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

Practical magic

The first European society for scientific inquiry was probably the Academy of the Mysteries of Nature, which met in the home of Giambattista della Porta, in Naples, Italy, beginning in 1560. Membership was open to anyone who could produce an original discovery in the field of natural science.

Giambattista della Porta
Giambattista della Porta

Della Porta was the author of Natural Magic, a 20-volume encyclopedia of popular science, written in Latin and published first in 1558.

Della Porta had the idea that much of what had come down through the ages as magic actually represented early, and often unwitting, incursions into areas that science was only then beginning to explain.

He and his society undertook to test various magical cures and activities to see if they had any merit. The academy would endorse only practices it had vetted. In other words, its members were practicing a rudimentary form of the scientific method.

The Academy of the Mysteries of Nature was short-lived. It was ordered closed by the Catholic Church after the Inquisition charged that the academy was involved in sorcery.

Not only did della Porta comply with the order, but he also became a Jesuit brother before his death in 1615.