Niccolò Leoniceno (1428–1524)


Niccolò Leoniceno was an Italian humanist and physician. A learned scholar of classic scientific literature, Leoniceno applied a humanistic approach to medicine, his main tenet being the necessity of returning to a correct reading of the Greek texts, misunderstood and corrupted through time by Medieval and Arabic interpreters. In 1492, he published a pamphlet in which he maintained that Naturalis Historia, the master work by Pliny the Elder, contained a number of errors in plant identification and naming; his concern was that such errors would be misleading to the practical physician who could, potentially, damage rather than cure his sick patients. In doing so, Leoniceno also addressed the issue of how to define plant species and how to give them a univocal name, a key issue in the natural sciences during the subsequent centuries. Leoniceno's break with Pliny proved to be a landmark in the development of plant taxonomy.

Key Concepts

  • Renaissance humanism was essential to the inception of modern science.
  • Leoniceno was a pioneer in combining the humanistic mentality with practical medicine and natural science, giving origin to scientific humanism.
  • Scientific humanism had its grounds in critical reading and reevaluating ancient Greek and Latin classics compared with their Medieval interpretation and corruption.
  • Leoniceno was an innovator of Medicine, pursuing a rational approach combined with the essence of Galenic teaching.
  • With his attack on Pliny, Leoniceno first dared to explicitly criticise a classical authority.
  • The debate about Pliny's ‘Naturalis historia’ called into question a basic issue: how to define and how to univocally name plant species.

Keywords: dioscorides; renaissance humanism; history of medicine; history of botany


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Further Reading

de Beer S (2014) The survival of Pliny in Padua. Transforming classical scholarship during the botanical Renaissance. In: KAE E (ed.) Transformations of the Classics Via Early Modern Commentaries, pp 329–362. Brill: Leiden.

Bylebyl JJ (1981) Leoniceno Nicolò. In: Gillespie CC (ed.) Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. 8, pp 248–250. C. Scribner's Sons: New York.

Castiglioni A (1953) The school of ferrara and the controversy on Pliny. In: Ashworth Underwood E (ed.) Science, Medicine, and History, vol. 1, pp 269–279. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Cristofolini G (2019) The role of plant taxonomy and nomenclature in Leoniceno's break with Plinius. Webbia 74 (1): 1–14.

Denham A and Whitelegg M (2014) Deciphering Dioscorides: mountains and molehills? In: Stobart A and Francis S (eds) Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine: From Classical Antiquity to Early Modern Period, pp 191–205. Bloomsbury Academic: London.

Hirai H (2011) Nicolò Leoniceno between the Arabo‐Latin tradition and the renaissance of the Greek commentators. In: Hirai H (ed.) Medical Humanism and Natural Philosophy: Renaissance Debates on Matter, Life and the Soul, pp 19–45. Brill: Boston‐Leiden.

Nauert CG Jr (1979) Humanists, scientists, and Pliny: changing approaches to a classical author. The American Historical Review 84: 72–85.

Ogilvie BW (2003) The many books of nature: renaissance naturalists and information overload. Journal of the History of Ideas 64: 29–40.

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Cristofolini, Giovanni(Mar 2020) Niccolò Leoniceno (1428–1524). In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0028953]