Primary Research: Antonio Nardi’s Selva


The Harmonies of Nature and Knowledge: Antonio Nardi’s Selva

By Teddy Chappell

What separates law-bound nature from untamed wilderness? Although we hold the universe to be governed by immutable laws, the impression of the natural world’s chaos is inescapable. We find a surprising take on this problem in the work of Antonio Nardi, a seventeenth century Tuscan mathematician with whom Galileo and his disciples corresponded and worked. A modest body of Italian scholarship on Nardi exists, but beyond a few references to him in works on Galileo, there has been no English scholarship on this important Renaissance figure. (1) My work at the University of Minnesota under the supervision of J.B. Shank seeks to remedy this. I suggest that Nardi’s writings portray a complex relationship between nature’s unity and its disharmony: a diverse, varied natural world can still constitute a harmonious whole.

Nardi’s writings portray a complex relationship between nature’s unity and its disharmony: a diverse, varied natural world can still constitute a harmonious whole.

Nardi marvels at the overwhelming diversity of nature and the impossibility of comprehending its variety for all except its creator, God. At the same time, however, he continually emphasizes that this seeming chaos produces an ineffable sense of harmony: “the silent parts of the earth (which seem ordered by chance) nevertheless make a secretly manifest harmony” (415).

Initially this harmony seems to be present despite nature’s chaos, but Nardi’s continual juxtaposition of the two suggests that their relationship is not entirely antithetical. Nardi was by no means alone: early modern texts abound with the discordia concors trope–Latin for “discord agrees”–which also plays on the concordance or harmony of different musical notes or cordae. Nardi’s ideas are also likely inspired by Johannes Kepler’s 1619 Harmonices Mundi in which he argues for the existence of different kinds of harmony in music, nature, and even society beyond the ancient ones calculated by Pythagoras. All of this points toward a more flexible notion of harmony or perhaps even one that can encompass disharmony. We find even more resonances of this creative tension between order and chaos within Nardi’s Scene (Italian for “Scenes”), a 1,394-page manuscript in Tuscan dialect found today in Galilean collection in Florence. (2)

Just as Nardi’s vision of nature involved a wide array of different elements, so his written work exhibits a dizzying variety of material ranging from geometry to philology and appears to lack any kind of discernible order or organization. A table of contents tucked away around the text’s midpoint, however, indicates that the Scene is not a casually disordered rough draft. Nardi in fact draws four “chords” from what he playfully calls the “chaos” of the Scene, thus “harmonizing” the text’s disorganization (740-1).

Indeed, Nardi entitled the earlier versions of his work selva (silva in Latin, meaning wood or forest), which is a reference to the classical genre of ostensibly impromptu or unfinished poems revived during the Renaissance. Like Nardi’s work, however, the seeming jumble of poems in these silvae was actually carefully arranged with a specific purpose in mind. (3) Nardi’s composition of the Scene, then, echoes his vision of nature: careful readers will look past the confusing disarray of the selva and be able to perceive its “secretly manifest harmony.”

This artistic arrangement also reflects back upon its creator or “author,” an identity which in the early modern period carried more authority than simply being a “writer.” Nardi concludes his essay on nature’s harmony by noting, “It is certain that the highest and sovereign Maker [Artefice] is not only a geometer but also a musician” (419). It is not surprising that God would have multiple capacities as creator, but Nardi praises many other auctores for their multifaceted talents—sometimes in surprising ways. He asserts that Odysseus is as much a sage as an adventurer and that Homer is both poet and philosopher (769). He likewise draws attention to Archimedes’s status as both mathematician and rhetorician, arguing that the ancient geometer uses Euclidian notation despite its complexity because “delight and marvel increase with the difficulty of the means” (676). Perhaps most tellingly, he lauds the Roman poet Horace for his ability to effortlessly imitate any kind of individual, whether a Stoic or Epicurean philosopher, or even a libertine courtier (1236).

In Nardi’s eyes, then, auctoritas of an early modern auctor comes not from mastery of one field but rather from expertise in many and the ability to move smoothly between them. It is doubtful that Nardi wanted to be known solely as a mathematician, or even as a tripartite mathematician-humanist-philosopher. Indeed, his aim for this virtuosic display in the Scene likely lay outside the world of learning, or at least the narrow sense in which we conceive it today: the apparently off-the-cuff organization of the Scene and its effortless traversal of disciplines points to the intellectual habits of a dilettante-like courtier much more than to those of an academic philosopher. (4)

Scholars have usually focused on the mathematical and scientific aspects of the Scene, but such an approach not only neglects the rest of the work’s contents but also misses its point altogether. (5) Scholars have illustrated how figures of the Scientific Revolution like Galileo were involved in many activities outside of our modern conception of science, ranging from art criticism to court politics. (6) Nardi’s work shows us these seemingly disparate personae in dynamic interaction and the urge of a Renaissance author-creator to harmonize them.


  1. Capone-Braga, G. “Un Filosofo dell’estremo Rinascimento.” Atti e Memorie dell’Accademia Petrarca di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti 5-7 (1925-28): 36-135. Milighetti, Maria Chiara. “Sophia e mathesis negli Scritti di Antonio Nardi.” Bollettino di Storia delle Scienze Matematiche (La Nouva Italia) 26, no. 1 (2006): 9-31.
  2. Nardi, Antonio. Scene. Bound manuscript. Gal. Mss. 130. Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze. Translations are my own.
  3. Van Dam, H. “Wandering Woods Again: From Poliziano to Grotius” in The Poetry of Statius ed. Smolenaars, J., Van Dam, H., and Nauta, R. (Leiden, 2008): 45-64.
  4. Biagioli, Mario. Galileo, Courtier: The Practice of Science in the Culture of Absolutism. Science and Its Conceptual Foundations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Shapin, Stephen. “‘A Scholar and a Gentleman’: The Problematic Identity of the Scientific Practitioner in Early Modern England.” History of Science 29, no. 3 (1991): 279-327.
  5. Devoti, Stefania. “Aspetti Scientifico-Matematici del Pensiero di Antonio Nardi.” Per una Storia Critica della Scienza 26 (1995): 207-224.
  6. Panofsky, Erwin. “Galileo as a Critic of the Arts: Aesthetic Attitude and Scientific Thought.” Isis 47, no. 1 (1956): 3-15. Peterson, Mark A. Galileo’s Muse: Renaissance Mathematics and the Arts. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011. Shank, J.B. “What Exactly Was Torricelli’s ‘Barometer?’” In Science in the Age of Baroque. Edited by Chen-Morris and Offer Gal. Archives Internationales D’histoire Des Idées ; v. 208. Dordrecht; New York: Springer, 2013: 161-195. Wilding, Nick. Galileo’s Idol: Gianfrancesco Sagredo and the Politics of Knowledge. University of Chicago Press, 2014.