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#neocafoscarini: What is wind? From the US to study renaissance thought on climate

Why is the wind blowing? During Renaissance philosophers and intellectuals discuss the causes of meteorological phenomena such as the wind because they were not satisfied with the ancient outlook. New observations deserved a rewriting of knowledge.

“The debate about the wind was one of the first examples of global science” explained Craig Martin, American researcher who became a professor at Ca’ Foscari a few days ago after ten years as a professor at Oakland University in Michigan. Prof. Martin has researched thought on science and meteorology at the early modern period. He will join the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Heritage to write a book about the evolution of knowledge and explanations on winds between 1450 and 1700. The American professor will be part of a new research centre at Ca’ Foscari, the Center for Renaissance and Early Modern Thought (Cremt).

Professor Martin, how did you choose Ca’ Foscari?
Throughout and after my PhD at Harvard I was a visiting researcher on several occasions in Italy: at the Villa i Tatti but also in Venice where I spent three months at the Marciana Library to work on my first book.
I was not actively seeking a position in Italy because I did not think I could get one but when I heard of the international openness of Ca’ Foscari I immediately sent my resume and here I am. I am glad to pursue research here as many manuscripts, original sources and ancient books at reach in Venice and Padova will be available to me. I study sources in latin and in Italian, English, Spanish and French.

What is the goal of your new project?
“I am investigating how the explanations of winds and their causes changed in the early modern period. It is a very important theme for several reasons. First of all we can see how the information gathered by those who traveled around the world. It is one of the first examples of global science”.

How did the idea of wind change through this period?
“Initially ancient texts and the Mediterranean winds described by Aristotle and other thinkers were the reference. The same model was then applied to England where the hypotheses used for the Mediterranean were nevertheless not valid, and the oceans winds were strong and different. Seeking an explanation for the wind there is the beginning of an attempt to define atmosphere as a possible cause, a global concept that emerged at the beginning of the sixteenth century”.

Who were these thinkers?
"I campi del sapere interessati erano tanti. Oltre ai navigatori, se ne occuparono i docenti universitari di filosofia naturale, matematici, ma anche i medici erano coinvolti perché era importante distinguere tra venti salutari e nocivi. Di conseguenza, gli architetti volevano creare case esposte ai venti buoni e i pianificatori città orientate nel modo migliore. Gli spagnoli, per esempio, fecero una legge per stabilire l’orientamento delle città sudamericane basato sui venti".

When in a continent, though, do as the Roman wind does...
“Exactly! The basic idea was that air created illnesses. According to Hippocratic, the general belief was that Southern winds would carry humid heat and fever whereas Northern winds were fresh and healthy. A perspective that does not work outside the mediterranean, in England or in Brazil. On the South American shores the initial principle was modified by the Spanish”.

What was generating winds according to the intellectuals from this era?
"In the Ancient version, winds were not only air, but steam, exhalations, composite substance. Wind was not defined as moving air yet more like a river with a regular flow. Then things changed because theories did. Air became a collection of particles with their own weight. With the philosophers of the scientific revolution the idea of a specific weight for each substance.
The Aristotelian explanations used in the sixteenth century were difficult to understand: it was not said why the wind flowed from the top down. Jean Bodin said that for some winds there was no other explanations than an evil action. He talked about supernatural winds which caused extreme events. Giucciardini and Macchiavelli identified abnormal winds occurring when historical events did. In the seventeenth century these beliefs were still strong but disappearing from a scientific discourse and the idea of their role in the heating phenomenon and their associated movements was emerging. Edmond Halley, famous scientist who gave his name to a comet, put together information he gathered during his and others’ personal travels and designed a global map of all the winds which included their directions and explanations that are quite similar to ou current knowledge”.