Cardano’s Life and Writings

  • Markus Fierz


OUR KNOWLEDGE of Cardano’s life and work comes primarily from his own writings. They abound with accounts of his personal experiences and turns of fortune. These serve him as examples for his teachings or as a means of showing that his doctrines are based on his own experiences. Unlike those of many of his contemporaries, Cardano’s personal statements have always proved to be truthful, insofar as they can be checked. His love of truth, in which he took pride, is beyond doubt.1


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  1. 1.
    Naudé’s characterization of him as untruthful is certainly the most serious slander he permitted himself (see below).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Henry Morley, The Life of Girolamo Cardano of Milan, Physician, 2 volumes (London, 1854). In addition to the Vita propria, a main source of information about Cardano’s life and circumstances is the commentary on his own horoscope, which is given as the eighth example of the twelve genitures discussed in the appendix to the commentary on Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos. In the second edition of this work (Hier. Cardani in Cl. Ptolomaei de Astrorum ludiciis commentaria, Basileae, 1578, mense Septernbri), which was published posthumously, Cardano commented on his own life up to his sixty-eighth year (see pp. 629-680).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Hermann Hefele translated it into German and wrote a good introduction to it. An English translation by Jean Stoner was published in 1930, newly edited as Dover Book (New York, 1962).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Jacob Burckhardt, Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, section 4, “Biographic” See also Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Materialien zur Geschichte der Farbenlehre, section 3, “Hieronymus Cardanus.”Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    E. g., the execution of his oldest son who had poisoned his unfaithful wife (chapter 27, 50, note by Burckhardt).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    H. Morley, Life of Cardano, volume I, p. 292.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    This is the generally accepted date of birth and the one which Cardano based his horoscope on. However, on the title page of the Basel edition of De Subtilitate and De Rerum Varietate is a circumscription of his portrait in profile which reads: “Aetatis an.XLVIIII” along with the date 1553. From this would follow that he was born in 1504 or 1505. A. Bertolotti published a last will by Cardano dated 18 January 1566, in which Cardano states his age as sixty. This would mean that he was born in 1505. (A. Bertolotti, I Testamenti di Girolamo Cardano, Arch, storico Lombardo, IX, p. 615, 1882). I will stay with the traditonal date without insisting on its accuracy.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    De Vita propria, chapter 3.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    For comments on this as an aspiration characteristic of the time see Jacob Burckhardt, Kultur der Renaissance, section 2, “The modern fame.”Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    See Oystein Ore, Cardano, the Gambling Scholar (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1953).MATHGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    In 1573, the book was translated into English at the request of Edward de Vere, 17. earl of Oxford.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Today we simply refer to the “cubic equation” without making a distinction as to basic forms.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    T. R. Witmer’s introduction to The Great Art (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    On Tartaglia, see Stillman Drake and I. E. Drabkin, Mechanics in Sixteenth-Century Italy (Madison, 1969).Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Myrthe M. Cass, The First Book of Jerome Cardan’s “De Subtilitate,” Williamsport, 1934.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Opera IX, p. 123 and p. 225.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    De Libris propriis, Opera I (published in Basel in 1562 together with Synesiorum Somniorum libri), p. 137.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    The crown is a gold coin approximately the size of a swiss ten-franc piece and had the purchasing power of more than one hundred Swiss francs (or fifty dollars).Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    RV, 88 means De Rerum Varietate, p. 88 of the first edition, 1557.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    I. e., one of the four chambers forming the great court of law called “Parlement de Paris.”Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    The horoscope is given as the fifth example in the aforementioned commentary on Ptolemy.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    This edition was printed by Lodovicus Lucius.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    I. e., grove of St. Peter. It is still a grove in the middle of a large square.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Jacques d’Annebaut, cardinal of Sainte Susanne. See Dictionnaire d’Histoire et de Géographie Ecclésiastique (Paris: Alfred Baudrillart, 1924).Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    See Edward Armstrong, The Emperor Charles V, 2 volumes (London, 1902).Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Leopold v. Ranke, Die Römischen Papste in den letzten vier Jahrhunderten, book 3.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Ernest Renan, Averroès, 2nd edition (Paris, n. d.), p. 419. See also Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Rettung des Cardano, in the Complete Works, part III (Berlin, 1784).Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Ernest Renan, Averroès, p. 363 ff.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Basel, 1554.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    In the Basel edition of 1578 (the second edition and still prepared by Cardano) Naudé claims: “Servatoris nostri genesis non sine multorum indignatione legetur.” The edition does have a special preface “ad pium lectorem,” in which Cardano defends himself against the accusation that to cast the horoscope of Christ is heresy. Inserted on page 277 is the title “Multiplicatio effectus syderum secreta, et Servatoris genesis”—but no mention is made subsequently of Christ and his geniture! The relevant passage must have been suppressed at the last moment, during the printing. In the Opera V., Cl. Ptolemaei libri quatuor etc., a page is inserted before chapter 10, so that page 221/222 appears twice. On the second sheet is the horoscope and its interpretation. This indicates that Spon only decided to publish the controversial passage after volume V had already been printed.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Published together with Somniorum Synesiorum libri IV (Basel, 1562).Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    “[H]aecceitas” comes from haecce = this! We point out a thing. Cardano thinks that the word is a scholastic barbarism, which it is. It was coined by the Scotists (Duns Scotus) and means that things can be pointed out; they are individuals one cannot define logically, but one can point to them.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    J. Huizinga, Erasmus, translated into German by Werner Kaegi (Basel, 1951), p. 190.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Birkhäuser Boston 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • Markus Fierz
    • 1
  1. 1.KüsnachtSwitzerland

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