Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 entry Sept 2011

Enlightenment Medicine & Luca Antonio Porzio
Frontispiece of the 1728 edition of      
Porzio's Soldier's Vade Mecum.

cientifically, the 1600s are shaped by Galileo (1564-1642), the father of modern science, and Descartes (1596-1650), the father of modern philosophy. Descartes' mechanistic view of physics and biology —that life, itself, would arise spontaneously as matter came to organize itself in an appropriate way and that digestion, involuntary motion, the action of the heart, and sense perception, etc. etc. could be explained in purely mechanical terms— led naturally to the practical medical point of view that there would be equally mechanical cures for disease. (Descartes view that human thought and reason were exceptions to these mechanisms is irrelevant to this brief discussion.1)

Indeed, the 1600s and early 1700s show the effect of this new view of medicine. Among many examples: in 1628 William Harvey publishes An Anatomical Study of the Motion of the Heart and of the Blood in Animals, which forms the basis for future research on blood vessels, arteries and the heart; in 1656 Sir Christopher Wren experiments with canine blood transfusions; in 1670 Anton van Leeuwenhoek discovers blood cells; in 1701 Giacomo Pylarini gives the first smallpox inoculations; and in 1747 James Lind publishes his Treatise of the Scurvy stating that citrus fruits prevent that malady. (It is hard to overstate how revolutionary the new approach to medicine was in Enlightenment Europe. After all, in many parts of Europe, into the mid-1600s medical schools were still using Avicenna's Canon of Medicine, written in the 11th century! (2)

n "Medicine, History and Religion in Naples in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries" (3) Maria Conforti describes the intellectual and scientific climate of Naples in the late 1600s and early 1700s, saying,

...the city was remarkable for its intellectual liveliness...a city where the thirst for new information about new scientific developments was as strong as the tendency to transform them into theories—and into philosophical debate—more than into scientific practice. In point of fact, the seventeenth century shows no signs of decline in the standards of scientific and intellectual debate or in the means of rapidly obtaining information about foreign advances...There is however little sign of experimental and mathematical science actually being practiced in Naples...the city and the Kingdom appear to have made no significant contribution to mathematics, astronomy, mechanics...
The author points out, however that in medicine and the life sciences the situation was different. There, "the debate on anatomy, therapeutics, chemistry, iatromechanics, botany and surgery was of a very high level, as were medical practice, university education and informal teaching at the hospitals." There was an entire tradition of medical practitioners extending from the surgeon Marco Aurelio Severino (1585-1656) to his pupils and their pupils, well into the 1700s, "who occupied important positions in Italian medicine in the wake of the Enlightenment." One of these was Luca Antonio Porzio [b. Positano,1639 - d. Naples, 1724].

The year 1747 saw the English translation of a very practical medical work by Porzio: The soldier's Vade Mecum: or, the method of curing the diseases and preserving the health of soldiers, first published in Vienna in 1685 in Latin (De Militis in castris sanitate tuenda, frontispiece image, above). Sources list Porzio as a philosopher, a doctor, a naturalist, a mathematician, even a military engineer. He lived and taught in Naples, Rome and Venice and besides the work mentioned above, for which he is primarily remembered, he wrote other works, such as Studies and Research on Italian Physicians in Foreign Countries, and pursued other projects, such as vacuum experiments, by his own account, "similar to those of Robert Boyle" and (with L. F. Marsili) experiments and a publication to show the mechanisms associated with the opposing currents in the Bosporus.

The Soldier's Vade Mecum
(handbook or manual) is a direct result of Porzio's presence in Venice in 1683 when the forces of the Ottoman Empire were laying siege to Vienna. It was one of the pivotal events in European military history; the victory by the Holy Roman imperial forces of Leopold I marked the end of the Ottoman threat to Europe and the true beginning of Hapsburg/Austrian expansion. Ballingall writes (in 1833):(4)   

Porzio...chief professor of medicine and anatomy in the Royal University of Naples...was induced, in consequence of the great sickliness at Vienna in 1684 to perform a sort of medical tour from Venice...[to Vienna]. Here he had the see the soldiers who had returned from the encampments at Buda and at Gran, where a large force had been assembled. The principal diseases under which they laboured, he tells us, were dystenteries and general and fatal that they had caused more mortality than the Turkish sword to the imperial army...These considerations determined the Professor to write a short treatise, illustrating the causes of the diseases of soldiers and explaining the best method of guarding against them, and of curing them...The work of the Neapolitan professor, being the first very complete treatise, formed a sort of basis to all future productions of the same character; and most of the dissertations printed afterwards, either followed his arrangement more or less closely, or reproduced his materials.
Porzio's work is a treatise, essentially, on the importance of proper diet, good air, sanitation, clean water, etc. etc. things less obvious in 1685 than they are today. (Ever the Neapolitan, Porzio dedicated a lot of space to how bad northern European food is!) Modern sources call the Vade Mecum, in spite of its shortcomings, authoritative, useful and "scientific in the spirit of its day." (5) The work so impressed Leopold I that he commissioned the first edition in Vienna in 1685. The work was reprinted in Naples in 1701 and 1728, the Hague in 1739, Leiden in 1741, and in translations in Paris in 1744 and London in 1747.

Porzio returned to Naples and spent the last years of his life there actively involved with the learned societies of the city.


(1) Irrelevant in this sense: The Rationalist-Empiricist debate centered on how humans acquire ideas and knowledge. Descartes (Rationalist) believed that reason and the human mind were a priori features of being human. Empiricists such as Locke believed in the "blank slate"; that is, even reason is a feature that has developed naturally. Both positions would have rejected the medieval view that prayer and mortification of the flesh were means to combat human disease. Both positions would have viewed reason as the tool to that end. ^up

(2) Avicenna's name is the Latinized form of Ibn Sina, often called, at least by Europeans, the "Arab Leonardo"—although he was Persian. (Maybe Persians call Leonardo the European Ibn Sina!) Avicenna was clearly one of the great universal minds in human history, but after 600 years even his textbook was getting a bit long in the tooth. Or at least dog-eared. See this item.) ^up   

(3) Conforti, Maria. Chapter 4 in Medicine and Religion in Enlightenment Europe, eds. Ole Peter Grell, Andrew Cunningham. Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot,  England, 2007. ^up

(4) Ballingall, George Sir. "Outlines on the Course of Lectures on Military Surgery, delivered in the University of Edinburgh" in Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, vol 40. pp. 438-58. Edinburgh, 1833.^up

(5) Lenihan, Padraig. "Unhappy Campers (1689) and After" in Scorched Earth, Studies in the Archaeology of Conflict, eds. Pollard and Banks. Pub. Brill, Leiden, 2008.

                            to science portal                         to top of this page
© 2002 - 2023