De propria vita liber. Ex Bibliotheca Gab. Naudaei

Autore: CARDANO, Girolamo (1501-1576)-NAUDÉ, Gabriel (1600-1653)

Tipografo: Apud Jacobum Villery, in Palatio sub Porticu Delphinali (Jacques Villery)

Dati tipografici: Paris, 1643



8vo (155x100 mm). [96], 374, [2] pp. Collation: ā8 ē8 ī8 ō8 ū8 *8 A-Z8 Aa4. The last leaf is a blank. Woodcut decorative headpieces and initials. Modern stiff vellum, gilt title on spine, older sprinkled edges. Some scattered browning and foxing throughout, margins cut short (the running title on a few leaves is slightly trimmed), all in all a good copy.


First edition of the definitive version of Cardano's autobiography, published posthumously by the French bibliographer Gabriel Naudé and dedicated by him to Élie Diodati. The work “is considered by some one of the greatest human documents of all times and is most certainly a pioneering work in clinical psychology” (Heirs of Hippocrates, Iowa, 1980, p. 75).

In the De Cardano Iudicium, which occupies the opening pages and represents the first bio-bibliography of Cardano, Naudé expresses his admiration for him, but at the same time he does not hesitate to call him a liar regarding his accounts of supernatural encounters with spirits and a blasphemer because of his famous horoscope of Christ.

The Iudicium opens with a sort of trial to the figure of Cardano, his contradictions, his excessive frankness in recounting shameful or scabrous details of his own life, undermining his respectability and gravity. No doubts, on the other hand, about the importance of his scholarly work, which Naudé, in the second part, struggles to catalogue, trying to identify the best editions, locate surviving manuscripts, and promote a multi-volume collective edition; C. Spon, who edited Cardano's Opera omnia (Lyon, 1663), also reprinted the Iudicium, overlooking, however, Naudé's merits and proposal in this regard.

Naudé later recounted that he came into possession of the autograph manuscript of the De propria vita during a stay in Rome. Its disappearance following publication seems to be attributable to the fact that he gave the original to the printer. The presence of other manuscript copies, preserved in Italian libraries, has recently made it possible to correct numerous errors in the present edition, which has long remained the only source of this writing.

Naudé, Diodati and N.-C. Fabri de Peiresc formed a literary circle that was in constant search of Italian manuscripts for publication. It is known that around the 1630s a large lot of Cardano's autograph manuscripts was up for auction in Rome. Apparently, Naudé and his sodales were unable to take possession of them, due to the high price and machinations of Italian rivals. They only managed to get their hands on some of them, which were later published by Naudé. The manuscript of the De propria vita was given to the latter by Vincenzo Alsario della Croce as a thank you for the epistle dedicated to him in Naudé's first Quaestio iatrophilologica. Della Croce, in turn, had received the manuscript as a gift from Cardinal Bonifacio Bevilacqua.

Cardano's autobiography is an extraordinary document for its frankness and the abundance of personal details it contains. Drafted in the last years of his life between 1575 and 1576, it represents the terminal point of a multitude of autobiographical writings, which had begun with his own horoscope printed in the astrological collection of 1543, then reworked several times, and had continued with several drafts of the De libris propriis (the first is dated 1544) and with the Liber XII geniturarum, appeared in his commentary to Ptolemy (Quadripartitum, Basel, 1554).

It is precisely from this original character of horoscope that the text's incredible profusion of details originates. The physician-astrologer in compiling a client's horoscope had to take into account not only the celestial configuration at the time of his birth, but also his standard of living, his daily habits, the illnesses he had, and even his diet.

In writing his own horoscope, that is, that of the person he knew best, Cardano did not behave any differently. Passages such as the one in which he recounts the impotence that tormented him for a decade and the efforts he made in bed to overcome it are part of this context. Equally, the attempt at a critical-psychological investigation of his own character and personality, which goes beyond self-aggrandizement, is motivated by the astrological recognition that a person's life is irrevocably shaped by stellar influences.

The influence, repeatedly referred to by Cardano, of the autobiography of Marcus Aurelius, printed just then for the first time by G. Xylander (Zurich, 1569), seems more nominal than factual, if one considers the philosophical-moralistic tone of the latter, very different from the style of the De propria vita.

