Avicenna’s European Legacy


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Bassiano Landi, Leonardo Giachini, Pier Francesco Paoli
Oddo degli Oddi, Marco degli Oddi

Avicenna’s European Legacy

Avicenna’s European Legacy
by The Arcadian Library
The Arcadian Library
The Arcadian Library
DOI: 10.24157/ARCS_009

  • Subtitle:
    A Review of the Avicennian Commentaries in the Arcadian Library
  • Identifier:
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Avicenna exerted perhaps a more profound influence on both Eastern and Western medical thought than any other Islamic scholar. The Canon of Medicine was considered standard reading in European universities until well into the eighteenth century, and beyond even that in the Islamic world. Numerous printed commentaries on his work appeared in Europe from the late fifteenth century onwards, although manuscript commentaries survive from long before. The Arcadian Library owns many such commentaries, recensions and later works replete with references to Avicenna’s magnum opus. The Arcadian Library’s collection of commentaries on Avicenna’s Canon are a vibrant and unique reflection of the enduring influence of Arabic medical knowledge on Europe.

From its inception, the Arcadian Library was assembled with a view to illustrating and celebrating the enduring ties that have bound Europe and the Arab and Islamic worlds together culturally, politically and scientifically. One of the most striking demonstrations of this enduring mutual influence is the library’s large collection of mostly Italian commentaries on the Canon of Medicine, whose impact was felt in Europe from the early Middle Ages until well past the Renaissance. These commentaries and the various editions of Avicenna produced between the mid-fifteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries are an integral and important part of the history of printing and the distribution of knowledge in Renaissance Europe.

Avicenna’s Impact on European Medicine

The Canon of Medicine exerted a profound and long-lasting influence on European medicine. It was valued as a well-organized and comprehensive encyclopaedia which preserved the Arabic medical knowledge gained during the Islamic Golden Age, but moreover as a repository of ancient Greek and Galenic ideas. In the later Middle Ages Avicenna was widely acclaimed as one of the greatest transmitters of ancient Greek ideas on medicine. However, the discovery of Greek manuscripts from the fifteenth century resulted in a reaction against him in Renaissance Christian Europe. He was criticized as a barbarian when he deviated from ancient Greek or Galenic thought, so prized by the humanists, and of course as a heathen for his religious conviction. The Arcadian Library owns a collection of anti-Arab polemics, published by the Novae Academiae Florentinae in Lyon in 1534, for example, in which he is condemned for his errors in botanical and pharmacological terminology, for erring from Galenic tradition, and as a charlatan who had misled the great physicians of Europe. Such criticism was widespread amongst humanists, and in these corners Avicenna was often seen as an outdated remnant of conservative Medieval scholastic learning whose traditional and outmoded approach to the study of medicine was inferior to contemporary Western attitudes.

However, the sustained attention Avicenna received throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries tells another story from the traditional narrative of the Canon falling into obsolescence. Numerous commentaries were produced during this period, and Avicenna remained on the syllabus of many European universities. The reasons for this vary from professor to professor; some prized the Canon as a practical and well-organized encyclopaedia in accordance with their own preferences for the teaching of science; some taught Avicenna to denigrate his ideas and emphasize his inferiority to Galen; some appreciated his work on account of its basis in Aristotelian natural philosophy. Of course, decades of sustained criticism and Western advances in medical science did indeed eventually render the Canon obsolete in Europe, but as a store of ancient knowledge and Arabic medical practice it had been invaluable. Commentaries on Avicenna’s writings set the store for European physicians, scholastic and humanist alike, and their reputations, as Nancy Siraisi points out in her seminal work, Avicenna in Renaissance Italy, are linked specifically to their commentaries on the Canon (Siraisi, 2016). Whether these scholars had academic inertia or genuine interest in Avicenna’s writings to thank is a complex subject to address.

The desire to read him in the original and improve upon the standard Medieval Latin translation of the Canon by Gerard of Cremona, completed in the twelfth century and a source of vigorous criticism by humanists, was a major incentive for learning Arabic. Many scholars learned Arabic only to read Avicenna in his own language, and from the fifteenth century onwards, various Italian scholars departed for the eastern shores of the Mediterranean in search of Arabic manuscripts of Avicenna. In the process, they came into contact with the writings of other luminaries of the Islamic Golden Age, opening these Arabic writers up to praise, denigration, criticism and scrutiny in European universities, and building upon their legacy—whether positive or negative: the foundations of modern Western medicine.

