Niccolo Leoniceno

Niccolo Leoniceno was an Italian humanist and physician, and was also known as Nicolaus Leonicenus of Vicenza, Nicolò da Lonigo da Vincenza, Nicolaus Leoninus, Nicolo Lonigo, Nicolaus Leonicenus Vicentinus, and Nicolo Leoniceno. He was born in the year 1428 in Lonigo, Venento. His father had been a doctor, and this may have opened his young mind to medicine and prompted his interest to be a man of science as well.

Educational Background

Niccolo Leoniceno studied the Greek language under Ognibene da Lonigo back in Vicenza. In 1453, he was able to graduate from the University of Padua. It was at this university where he took his studies in philosophy and medicine under the wing of Pietro Roccabonella Veneziano. After he completed his doctorate, Leoniceno was able to go to the University of Ferrara. There, he was able to teach mathematics, medicine, and philosophy. One of his notable students was Antonio Musa Brassavola, a famous Italian physician.


Because of his knowledge in Greek as well as Arabic and Latin, he was able to help translate ancient Arabic and Greek medical texts into more accessible and readable Latin copies. He translated the works of Hippocrates and Galen and helped bring about the importance of such translations to more people. Leoniceno was also the first known person to have written criticisms for Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.

Debates in Ferrara

Pliny the Elder’s works are considered to be strong reference material in medicine back then, and the fact that Leoniceno had a different view on things was enough to spark curiosity and get him attention. More particularly, he was able to catch the attention of the court humanist Angelo Poliziano. Poliziano was not at all in favor of how Leoniceno classified Pliny the Elder alongside medieval and Arab scholars. Because of this, Poliziano employed the help of Pandolfo Collenuccio who was a lawyer as well as a historian to help defend Pliny the Elder from what Leoniceno wrote about him.

It was in 1492 when Leoniceno published the De Plinii et plurium alorium medicorum in medicina erroribus, an article where he was able to point out the errors of medical proportions made by Pliny along with the medieval Arab practitioners of medicine. After this publication by Leoniceno, it was quickly followed by Collenuccio’s Pliniana defensio adversus Nicolai Leoniceni accusationem which was published just a year later.

From 1492 to 1509, Leoniceno as well as Collenuccio published several pamphlets where they were pointing out and arguing about ancient sources they stood for. One particular concern they had was how accurate Pliny’s translations were from original Greek texts into Latin. After a while, Collenuccio himself agreed that there were such issues that existed.

Leoniceno’s attacks on Pliny the Elder were not solely about translation issues though, and he even mentioned a section of one of Pliny’s works where it was stated how the moon was bigger than the earth. Because of this, Leoniceno thought that if Pliny was erroneous on a fact as fundamental as this, this was reason enough to examine Pliny’s work further to see if there were other factual errors.

Natural History Experience

When it comes to natural history back in those days, knowledge was acquired when people study ancient texts for reference and use the formulas given by earlier scholars. What made a huge difference was he thought of not just using existing ancient texts as they were, but the method with which he confirmed the written text was from his own firsthand accounts. What he did was to have a copy of the text and compared it with his own set of observations. His approach was indeed new back then but it faced several challenges. The very first issue was about the translation of texts.

The main issue was about the translation errors and contradictions which ensued after translating the text. According to Leoniceno’s beliefs, if Pliny had errors, other ancient works done by Dioscorides and Theophrastus may have errors which should be examined as well. He had shown a preference for some Greek compared to Arab authors too, and this drive of his was one of the main distinguishing characteristics which helped reform the medical pedagogy back then.

It was really much harder then, working on such texts because it would have been hard to confirm from long dead authors if the plant being observed in the present day was the same one being described before. Despite this challenge though, Leoniceno still proceeded with his work and focused with being able to identify the existing information written on respected ancient texts instead of just adding to it, which was what most other scholars would have done. He insisted on this idea because he believed in “factual accuracy,” and that it was highly important because the health, as well as the life of men depended on the accuracy of facts written in ancient manuscripts.

Personal Library

Having been a scholar and a man who was really interested in ancient works and translation for the betterment of the modernizing civilizations, Leoniceno had his own collection of works. These were what he used for working on his comparisons and observations. He existed during the time which some call “the age of the manuscript.” Back in those days, the main way to gain knowledge was to read existing texts and add to them rather than verify them, which was why Leoniceno’s approach had been really crucial and major to the contributions made to medical texts back then.

After he died, there was an inventory of about 345 volumes which comprised of 482 individual finished works. A great number of smaller volumes were combined in just one volume which was separately bound. Out of the noted 345 volumes, about 117 had been in Greek. Upon inspection, there were numerous translations and versions of just a single text, and also a lot of commentaries on different volumes. Because of his in-depth work on the texts and different volumes, it was clearly reflected how he had a highly textual approach. This approach to learning and knowledge made him have an extensive library, which was what served as a strong basis for his being a scientific scholar.