Engraved frontispiece, signed: ‘R. Waller delin.’

Title: 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, Fellow of the Royal Society.

Imprint: London, printed for Benjamin Alsop at the Angel and Bible in the Poultrey, over-against the Church, 1684

Details: Editor: Magalotti, Lorenzo, conte, 1637-1712. Translator: Waller, Richard. Translation of: Saggi di naturali esperienze fatte nell'Accademia del cimento, 1667. Physical Description: [26], 80, 77-160, [12] p., 19 leaves of plates : tables ; 4⁰. Signatures: [A]⁴ a-b⁴ B-Z⁴. Bibliographical references: ESTC (RLIN) R6541; Wing (CD-Rom, 1996), A161. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library, Call Number 158- 142q. Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0.


As established previously, the goal of the Cimento was to undertake the difficult and hazardous task of testing by repeated experiment and thereby purifying the received body of knowledge about the physical world. 

What then was the body of knowledge that was being tested and purified?  In prefacing their English translation of the Saggi with this frontispiece, the fellows of the Royal Society suggest the obvious answer.

In this image, Diva Natura casts a backward glance at the figure of Aristotle and points toward a copy of the Saggi di naturali esperienze which is being passed by the young Accademia del Cimento to the more mature seated figure of the ‘Societas Regia’.  The Cimento wears an emblem derived from the title page of the Saggi, with the motto ‘Provando e reprovando’, while the Royal Society holds a shield with the royal arms and its motto, ‘Nullius in verba’.

Needless to say, the import of this image is in part to suggest that the Royal Society is the heir to the Florentine academy and thus perhaps to Galileo himself -- an audacious suggestion.  The deeper point is that the Cimento existed to ‘assay’, test, and experimentally confirm the principles of natural philosophy previously adopted on the authority of Aristotle and the consensus philosopohorum for centuries.  Since the subversion of established authority was also a hazardous undertaking in Restoration England, the Royal Society is keen to emphasize – in the cartouche in the clouds borne aloft by cherubs – that the Cimento had been assembled in Italy ‘Under the Protection of the most seren Prince Leopold of Tuscany’ (the younger brother of the co-founder, Ferdinando II), who was in fact made a prince of the church (i.e. a cardinal) in 1667, the year in which the Cimento was disbanded.  In dedicating his translation to Sir John Hoskyns, the current President of the Royal Society, Richard Waller likewise sought ‘Protection … in this Censorious Age’. Even as late as 1684, part of the reason for republishing the Saggi in translation was to demonstrate that ‘the Ingenious in other Parts of the World, have not thought their time misspent in these Endeavours, what contrary Sentiments soever some may have’.  If Catholics in Italy were permitted to subvert the authority of Aristotle under grand ducal patronage in the 1650s and 60s, then surely Protestant Englishmen acting on royal authority should be allowed to experiment without public censure in the 1680s.

Prescribed extracts from this text are available on Canvas.

Credits: Howard Hotson (November 2016)