Girolamo Fracastoro Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Girolamo Fracastoro flourished in the atmosphere of the Italian Renaissance, when the diminished influence of theological study gave way to an increased interest in science and nature. The contemplative attitude was gradually replaced by a more aggressive operative one. Nature was viewed as an autonomous reality with its own laws before which supernatural intervention was of minimal use. Man was forced to rely on his capacity for progressive understanding of the principles that regulated the natural world.


Such were the ideas that made up the narrative poem Syphilis, upon which rests Fracastoro’s literary fame. Written in 1521 and dedicated to Pietro Bembo, the poem consists of thirteen hundred verses in Latin hexameter (not verses in the contemporary sense of stanzas, but blocks of copy in his handwritten manuscript); in the words of Bruno Zanobio, it “represents a magnificent paradigm of formal sixteenth century virtuosity in refined Latin of a didactic quality reminiscent of Vergil’s Georgics” (37-30 b.c.e.). The work reveals the author’s early concept of seminaria (microorganisms), a concept which he derived from the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus by way of the semina morbi of Lucretius’s De rerum natura (c. 55 b.c.e.), available to Fracastoro in a 1515 translation by his friend Andreas Navagero.

It is significant to note the exercise of poetic license in the application of some scientific terms. Meter altered the use of terminology in these cases: contages was used for contagio (contact or touch); seminaria for semina (seeds); achores for pustula (sores, infections). This was the case earlier, when Lucretius used pestilitas for pestilentia (pestilence or plague). Fracastoro’s seminaria differ from traditional semina, however, and it is difficult to know if the author foresaw the actual existence of microbes. The inability at the time to distinguish between organic and inorganic and the belief in spontaneous generation would probably have prevented Fracastoro from assigning to his seminaria the characteristics of microorganisms as they are known today.

Fracastoro developed the concept further in a prose treatise, also entitled Syphilis, which was completed in 1553 but not published until 1939. Zanobio interprets Fracastoro’s work on syphilis to be his new premise for the construction of a philosophy of nature: “Nature creates and destroys and gives misery and happiness, and it is useless to appease the gods. Science, whose power alone can give joy, dictates man’s actions.” Fracastoro’s most significant contribution to the scientific side of syphilography was De contagione et contagiosis morbis et eorum curatione, published sixteen years after the poem Syphilis. Leona Baumgartner and John F. Fulton observe that in his concept of animate contagion, Fracastoro was “a precursor of Pasteur and Koch.”

The poem Syphilis was an immediate success and earned extravagant praise from many sides. Bembo announced that the work equaled that of Lucretius and Vergil. Jacopo Sannazzaro, a contemporary and a cruel critic of anyone who threatened to challenge his own supremacy, commented that it surpassed his De partu virginium (1527; of Virgin birth), a work twenty years in process. It was neither the first nor the last poem on the subject, but it was the longest, the most serious, the most eloquent, and by far the best publicized.

An early version of the poem was completed by 1521; the date has been established through Fracastoro’s mention of Pope Leo as still alive (the pope died in 1522). The author first presented the work to its dedicatee, Bembo, in a two-book version. Bembo suggested changes, among which was the deletion of a myth on the origin of mercury as a remedy. He thought it too obvious an imitation of Aristaeus in Vergil’s Georgics. Fracastoro rejected most of the suggested changes but did expand the work to three books.

The earliest extant version, published in 1530, is referred to as the “Verona text.” In this text, two verses are omitted, while the lines beginning “Quo tandem . . . ” and “Aetheris inuisas . . . ” have been entered, apparently in Fracastoro’s own hand, on the “authorized” or “Rome text” of the following year. This change is not found in other contemporary editions, and there were no other changes in seven subsequent editions published in the author’s lifetime. The omitted lines are not included in the Opera omnia of 1555, but are in the one of 1574. The poem is found in more than one hundred editions; it has appeared many times in Latin editions, eleven Latin versions of which are in the Opera omnia. Many bilingual editions exist, with several editions in English. It has appeared in six languages.

Syphilis, Book 1

The first book begins with a consideration of the “varied chances of things” which appear responsible for the dread disease. The author observes “how number governs moved things and things moving,” a possible reference to the theories of Pythagoras and Heraclitus. Fracastoro, as a protobacteriologist, determines that the “origin of the affliction” is to be found in the air; the semina morbi (diseased seeds) are semina coeli (germs of the heavens). References to seeds, germs, atoms, and corpuscles can be traced to the writings of Lucretius and Epicurus, but Fracastoro makes the observation that this affliction strikes only the humanum genus (human race), Vergil’s ingens genus, the race having mind and reason.

“Into Italy, it broke with the Frenchmen’s war and after them it was named [morbus Gallicus].” Although the disease did not at that time carry the onus of immorality it subsequently assumed, it was referred to by the Italians as “the French disease,” by the French as “the Neapolitan evil,” by the Germans and English as “the French pox and Bordeaux evil,” in Holland and North Africa as “the Spanish pox,” in Portugal as “the Castilian disease,” in Persia and Turkey as “the Christian disease,” in Russia as “the Polish disease,” and in Poland as “the German disease.”

Italy at the time of the poem’s composition was torn by conflicts with Louis XII of France and Maximilian of Germany. The country was suffering from plague, famine, and war. It is not surprising, then, that the author should designate Mars as influential in the country’s misfortunes: “Venus and Mars the dire/ Against all humans, planets would conspire/ . . . when they converge at some spot in the skies.” Giovanni Boccaccio in his Decameron (c. 1348-1353) had referred to the influence of celestial bodies which resulted in the Black Death. Guy de Chauliac, a famous fourteenth century French surgeon, had attributed the plague to the conjunction of Saturn and Mars on March 22, 1345, in the fourteenth degree of Aquarius: “Two centuries before this, in the skies/ Saturn and Mars would lock their silent cars.” Fracastoro himself drew an astrological parallel to the syzygy of...

(The entire section is 2974 words.)