- Renaissance Meteorology: Pomponazzi to Descartes
Descartes famously described the four ancient elements as the product of infinitely divisible particles. These tiny building blocks simplified study of the weather and threatened to strip our sense of awe from the sky. Descartes removed the marvel by reducing meteorology to matter and motion and by replacing core concepts from classical philosophy. Craig Martin argues, however, that Descartes never turned fully away from Aristotle and drew deeply on the peripatetic views of his peers. While sympathy for Aristotelian meteorology [End Page 457] was in wide supply well into the seventeenth century, a growing number of authors began to mine the Meteorology for a natural philosophy based mainly on experience. These were not Aristotelians who "clung to slavish readings of ancient texts" (104), nor did they shy away from incorporating new evidence. Their focus on experience was based on the fourth book of the Meteorology, where they found inspiration for their corpuscular philosophy. Descartes deployed his new method to greater effect in this arena, where discussion "depended on local motion, magnitude, and position to a greater degree than other parts of natural philosophy" (140-141). With this distinction in mind, Martin traces a long line of meteorological innovation that receives scarce attention in standard surveys of early modern science. What begins with Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525) and his dialectical view of Aristotle culminates in the radical re-interpretation of Niccolò Cabeo (1586-1650), who rejected the metaphysical foundations of Aristotelian natural philosophy.
Our image of the "overly conceptual and bookish" peripatetic is out of place in early modern meteorology (149). In the opening chapter, we learn that the accidental nature of meteorology made it a purely probable exercise for many. The uncertainty surrounding the causes of the weather encouraged a tentative attitude and gave greater emphasis to experience and observation. Such an epistemological standard encourages Martin to assign the same aim of "saving the appearances" so widely identified with astronomy. The author further challenges our familiarity with Aristotelianism by focusing on the role it played in the bitter debates brought on by the swarm of earthquakes that struck the city of Ferrara from 1570 to 1574. Martin introduces the many authors who made use of meteorology to pronounce on the claim of Pope Pius V (1504-1572) that the disaster had been divinely directed at Duke Alfonso II (1533-1597). The result bears witness to the relevance of Aristotle beyond the university "to those endeavoring in political, religious, and practical arenas during the Renaissance" (15). Practical motives are similarly at play in the conception of the corpuscular philosophy in late Aristotelian chymistry. Contrary to "a number of commentators" who were concerned with interpreting Aristotle historically (93), other authors began to manipulate chemicals in artificial settings to build on the fourth book of the Meteorology. The fruit of their labor led Cabeo to fathom "the physical elusiveness of substantial forms" and replace them with a more material apparatus (132). It is only in the final chapter that we face a full etiological break, however, when Descartes concludes that substantial forms cannot be grasped by the intellect.
This book enriches our understanding of early modern natural philosophy. It challenges us to re-evaluate the reception of Aristotle in an area of study that saw renewed emphasis on experience and denied a deep knowledge of the formal and final causes. While Italian authors figure more prominently because they wrote so prolifically on the weather, Martin also explores the work of their northern neighbors. Contrary to their Catholic contemporaries, Lutheran authors are said to have understood meteorological events as legible signs of divine providence. But we are not told why they read the weather more confidently, beyond the fact that their focus on the future reflected their founder's interest "in the prodigious and portentous" (53). There is equal uncertainty about why this prophetic poise began to wane "even at Wittenberg" by the early seventeenth century (57). That Martin is rarely at such a loss, however, testifies to his mastery of a broad span of...