Title pageSaggi di naturali esperienze fatte nell'Accademia del Cimento, (Florence, 1667), the only publication of the earliest purelys cientific academy.  Full digital copies available at the Smithsonian Museum, and the Museo Galileo, Florence.

What was the Cimento? This title page provides a good point of departure for answering this question. Particularly useful is a close look at the Italian terms employed, in the light of the academy's emblem.

Cimento. The Italian word ‘cimento’ originally referred to a mixture used by goldsmiths to purify or assay (in Italian ‘saggiare’) precious metals. By extension, the infinitive ‘cimentare’ meant primarily to purify or assay precious metals by fire, or to test their composition by provoking a chemical reaction.  By the seventeenth century, the term had gained the broader significance which it still has today of testing or experimenting more generally.  The reflexive verb ‘cimentarsi’ also carries the connotation of exposing oneself to an ordeal, engaging in a risky venture, or working hard to accomplish something.

Saggi.  Although translated as ‘essays’ in the English title, the Italian ‘saggi’ is rooted in the verb ‘saggiare’ which means to assay, purify, or test by experience the qualilties or properties of something.  The related verb ‘assaggiare’ means to taste, to sample, and to try in the sense of ‘cimentare, mettere alla prova’.

Provando e riprovando. The motto of the Cimento likewise means more that ‘trying and trying again’, as it is often translated.  In Italian, a ‘prova’ is an act, operation, or procedure undertaken to learn the qualities of a thing or the truth of a claim.  The infinitive ‘provare’ therefore means not only ‘to try or attempt something’ in general but also, more specifically, ‘to subject something to tests in order to reveal its qualities and characteristics’, ‘to learn from experience’, and even ‘to demonstrate the truth of a claim or the reality of a fact’.

Interpretation.  The objective of the Accademia del Cimento is therefore well expressed by the emblem on this title page: it was to taste, to sample, to test by experience, to assay as if by fire the qualities or properties of things, to demonstrate the truth of claims, to purify the recevied body of natural philosophy, and to do so by repeated experimentation, despite the fact that this undertaking is laborious, difficult, risky, and daring. 

Prescribed extracts from the English translation of this text are available on Canvas.

Credits: Howard Hotson (November 2016)