Lorenzo Magalotti, Saggi di naturali esperienze, 1667

Lorenzo Magalotti, Saggi di naturali esperienze, 1667

The Saggi di naturali esperienze / fatte nell’Accademia del cimento sotto la protezione del serenissimo principe Leopoldo di Toscana e descritte del segretario di essa Accademia is a landmark publication in the history of experimental science. It describes experiments conducted by members of the Accademia del Cimento, an Italian scholarly society. The society flourished from 1657 to 1667 under the protection of the Medici brothers Prince Leopold (1617–1675) and Ferdinand II (1610–1670), grand duke of Tuscany, to whom the book was dedicated.

Saggi di naturali esperienze..., Accademia del cimento, Firenze: Per Giuseppe Cocchini all'Insegna della Stella, 1666. CMGL 95594.The publication of the Saggi marked the end of the Accademia’s brief life, but it reflects a pivotal moment in the history of science. At that time, the Aristotelian theories favored by the Church were being challenged by experimental inquiry. In its insistence on experimentation, the Accademia followed the model of Galileo and heralded the work of Isaac Newton, each of whom believed that science should be based on an empirical, rather than speculative, process.

The Rakow Library’s copy of the Saggi is a first edition, compiled and written in Italian by the society’s secretary, Lorenzo Magalotti and printed by Giuseppe Cocchini in Florence. Although authorities agree that the book actually appeared in 1667, some copies are dated 1666, as is ours, probably in anticipation of an earlier publication schedule.

Detail from Saggi di naturali esperienze..., Accademia del cimento, Firenze: Per Giuseppe Cocchini all'Insegna della Stella, 1666. CMGL 95594.The Saggi is a visually sumptuous book, and its large format accentuates its elegance. The title page, in red and black lettering, features a copper engraving of a hearth surmounted by the Accademia’s motto, “Provando e riprovando.” Translated literally, it means “Trying and trying again,” which expresses the Accademia’s foundational spirit of seeking truth through experimentation. The title page is followed by a full-page copper-engraved portrait of Grand Duke Ferdinand II. The chapter initials are woodcuts, and the section headings and tailpieces are copper engravings. All of them are very ornate, incorporating the floral and figural imagery of the Baroque style, as well as some Classical references.

Illustrations of glass instruments from Saggi di naturali esperienze...In contrast to these elaborate adornments are the simple full-page illustrations of glass instruments used in the Accademia’s experiments. Pictorially, they are delightful. Our modern sense of beauty is especially partial to the graceful geometric shapes characteristic of pre-industrial scientific instruments. We may only surmise the purpose of the instruments, but we know that they are made of glass because we can see several flasks containing liquid. Despite its relative fragility when exposed to the extreme cold or heat of experimentation, glass was preferred to other materials for its transparency. This quality removed the guesswork from experiments by helping scientists to make the most precise and most correct observations possible.

In addition to enabling scientific experimentation, glass was often itself the subject of inquiry. Some of the more interesting research conducted by the Accademia was intended to ascertain the behavioral properties of glass. The first English translation of the Saggi, completed by Richard Waller in 1684 (see bibliography), contains numerous glass experiments. One of them tested glass and crystal against three elements that were “reckoned the most acute and strong smells that are”— oil of wax, quintessence of sulfur, and extract of horse’s urine—to determine if they were “penetrable by odours and humidity.” They were not, even when the glass was heated. But lest we think that the Accademia’s interests were limited to physics, the Saggi’s last chapter describes a rather surprising use of glass in which a hen and a duck were fed tiny crystal balls. When these animals were dissected a few hours later, their intestines were found to be covered with a “glittering coat” of an “exquisitely fine powder . . . of crystal,” thus establishing their amazing powers of digestion.

The members of the Accademia wanted to leave nothing to the imagination. The Saggi is about establishing, through experimentation and discovery, the universal truths of the physical sciences. It is also one of the best-documented examples of how glass aided the scientific process as both a tool and an object of investigation. The Saggi is fascinating reading for historians of science and glass alike.


Diane Dolbashian

This essay is part of a series on Treasures in the Rakow Research Library.


Magalotti, Lorenzo. Essayes of Natural Experiments, Made in the Academie del Cimento under the Protection of the Most Serene Prince Leopold of Tuscany / Written in Italian by the Secretary of That Academy, Englished by Richard Waller. London: Printed for B. Alsop at the Angel and Bible in the Poultrey, 1684.

——. Saggi di naturali esperienze / fatte nell’Accademia del cimento sotto la protezione del serenissimo principe Leopoldo di Toscana e descritte del segretario di essa Accademia. Florence: Per Giuseppe Cocchini all’Insegna della Stella, 1666 [1667].

Middleton, W. E. Knowles. The Experimenters: A Study of the Accademia del Cimento. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971.

Ornstein, Martha. The Role of Scientific Societies in the Seventeenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938.

Published on January 6, 2014