Girolamo Fracastoro Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Foremost among Girolamo Fracastoro’s prose work is the treatise Syphilis (wr. 1553, pb. 1939). Other scientific pieces include Homocentricorum sive de stellis (1538; homocentricity on the stars), De causis criticorum dierum libellus (1538), De sympathia et antipathia rerum (1546; on the attraction and repulsion of things), De contagionibus et contagiosis morbis et eorum curatione (1546; De contagione et contagiosis morbis et eorum curatione, 1930), and De vini temperatura (1534). Also of interest are three Humanistic dialogues: Naugerius sive de poetica dialogus (1549; English translation, 1924), and the unfinished “Turrius sive de intellectione dialogus” and “Fracastorius sive de anima dialogus,” which were published posthumously in the Opera omnia of 1555.

A play, La Venexiana (the Venetian, or Venetian comedy), was discovered in 1928 by Emilio Lovarini, deciphered from manuscript miscellany collected in 1780 by Iacopo Morelli. No other text is known, and no mention was made of the play in its time, although it seems to have been written after 1509. The work was published in 1950 in a bilingual edition with introduction and English translation by Matilde Valenti Pfeiffer. A pseudonym, Hieronymous Zarello, was applied to the work, but the Fracastoro expert Girlando Lentini attested its authenticity in his August, 1948, article, “Non piu anonima la Venexiana,” in the Giornale di Sicilia. The play was published twice by Lovarini, in 1928 and in 1947. The work has been described by Pfeiffer as “one of the earliest character plays in world literature.” Its alternation of long and short episodes during the course of four days and its shift of place and mood anticipate the dramaturgy of William Shakespeare. In five acts, its six characters convey the vulnerability of romantic love. The play moves quickly; the characters are quaint and boldly drawn; the language is unusually pithy and droll. It is a rare document of Venetian life, as its epigraph avers: “Non fabula non comedia ma vera historia” (“Neither fable, nor comedy, but real history”).

Another work, “Apocalisse” (apocalypse), extant among Fracastoro’s manuscripts as late as 1700, is now lost. W. Parr Greswell notes as well that Fracastoro’s “Citriorum epigrammata” and many of his smaller pieces are lost. In referring to Fracastoro’s accumulated writings, it is important to note Murray Bundy’s observation that “little attempt has ever been made to establish a critical text or to determine chronology.”


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Girolamo Fracastoro was a Renaissance man in the finest sense of the term. As poet, scholar, scientist, and physician, he embodied the essence of sixteenth century curiosity and Humanistic commitment. Greswell states that “perhaps the productions of no other modern poet have been more commended by the learned, than those of Fracastoro.”

Fracastoro’s research and writing on infectious diseases drew attention in 1530 when he determined the origin of an epidemic of syphilis in Naples at the time of Charles VIII. It is generally believed that Fracastoro named the disease after the amorous shepherd of Greek mythology, who was punished by the sun god for his infidelity. (Other sources assert that the word derives from sifilide, a term in common usage in the local dialect.) A later work, De contagione et contagiosis morbis et eorum curatione, dealing with typhus, tuberculosis, and syphilis, developed the concept of infection by transfer of minute organisms from diseased individuals to healthy ones.

In De sympathia et antipathia rerum (on the attraction and repulsion of things), Fracastoro discussed a concept of simpatia different from that of his Humanist contemporaries. For him, it was a species spiritualis that unified the world, a cosmological principle which was to be studied naturalistically, one which applied to both anthropological and aesthetic concepts. This concentration of research is also...

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The “Minor Poems”

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Of Fracastoro’s works of poetry other than Syphilis, Truffi notes “the poem on the death of della Torre, that to G. B. della Torre, to Rainerio, to Bishop Giberti, to Marguerite de Valois (Queen of Navarre), to Francesco della Torre, to Alessandro Farnese, to Pope Guilio III and minor poems all praiseworthy for their purity of style and classicity of verse.” The eulogies for Marcus Antonius della Torre are included in various versions of the collected works; the “minor poems” are less commonly available. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow included two of them in his anthology The Poets and Poetry of Europe (1896), commenting that Fracastoro wrote “A few poems in the mother tongue which show liveliness and facility of poetical composition.” One, “To a Lady,” retains the familiar hexameter and identifies the woman’s “all perfect symmetry” as the eternal model of beauty wherein love finds its future home. In “Homer,” the Horatian motto ut pictura poesis is employed by the author to indicate how, through the depiction of “sunny banks and grottoes cold,” Homer became “the first great painter of scenes of old.” Francastoro is said to have written a madrigal, “Madrigal al sonno” (to slumber), on the occasion of his wife’s death. The “Madrigal al sonno” is a hymn on the power of narcotics to alleviate suffering, written in the vernacular and lacking the weight of Fracastoro’s Latin verse. “Alcon seu de cura canum venaticorum” (Alcon, or: how to take care of dogs for the hunt) is a short poem about the training of dogs for the hunt, known to have been among Fracastoro’s favorite pastimes. The poem is included only in works appearing later than the sixteenth century, and Emilio Barbarani rejects it as spurious, mainly because it was not included in the volume of the author’s poetry which was organized in 1555.

As a major writer of the Italian Renaissance, Fracastoro exhibits the comprehensive thinking of the period. He was equally at ease in the speculative and in the applied fields of science and art. Though securely based in the classical form of his predecessor, Vergil, Fracastoro’s poetry embraced common topics and rendered them with grace and sensitivity. His versatility lends a particular vitality to his writing that will assure his work a permanent place in the respect and esteem of future generations.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Fracastoro, Girolamo. Fracastoro’s Syphilis. Translated with introduction, text, and notes by Geoffrey Eatough. Liverpool, England: Francis Cairns, 1984. Written mainly from the point of view of a literary scholar who stresses Fracastoro’s poetic achievements. Contains a detailed analysis of the poem Syphilis. Includes a computer-generated word index.

Gould, Stephen Jay. “Syphilis and the Shepherd of Atlantis.” Natural History 109, no. 8 (October, 2000): 38-42. Gould discusses the “Syphilis sive morbus Gallicus” by Fracastoro and the genome of syphilis.

Greswell, W. Parr, trans. Memoirs of Angelus Politianus, Joannes Picus of Mirandula, Actius Sincerus Sannazarius, Petrus Bembus, Hieronymus Fracastorius, Marcus Antonius Flaminius, and the Amalthei. Manchester, England: Cadell and Davies, 1805. An early biography of Fracastoro, based primarily on an even earlier life by F. O. Mencken. It is concerned primarily with Fracastoro as a literary figure. Especially good on reporting on his contemporaries’ opinions about him. Contains notes and observations by Greswell.

Hudson, Margaret M., and Robert S. Morton. “Fracastoro and Syphilis: Five Hundred Years On.” The Lancet 348, no. 9040 (November 30, 1996): 1495-1496. The authors pay tribute to the physician who spread knowledge of the origin, clinical details, and available treatments of syphilis throughout a troubled Europe....

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