allows him to shed his skin like a snake and in this way rid himself of the disease. The whole is permeated with the influence of Vergil.

Book 3 contains another extended myth forming a short epos, on Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the West Indies and the discovery of the Holy Tree, the guaiacum, which is a specific remedy against syphilis, which was endemic among the natives. The origin of this disease is explained by two stories. In the first, the natives are represented as survivors of Atlantis, which was destroyed by earthquakes and floods for its wickedness and afflicted by this dreaded disease. In the second story, Syphilis, another shepherd, blasphemed...

(The entire section is 2094 words.)