Commentaries on the Canon of Medicine, 1484−1520

Numerous commentaries on the Canon appeared in Europe following Gerard of Cremona’s translation of the work. The earliest book in the Arcadian Library that could be said to form a commentary on Avicenna’s medical writings is Arnald of Villanova’s Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum, published in Louvain in 1484 by Johannes de Paderborn. This is one of the earliest printed editions of the work, and constitutes a collection of maxims on hygiene written in doggerel Latin verse, which were memorized by generations of doctors. The poem and subsequent commentary had both been attributed to Villanova, but both were in fact produced by the School of Salerno, and no single authorship can be identified. The work is replete with references to the Canon.

The earliest true commentary owned by the library, however, is a second edition of Dino del Garbo’s early fourteenth-century commentary on Avicenna’s work on epidemics and surgery, printed in Venice in 1496 by Bonetus Locatellus. Del Garbo was a respected physician, and this edition is bound with two of his own works: one on plasters and unguents, and the other on weights and measures. Robert, King of Naples from 1309 to 1343, encouraged him to write commentaries on medicine and surgery, as he wished to have all of the available knowledge of the Arabs translated into Latin. The success with which his commentaries met earned him the title Expositor Avicennae. Also from 1496 is the second edition of Luminare maius by Johannes Manlius del Bosco, which was the official textbook for apothecaries in a number of cities. A Lamp for Physicians was a highly influential pharmacological handbook and is replete with references to and commentaries on Avicenna’s Canon.

Next, there is a first edition of Jacques Despars’s commentary on the Canon, printed in Lyons in 1498 by Johannes Terchsel and Johannes Clein. Avicenna’s original text is printed at the centre of the pages and Despars’s commentary surrounds it in two large columns. Despars was the rector of the University of Paris and personal doctor to King Charles VII. Despars’s work is of note not only because of its influence on Renaissance thought, but because it opened the way for European scholars to study other Arabic writers, as well as Galen and the ancient Greeks, principally those used as sources by Avicenna. Despars notes that, in studying the Canon, he consulted the writings of Avenzoar, Averroes, Mesue the Younger, Rhazes, Serapion the Elder, Aristotle, Galen and Hippocrates.

In 1499, Pietro d’Argellata, the famous Italian surgeon from Bologna and a pupil of Guy de Chauliac, published his Cirurgia in Venice. This is the only work that survives from the pioneering surgeon’s corpus, and comprises his lectures and the third and fourth fen of the fourth book of the Canon, which deals with diseases that affect the entire body. Giacomo da Forlì’s exposition on the first book of the Canon appeared in 1508, printed in Venice by Jacopo Pencio. Da Forlì (c. 1360–1414) taught medicine first at the University of Bologna, then at Padua, Ferrara and Siena, before returning to Padua in 1407, and was considered ‘the most learned and greatest physician of his age’ (Touwaide, 2005). He wrote commentaries on Hippocrates and Galen, the latter of which became a textbook for theoretical medicine at the University of Padua, and his commentary on Avicenna found even broader success. His importance as a transmitter of ancient Greek, Galenic and Avicennian theory, as Alain Touwaide notes in Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia, is evinced by the several manuscript copies of his commentaries that have survived, as well as the numerous incunable and later print editions. In 1514, the second edition of Michael de Capella’s epitome of the Canon was published in Lyons by Gilbert de Villiers under the title Flores Avicennae. Little is known of de Capella (fl. 1500−1538), but his Flores are significant for having abbreviated Avicenna’s writing in favour of concise aphorisms that could be easily memorized by medical students (Siraisi, 2016). In the eighteenth century, the Arcadian copy of the Flores was once owned by the military physician and book collector Hyacinthe-Théodore Baron.

Commentaries on the Canon of Medicine, 1520−1575

Gabriel Tarrega’s compilation of Avicenna’s medical texts with extensive cross-references to Galen was published in 1520. It was printed in Bordeaux by Gaspard Philippe, a Parisian printer who relocated to Bordeaux until his death the same year this book was published, after which his apprentice Jean Guyart took over the press. His first significant work was the second edition of this very work. Gabriel Tarrega was a Jew from Catalonia who converted to Christianity and taught medicine at the University of Bordeaux, before being appointed the city’s chief medical officer. This first edition is extremely rare—perhaps one of only two in private hands, and one of only eight known copies—and was the first substantial book ever to be printed in Bordeaux.

