Luca Burzelli | Pietro Pomponazzi and the Renaissance Theory of the Elements

1st July, 2024 in Author’s corner

Luca Burzelli is a postdoctoral researcher in the History of Philosophy at  the University of Siegen, and a member of the De Wulf-Mansion Centre at the KU Leuven. He received the Thomas Ricklin International Award 2024 for his book Pietro Pomponazzi and the Renaissance Theory of the Elements.

“The comparison between Pomponazzi and the various medieval views on the question of elements shows that he offered the broadest and most analytical overview of the debate in the Renaissance.”

In medieval and early modern natural philosophy, very few issues were as controversial as the nature of the elements. In his recent book Luca Burzelli discusses one of the most original contributions to this debate, that of Renaissance philosopher Pietro Pomponazzi (d. 1525).

Briefly and concisely explain in plain language what the book is about.

This book concerns the medieval and Renaissance theory of the elements. This theory was popularised by Aristotle, with the aim of explaining the composition of physical bodies. The theory of the elements had the same role in antiquity as quantum mechanics has today: to explain what the most basic things are that we are made of. Since late antiquity, Aristotle’s theory had been the object of many commentaries and was subject to different interpretations. Over the centuries, a very large debate had developed on the elements, which included different approaches (e.g. those of philosophers, of physicians, of theologians) and many schools of thought (e.g. that of Alexander of Aphrodisia, of Avicenna, of Averroes, of Aquinas).

This book synthesises the ancient and medieval debate and then goes on to consider one of the main intellectual figures of the Italian Renaissance: Pietro Pomponazzi (d. 1525). Pomponazzi taught in Bologna in the first decades of the 16th century, and in his lectures he critically discussed the entire medieval debate. My book offers an analytical description of Pomponazzi’s perspective on the ancient debate, as well as of his own ideas. Finally, the book offers critical editions of six texts by Pomponazzi in which his view of the elements is discussed.

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?

The main reason that prompted me to work on this topic was an important knowledge gap. When I started my PhD (2016), studies on Renaissance natural philosophy were partial and outdated. The question of the four elements, in particular, had been largely neglected by contemporary studies, and presented significant problems of interpretation and palaeographic decipherment of manuscripts. This gap prompted me to delve into the medieval and Renaissance debate on the elements, with the aim of reconstructing a discussion on an issue that was of primary importance to scholars at the time, but about which we knew little overall today.

Do you have any reading suggestions to share (books, blogs, journals, …) for anyone who wants to know more about the subject?

The starting point for any investigation of this topic remains Anneliese Meier’s book, An der Grenze von Scholastic und Naturwissenschaft. Studien zur Naturphilosophie des 14 Jahrhunderds (Essen 1943). Although dated and emended in many respects, this volume offers the first and only comprehensive summary of the medieval debate on the elements up to the 15th century. There are also specific contributions on individual philosophers. For example, a remarkable study is Lucian Petrescu’s PhD thesis, Meteors and Mixtures. Problems of hylomorphic composition in Aristotelian natural philosophy, University of Ghent, 2014 (supervisor Maarten Van Dyck); and the article by Rega Wood and Michael Weisberg, “Interpreting Aristotle on mixtures: problems about elemental composition from Philoponus to Cooper”, in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 35 (2004), pp. 681-706.

How did the writing process for this book go? Did you experience anything surprising, amusing or strange?

This book saw the light in three stages. First, I identified, transcribed and amended Pomponazzi’s Latin texts in order to create a reliable corpus for study. This first phase coincided with the preparation of the critical edition. In the second phase, I worked on the commentary and the source apparatus for the Latin texts. This very important phase allowed me to compare Pomponazzi with all the ancient and medieval intellectuals he could read. In this phase, I was able to reconstruct positions, theories, similarities and dissimilarities, direct or indirect influences, quotations, misunderstandings.

Above all, I was able to work diachronically, to understand how Aristotle’s theory was discussed over the centuries, and developed into different views. In the third and final phase, I wrote the monographic essay at the beginning of the volume. This study combines my previous research: identifying  I identified the theoretical problems left by Aristotle, and the different answers that interpreters gave before Pomponazzi; then I focused on Pomponazzi’s position as such, and in relation to the medieval debate; finally, I discussed the material and philological aspects of Pomponazzi’s texts.

What would you like readers to remember about your book?

I hope readers will understand that the theory of the elements has been a must in debates of natural philosophy for many centuries. For more than 1,500 years, intellectuals of all backgrounds and professions – Aristotelian commentators, university teachers, physicians, theologians – considered it essential to address this theory because it had to do with a problem common to all: what is the physical universe made up of? What are the constituent parts of the bodies?

I also hope that readers will come to know and appreciate the originality of Pietro Pomponazzi’s thought, which stands out for the breadth and acumen of his doctrine of the elements. The comparison between Pomponazzi and the various medieval views on the question of the elements shows that he offered the broadest and most analytical overview of the debate in the Renaissance, before the theory of the elements was superseded by the new chemical theories.

Your book is published open access thanks to the partial support of the KU Leuven Fund for Fair Open Access. How did the open access publication process go? What makes open access so attractive for you/your book? Have you thus far noticed that your book reaches a wider audience?

I was able to obtain a fundamental contribution from KU Leuven to support the costs of OA. To obtain this grant I wrote an application to the university. The publisher and my supervisor were very supportive in preparing the application.

Publishing this volume in OA is a privilege for me and for the book. It will make it significantly easier to access and learn about this research. For many decades, philosophical research on these topics has been limited to a few intellectuals, partly because of the difficulty of the topic, and partly because of the inaccessibility of the texts. The possibility of OA publication should enable this research and these texts to reach a much wider audience, increase the familiarity that historians of philosophy have with a problem – and a tradition – of great historical importance, and facilitate further investigations into Pomponazzi’s texts.

Do you have any plans yet for another publication? What will it be about? Would you consider publishing the book open access?

While preparing this volume, I had the opportunity to prepare numerous English translations of the medieval texts I read for commentary. This is a large amount of material, comparable in length to the volume itself. I find it useful to make this material available to the academic community, so that it can become better known and refined through further investigation. A publication in OA would undoubtedly facilitate the dissemination of the texts; moreover, it would make researchers aware of the importance and originality of this line of research.

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