Pitti Palace, incubator of the scientific method

By 1657, the plague was largely spent and the Catholic Church was becoming a little choosier about its battles, especially given the spread of the Protestant Reformation.

In Italy, the Renaissance was winding down. Science had become so intrinsic to intellectual life that Leopoldo De' Medici, who was both a prince and, later, a Catholic cardinal, opened his private chambers in the Pitti Palace in Florence to a new scientific academy, the  Accademia del Cimento. ("Cimento" means "trial.")

Lion from the Pitti Palace
Lion from the Pitti Palace

Leopoldo and his brother, Grand Duke Ferdinando II of Tuscany, founded, and funded, the academy, which would meet for just 10 years. Its influence would last much longer.

Ferdinando had supported Galileo's experiments and had tried unsuccessfully to nudge the Church toward accepting them in the spirit of exploration. In the 1640s, he opened the Boboli Garden, the grounds of the Pitti Palace, his official residence, to experiments with thermometers, poultry incubators and other instruments.

Galileo's spirit hovered over the academy. Its motto was "provando e riprovando" — "testing and re-testing." Founding members included Galileo's students, like Vincenzo Viviani, who with fellow academy member Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, worked on experiments to pin down the speed of sound waves.

Another member was the physician Francesco Redi, who performed what is considered the first scientific experiment.

Distractions to the patrons, and quarrels among the members, doomed the academy. Its last act was the publication of a compilation of members' work, Examples of Natural Experiments, which in its Latin translation influenced the European scientific community profoundly, becoming essentially the science textbook for at least 100 years.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The lynx-eyed ones

Science was all the rage among progressive young aristocrats in the 17th century. In 1603, in Rome, Federico Cesi and other science-mad young men founded the Accademia dei Lincei, which has endured, in a decidedly broken line, down into our time as Italy's national science academy.

The society, which took its name from the lynx pictured on the title page of Giambattista della Porta's book, Natural Magic, represented an ambitious bid to decipher the mysteries of the natural world. The lynx was admired for its keen eyesight which, metaphorically, the Academy's members hoped to apply to their scientific investigations.

Accademia dei Lincei

Accademia dei Lincei

While European intellectuals had begun sharing their thoughts in the 16th century, this new academy was the first really seminal scientific body, inspiring imitators all over Europe and introducing the notion that the free flow of information among men of science would push forward the communal body of knowledge.

Early members included Della Porta himself, as well as the celebrated Galileo Gallilei, who was so thrilled with the honor that he included a reference to the society on the title pages of all his subsequent books.

Science made officials of church and state nervous enough that one of the charter members of the Academy, Johannes Eck, a Dutchman, was banished for a time. While he traveled around Europe, Eck spread the word about the society's work.

The Academy published Galileo's Letters on Sunspots in 1613 and The Assayer in 1623. When the authorities of the Catholic Church turned against Galileo and his radical new ideas, which included the Copernican assertion that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice versa, which is how the Bible sets things out, the Academy supported him.

Galileo later recanted his heliocentrism, which didn't keep him from spending his last days under house arrest. This was a gentler fate than the church was used to handing out to heretics, like Giordano Bruno (who did not recant). Bruno was executed.

The support of academies like the Lincei began to make the world less lonely, and perhaps even a safer place, for these early scientists to assert the truth as they saw it.

Clear as glass

Glass-making is an ancient art, originally developed in the Middle East. Its secrets have been lost, re-discovered at different times and in different processes, and eventually spread around the world. The magnifying properties of glass were obvious and often remarked upon.

Modern lenses evolved from reading stones — rock crystal, for example, that was shaped into magnifiers, the first step toward creating instruments that would make the minute world visible.

Reading stone

Reading stone

The scientist and mathematician Abu Ali Hasan Ibn Al-Haitham, also known as Alhazen, "the father of modern optics," working in 11th-century Spain, described many of the properties of light, including refraction and color, as well as the magnifying properties of  lenses.

Some talented Italian made the first eyeglasses in Europe, for far-sightedness only, sometime in the 13th century. Nicholas Cusanus, a brilliant German cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, is credited with making the first eyeglasses for myopia, in 1451.

In 1604, Johannes Kepler, the great German mathematician, astronomer and inventor, published Optics, an astonishing treatise that covered the nature and action of light, as well as the mechanics of sight. Optics became part of the bedrock of physics.

In 1611, Kepler improved on Galileo's telescope by replacing its concave eyepiece with a convex one. (Candidates abound for the honor of inventing the telescope, around 1600.)

Incidentally, Kepler's mother, Katharina, was accused of witchcraft in 1615, when she was about 70. He handled her defense himself, eventually winning her acquittal. Katharina Kepler reportedly had played a part in her son's lifelong love affair with the heavens: When he was six years old, she took him to "a high place" so he could see the spectacle of the Great Comet of 1577 in the night sky.

Image from Zeiss Optical Museum