Chronologically, the next Avicennian commentary in the Arcadian Library is by Ugo Benzi (c. 1360–1439), and was printed between 1523 and 1531 in Venice by Lucantonio Giunta, whose printing and bookselling business was one of the most prominent in Europe by the mid-sixteenth century. The book features three separate works bound together, constituting all of Benzi’s commentaries on the Canon. The first two are after the fashion of university textbooks or lectures, and the third is a treatise on fevers, which Benzi considered his most important work. He died before he could complete it. Benzi taught medicine in Bologna, Siena, Florence, Pavia, Padua and Parma, the latter of which he relocated to at the request of Niccolo d’Este, the Marquess of Ferrara. Due to Benzi’s reputation as one of Europe’s leading scholastic physicians and philosophers, the Marquess offered him his patronage, and during his time as court physician he completed the three commentaries bound together in this volume (Mellyn, 2005).

The first edition of Symphorien Champier’s Claudii Galeni, produced in 1532, was printed in Basle by Andreas Caratander and Johann Bebel. It is an exceptionally rare commentary on Galen, and whilst not a pure commentary on Avicenna, abounds with references to the Canon. Champier was a distinguished physician based in Montpellier, and produced an edition of the Canon, as well as his own history of medicine, published in 1522 and 1506 respectively. The second part of the Claudii Galeni is a spurious Galenic text on enemas, and features Avicenna’s opinions on the subject, as does the final part, which concerns phlebotomy. The following year, in 1533, Champier first published Hortus Gallicus in Lyons with Melchior and Gaspar Trechsel, which concerns the indigenous materia medica of France. The book reflects Champier’s interest in Arabic herbal remedies, and is full of references to Avicenna’s writings on the subject.

In 1556, in Venice, Baldassare Costantini printed Giambatista da Monte’s commentary on Avicennian therapeutics for the first time. The book was edited by Walenty Lublin, a Polish student of Da Monte. Da Monte was a lecturer at the University of Padua, and introduced the subject of clinical medicine to Italian universities in the 1540s. With this emphasis on practica, he moved his classes from lecture halls to the Hospital of St Francis, where he was a doctor, so as to allow his students to examine the effects of particular diseases on real patients (Grendler, 2002). In spite of his emphasis on learning both in the classroom and in the hospital, he differed from his peers in that he shunned the traditional division of medical education into theoria and practica in favour of the ancient division of medicine into five areas, namely physiology, pathology, semiotics, hygiene and therapy. For this reason, he was a great proponent for the teaching of the Canon in universities as a useful introduction to medical basics, since the content of the first book of the Canon fell into these subdivisions (Siraisi, 2016). His commentary is based upon Alpago’s translation rather than on Gerard of Cremona’s, in keeping with common negative attitudes of that period towards the Toledo scholars’ translations, which were often termed ‘barbarous’.

Andrea Alpago was a scholar from Belluno who spent some thirty years as a physician of the Venetian consulate in Damascus, where he learned Arabic. His translation of the Canon was published in Venice in 1527, and improved upon by the Venetian Benedetto Rinio in 1556 and again in 1562. By 1564, however, the Alpago-Rinio edition was superseded by a two-volume edition of Avicenna prepared by Giovanni Costeo, the future professor of medicine at the University of Bologna, and Giovanni Mongo, a practicing physician in Venice and Padua. It was printed in Venice by Vincentio Valgrisi, and the Arcadian set is bound in contemporary limp vellum with attractive lettering in ink on the spine. Based primarily on Gerard of Cremona’s translation, it also contained variant readings provided by Alpago, as well as his useful glossary of Arabic terms. Integrated within the volumes are extensive commentaries by the two doctors, as well as prefaces to each of the first four books, which take the form of letters addressed by either or both of the physicians to different medical personalities. Ultimately, the edition of Costeo and Mongio appears to have been more successful than the Alpago-Rinio edition.

In 1575 Marco degli Oddi’s commentary on book 1, fen 1 of the Canon appeared, printed in Venice by Paulus and Antonius Meietus. It is based on the translations of Alpago and Mantino. Oddi was a major figure of the Galenic revival, and was sharply critical of Avicenna for having abandoned the Galenic view of medicine as being an art rather than a science, in the sense that the study of medicine produces a result (Siraisi, 2016). Oddi’s commentary on the Canon is extensive and heavily focussed on anatomical observations. For example, he strongly defends Galen’s view of the relationship between the heartbeat and the pulse, the function of the circulatory system and the structure and function of the bile duct.


Grendler, P. F., 2002. The Universities of the Italian Renaissance . Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press

Mellyn, E. W., 2005. Ugo Benzi . In: T. F. Glick, S. Livesey & F. Wallis, eds. Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, p. 83

Siraisi, N. G., 2016. Avicenna in Renaissance Italy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 64

Touwaide, A., 2005. Jacopo da Forlì . In: T. F. Glick, S. Livesey & F. Wallis, eds. Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, p. 281