The account of his own life was Cardano's most vital literary and intellectual achievement. For the introspective force of the writing, it represents one of the few works of the time to be able to stand comparison with Michel de Montaigne's Essays.

In 1571 Cardano had to deal with the Inquisition and was also imprisoned. If the De propria vita was conceived as an apologetic text, the constant references to the spirit world and its supernatural powers certainly do not seem to have done him much good.

“Cardano's narrative of his own life was his most sustained literary and intellectual achievement. It amounted to a summation of his lifelong effort to understand and explicate his own experiences, and a systematic demonstration of the unique powers of analysis and prediction that he had dedicated his life to developing. The text embodied Cardano's definitive effort to trace the complex, riven web of relationships that connected his body and soul to the cosmos and the forces that ruled it. Though not published until the mid-seventeenth century, it has consistently fascinated and often appalled later readers. Goethe admired the work's unbuttoned, informal style: ‘It is not the doctor in a long robe, who instructs us from the height of the pulpit: it is the human being.' Georg Misch, the historian of autobiography, treated it as the Renaissance's definitive effort to portray an individual personality in an analytical way. Cardano's life was to that of Benvenuto Cellini, he wrote, as philosophy to poetry […] When Cardano recounted these details about the functions and care of his body […], he wrote in part as a doctor, following classical precedents. The medical writing of the later Middles Ages included increasingly detailed Consilia, or reports on individual cases and their treatment […] Cardano's long narratives of his long diseases and their cures mirrors the detailed, highly personal accounts of others' diseases and cures that he included in a wide range of medical and philosophical works […] Astrology, however, did more than any other single disciplines to fix the shape and style of Cardano's most elaborate self-portrait” (A. Grafton, Cardano's Cosmos. The Worlds and Works of a Renaissance Atrologer, Cambridge MA-London, 1999, pp. 179-184).

Girolamo Cardano, a native of Pavia, was the illegitimate son of a learned jurist of Milan, himself distinguished by a taste for mathematics. He was educated at the University of Pavia, and subsequently at that of Padua, where he graduated in medicine. He was, however, excluded from the College of Physicians at Milan on the ground of his illegitimate birth, and it is not surprising that that his first book should have been an exposure of the fallacies of the faculty. He set up a medical practice near Padua in the village of Saccolongo. In 1534 he moved with his family to Milan, where he took up teaching duties at the schools founded by Tommaso Piatti for instruction in Greek, astronomy, dialectics, and mathematics. In 1545 he produced his greatest mathematical work, Ars magna, in which he presented many new ideas in algebra, including the solution of the cubic and the quadratic. At the same time that Cardano took up his mathematical teaching duties, he maintained his medical practice and saw his status in that profession grow to such proportions that he soon enjoyed a reputation second only to that of the great Andreas Vesalius. In 1543 he accepted the chair of medicine at the University of Pavia, holding that position until 1560 with a seven-year hiatus from 1552 to 1559. The year 1552, in fact, found Cardano in Scotland treating the Archbishop of Edinburgh, an indication of just how far his reputation as a physician had reached. The test of his life, however, was overshadowed by a series of calamities. In 1560 his elder son, his favourite, was executed for having poisoned his wife. His reputation and his practice waned. He addicted himself to gaming, a vice to which he had always be prone. Cardano was forced in disgrace from Milan, ultimately securing a professorship of medicine at the University of Bologna. Troubles revisited him in 1570 when he was imprisoned by the Inquisition for the heresy of casting the horoscope of Jesus Christ. Confirming his own horoscope's prediction that he would live to the age of seventy-five, Cardano died on September 21, 1576 (cf. Baldi, M.-Canziani, G., eds., Girolamo Cardano. Le opere, le fonti, la vita, Milan, 1999; see also M. Fierz, Girolamo Cardano, 1501-1576: Philosopher, Natural Philosopher, Mathematician, Astrologer, and Interpreter of Dreams, Boston, 1983).


Heirs of Hippocrates, Iowa, 1980, nr. 151; Cushing, C-76; J.R. Eckman, Jerome Cardan, Baltimore, 1946, nr. 1; G. Cardano, The Book of My Life [De vita propria liber]. Translated from the Latin by J. Stoner. Introduction by A. Grafton, New York, 2002.