Niccolo Leoniceno was an Italian humanist and physician. He was born in the year 1428 in Lonigo, Veneto. His father was a doctor, and this may have opened his young mind to medicine and prompted his interest to be a man of science.
He translated many ancient texts, including “Ars medica” by the second century Greek physician Galen in 1508. He accompanied the translation with a controversial methodical prologue, so beginning the tradition of the “scientific method” for research.
During his life he was known by several names including Nicolaus Leonicenus of Vicenza, Nicolò da Lonigo da Vincenza, Nicolaus Leoninus, Nicolo Lonigo, Nicolaus Leonicenus Vicentinus, and Nicolo Leoniceno.
Niccolo Leoniceno studied the Greek language under Ognibene da Lonigo in Vicenza. In 1453, he graduated from the University of Padua. At this university he studied philosophy and medicine under the wing of Pietro Roccabonella Veneziano. After completing his doctorate, Leoniceno attended the University of Ferrara. There, he taught mathematics, medicine, and philosophy. One of his notable students was Antonio Musa Brassavola, who became a famous Italian physician.
Because of his expert knowledge in Greek, Arabic and Latin, he helped translate ancient Arabic and Greek medical texts into more accessible and readable Latin copies. He translated the works of Hippocrates and Galen and as a result of these translations their writings were accessible to more people. Leoniceno was the first known person to have written criticisms for Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, written in the first century AD.
His translations included a Latin version of “Ars medica”, by the second century Greek physician Galen in 1508. Leoniceno accompanied this translation with a controversial methodical prologue, so beginning the tradition of the “scientific method” for research.
Debates in Ferrara
Pliny the Elder’s works were considered to be strong reference material in medicine in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, and the fact that Leoniceno took a different view to this work sparked curiosity and gained him attention. More particularly, he caught the attention of the court humanist Angelo Poliziano who employed the help of Pandolfo Collenuccio, a lawyer and a historian, to help defend the Roman author, Pliny the Elder from Leoniceno’s criticisms.
In 1492 Leoniceno published “De Plinii et plurium alorium medicorum in medicina erroribus”, an article where he pointed out the errors of medical proportions made by Pliny along with the medieval Arab practitioners of medicine. This publication by Leoniceno was quickly followed by Collenuccio’s “Pliniana defensio adversus Nicolai Leoniceni accusationem”, which was published a year later.
From 1492 to 1509, Leoniceno and Collenuccio published several pamphlets arguing for and against the ancient sources. One particular concern they discussed was how accurate Pliny’s translations were from the original Greek texts into Latin. Collenuccio himself agreed that “lost in translation” issues existed.
Leoniceno’s attacks on Pliny the Elder were not solely about translation issues and he mentioned a section of one of Pliny’s works which stated that the moon was bigger than the earth. Leoniceno considered 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
Natural history knowledge in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century was typically acquired by studying ancient texts for reference and using the formulas given by earlier scholars. Leoniceno however, did not just blindly use existing ancient texts, but he confirmed the written text from his own firsthand accounts. He would obtain a copy of the ancient text and compare it with his own set of observations. This approach was indeed new; the beginning of the “scientific method”, but it faced several challenges, including the accuracy of the translated ancient texts.
According to Leoniceno’s beliefs, if Pliny had errors, other ancient works may also have errors. He trusted translations from Greek compared to Arab authors in his efforts to reform medical pedagogy.
Working on such texts was incredibly difficult, attempting for example, to confirm from long dead authors if the plant being observed in the present day was the same one being described before. Despite these challenges, Leoniceno proceeded with his researches. He focused on identifying the correct meaning of respected ancient texts instead of just adding to it. 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.
Having been a scholar and a man who was interested in ancient works and translation for the betterment of the modernizing civilizations, Leoniceno also had his own collection of works. He used these for working on his comparisons and observations. Leoniceno lived during the time which some call “the age of the manuscript”, meaning that the main way to gain knowledge was to read existing texts and add to them rather than verify them. This was why Leoniceno’s new approach of verification and personal observation was a major contribution to medical texts.
After Leoniceno died in Ferrara in 1524, his library inventory listed 345 volumes, comprising of 482 individual finished works. Upon inspection, there were numerous translations and versions of just one single ancient text, and also many commentaries. His extensive library was testament to his in-depth research on the ancient texts and his scientific scholarly approach to learning and knowledge.