A Life in Footnotes

I mentioned some time ago that I was going to investigate (at my usual superficial level, naturally) the life and career of the physician Francesco Travagino (sometimes Travagini), who appears to have taken advantage of a space on somebody else’s tombstone in the church of the Frari in Venice to boast of his supreme achievement, election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Great Britain.

I have collected a fair amount of material, but don’t necessarily feel much the wiser (and it has strained my Italian and Latin to the utmost) … Travagino seems, alas, to have been a rather peripheral figure. I haven’t been able to find out his date of birth (it is given as between 1613 and 1623); his first known publication is dated 1666. It is asserted that he was born in Ragusa (Dubrovnik), at that time an independent republic on the far side of the Adriatic from Venice, an occasional rival in maritime trade, and a cosmopolitan melting-pot.

The orderly city of Ragusa before the earthquake.

A 1698 engraving by the Amsterdam engraver Jan Luyken (1649–1712) purporting to show the moment of the earthquake.

An earthquake on 6 April 1667 which killed over 5,000 people and wrecked the city centre was the major cause of its decline, and its independence was brought to an end in 1806 by a more than usually duplicitous act of Buonaparte.

In 1669, Travagino published an account of the effect in Venice of the shock-waves of Ragusa earthquake, especially the movement of the water in the canals, and it was reprinted at least twice. In it, he was, apparently, the first to observe the effect of surface waves at various distances from the epicentre of an earthquake: see more here.

The first page of Travagino’s book on the earthquake.

He sent a copy of the work to Henry Oldenburg, secretary and factotum to the Royal Society since its formation, and originator of the Philosophical Transactions. It was received in 1670, as is recorded in Vol. II of Thomas Birch’s 1756 supplement of items ‘communicated to the Society, which have hitherto not been published’.


Henry Oldenburg (c. 1619–77), originally from Bremen, systematised the correspondence of the Royal Society into the Philosophical Transactions, and developed the concept of peer review. (Credit: the Royal Society)

William Brouncker, 2nd Viscount Brouncker (1620–84), by Sir Peter Lely. Brouncker was a mathematician and first President of the Royal Society, from 1662 to 1677. (Credit: the National Portrait Gallery)

But as well as this evidence-based and significant piece of science, Travagino seems to been involved in alchemical experiments, at precisely the point when natural philosophy in general, and the Royal Society in particular, were attempting to put a clear distance between themselves and anything that could be thought to be in the murky area where alchemy and even witchcraft lurked.

In fact, the most substantial account of Travagino’s activities that I have been able to find appears in a footnote in a 2008 edition of the works of a hermetic philosopher Federico Gualdi (fl. 1660–80), whose origins are unknown (he may have been of German origin and named Waldo), but who was active in Venice between 1660 and 1678.

Portrait of Federico Gualdi, ‘German hermetic philosopher’. The ribbon above reads ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Proverbs, 9.10).

Among various activities, he proposed to the Council of Ten a means of preventing acqua alta (nice idea, nothing came of it), and was also involved in the (alleged) production of minerals for a noble family on the terraferma with mining interests.

Gualdi wrote a book, De Lapide Philosophorum (‘On the Philosophers’ Stone’), which seems to have brought him to the attention of the (Venetian) Inquisition in 1676. He was denounced by one Francesco Giusto, who claimed that he was acting on the directions of his conscience and his father confessor, and not for any personal feud or vendetta – although he had been a follower (if not an actual pupil) of Gualdi’s for over a year, and it is suggested that he was prompted by jealousy.

The account I’ve cited above, taken from papers in the Archivio di Stato, says that, after a measured series of statements about Gualdi’s background (of which he knew almost nothing), Giusto suddenly went a little hysterical, accusing him of being a necromancer known to his disciples as Prince of the Ancient Sect, who had a familiar spirit by means of which he communicated with the Devil. Gualdi and his disciples allegedly performed obscene and blasphemous rites; and among the noble, clerical and scholarly acolytes named by Giusto was Francesco Travagino.

Specifically, Travagino was accused of having told a third party that ‘wise philosophers’ had made an elixir out of human semen. Using this, a man would not only live healthy and strong forever, but would also achieve angelic nature, taking on powers over all the spirits in the air and under the ground.

The Inquisition did not pursue the case (possibly, it is suggested, because Gualdi’s rich and important ‘disciples’ had influence with the Venetian government), and in 1678, Gualdi himself disappeared mysteriously from Venice and was never heard of again.

Meanwhile, Travagino seems to have made many efforts to be accepted into the Royal Society. He had already written to Oldenburg in 1667, announcing a system of new philosophy, ‘established by himself’:

and of his two works of medicine, published in 1666 and 1667, he informed the Society of the latter, as Oldenburg records: ‘Some months since there were two letters sent hither from Venice, from Signior Francisco Travagino, giving notice of a Treatise of his, ready for the press, under the title of Nova philosophia & medicina. Those letters came accompanied with a synopsis in print, giving a brief account of the contents of the said treatise.’

Interestingly, there is a third book, edited by one Petrus Paulus Petreus (about whom I can find out nothing), which draws Travagino’s medicinal interests closer to the alchemical:

Title page of the Musaeum Travaginianum, printed in Venice by Johann Jacob Hertz.

Musaeum Travaginianum, seu hermeticorum medicamentorum, quae in clarissimi viri D. Francisci Travagini musaeo elaborata reperiuntur; Elenchus, ubi eorundem virtutes, doses, cautelae, et usus clare designantur (1679), a pharmacopeia of his remedies, animal, vegetable and mineral, with their virtues, doses and precautions. As far as I can find out, this didn’t get sent to the Royal Society.

And in 1684, a new edition of the much-reprinted ‘Herbarium’, or description of plants, by the Roman physician, botanist and poet Castore Durante (1529–90) was published in Venice, also by Hertz, with a dedication to ‘the most brilliant and most excellent Signor Francesco Travagino’:

There are other references to Travagino’s correspondence with Oldenburg on his research. In 1668,

He claimed at one point that he had been able to turn mercury into silver, and sent Oldenburg the recipe, using which the latter – perhaps unsurprisingly – was unable to reproduce the effect.

What the assay-masters by whom it was to be investigated thought, I cannot find out.

Eventually, however, on 10 February 1676 (a few months before he was embroiled in the Giusto/Gualdi scandal), it was tersely reported in the Philosophical Transactions that:

And on 24 March 1676, he wrote and thanked the Society:

There seems to be no surviving image of Travagino.

The date of his death is given on his (shared) tombstone as 17 November 1688, at the age of 55. It notes his Fellowship of the Royal Society, ‘deserved because he was a philosopher. Let his fame tell the rest.’





This entry was posted in Biography, Botany, History, Italy, Natural history, Printing and Publishing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A Life in Footnotes

  1. Pingback: Slow Venice | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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