Our research endeavour considers cosmology in the broadest terms possible as the knowledge of the order of nature. It was a disciplinary cluster which drew upon the core disciplines of mathematical astronomy, natural philosophy and physics, but which also branched out into many other scientific directions.

These included

  • geometry and arithmetic, which were regarded as the two wings of astronomy;
  • music, which dealt with harmony and how it informed the celestial order;
  • celestial physics, which was the bridge between mathematical astronomy and natural philosophy;
  • astrology, which dealt with the influences of celestial bodies on Earth.

In addition, geography, and history in connection with political geography, were both a part of the study of the cosmos, and because of the structural affinity and resonances between the macrocosm and the microcosm, the study of astronomy was also fundamental for medicine and physiology.

Finally, because astronomy was seen as the study of divine creation, it was a pious science with close ties to religion and theology.

The socio-political settings of cosmology are considered with particular care because, in this age of confessional divides, they shaped cosmological debates. Heated controversies—over issues such as heliocentrism, the plurality of worlds, space infinity, cometary theory, celestial matter and fluidity—were amplified by increasing political and confessional fragmentation.

Teaching institutions and learned networks formed alliances and opposed each other over their competing epistemic cultures. Reformers of scholarly curricula, such as Philip Melanchthon in Protestant Germany or Jesuit educators, had a lasting influence on cultural politics by substituting earlier traditions for new ones marked by confessional guidelines. The systematisation of astronomical knowledge within established philosophical and theological frameworks secured its endurance and transportability.

This is relevant for an assessment of the interrelation between the metaphysics underlying astronomy (its principles, concepts, and methods), and the institutional settings transmitting this discipline up to early modernity. Operating in a sort of loop, institutionalised a priori sanctioned and reinforced scholarly practices, which, in turn, demonstrated the validity of the institutional values.

This problematic interrelation was reflected upon at the end of the period by Kant in his Streit der Fakultäten (1798). The divisions underlying this institutuionalized struggle emerged in the century before, and are implicit in Kant’s own beautiful dictum:

Zwei Dinge erfüllen das Gemüt mit immer neuer und zunehmender Bewunderung und Ehrfurcht, je öfter und anhaltender sich das Nachdenken damit beschäftigt: Der bestirnte Himmel über mir und das moralische Gesetz in mir.

The star-lit sky and the moral law are considered apart from each other to avoid naturalistic fallacies and not only represent Kant’s clear-cut distinction between the realms of fact and value, necessity and freedom, but also his two-tier thinking. In Spinoza on the other hand nature and morality are fused in an universal Ethica and between these poles the innovative epistemological thinking oscillated, but not without struggles against more traditional ideas. Thus it is crucial to address the socio-political context, and especially the confessional conflicts and cultural-political agendas of philosophical-scientific discourse during early modernity.

Cosmological controversies, such as the Roman prohibition of the Copernican system (1616) and the extraordinary condemnation of Galileo (1633), accelerated the formation of competing cosmological communities. Therefore, the EMC research project particularly addresses the interrelations between cosmological debates in the northern European Protestant networks of scholars and institutions, as well as the cosmological debates in Catholic institutional networks, aiming for a comparative assessment of early formations and transformations of epistemic webs.

Research topics

The Debate on the Shape of the Earth, 1672-1740: Geodesy, Astronomy, and Cosmology (Marco Storni)

This project intends to provide a comprehensive analysis of the debate on the shape of the Earth, from Jean Richer’s first expedition to Cayenne (1672-73) to Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis’s expedition to Lapland (1736-37), and its aftermath.

The technical questions raised by the practice of geodesy and cartography will be treated alongside the general issues raised by the systems of the world of Descartes and Newton (the questions of attraction, mechanism, and the planetary vortexes), as they came to be indissolubly associated in the evolution of the debate.

In the study of this question, I will emphasize the role of institutional and political stakes. On the one hand, the importance of the institutions where the scientists engaging in the debate worked (the Paris Academy, and the Royal Society) will be stressed. On the other hand, I will insist on the connections between the question of the shape of the earth and political power.

The objective of this work is twofold. First, I aim at understanding how scientific theories circulated and were discussed in the early modern world. Second, I want to investigate the ways in which, in the 17th and 18th centuries, scientific and philosophical ideas interacted with institutional and political factors.

The Lion and the Leviathan: Hobbes, Sarpi and the Republic of Venice (Gregorio Baldin)

My project aims to study the presence of the Republic of Venice in Hobbes’ thought, in particular the influence exercised by Paolo Sarpi’s political thought on Hobbes’s philosophy. The Republic of Venice deeply fascinated the English cultural world during the 16th and the 17th centuries as it represented a model of Republicanism and Self-Government. Little attention has been paid, however, to the references to the Republic of Venice in Hobbes’ works.

