De Natura Fossilium – Agricola, Bandy


Agricola and the birth of the mineralogical sciences in Italy in the sixteenth century


Agricola’s Bermannus (1530) and his “minor” works describe his career as an expert in mining knowledge. If we examine the period after publication of his collected works in 1546, Bermannus and the other works provide additional keys for understanding the influence of Agricola on development of the mineralogical and geological sciences in Italy. These publications also offer a way of understanding the link between the culture of the humanists and that of the practitioners; this, after all, led to the birth of the empirical sciences. Agricola’s fourfold classification of fossil objects (earth, concretionary juice, stone, metal) improved considerably the twofold classifi cation by Aristotle and became an influential paradigm for the scientists of the late sixteenth century that was further refined and developed as to the genetic environment of different types by Aldrovandi and Imperato.


In 1546, Froben and Episcopius in Basel published an edition of all works of Agricola on mineralogical topics (Agricola, 1546). In this  edition are his writings on the genesis of inorganic bodies, De ortu et causis subterraneorum libri V; on the nature of the phenomena of the subterranean world rising to the surface (rivers, earthquakes, hot springs), De natura eorum quae effluunt ex terra libri IIII; on the nature of “fossils” (in the ancient meaning), De natura fossilium libri X; on ancient and modern quarries, De veteribus et novis metallis libri II; and, at the end, a short dialogue, the Bermannus, which was in fact the fi rst of Agricola’s works on mining, published previously in 1530 by Froben in Basel. The first Italian translation of the 1546 Agricola’s edition appeared in 1550 (Fig. 1).

The 1546 edition was the most widespread of Agricola so called “minor works”—an unfortunate and inappropriate designation of these books used by some modern historians that stems from their non-historical, direct comparison with the De re metallica (Agricola, 1556). The latter—the largest book that concluded Agricola’s career as an expert in mining—was not published until a full decade after the “minor works” and, for that  matter, a few months after Agricola’s death.

In reality, for his contemporaries and for several successive generations, the “minor” writings of Agricola represented the most fundamental and systematic source of a theoretical treatment of the res metallica. This topic was not treated in detail in printed works of the sixteenth century, for instance in works of Agricola’s circle of acquaintances, such as Konrad Gessner (1516–1565) (Gessner, 1565) (Fig. 2) , Christoph Enceliu (fl . sec.) sixteenth century) (Encelius, 1551) (Fig. 3), Johann Kentmann of Torgau (1518–1574) (Kentmann, 1565) (Fig. 4), Georg Fabricius (1516–1571) (Fabricius, 1565) (Fig. 5), and finally Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605) (Aldrovandi, 1648), who corresponded with these scholars.

Their writings, and in general the contributions of the sixteenth century to the study of inorganic bodies, are organized into works of different kinds: comments on the Meteorologica by Aristotle, encyclopedias, monographs and descriptions of collections and of naturalistic museums. Each of these had its particular aim and its own method of investigation.

The writings on mineralogy, although structured differently, originated, as in the case of other natural sciences, from the confluence of various factors and strands of reasoning, from both outside and within naturalistic investigations. Between the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth century, the task of recovering scientific heritage of the classic antiquity, written in Greek, was on the shoulders of the humanists and was completed by the first half of the sixteenth century. In order that their exegetic effort would succeed, these humanists had to acquire specific knowledge of botany, zoology, mineralogy, astronomy, and such, which they generally did by practice through a kind of apprenticeship with the practitioners of these disciplines. Thus, the humanists assumed a double competence in, and a critical attitude toward, the ancient knowledge, of which they had become capable of recognizing the limits. Stimulated to correct the “errors” of the past, they began a process of revision, which led them to the elaboration of the fi rst naturalistic books of the Modern Age.

Botany, zoology, anatomy, astronomy, mineralogy (to use the modern term), and the other observational sciences enriched their views within a relatively short time. In other words, the general orientation that the study of nature assumed in the sixteenth century focused the attention on daily and local experiences, as well as on those from the practice of professions. At the same time, new observations from exploration of new countries became available, and new discoveries were offered to the old world. Together with the recovery of past knowledge, the new findings were of equal value for research. As a result of this direction, a gradual independence from the authority of the ancient scholars, first of all from Aristotle, developed.

The personality of Agricola conformed to this cultural background, and his work was perfectly aligned with the principal themes of naturalistic research of the sixteenth century. A brief outline is given here. In the years following the Bermannus, when Agricola dealt with the problems of the bergmedicin, he studied other more specifi c mineralogical topics. Among these was the classifi cation of fossilia, which is of particular interest because of the influence his conclusions exercised in certain circles, including those in Italy.