Sunday, December 18, 2005

De Motu Animalium

Giovanni Alfonso di Borelli (1608-1679) died shortly before his masterpiece on biophysics, De Motu Animalium 'On Animal Motion' was published in 1680. He was a professor of mathematics at the University of Messina for many years and although it's unclear whether he actually met Galileo, Borelli had been a student (along with Torricelli) of one of Galileo's star pupils, Benedetto Castelli - an originator of hydraulics as an area of study.

During his tenure at Messina, Borelli became acquainted with Marcello Malpighi, who held the chair in theoretical medicine and who greatly influenced Borelli's interests in physiology and the physics of movement. Borelli would later join the short lived Accademia del Cimento and was widely respected for his rigorous experimental techniques.

As many of the posts on BibliOdyssey have recorded (regurgitated), so many of the important renaissance figures in science were polymathic in their scope and Borelli was no exception. He published scholarly treatises (many with unique and lasting insights) and/or contributed experimentally in relation to gravitational effects on planetary orbits, the chemical basis of fever, microscopic examination of red blood cells and plant leaf stomata by way of example.

The images here are from his great legacy, as the founding father of biophysics, in which Borelli applied Euclidian geometry and mechanical physics to his observations of muscle movement, the principles of levers and identifying a person's centre of gravity. Some of his analysis prefigures Newtonian descriptions of the nature of force. He correctly surmised the physiological basis for lung function, described the heart contraction arising from electrical stimulation and postulated that muscle movement derived from cellular chemical reactions.

This is a brief overview only - Borelli has made a huge intellectual contribution to science, far beyond the relative obscurity he occupies in general descriptions of renaissance brainstock.

Addit: I read in passing that the boat-like structure above was meant to be a submarine, with water-filled goatskin as ballast. Apparently the illustration turns up in many places as a first or early recording of a submarine. It is also said that it wouldn't work if it was actually constructed.


Isil said...

lovely! thxx!

Anonymous said...


arturo said...

Thanks for your insatiable curiosity and great images. I found you looking for images of Borelli's muscle studies for my robotics research. One interesting fact which is hardly mentioned is that many of Borelli's illustrations are copies or re-interpretation of Leonardo's motion and mechanical analysis. In fact some of Borelli's illustrations seem to be copies of the now lost folios from Leonardo's Madrid Manuscripts I which has helped make sense of some of his most interesting automata machines, precursors of our robots and other automatic devices.


peacay said...

Interesting thanks Arturo. I see that the ebay site has died. I wish I'd taken some more images now. All roads lead to Leonardo.

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