Cardan: autobiography

Jacob Burckhardt wrote The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy in 1860. The original work was in Italian but an English translation by C G C Middlemore was published in 1878. Chapter V of Part IV is on "Biography" and includes a description of Girolamo Cardan's autobiography De propria vita:-

Another man deserves a brief mention in connection with this subject - a man who ... was not a model of veracity: Girolamo Cardano of Milan. His little book De propria vita will outlive and eclipse his fame in philosophy and natural science ... Cardano is a physician who feels his own pulse, and describes his own physical, moral and intellectual nature, together with all the conditions under which it had developed, and this, to the best of his ability, honestly and sincerely.

The work which he avowedly took as his model - the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - he was able, hampered as he was by no Stoic maxims, to surpass in this particular. He desires to spare neither himself nor others, and begins the narrative of his career with the statement that his mother tried, and failed, to procure abortion. It is worth remark that he attributes to the stars which presided over his birth only the events of his life and his intellectual gifts, but not his moral qualities; he confesses that the astrological prediction that he would not live to the age of forty or fifty years did him much harm in his youth. But there is no need to quote from so well-known and accessible a book; whoever opens it will not lay it down till the last page.

Cardano admits that he cheated at play, that he was vindictive, incapable of all compunction, purposely cruel in his speech. He confesses it without impudence and without feigned contrition, without even wishing to make himself an object of interest, but with the same simple and sincere love of fact which guided him in his scientific researches. And, what is to us the most repulsive of all, the old man, after the most shocking experiences and with his confidence in his fellow-men gone, finds himself after all tolerably happy and comfortable. He has still left him a grandson, immense learning, the fame of his works, money, rank and credit, powerful friends, the knowledge of many secrets, and, best of all, belief in God. After this he counts the teeth in his head and finds that he has fifteen.

Yet when Cardano wrote, inquisitors and Spaniards were already busy in Italy, either hindering the production of such natures, or, where they existed, by some means or other putting them out of the way.

Last Updated March 2006