Nature Described

Learning to Look at the World

Roman scholars and scientists eagerly wrote and collected texts about plant life. In the fifteenth century, the library began to assemble its very rich collection of ancient and medieval works on "materia medica." Scholars at the curia translated the work "On Plants" of Theophrastus, Aristotle's pupil, which had been unknown in the Middle Ages, and studied the great Latin encyclopedia by Pliny.

The new empirical science of the time, a science based more and more on controlled observation of the natural world, finally took firm root at Rome around 1600. Michele Mercati, botanist and geologist, tried to make the papal metal collection a great center for the study of the earth and its minerals. The astronomical revolution begun by Copernicus found support in the Jesuits' Collegio Romano. The new scientific society Accademia dei Lincei ("academy of the lynx- eyed," so-called from the keenness of sight of its members) gave a powerful example of collective study of scientific problems-- the beginning of something like modern laboratory work.

Although Rome was where Galileo met his downfall as censorship prevented the assertion of the truth of Copernican astronomy, nonetheless it remained a center of scientific research as well as of Counter-Reformation orthodoxy, deep into the seventeenth century. When the 24-year-old John Evelyn visited Rome in the winter of 1644-45, fresh from England and Holland, he was amazed at the wealth of information--and new flora, fauna, and minerals--that had flowed into Rome in the Renaissance.

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