Seashells on the mountains: Antonio Vallisneri, fossils, and the Republic of Letters

Date of Completion

January 2005


Biography|Geology|History of Science




The Italian natural philosopher Antonio Vallisneri (1661–1730), who held a number of chairs in medicine at the University of Padua from 1700 to 1730, wrote on a wide variety of topics, including medicine, anatomy, and insect generation. In this dissertation I have focused on his writings about natural history, in particular those on geology, entitled the Origin of the Fountains (1715) and Of marine Bodies found on Mountaintops (1721). Both of these works are good examples of Vallisneri's “modern” method, which emphasized observing nature in an attempt to understand its laws, without recourse to miracles or divine intervention. As a “modern” he helped to revive the University of Padua's flagging reputation, which had been excellent in the early seventeenth century but had declined as the century wore on. Vallisneri's work also illustrates the continuing vitality of Italian science in an era that many historians of science have described in terms of decline relative to England and France. ^ The question of the fossils, which Vallisneri addressed in Of marine Bodies found on Mountaintops, had great implications not only for natural history, but for theology and human history. In most contemporary accounts, the universal Noachian Flood played a significant role in natural history, but Vallisneri considered it a local event, arguing that it played no role in the placement of the fossils. His approach focused on natural, incremental forces such as successive inundations and recessions of the waters in the northern Italian plain. ^ Of marine Bodies found on Mountaintops is a collection of letters and it reflects Vallisneri's participation in the international network of scientific exchange and the Republic of Letters. He was an active participation in the circulation of knowledge and natural objects across political and cultural borders; he had an extensive network of correspondents throughout Europe with whom he exchanged letters, books, and curiosities. The act of corresponding with other natural philosophers constituted the frame of reference for his worldview, and the Republic of Letters was a fundamental source of status and legitimacy for his scholarly work. ^