These references undoubtedly show the deep influence of Jean Bodin’s Le Six Livres de la Republique in shaping Hobbes’ opinion of Venice. However, the particular development of this topic in Hobbes’ works must be analysed in the light of the intellectual context of the English Civil Wars and in the framework of the political, cultural, and religious relations that linked England and Venice at the beginning of the 17th century. These relationships involve also the Interdict crisis and the main protagonist of the Interdict’s debate: Paolo Sarpi.

The link between Hobbes and Sarpi’s Venice has already been detected, but in the field of the comparison between Sarpi’s and Hobbes’ political philosophies specific studies are lacking. Some scholars underlined their differences while other historians have emphasized a convergence between the two thinkers on ‘Marsilian’ and ‘Erastian’ themes. However, it is only in the last years that it has been openly pointed out the hypothesis of a direct influence of some Sarpi’s ideas on Hobbes’ political and theological-political thought.

This topic implies the criticism that both authors address to Cardinal Robert Bellarmine and his theory of potestas indirecta. Nevertheless, this criticism can be understood only in the light of the previous debate on the problem of sovereignty, following the secular quarrel between temporal and spiritual power; a quarrel rooted in the political thought of the Middle Ages.

Cosmo-Politics in Spinoza (Omar Del Nonno)

This PhD project focuses on the link between Spinoza’s onto-cosmology and his account of freedom. The aim is to stress Spinoza’s departure from an early ethical intellectualism (in which adequate knowledge is necessary and sufficient to achieve freedom) towards a dynamic account of freedom that has a strong practical connotations and concerns the way in which individuals operate and cooperate in social environments.

To emphasize the systematical importance of Spinoza’s practical philosophyhe the role of imagination and Spinoza’s onto-cosmology in the Short treatise and the Ethics will be analyzed in a framework which also takes the Political Treatise into account. These three points are fundamental in order to show that Spinoza’s mature account of freedom is far from being a purely intellectualistic virtue reachable only for a few wise philosophers and implying a mystic unity of the human mind with God.

Del Nonno’s claim is that Spinoza provides a dynamic account of freedom in which specific imaginative practices, habits and (individual and collective) emotional conditioning might allow every individual to progress towards higher degrees of freedom, thus the question of Spinoza’s development of his account of imagination and his understanding of cosmos becomes crucial. Del Nonno argues that Spinoza’s cosmos should be understood in terms of whole-parts relation, thereby demonstrating that onto-cosmology has relevant political and practical consequences, insofar as human beings’ capacity to achieve a higher degrees of freedom always depend on the material and political context.

Crucial questions are therfore: Does a dichotomy between Spinoza’s ethical and political account of freedom exist? Is the new developed account of imagination in the Ethics important only from an epistemological point of view or does it play a pivotal role in his ethic-political philosophy? Does the infinite universe has direct political/ethical consequences in the Ethics and finally, does the understanding of Spinoza’s cosmos in terms of whole-parts relation play a role in the develop of his late account of freedom and imagination?

Renaissance thought in the medical culture of the Parisian Academy in early modern times (Matteo Fornasier)

I intend to study in depth the role of Renaissance thought in the development of medical culture in the early modern age as well as analyzing the cultural policies in the clash between the different currents of thought that were establishing modern science in those years.

The starting point of my research is the French cultural scene between the 16th and 17th centuries. The Sorbonne’s faculty of Medicine, wishing an education as traditional as possible for their students under the authority of Aristotle and Galen, opposed the most recent followers of Paracelsus, physicians supported by the king and willing to learn and to test the validity of iatrochemical theories. The latter were thinkers strongly related to Italian Renaissance philosophy tradition, heirs to the principles that guided philosophers like Bernardino Telesio and Tommaso Campanella: critique of the authority of the ancients and return to the direct study of nature. For these characteristics we can consider them late-Renaissance thinkers carrying on various currents of thought, merged and transformed.

I will investigate through which ways Paracelsianism penetrated French culture and gained the support of the court; secondly, I want to analyze the link between vitalism, the legacy of Renaissance thinkers, and the philosophy of Paracelsus.

I want to outline the medical-botanical Renaissance thought to show how the philosophy of the 16th century had an important role in the emergence of modern science during the 17th century.

Physics, Astronomy, and Logic of Pierre Gassendi (Rodolfo Garau)

Focusing on the polemics between Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) and Jean Baptiste Morin (1591-1659), this project investigates a case study on the formation of, and clash between, competing cosmological "epistemic cultures" in Catholic Europe in the aftermath of the condemnation of Copernicanism (1616) and of the Galileo-affaire (1633).

