Research


My research revolves around the history of medieval and early modern science and medicine, and I am especially interested in the history of marginal disciplines such as alchemy and natural magic; and in actors that have not traditionally taken center stage in our histories of science, including empirical healers, alchemists, charlatans, craftsmen, and “professors of secrets.” I am also interested in the history of science and popular culture.

While much of my work has focused on the history of science and medicine in Renaissance Italy, my current focus has shifted to early modern Spain. I am particularly interested in exploring Spain’s role in the Scientific Revolution and the origins of modernity.

My current projects include two books: Science and Everyday Life in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1750, a book under contract with Cambridge University Press that will explore the history of science in relation to popular culture; and Conquistadors of Nature: How the Spanish Explorers Paved the Way to Modern Science, a book about the New World encounter and the origins of modernity.

Recent Publications

“Science and Medicine in Early Modern Venice,” in Handbook of Venetian History, 1450-1797, ed. Eric Dursteler (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp. 701-41. [Link to page proofs]

“Appearance, Artifice, and Reality: Collecting Secrets in Courtly Culture,” in The Gentleman, the Virtuoso, the Inquirer: Vincencio Juan de Lastanosa and the Art of Collecting in Early Modern Spain, ed. Mar Rey-Bueno and Miguel López-Pérez (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008). [Link]

“Masters of Fire: Italian Alchemists in the Court of Philip II,” in Chymia: Science and Nature in Early Modern Europe (1450-1750), ed. Miguel López Pérez and Didier Kahn (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), 138-56. [Link]

Books

Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture

(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994)

Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize

Winner of the History Book Award, American Publishers Association

Science-SecretsScience and the Secrets of Nature offers a new interpretation of the origins of experimental science. In the book, argue that the ‘new science’ of the seventeenth century has its roots in the practical activities of artisans, alchemists, and common healers. Through a detailed analysis of the ‘books of secrets’ tradition from antiquity until the end of the seventeenth century, I argue that the advent of printing was a critical moment in the development of modern science. By publishing the ‘secrets’ of craftsmen and experimenters, early modern printers created a body of empirical knowledge that became the basis for the ‘Baconian sciences’ of the seventeenth centuries.

The book also offers a new interpretation of the role of popular culture in the origins of science. The book gives describes the rise upon the scene of a new community of experimenters whom contemporaries called the ‘professors of secrets’. In contrast to the traditional scientific community, the university professors, this group included alchemists, natural magicians, pharmacists, distillers, glassmakers, lens grinders, friars, and empirical doctors. They conceived of science not as the explanation of things known, but as a great hunt after unknown secrets of nature. The metaphor of the ‘secrets of nature’ takes on a new meaning under this interpretation, signifying a fundamental shift in the ethos governing natural philosophy. The books of secrets are witnesses to that change.

 


POS_0406-200x300The Professor of Secrets: Mystery, Medicine, and Alchemy in Renaissance Italy

(Washington: National Geographic Books, 2010)

Set against the backdrop of Renaissance Italy, this tale explores the era’s medicine and culture through the life of the world’s first “celebrity doctor”—whose miracle cures and outsize personality drew both adoration and scorn. The Professor of Secrets was Leonardo Fioravanti, a brilliant, forward-thinking, and utterly unconventional doctor… His marvelous remedies and talent for self-aggrandizement earned him the adoration of the people, the derision of the medical establishment, and a reputation as one of his era’s most colorful and combative figures.

More information about The Professor of Secrets and other writings, along with a link to my blog, “Labyrinth of Nature,” may be found on my personal web site (link here).

 

 

book1-190x300Más alla de la Leyenda Negra: España y la Revolutión Científica (Beyond the Black Legend: Spain and the Scientific Revolution)

Edited by Victor Navarro Brotóns and William Eamon

(Valencia: Instituto de Historia de la Ciencia y Documentación, 2007)

The history of the Scientific Revolution that originated modern science has been written, for the most part, from the perspective of the North Atlantic world: England, France, and Holland take center stage, while developments in Germany and Italy follow close behind. The great heroes of the Scientific Revolution—Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Huygens, Boyle, Newton, and so on—are all northern Europeans.

The Iberian world, on the other hand, has been almost completely absent from the traditional narrative, despite the fact that over the last thirty years an immense amount of research has been generated (mostly in Spain and Portugal) on the subject of Iberian science. The current narrative of the Scientific Revolution is so biased in this respect that the conclusion seems inescapable that Spain’s absence from the narrative reflects a prejudice whose origins go back to the Black Legend, a polemic that since the eighteenth century has depicted Iberia as the antithesis of modernity.

Yet, when one considers that Spain in the early modern era possessed the world’s greatest empire and that its monarchy was the most powerful in Europe, it is at least counter-intuitive that it should have played little or no role in the period’s greatest cultural movement. At a time when the very term ‘Scientific Revolution’ is being contested, such old stereotypes, which have long stood in the way of a true account of modern history, are in need of being expurgated, once and for all.

Más allá de la Leyenda Negra: España y la Revolución Scientifica addresses this urgent historical question. The papers collected in the volume were presented at an international conference held in Valencia in September 2005. The conference’s aim, as our title implies, was to move the historiography of the Scientific Revolution “beyond the Black Legend” and to encourage a more balanced assessment of Iberia’s role in the history of early modern science. More than that, the conference aimed to test and challenge current interpretations of the Scientific Revolution, and to pose the more fundamental question of whether or not an account of the ‘Scientific Revolution’ and the origins of modernity that omits Iberian science can have any meaning at all.