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

An ill wind indeed

The Black Plague, which wiped out perhaps a third of the population of Europe, demanded an explanation, and the medical establishment of the time responded as well as it could.

The most popular conjectures about the pestilence were variations on the miasmic theory of disease, an idea that went back at least to the ancient Greeks — that disease was essentially bad air. ("Miasma" was the Greek word for pollution.)

Hundreds of treatises about the epidemic survive, many of them written in the mid-14th century, when the plague was at its height. One written by members of the faculty at the medical school at the University of Paris, in response to a request from their king, Philip VI, mixed humoral and miasmic theories: The planets had aligned in such a way as to poison the air.

Another theory held that a series of earthquakes in Europe had released corrupt air from the middle of the earth. A third had the plague wafting in on noxious winds from the equator.

The cause of the plague was actually Yersinia pestis, a murderous bacterium spread by the bite of rodent fleas in the primary, "bubonic" phase, characterized by swollen lymph nodes and other symptoms. The plague can also be spread by infected droplets exhaled by its victims in a less common but deadlier "pneumonic" phase.

The plague was a catastrophe for Europe, but it did usher in reforms. It pushed the medical community toward a more professional approach to its practice, an increased emphasis on public health and the establishment of hospitals that would treat the sick, rather than merely warehouse them away from the healthy population, according to The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe, by Robert S. Gottfried.

Frustration with the utter failure of the medical establishment to discern the pandemic's cause, stop its spread or treat it effectively helped create an environment from which the scientific method emerged.