Federico Angelo Cesi (26 February 1585 – 01 August 1630) was born to an aristocratic family of Rome. He was educated privately and at an early age became interested in natural science. In 1603, at age eighteen, Cesi founded the Accademia dei Lincei, the Lyncean Academy. Although he looked back to the model of the Aristotelian-Platonic Academy, his aim was altogether special and innovative. Cesi wanted with his Academicians to create a method of research based upon observation, experiment, and the inductive method. He thus called this Academy ‘dei Lincei’ because the scientists which adhered to it had to have eyes as sharp as lynxes in order to penetrate the secrets of nature, observing it at both microscopic and macroscopic levels. Seeking to observe the universe in all its dimensions, the “Lincei” made use of the microscope (tubulus opticus) and the telescope (perspicillus-occhialino) in their scientific research, and extended the horizon of knowledge from the extremely small to the extremely large. Federico bestowed his own motto on the “Lincei”: minima cura si maxima vis (take care of small things if you want to obtain the greatest results).
From the outset the Academy had its ups and downs. A few years after its foundation it was strongly obstructed by Cesi’s father because he believed that within it activity was being engaged in which was not very transparent in character – for example, studies in alchemy. But after the death of Federico’s father (1610), the abundant economic resources which were now obtained thanks to Federico’s inheritance, as well as the fact that renowned scholars such as Galileo Galilei, Giovan Battista della Porta, Fabio Colonna, and Cassiano dal Pozzo joined its ranks, enabled the Academy to progress and advance.
Its initial members were Cesi, the mathematician Francesco Stelluti, the physician Johannes Eck from the Low Countries, and the polymath Anastasio De Fillis. The members lived communally and almost monastically in Cesi’s house, where he provided them with books and laboratory equipment. The religious character of the Academy cannot be overlooked. It was placed under the protection of St. John the Evangelist who was often portrayed in the miniatures of its publications with an eagle and a lynx, both of which were symbols of sight and reason. It was therefore conceived as an assembly of scholars whose goal -as one can read in its Rules, described as the “Linceografo”— was “knowledge and wisdom of things to be obtained not only through living together with honesty and piety, but with the further goal of communicating them peacefully to men without causing any harm.” Nature was seen not only as a subject of study but also of contemplation. Amongst the suggestions of the “Linceografo” there is also that of preceding study and work with prayer — “for this reason the Lynxes, near to doing anything at all, must first raise their minds to God, and humbly pray to him and invoke the intercession of the saints” (cf. di Rovasenda and Marini-Bettòlo, 1986, p. 18). Amongst the practices of the spiritual piety of the members there was the reciting of the liturgical office of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Davidic Psalter. For this reason, as Enrico di Rovesanda observes, “the religious inspiration of the Lincei cannot be overlooked, as is done in many quarters, nor can it be reduced to an ‘almost mystical glow of the school of Pythagoras,’ as has also been suggested. The high moral figure of Cesi acts to guarantee the sincere and loyal profession of its religious faith” (ibidem, p. 19). One of the mottoes of the Academy, Sapientiae cupidi, indicated the striving for constant research into truth through scientific speculation, based upon the mathematical and natural sciences but always located within a sapiential horizon.
Like Galileo, whose great supporter he was, Cesi admired Aristotle but not the Aristotelians of the University of Padua who had refused to look at things through the telescope of the Pisan scientist. He was in addition rather critical of the university culture of his day. Federico Cesi also engaged in important activity of mediation between the Roman theological world and Galileo, reaching the point of advising the latter to not insist in his polemics about the interpretation of Holy Scripture so that he could dedicate himself in a more effective way to scientific research.
Picture: Portrait of Federico Angelo Cesi (1585-1630) by Pietro Fachetti (wikipedia)
Cesi was also involved in coining the name “telescope“