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Medicine, Heresy and Freedom of Thought in sixteenth-century Italy: a Network of Dissident Physicians in the Confessional Age

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - netdis (Medicine, Heresy and Freedom of Thought in sixteenth-century Italy:a Network of Dissident Physicians in the Confessional Age)

Reporting period: 2018-10-01 to 2019-09-30

NETDIS examines and interprets the link between 16th century heretical thought and the rise of modern science, exploring the local, national and trans-national levels of this connection. NETDIS uses digital humanities tools to reveal the network of Italian physicians who developed non-conformist religious views in the Confessional age.
By exploring the nature, extent and function of the ties among physicians, NETDIS inquiries into the genesis of freedom of thought – which stands today at the core of European identity – as an embryonic value shared by most physicians in response to the spread of intolerance. This is supposed to have positive insights for several ongoing difficulties facing the EU, such as the revival of religious violence (i.e. terrorism). The problem of religious intolerance has old roots, which also go back to 16th century Christian context, as shown by the dissenters’ biographies examined. NETDIS describes the progressive rise of a community of scholars who resisted fanaticism, practiced religious tolerance, and opposed the erection of dogmatic boundaries through an open-minded attitude to science and religion. Moreover, NETDIS can have positive insights for the spread of Eurosceptic movements.
Its main innovative aspect is the application of digital visualisations to the history of 16th century religious dissent, tackled through a networked approach. The archive research, combined with the reconstruction of networks and visualisation through digital humanities tools, has brought to reconsider the way we look at early modern religious dissent.
"The first of NETDIS goals was to map early modern medical religious dissent by considering the experience of Girolamo Donzellini, a relevant example of a heretical doctor scarcely examined by historiography. Reconstructing and visualising this network through digital humanities tools is crucial to understand the relations between medicine and heresy and its relevance for the growth of European cultural identity.
Donzellini's case was far from being exceptional in 16th century Italy. Many more heretical physicians were inserted in a network of medical practice, cultural exchange, and religious dissent. After having reconstructed the case-study’s network, NETDIS maps other heretical physicians’ professional and religious bonds, stemming from the Republic of Venice. The expanded research stemmed from four case studies of physicians included in my database: Girolamo Donzellini, Teofilo Panarelli, Decio Bellebuono and Gian Battista Gemma. Some of the contacts that they had in common were scholars, writers, and alchemists involved in what I called “the great utopia network”: from the intersection of cultural and professional connections among scholars, doctors, alchemists and printers, we can draw the existence of a community which shared the same inclination towards philosophy, science and religion.
NETDIS has tracked the ultra-venetian ties of the physicians active in Venice and the ulterior links that exiled physicians built with relevant figures in the European medical and religious frame. This final map visualises the personal, cultural, religious, and professional bonds of Italian heretical physicians all over Europe, considering also their religious inclination, a crucial aspect to understand the link between medicine and heresy as an essential factor in the rise of freedom of thought. The result has been very promising: historical network analysis allowed to seize gender and class dynamics in the heretical movement and in the perpetuation of cultural/scientific activities.
The research in the archives in Veneto has been accomplished, providing the NETDIS database with important details about the biographies of the heretical physicians that are at the core of NETDIS project, and of those of their accomplices (not necessarily doctors). In addition to Inquisition records, NETDIS has widened its scope to include other kind of sources, in particular notary ones, the typical sources of social history research. They have shown to be useful in widening our perspectives about the life of heretical individuals and communities in 16th century Venice. This methodology also allowed to reflect upon the interactivity between historical frames and the concrete existence of communities of dissent in the past: how they existed, how they shaped and reshaped themselves, who were the leading figures within them, what was the role of specific social and professional categories like doctors, who were the most central nodes, for what reason, and so on. The medical-heretical network had specific and homogenous cultural and religious characteristics, while it was varied in social respects. This information supplies the material for a further iteration of the maps produced at Stanford.
NETDIS methodologies and preliminary results have been largely disseminated in the US and in Italy. Moreover, a documentary on NETDIS's themes, titled ""Criminal thoughts in 16C Venice"" has been produced. I have shared with the university of Verona the international connections I had acquired during the outgoing phase and thanks to my participation in numerous international conferences (by organizing seminars on Netdis’ themes and by creating a new international research group based in Verona, DEaMoNs). This asset has been crucial for the successful organization of the final 2-days international workshop held in Verona."
Historians of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation have long implicitly relied on the concept of networks in order to examine heretical biographies of important figures in the history of sixteenth-century religious dissent. However, scholars have mostly been sceptical about adopting network analysis theory and tools, only referring to this concept in a generic way to point out religious affinities and interactions within the Reformation world. Instead, we think that trying to include a social perspective within the history of ideas is worthwhile.
Mapping the circulation of ideas, by visualising – through digital humanities tools – the networks that heretical physicians shaped, has contributed to put in context major historiographical categories like Reformation, heresy, Renaissance medicine. In this perspective, NETDIS innovative approach allows one to formulate and answer new research questions, and also to advance our understanding of scientific and religious kinships in the 16th century. As NETDIS visualisations and spreadsheets show, this approach can provide information on the cultural and religious links which bounded physicians as writers or readers, publishers or smugglers, preachers or audience in the theological debate. Moreover, it allows one to see the origins and the transformations over the course of the century (in response to external events) of the overlapping between the religious and the scientific thought. Moreover, these networks of medical dissenters crossed different Italian and European States, shaping a “blossom” of European conscience based on freedom of research and thought, today recognised as the common ground of the European identity.