Meeting 45

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DATE: Tuesday, November 9

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (ET) / 8 PM Bucharest time (UTC+2)

PANEL: Risk in Early Modern Philosophy and Science

DESCRIPTION: Pioneering works in the sociology of risk describe risk society as a uniquely modern  phenomenon resulting from technological, economic and political developments over the last  two centuries (Beck 1992 [1986]; Giddens 1991). Meanwhile, a few recent studies have  suggested in one way or another that early modern risk can and should be reconsidered from a  number of disciplinary perspectives, and that it can shed light on later developments (Walter  2008; Niget and Petitclerc 2012; Bertrand 2014; Nacol 2017). This panel will consider how  sophisticated approaches to risk and risk management manifested in early modernity on a  variety of fronts: the metaphysical and theological, the natural philosophical, the environmental and institutional, and the medical. 

SPEAKERS: Corinna Guerra (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice), Marie-Louise Leonard (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice), Pietro Daniel Omodeo (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice) & Jonathan Regier (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)


Risk and Experiment in a Volcanic Cave 

Corinna Guerra (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)

Near Naples, there is a volcanic origin cave known as the Grotta del Cane, or Cave of the Dog,  where a mysterious vapour, hanging low to the ground, could kill (notably, the namesake dogs).  For many centuries, scholars from all over the world, although mainly from Europe, were  drawn there to witness the famous phenomenon, which allowed people to see with their own  eyes the passage from life to death just by means of an animal’s respiration—many dogs died  demonstrating the mortal threat at play. The simple reason for this deadly hazard was invisible  because it was a transparent gas, revealing its dangerous properties by entering the body in an  unknown manner. The deadly effect on a dog was not always the test case; many different  kinds of scientific experiments were performed by local scholars for foreign visitors, and the  grotto quickly and widely became a notable site for chemical studies. But what about the  relationship between scholars, inhabitants, visitors and risk represented by this place? How  could the danger of this “vapour” be managed before the birth of the chemistry of gases? The  goal of this paper is to describe by means of travel journals, chemical writings, books about  volcanic elements, reports about experiments en plein air, the history of the Cave of the Dog  as a site of scientific enquiry.

Health and the Workplace in Early Modern Venice

Marie-Louise Leonard (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)

This paper explores the relationship between work and health in early modern Italy. In 1700 the physician Bernardino Ramazzini published a treatise on the diseases of workers. He argued that when questioning patients’ doctors should ask what they did for a living and that people should be able to work without detriment to their health. Taking Ramazzini’s treatise as a starting point, I examine how doctors situated work activities and locations within their theoretical and diagnostic frameworks to explore the development of occupational health in early modern medicine. The revival of Hippocrates’s, Airs, Waters, and Places in the mid-sixteenth century brought concerns about healthy environments to the fore. Did increased focus on environmental suitability alter concerns about working locations? Taking those who worked for Venice’s health office as a focus, this paper analyses cultures of prevention relating to the workplace in early modern Venice.

Risk Management and the Lagoon of Venice 

Pietro Daniel Omodeo (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)

My talk deals with the issue of risk management of the lagoon of Venice from the Middle Ages  to the end of the Ancient Regime, especially focusing on early modernity. In the sixteenth  century a new institution was created, the Magistrate for the Waters, that was tasked with  overseeing all hydraulic interventions to preserve the lagoon. I here consider whether the Magistrate can be described as a techno-scientific institution aimed at minimizing all possible  risks, and if it can be examined from the perspective of the Machiavellian image of river  engineering as a means to channel the consequences of fortune and, to some extent, make them  predictable.

Girolamo Cardano on Disasters

Jonathan Regier (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)

In this talk, I would like to consider what Girolamo Cardano has to say about disasters (calamitates), what these reveal about his views on nature, reason and the divine, and also what they tell us about how he sees his own expertise. I will divide this talk into two parts. The first will consider personal disasters, those that threaten the individual; these arise from unique, singular causes. The second will concern mass disasters, what he calls “calamitates communes”; these, he writes, result from general causes that affect many people. More than any other form of prognostication, dreams play a starring role in his autobiography (De vita propria), and, as Cardano writes in his treatise on dreams (Somniorum Synesiorum), they always and only tell us about the personal future, the future that directly concerns the dreamer. What is entailed, for Cardano, when a dreamer glimpses the shadow of a future disaster? The answer to this question goes to the foundation of his natural philosophy. As for mass catastrophes, he treats them rather comprehensively in his De rerum varietate and his commentary to Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos, the In Ptolemaei de astrorum iudiciis. These disasters, as mentioned, draw from very general causes, whether terrestrial or astrological. Here, my interest will be in how the individual fits within these large-scale events, and how Cardano allots to the individual some agency in the face of them. I will conclude with a few thoughts on the naturalization of risk and the Roman Inquisition’s response to Cardano on the subject of disasters.

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