Early Life

Pietro d’Abano, also known as Peter of Abano, Petrus de Apono, and Petrus Aponensis, was born in the village of Abano near Padua in northern Italy about 1250. Not much is known concerning his family background or early years. His father was a public notary and seems to have been reasonably well-to-do, for Pietro was able to receive an unusually good education. As a youth, he went to Greece and Constantinople, where he gained a mastery of the Greek language; among his early writings are translations of works of Aristotle into Latin. The ability to read the Greek classics in the original was quite unusual in Western Europe before the invading Ottoman Turks began to force Greek scholars to flee westward from the collapsing Byzantine Empire in the mid-fifteenth century.

Upon his return from Constantinople, Pietro attended the University of Paris, perhaps the best of the few institutions of higher learning that existed in late thirteenth century Europe. He studied philosophy, mathematics, and medicine for a number of years and earned a doctorate. Pietro’s fame as a scholar and teacher quickly spread, and he became known as “the great Lombard.”

Life’s Work

In addition to his scientific and philosophical studies, Pietro was very interested in the pseudoscience of astrology. He often included astrological considerations and prayer in his medical prescriptions. Later in his life he was responsible for the inscription of some four hundred astrological symbols on Padua’s city hall. His reaching for supernatural forces was probably a reaction to the limited scientific knowledge of the fourteenth century. Pietro himself, for example, asserted firmly that it was impossible to determine the constituent parts of a compound. Thus, without outside help, the medieval scientist was so restricted as to be almost helpless. His astrological interests, however, eventually led to trouble with the Church.

Pietro was more a man of the Middle Ages than of the early Renaissance. His idea of the four elements—earth, water, air, and fire—was typical of medieval understanding of chemistry, but he went further than most medieval scholars through experimentation and critical translation of classical manuscripts. Pietro was also an eager collector of new information. He left record of an interview with Marco Polo held shortly before the latter returned to Venice in 1295. Pietro inquired about natural phenomena and drugs such as camphor, aloe, and brazil, which were imported from the Orient. He made no mention of magic or other supernatural matters.

Pietro is often called a disciple of the Arabic scholar Avicenna and even more so of Averroës, whose ideas he is supposed to have introduced into Europe. Pietro’s ideas about the stages of disease—onset, increase, fullness, and decline—correspond to those of Avicenna, as does his preference for simple, natural medicines. Lynn Thorndike, however, argues quite effectively that the supposed influence of Averroës has no basis in Pietro’s writings. Averroës’ ideas about chemistry were more sophisticated than those of medieval Europeans such as Pietro, and Thorndike finds no reason to think that Pietro’s theological ideas came from the same source. Other writers, however, suggest that Pietro’s adoption of a corruption of Averroës’ idea of the soul was one of the principal sources of his trouble with the Church.

In addition to numerous translations from Arabic and Greek, Pietro wrote at least ten...

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Brown, Horace. “De venenis of Petrus Abbonus.” Annals of Medical History 6 (1924): 25-53. A translation of Pietro’s work about poisons and their symptoms and treatments, this is the only conveniently available English translation of any of Pietro’s writings. It provides a good sample of the mix of superstition and science that marked his approach to medicine.

Castiglioni, Arturo. A History of Medicine. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941. Contains a short biographical sketch of Pietro and much useful background information about late medieval medicine and the development of medical studies in Padua.

Hyde, J. K. Padua in the Age of Dante. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1966. An excellent description of late medieval Padua which provides valuable background information about the milieu in which Pietro worked.

Olschki, Leonardo. “Medical Matters in Marco Polo’s Description of the World.” In Essays in the History of Medicine Presented to Professor Arturo Castiglioni on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birth Day, edited by Henry E. Sigerist. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1944. Contains a discussion of Pietro’s interview with Marco Polo showing the former’s scientific approach to collecting new data.

Thorndike, Lynn. A History of Magic and Experimental Science. Vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1947. A magisterial work in eight volumes tracing the development of the techniques of modern science. Contains the most complete study of Pietro yet done.

Thorndike, Lynn. “Peter of Abano: A Medieval Scientist.” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1919 1 (1923): 317-326. Contains a summary of Pietro’s life but is focused on historiographical sources. Attempts to show that many common beliefs about Pietro are misconceptions based on secondary sources from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.