The polemic followed the publication of the first of Gassendi's letters De motu impresso a motore translato in 1642. Containing a defense and an attempt to systematize the Galilean theory of motion, Gassendi's letter constituted an endorsement, albeit implicit, of Copernicanism. As proof of this, Gassendi ambiguously included the account of the first performance, by his own hand, of the Galilean mental experiment of the fall of the grave from the mast of a moving ship, which Galileo had put forward as proof of the possibility that the earth could move without for this reason to ruffle, as asserted (on the wake of Ptolemy) by Simplicio in the Dialogo, the objects on its surface. Morin — who had underpinned his project of providing a comprehensive renewal of astronomy on a fierce defense of geocentrism — understood immediately the implications of Gassendi's defense of Galilean relativity. The polemic that his response — followed reciprocally by others — triggered, involved the statute of astrology, of Copernicanism, Galieian physics, Epicureanism, and the relationship between theology and cosmology.

Providing a reconstruction of this polemic, this project investigates a relevant case of the clash between Geocentric astrology and Copernican (or crypto-Copernican) cosmology in early modern France. This project intends to analyze the content, form, the socio-political and institutional aspects of the debate between Gassendi and Morin, paying particular attention to the intellectual networks implicated in, and generated by, them, and to the attempts to hegemonize the cosmological and scientific debate within the institutional context of the Collège Royal.

Marin Mersenne: Harmonist at the Heart of the Scientific Revolution (Jacomien Prins)

In this research project I examine Marin Mersenne’s (1588 - 1648) harmonic cosmology and its moral and aesthetic implications. I focus on the attempt in his Harmonie universelle (1636) and earlier works to bring all harmonic knowledge in line both with the new mechanical philosophy and with news ideas about human nature and music. Mersenne’s thought on harmony and music was not restricted to any modern scientific discipline – he did not categorize it as ‘philosophy’ or ‘music theory’ to isolate particular questions regarding this fascinating topic – but it struck at the core of many of his most persistent cosmological, metaphysical, and epistemological concerns.

First, I investigate (1) how Mersenne updated the doctrine of world harmony to strengthen his belief in a harmonic creation, whereas other early modern mechanical philosophers started to eliminate the necessity of God and/or music theory from their scientific enterprises.

Second, I address the question of (2) how Mersenne’s scepticism, which urged him to divorce the acoustic properties from the metaphysical qualities of music, opened the door to theorizing in a new way about the power of music.

By combining a perspective from the history of science with one of the history of emotions the project will not only lead to a rethinking of Mersenne’s harmonic cosmology but will also shed new light on the interrelationships between the scientific, affective and musical cultures to which he belonged. Moreover, by investigating Mersenne’s critical attitude to his sources, this project will contribute to a better understanding of the ways in which medieval and Renaissance legacies affected the shaping of early modern conceptions of the relationship between the cosmos, man and music.

The Connections between Feminist and Political Epistemologies (Francesca Putignano)

The main purpose of this project is to give an overview of the most important topics and authors in feminist epistemology, as well as analyzing its emancipatory power for the philosophy of science, including the connections that feminist epistemology has with Post-Colonial Studies, Subaltern Studies and STS studies. My thesis is a contribution to political epistemology as a theoretical/methodological basis of the ERC project on Early Modern Cosmology.

One of the main challenges of the ERC project is to analyse the metaphysical-ideological premises of modern science, rooted in political struggles for cultural hegemony. Such an epistemological approach rests on Gramscian concepts. Feminist epistemology constitutes a specific path to the understanding of situated knowledge. It is therefore relevant to the commitment to investigate science as a contested field of concurring hegemonies.

The thesis deals with the transversality and interdisciplinarity that feminist epistemology could provide (e.g., its relationship with Post-Colonial Studies, Subaltern Studies, neo-Marxism, and STS), in order to test the potential inherent in this approach and how much it can be broadened. As a result, it is expected that we will be able to better assess the benefits and gains that feminist epistemology can add to political epistemological questions (such as the risks of epistemological relativism). It also covers historical matters, such as how ideology is constructed, how it is perpetuated - as well as current questions about the articulation of the role of science and knowledge production in contemporary societies.

Sapientia Astrologica: Astrology, Magic and Natural Knowledge, ca. 1250-1800 (Darrel Rutkin)

My project in Venice will be to complete volume II of my monograph Sapienta Astrologica titled Renaissance Structures (1450-1500): Continuities and Transformations. To do this, I will concentrate on astrology and magic in the work of two important intellectuals in Renaissance Florence and in our historiography, namely, Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94).

Among many other things, I will challenge and revise Frances Yates’s still influential genealogy of Renaissance magic, a view in which Pico simply added kabbalah to Ficino’s astrologically-grounded and medically-oriented natural magic. Asking how their strikingly different magics relate to astrology (and to kabbalah for Pico), and then to each other—as well as to the patterns reconstructed in the medieval volume I of my monograph—are key heuristic features of volume II.

I hope thereby to provide a more solid conceptual and historiographic foundation for more accurately relating medieval and Renaissance astrology and magic. Volumes I and II will then collectively provide the proper foundations for volume III on astrology in the early modern period, ca. 1500-1800.

Collaborations and outreach

  • Copernicus Documentary (in collaboration with the Copernicus Foundation Poland)
  • Giordano Bruno Opera