Paolo Rossi Monti
2009 Balzan Prize for the History of Science
Coming from philosophy and the history of ideas, Paolo Rossi Monti’s (*1923–†2012) first book on a topic related to the history of science illuminated the roots of Francis Bacon’s thought (Francesco Bacone. Dalla magia alla scienza, 1957; Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science, 1968), showing how Bacon’s philosophy of science developed out of the intellectual currents of his age. Rossi Monti’s fidelity to the sources and his unbiased view of one of the most mysterious philosophers of science resulted in a truly innovative interpretation of Bacon’s thought.
Rossi Monti’s interest in the complexity of the intellectual processes on which early modern science was based led him to write I filosofi e le macchine 1400-1700 (1962; Philosophy, Technology and the Arts in the Early Modern Era, 1970). Combining the history of science, technology and philosophy, he expounded the interdependence of scientific thought and practice on one hand and technical developments on the other with great lucidity. As with his book on Bacon, Rossi Monti broke new ground here, looking for the genesis of the Scientific Revolution in a union of knowledge and technical expertise.
His pioneering book Clavis universalis. Arti della memoria e logica combinatoria da Lullo a Leibniz (1960; Logic and the Art of Memory: The Quest for a Universal Language, 2000) is witness to a second theme in Rossi Monti’s work: the art of memory in relation to early modern combinatory logic. It is a fundamental contribution to research on the idea of memory systems, universal languages, and encyclopaedic and pansophic thought. Rossi Monti made a further major contribution with I segni del tempo. Storia della Terra e storia delle nazioni da Hooke a Vico (1979; The Dark Abyss of Time: The History of the Earth and the History of Nations from Hooke to Vico, 1984). Here he traced the gradual fading of the Biblically founded certainty that the age of the earth, and hence the course of history, had been confined within a period of a few thousand years. The surrender of Biblical history – “the death of Adam” – during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as analysed by Rossi Monti, comprised many attempts by the great philosophers and scientists of the time to deal with the idea of a remote past. As they showed, geology and history, as well as new lines of thought about scriptural history were able to shed new light on this “dark abyss of time”. Rossi Monti comes up with a fresh reading of the history of geology in relation to developing historical consciousness during the same period. Equally original is the part of his book dealing with the history of linguistics, in which he describes the slow realization that Hebrew could not be the source of all languages, and the acceptance of the idea that languages have their origin not in the Creation but in the cultural history of mankind. Rossi Monti does not analyse these processes from the standpoint of an inexorable progress of scientific truth; rather he gives pride of place to intellectual and religious resistance to these new ideas.
These different strands in Rossi Monti’s work are drawn together in his authoritative La nascita della scienza moderna in Europa (1997; The Birth of Modern Science, 2001), in which a subtle and detailed history of early modern science in the context of social and political history is offered to the general reader.
Paolo Rossi Monti’s always meticulously researched works and lucidly presented arguments have greatly contributed to a better understanding of the relations between the history of science, the history of ideas and their relations to social life.