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Cardano, Girolamo

1. Dates
Born: Pavia, 24 Sept. 1501
Died: Rome, 21 Sept. 1576
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 75
2. Father
Occupation: Lawyer
His father was a jurist of considerable learning, a friend of Leonardo da Vinci. He is said to have been of noble descent, but I gathered that the line was so attentuated as hardly to exist. Cardano was born out of wedlock, and the father, who did eventually marry the mother, did not live with the family until Cardano was seven.
While not poor, the family hardly seems to have been wealthy--more affluent than poor, however.
3. Nationality
Birth: Italy
Career: Italy
Death: Italy
4. Education
Schooling: Pavia, M.D.; Padua
Cardano began his university studies in 1518 at Pavia and completed his B.A. at Padua. He returned to Pavia for the M.D. in 1526.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
In 1570 he was imprisoned for a few months by the Inquisition. He was accused of heresy, particularly for having cast the horoscope of Christ and having attrbuted the events of His life to the influence of the stars. He was sentenced to abjuration and agreed to give up teaching.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Mathematics, Medicine, Occult Philosophy
Subordinate: Astrology, Phc.
Cardano wrote more than 200 works on medicine, mathematics, physics, philosophy, religion, and music.
His fame rested on his contributions to mathematics. His major work in math. was the Ars magna, in which many new ideas in algebra were systematically presented. Among them are Cardano's rule and the linear transformations that eliminate the second degree terms in a complete cubic equation.
De subtilitate, 1550, created a big stir.
De astrorum iudiciis, 1554, contained a horoscope of Christ.
His chief claim to fame in mechanics was his affirmation of the impossibility of perpetual motion, except in heavenly bodies. In his Opus novum de proportionibus, Cardano tried to apply quantitative methods to the study of physics. He also made important contributions to hydrodynamics.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Medicine, Academia, Patronage
Secondary: Schoolmastering
Already in 1521-2 he was substituting for professors in Pavia, in geometry, philosophy, and medicine.
His father died in 1524, leaving him a house and some inheritance.
Practiced medicine in Saccolongo, a small town near Padua, 1526-1532. He was aided in these years by Francesco Buonafede, a physician.
According to Bellini, he went to Milan in 1532, and early in 1534 to Gallarate, a nearby village, to practice medicine, but he did poorly. He was rebuffed by the College of Medicine in Milan because of his illegitimate birth.
Capparoni has a slightly different account of the early years. Unable to establish himself in Milan, Cardano lived poorly in Pieve del Sacco and Gallarate practicing medicine until 1534, then to Milan to teach mathematics. He also taught medicine in Milan. In 1535 he became physician to the Augustine Friars.
Teacher of mathematics in the Piattine schools of Milan, 1534-36, and practiced medicine.
Once he was able to practice, Cardano apparently quickly won reputation. The cure of a Borromeo helped greatly.
1537, physician to Senator Sfrondati, treating among others the future Pope, Sfrondati's son.
In the period 1540-42 he was winning a gold piece every day in gambling with Antonio Vimercati, a Milanese patrician.
Professor of medicine at Pavia, 1543-51 and 1559-60. His salary was 240 gold crowns initially, and was raised to 400 in 1547.
In Milan during the 1550's, when he was famous from his publications, Cardano gave private lessons in medicine.
Professor of medicine at the University of Bologna, 1562- 70 with a salary of 800 scudi.
In Bologna, all of the "best" citizens were his patients, and he was called for consultations by such people as Cardinal Morone in Modena and the Gonzagas in Mantua.
Received a lifetime annuity from Pope Gregory XIII in 1573 after Pius V refused. Cardano, who had left both Pavia and Bologna under heavy clouds, stayed in Rome for the rest of his life. It appears that he was still practicing medicine some in these final years.
8. Patronage
Types: Eccesiastic Official, Aristrocrat, Government Official
Senator Filippo Archinto, who I gather was a friend of Cardano's father, obtained the appointment for him as a teacher of mathematics in the Piattine school, and perhaps also the appointment as physician to the Augustin Friars. Cardano dedicated a work on medicine to him.
Cardano effected a cure of a member of the Borromeo family and won their protection. Likewise for a son (the future Pope) of Senator Sfrondati. Senator Sfrondati and other friends forced his entrance into the Milanese College of Physicians.
Cardinal Borromeo helped Cardano to get the chair in Bologna. Before this, already about 1536, Cardano was offered a chance to enter the service of Pope Paul III.
In the late 30's, Cardano won the favor of the Marquis D'Avalos, an important figure in Milan. I think he may have been the governor of Milan.
About 1536 Cardano had the chance to enter the service of Charles de Cossť, the lieutenant (in northern Italy, during the wars) of the King of France.
About 1550 another offer from the Pope and one from the King of Denmark, both of which Cardano refused. The King of Denmark offered him 800 crowns annually plus living expenses for himself and five servants and forage for three horses. Cardano refused because of the cold northern climate and because Denmark was not Catholic.
In 1552, he did accept the offer of the Archbishop of Edinburgh, John Hamilton, who suffered from asthma. He journeyed to Edinburgh, where he stayed for two and a half months and did effect a cure. Beyond expenses for the trip, Cardano received 400 gold crowns. a necklace worth 120 crowns, and many gifts. All along the voyage to and from Scotland, Cardano was greeted by the learned, who knew his reputation from his books.
There were offers from the King of France, from Charles V, and from the Queen of Scotland. The Duke of Mantua (Gonzaga) offered him a stipend of 3000 crowns.
Note that Cardano's mathematical work, Practica arithmetice, 1539, had won him a reputation throughout Europe, and this undoubtedly influenced the various offers above. Luidi Birago, a Milanese soldier in French service, wanted Cardano to enter the service of the French Viceroi (in northern Italy), Charles de Cossť, not as a physician, but as a military engineer--all because of Cardano's publications in mathematics.
When things began to go sour in Bologna, Cardinals Morone, Cesi, Mandruzzo, and Amulio were Cardano's protectors. They urged him to give up the professorhip, to leave Bologna, and to place himself under the protection of the Papacy, which Cardano did in 1571. Pius V would have none of him; he had just been found guilty by the Inquisition. However, Gregory XIII, a general patron of learning (see Bellini, p. 271), soon succeeded Pius, and at the beginning of 1573 he gave Cardano a pension sufficient to maintain him. Recall that Gregory is also the one who insisted that Borro be freed from the dungeons of the Inquisition despite his obvious heterodoxy.
Cardono dedicated his Practica arithmetice (1539) to the Prior of Sant-Ambrogio, Francesco Gaddi.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Medical Practice, Instruments
I hardly know how to classify the Cardano suspension. It is the set of three concentric rings, able to rotate in three perpendicular planes, that one sees supporting globes (what we call gimbels).
10. Scientific Societies
Membership: Medical College
The medical colleges of both Milan and Rome.
  1. Angelo Bellini, Girolamo Cardano e il suo tempo, (Milan, 1947).
  2. Pietro Capparoni, Profili bio-bibliografici di medici e naturalisti celebri italiani dal sec. XV al sec. XVII, 2 vols. (Rome, 1925-28), 2, 39-42. In the copy I have, vol. 1 is from the second ed, (1932) and vol. 2 from the first (1928). I gather that pagination in the two editions is not identical.
  3. Dizionario biografico degli italiani.
  4. Paul L. Rose, The Italian Renaissance of Mathematics, (Geneva, 1975), pp. 145-6. Not consulted: Henry Morley, The Life of Girolamo Cardano of Milan, Physician, 2 vols. (London, 1854).
  5. O. Ore, Cardano, the Gambling Scholar, (Princeton, 1953).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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