The Italian Accademia del Cimento

Establishing a New Scientific Institution in Early Modern Europe: The Italian Accademia del Cimento as a Scientific Network, Intellectual Dispositive and Experimental Entreprise

Giulia Giannini


A meeting of the Accademia del Cimento. "Seduta sperimentale
dell'Accademia del Cimento", Gasparo Martellini, Tribuna di Galileo, Florence, 1840ca.

Scientific academies are undoubtedly a great institutional novelty of the second half of the 17th century. Even though their history has been well explored, the Accadema del Cimento still remains a desideratum for the history of science, since it is neither correctly studied nor thoroughly and carefully explored. Founded in 1657 by Leopoldo of Tuscany the Accadema del Cimento was the first academy that existed in early modern period. It had a strangely short lifetime and a rather rapid development (1657-1667). The only publication availiable of the Academia del Cimento remains a single volume (Saggi di Naturali Esperienze, 1667) which comprises only a few of the experiments performed by their members.

Historical analysis has underlined a particular Galilean character of the academy. Arguments in favor of such a thesis are not difficult to find:

The fields of enquiry and activity of the Cimento were substantially the same as Galileo’s;

Prominent members of the Cimento were academically linked to the Galilean School. While Vincenzo Viviani and was a direct disciple of Galileo, Alfonso Borelli became a follower of the Galilean school of Benedetto Castelli (1577-1643);

The society’s name and motto "Provando e riprovando" (Trying and trying again) as well as its only published work may lead to the assumption their members had practised a rigorously experimental verification of the principles of natural philosophy, in line with a broadly Galilean standpoint.

These arguments notwithstanding this overall thesis suffers from several flaws. It (i) lacks a substantive documentary basis and textual evidence, (ii) it does not consider or underestimates at best historical context(s), (iii) does not sufficiently take into account an investigation of the scientific personalities that were among the members of the Academy and finally (iv) rests upon a prejudice of 19th century historiography about the Cimento Academy - according to which Galileo is the only true genius of Italian science.

The Accademia del Cimento differed from the other academies of the time because of its scientific nature and its specificity as an academy. It had not a statute and there is no document that proves that the society was ever registered. Moreover, it is unknown how its members were admitted, which were their rights and their duties and how they met. Finally, we don’t even know the names of all the members and collaborators of the society.

Since the Cimento Academy was the first European academy it can reveal important insights about the evolution of the “Academy form” and about the genesis of its institutional character. The extensive correspondence between members of the Cimento with scientists in the founding process of other famous academies such as the Royal Society, established in 1660 in London, and the Académie Royale des Sciences, established 1666 in Paris. A fresh look into the substantive body of correspondence, neglected by historical research so far, provides evidence in favor of the intellectual networks and their fruitful exchange in the founding processes of early modern academies in Europe. Within this process the novelty of the Academia del Cimento became a pioneering model of a new institutional structure as scientific organization.

That being said a novel, more careful and attentive investigation of the Cimento Academy is in order, an investigation that aims at revising deeply, if not subverting, what might be called the received vista of the nature, aims and scope of the Italian academy. In particular such an investigation cannot ignore:

(1) The historical context in which the Cimento originated and worked, namely the difficult heritage of Galileo in Tuscany.

(2) A comparison between the Cimento and other scientific societies in Europe at that time. In particular an evaluation of their differences in structure, in their inner functioning and in their relations with the political power are crucial.

(3) The relations that the members of the Cimento academy maintained with the members of other scientific societies in Europe. This has to be undertaken through an extensive study of their correspondence with philosophers and scientists in Paris and London that has yet to received the attention it deserves.