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c h a p t e r t h r e e The Anatomy of the Brain and of the Sensory Organs 3.1 Atomism and the Anatomy of the Senses The brain and the sensory organs pose some of the most philosophically significant problems in anatomy, as testified by the extensive references by seventeenth-century anatomists to ancient and modern philosophers who wrote on these matters, from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes and Gassendi. Although some recent historians have argued that the mechanical philosophy merely replaced the Aristotelian qualities— such as the dormitive virtue of opium—with the size and shape of invisible particles that were equally inaccessible to empirical investigation, evidence shows otherwise: in the mid-1660s anatomists sought to determine the structure and mode of operation of the brain and organs of perception, such as the eyes, tongue, and skin, through challenging and innovative techniques of anatomical and chymical investigation. Sense perception was both a tool and subject of inquiry: color—as an important component of sight—was investigated in relation to the properties of matter, whereas taste, touch, and smell were studied with regard to the size and shape of corpuscles and composition of matter, at the intersection between anatomy and atomism. The link between what came to be called primary and secondary qualities was key to several investigations.¹ Before delving into this material, I wish to offer a preliminary justification for the sources I have selected based on contemporary perceptions. Works on the brain include Willis’s 1664 Cerebri anatome, a lecture delivered by Steno in Paris in 1665, Malpighi’s De cerebro, and Fracassati’s treatise with the same title, both of 1665. These works include extensive cross-references and were grouped together in the Bibliotheca anatomica, underscoring that the links among them were clear at the time. In addition, Descartes’ 1662 De homine—published in 1664 in the original French as L’homme—contains important sections on the brain and sense perception.This work’s ambiguous status in anatomy was highlighted by its exclusion from the Bibliotheca 76 The Rise of Mechanistic and Microscopic Anatomy anatomica, although Willis’s and especially Steno’s extensive discussions justify its inclusion here.² Whereas research on the brain had a European dimension, anatomical research on the tongue and the organ of touch was carried out mainly between Messina and Pisa. We have already seen instances of the interplay between medical-anatomical research and a number of experiments at the Accademia del Cimento, such as those on capillary tubes and color indicators. We are now going to encounter further instances of interplay between experiments carried out at the Accademia del Cimento and more generally at the Tuscan court and anatomical research in the works by Malpighi, Fracassati , and Bellini. Malpighi’s De cerebro is an epistolary treatise addressed to Fracassati that was part of the 1665 Tetras anatomicarum epistolarum, a collection including also De lingua, on the tongue, addressed by Malpighi to Borelli, and treatises on the tongue and brain—also titled De lingua and De cerebro—by Fracassati, addressed to Borelli and Malpighi. In addition, also in 1665, Malpighi published separately a treatise on the skin as the organ of touch, De externo tactus organo, and Bellini published Gustus organum on taste. The plan for the collective volume and Bellini’s work was due to Borelli, who encouraged his colleagues to build on Malpighi’s findings. While Malpighi’s originality was curtailed by the other contributions, Borelli’s plan led to an enhanced visibility and a public display of mutual encomia, although the anatomists were by no means in agreement on every detail. The Bibliotheca anatomica also grouped together all the publications by Malpighi, Fracassati, and Bellini on sense perception, notably taste and touch.³ The following section studies the key texts on the brain, notably Willis’s, Steno’s, and Malpighi’s. Given their profound connections conceptually and in the techniques of investigation, section 3.3 analyzes Malpighi’s De lingua and De externo tactus organo, a work frequently bound with Tetras anatomicarum epistolarum and added to its second edition in 1669.⁴ Fracassati’s De lingua and De cerebro, discussed in section 3.4, deal in fact with a wider range of problems, and they too are best treated together for the light they shed on the philosophical debates and experimental research carried out at Pisa and at the Tuscan court. Lastly, section 3.5 discusses Bellini’s Gustus organum and the work...


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