5. Doctor of Rivers. On the Remedies for Facing the Fortune in the Italian Renaissance

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Simone Mammola


Renaissance medicine had the peculiar capacity to integrate in an organic and functional weave even historical and antiquarian competencies next to those properly naturalistic and biological. This is mirrored by the widespread use of medical metaphors in the context of moral and political, civil and technical reflexions. Such is the case also for the management of waters and rivers. So while Agostino Bacci compares floods to a disease and the idraulic engineer to a physician who, unable to alter upstream the course of things, prepares valid defensive strategies, Machiavelli gives literary dignity to the description of fortune like a river in flood that threatens to overwhelm and destroy everything.

Their common recognition of a connection between the works of hydraulic engineering and the complex relationship between power and human freedom, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, luck or necessity, can be set, as we shall show, in the perspective of a new ideal of science, for which the profile of Bacci’s “doctor of the river” partly overlaps with Machiavelli’s virtuoso — a science that places in the middle of its investigation a critical survey of experience, and that is partly inspired by a certain way of doing medicine, partly by a certain way to read the history, and that focuses on the complexity of a world, natural as social, which rebels against too rigid schematizations.


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