‘THE BODY AS A MACHINE’: BORELLI’S FOUNDATION WORK OF BIOMECHANICS

De motu animalium. Edited by Carlo Giovanni di Gesù.

Rome: Angelo Bernabò, 1680-1681.

2 volumes, 4to (220 x 163mm), pp. I: [12 (title, imprimatur on verso, dedication, editor’s address to the reader, proem)], 376, [377-387], [1 (blank)]; II: [4 (title, imprimatur on verso, editor’s address to the reader)], 520; Greek and Latin types; 18 folding engraved plates, one signed by Francesco Donia, bound to throw clear, wood-engraved title vignettes and initials, letterpress tables in the text; scattered light spotting and marking, light marginal damp-marking in some quires of I, a few quires in II browned, very unobtrusive marginal worming in quires II, 2Y-3M, a few plates trimmed over platemark, touching caption on pl. 16; near-uniform 20th-century half chestnut morocco for the Royal Institution (volume I by the Wigmore Bindery, dated 8 May 1959), spines in compartments, gilt morocco lettering-pieces in one, directly lettered in gilt in 2 others, lower compartments with Royal Institution crest and date in gilt, both volumes uniformly stained black on the top edges and red-speckled on the others; extremities very lightly rubbed, some cracking on hinges, otherwise a very good, crisp set; provenance: The Royal Institution (acquired from Richardson on 4 February 1805 for 2s 6d, according to the RI’s records; gilt crests on spines; booklabels on lower pastedowns recording deaccession in 2015).

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De motu animalium. Edited by Carlo Giovanni di Gesù.

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First Edition. The mathematician and physicist Borelli (1608-1679) was, ‘after Descartes, [...] the principal founder of the iatrophysical school, one of the two opposing seventeenth-century medical philosophies (the other being the school of iatrochemistry) that grew out of an increasing concern with the function as well as the structure of human anatomy. Inspired by Harvey’s mathematical demonstration of the circulation of the blood, Borelli [...] conceived of the body as a machine whose laws could be explained entirely by the laws of physics. Borelli was the first to recognise that bones were levers powered by the action of muscle, and devoted the first volume of his work to the external motions produced by this interaction, with extensive calculations on the motor forces of the muscles. The second volume treats of internal motions, such as the movements of the muscles themselves, circulation, respiration, secretion and nervous activity. Borelli was the first to explain heartbeat as a simple muscular contraction, and to ascribe its action to nervous stimulation; he was also the first to describe circulation as a simple hydraulic system’ (Norman).

Borelli’s ‘great work’ (Osler) is generally considered the foundation text of biomechanics and its author the father of the discipline. De motu animalium was researched and written over a long period of time, but only published after the author’s death, due to the difficulties of acquiring a patron for the book. In late 1679, Borelli had secured Queen Christina of Sweden’s agreement to fund the costs of printing, and dedicated the work to her; however, Borelli died in December 1679 and the volume was seen through the presses by his benefactor, Carlo Giovanni di Gesù. One of the engravings is signed by the engraver Francesco Donia, who engraved both maps and plates, and illustrated a number of Italian works in the second half of the seventeenth century. Apart from the one he signed, it seems likely that Donia was responsible for the most (if not all) of the others plates in this volume.

Eimas Heirs 496; Garrison-Morton 762; Krivatsy 1578; Nissen ZBI 465; Norman 270; Osler 2087; Trent and Roberts pp. 42-43.

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