Cardano’s Great Encyclopedia of Science & Nature. \"The most advanced representation of physical knowledge up to his time.” (Dibner)

Cardano, Girolamo (1501-1576)

De subtilitate libri XXI. nunc demum recogniti atque perfecti.

Basel: L. Lucius, 1554


Folio: 32 x 21.5 cm. [24], 561 pp. Collation: [alpha]-[gamma]4, a-z4, A-Z4, Aa-Zz4, Aaa5. Last leaf blank and lacking.


Bound in early 19th c. mottled calf, rubbed and worn at extremities, very nicely rebacked. Gold-tooled border to boards, spine gilt and with labels. Internally a very fine copy with a little bit of foxing to scattered leaves. Title a little dusty. Large woodcut portrait of the author on verso of title. Numerous woodcuts throughout the text, including chemical apparatus.

Cardano’s “De Subtilitate” "Represents the most advanced representation of physical knowledge up to his time and the idea that all creation is in progressive development" (Dibner). This is the second folio edition. It includes Cardano's famous statement 'Igitur his arbitrio victoriae relictis' (p. 354), which caused Cardano's denouncement for heresy (see below) and which was therefore edited out of subsequent editions.

“The work includes substantial sections on technology, medicine, chemistry, mathematics, various branches of the occult, mineralogy, gemology, hydrodynamics, geology, electricity, etc., and descriptions of numerous experiments and apparatus, including the pumps and the screw of Archimedes and a system of writing for the blind…

“Cardano organized his text along the same principle used in the arrangement of the writings of Aristotle, dividing the work into twenty-one long books. The first twelve deal with the physical world, beginning with the principles and elements, air, light, proceeding to inanimate objects like metals, stones, plants, then to animals, and concluding with a discussion of man. The subsequent nine books describe the immaterial world, again in ascending order, starting with the senses, activities of the intellect and concluding with the spiritual powers, demons, angels, and finally God…

“Cardano shows a modified Aristotelian idea of the physical world by omitting fire and accepting only three elements: earth, air and water. Repeating the facts and fantasies of the ancients, Cardano believed bodies found with in the earth were divided into four genera: earths, juices, stones and metals. Various actions of heat on mixtures of these substances gave rise to all stones, minerals and metals. Thus, clay and minum are grouped in the earths and diamonds, onyx, marble, jasper and quartz are considered stones. The seven metals grow in the earth from seed and are thought to have life. They are also each associated with one or more planets. Cardano also attempts without much success to represent the hexagonal form of quartz by close packing of spherical particles.”(Schuh)

“Witches’ grease”:

In two chapters in “De Subtilitate”, “De daemonibus” and “de mirabilibus” Cardano discusses demons and witchcraft. While Cardano did believe in malevolent spirits and witches, he believed that many of the phenomena perceived as supernatural were in fact the result of exposure to natural, ambient phenomena (changes in atmosphere, temperature, altitude, light and darkness), ingesting certain foods and liquids, and the bodily application of unguents and salves.

As an example, Cardano discusses the substance known as “witches’ grease”, an unguent made by witches from the fat of small children (stolen from fresh graves) mixed with parsley and aconite (wolf’s bane). Cardano argues that the mixture has a soporific effect on the “witches” and causes them to have vivid, fantastic dreams involving all manner of spectacular visions: theaters, giants, dances, young men and women having sex, kings and magistrates, prisons, solitary places, and torments.


In the eleventh chapter, Cardano included a dialogue in which the positive and negative points of Christianity are discussed in comparison with those of other religions. But instead of including a determining statement [that Christianity is obviously the one true religion] Cardano noted at the end that fate will decide the winner, [leading to charges of atheism.]”(Moore, The Passions of Rhetoric, p. 23 ff.)

VD 16, C 932; IA 132.064; Adams C 670; Riccardi I/1, 252, 6.3; Durling 847; Alden-L. 554/10; See Dibner 139, Sinkankas 1145 & DSB III, 66.