Giovanni Alfonso BORELLI
Naples 1608 - Rome 1679
This great scientist contributed both to the mathematical and physical
sciences (mainly astronomy and mechanics) and to the medical and the biological sciences.
His De motu animalium (Rome, 1680) was an attempt to extend to biology the rigorous
analytical and geometrical method developed by Galileo in the field of mechanics. Borelli
was a student of Benedetto Castelli. He taught mathematics at the University of Pisa, and
later at the University of Messina. He was also member of the Accademia del Cimento.
- 1. Dates
- Born: Naples, 28 Jan. 1608 (Borelli deliberately obscured his date and place of
birth, apparently to conceal his connection to his father's political difficulties, and
possibly his own connections with Campanella. Baldini cites his baptismal record, however,
and it appears decisive.)
- Died: Rome, 31 Dec. 1679
- Dateinfo: Dates Certain
- Lifespan: 71
- 2. Father
- Occupation: A Spanish Soldier In The Garrison In Naples
- There is every reason to think the family was poor.
- 3. Nationality
- Birth: Italy
- Career: Italy
- Death: Italy
- 4. Education
- Schooling: Naples, M.D.
- It is possible that he was taught by Tommaso Campanella, while the latter was a prisoner
at the Castel Nuovo, Naples, where Borelli's father was stationed.
- It is also possible that he received medical training at the University of Naples, but
no records of his attendance or any degree exist. Baldini thinks this is not just possible
but probable, and I am accepting his argument.
- After 1628, he became a student of Castelli in Rome, at the same time as Torricelli.
- 5. Religion
- Affiliation: Catholic
- 6. Scientific Disciplines
- Primary: Mathematics, Physiology, Astronomy
- Subordinate: Mechanics, Medicine, Geology
- Borrelli was basically a mathematician during the first two decades of his career. In
1658, he published Eculidus restitutus.
- In 1649, he published a work on malignant fevers.
- He carried out an important investigation of volcanoes.
- Borelli, who ranged very widely could also be listed under anatomy (in Pisa, he carried
out extensive anatomical dissections), natural philosophy (he was an important figure in
the development of the corpuscular or mechanical philosophy), hydraulics, and meteorology.
- 7. Means of Support
- Primary: Academic Position, Patronage
- Secondary: Schoolmaster
- 1637, Public Lectureship in Mathematics at Messina.
- 1642, Senate of Messina, (perhaps encouraged by Castelli) made him a member of the city
nobility and provided him with ample funds and sent him on a tour to hire teachers away
from leading universities. During this period he became friendly with the family of the
Rao-Requesens, one of the most important families in Sicily; he was especially close to
- 1643-56, remained at Messina. Poggendorff [ref. Z7404.P72 v.1, 239] indicates a
professorship from 1649.
- 1656-67, Professor of mathematics at Pisa. He was there at the behest of the Medici.
- 1667-72, returned to Messina, and resumed chair.
- Borelli fled Sicily for political reasons. In Rome he became the physician of Queen
Christian of Sweden, who supported him as far as her means allowed.
- 1677-9, taught mathematics at the Scuole Pie, Rome.
- 8. Patronage
- Types: Court, City Magistrates, Aristocracy
- Primarily supported through many years by the Senate of Messina.
- After fleeing political turmoil in Messina for Rome, in 1672, and needing support, he
petitioned Cassini, a member of the Académie, for royal support. Negotiations were
underway for dedication of De motu animalium, in 1677, when all of Borelli's belongings
- 1679, he eventually dedicated De motu animalium to Queen Christina, who had agreed to
pay the printing costs, see also below.
- The Medici brought Borelli to Pisa.
- He dedicated his work on the Natural Motion of Heavy Bodies to the Marchese di Arena,
Secretary of the Accad. degli Investiganti (Naples)
- He dedicated De vi percussionis to Giacopo Ruffo, Viscount of Francavilla, his pupil and
friend both in Pisa and Messina.
- Queen Christina guaranteed the publication of De motu animalium.
- 9. Technological Involvement
- Types: Medical Practice, Instruments, Hydraulics, Cartography
- 1647-8, at the urging of the senate of Messina, he studied the epidemic fevers raging
through the population, and devised a treatment, though it does not seem to have been
- 1665, established an observatory at the fortress of San Miniato with some instruments of
his own design.
- While in Florence, he edited books on hydraulics and worked for the Grand Duke on
lagoons near Pisa.
- Borelli proposed a method of determining longitudes with a clock.
- 10. Scientific Societies
- Memberships: Accademia del Cimento, Accademia degli Investiganti (Naples)
- A member of Messina's Accademia della Fucina (date not certain); the Accademia del
Cimento, Tuscany (ca. 1656-6); the Accademia degli Investiganti, Naples; and a founding
member of the Accademia dell'Esperienza or Accademia Fisica- matematica (1677) which Queen
- U. Baldini, "Borelli, Giovanni Alfonso," Dizionario biografico degli Italiani,
12 (Rome, 1970), 543-551. [ref. CT1123.D62 v.12] _____. "Gli studi su Giovanni
Alfonso Borelli," in G. Arrighi, et al., La scuola galileiana. Prospettive di
ricerca, Atti del convengo di studio di Santa Margherita Ligure, 26-28 ottobre 1978,
(Firenze, 1979), pp. 111-35. This article is a gold mine of information and bibliography
on research on Borelli.
- P. Capparoni, Profili bio-bibliografici di medici e naturalisti celebri italiani dal
sec. XV al sec. XVII, 2 vols. (Rome, 1928) 1, 64-6. In the copy I have, vol. 1 is from the
second ed, and vol. 2 from the first. I gather that pagination in the two editions is not
- G.M. Mazzuchelli, Gli scrittori d'Italia, (Brescia, 1753- ), 2, pt. 3, 1709-14.
- T. Derenzini, "Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, fisico," in Celebrazione della
Accademia del cimento nel tricentenario della fondazione, (Pisa, 1958), pp. 35-52.
- P. Riccardi, Biblioteca matematica italiana, 1, 457-62.
- Works not available and not consulted: Angelo Fabroni, Vitae italorum doctrina
excellentium, 2 (Pisa, 1778), 222-324 - evidently a good source. Gustavo Barbensi, Borelli
- M. Del Gaizo, "Contributo allo studio della vita di G.A.B.," Atti della Acc.
Pontaniana, 20 (1890), 1-48.
- _____, "E. Torricelli e G.A.B.," Revista di fisica, mat. e sc.
- naturalis, 9 (1908), 385-402 _____, a whole lot ot other articles in Baldini's extensive
- E. Gugino, L'opera di G.A. Borelli, Annuario della R. Universitŕ degli studi di
- P. Capparoni, "Sulla patria di Giovanni Alfonso Borelli," Revista di storia
delle scienze medechi e naturali, (1931), pp. 60f.
- U. Baldini, "Galileismo e politica: il caso borelliano," Annali dell'Istituto
e Museo di storia della scienze di Firenze, 3 (1978).