Wednesday, April 3, 2019


Maria Michela Sassi, Elisa Coda, Giuseppe Feola (ed.), La zoologia di Aristotele e la sua ricezione dall'età ellenistica e romana alle culture medievali: atti della X "Settimana di formazione" del Centro GrAL, Pisa, 18-20 novembre 2015. Greco, arabo, latino. Studi, 6. Pisa: Pisa University Press, 2017. Pp. 315. ISBN 9788867418350. €20,00 (pb).

Reviewed by Pieter Beullens, KU Leuven, Institute of Philosophy, Aristoteles Latinus (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The origin of this book lies in a conference held in Pisa in 2015 in the series Settimane di formazione of the Centro GrAL (Centro di studi interuniversitario Greco, arabo, latino "Incontri di culture"). The general theme of the gatherings and of the subsequent publications is the transmission of philosophical texts from antiquity to the Islamic and Christian Middle Ages. The present installment focuses on Aristotle's zoological texts and its professed aim, according to Maria Michela Sassi's preface, is to critically evaluate the assumption by James Lennox that this particular category of Aristotelian research disappeared from view shortly after the philosopher's death, only to reappear as a field of systematic study in the works of Albert the Great in the 13th century.1

The publication collects ten papers, arranged in roughly chronological order. All are in Italian, except for the article in French by Henri Hugonnard-Roche, while Philippe Hoffmann's text was translated from French into Italian. Papers read at the conference by Remke Kruk and Gianfranco Fioravanti did not reach the printed stage, while the contributions by Elisa Coda and Philippe Hoffmann form additions to those that were presented orally.

Maria Michela Sassi not only wrote the preface to the volume, she is also the author of the first article. It situates Aristotle's zoology as an emerging discipline in the framework of his scientific enterprise and presents it through an analysis of quotations from the philosopher's works. In an appendix she surveys the surviving treatises from the zoological corpus and the relations among them.

Giuseppe Feola elaborates on that theme in his study of the ordering of the biological works in antiquity, and the controversy among modern scholars about the correct assessment of their content. He suggests reading Aristotle's zoology, and his works in general, not as a consistent system, but as a work in progress where each passage has to be continually compared with all other relevant passages.

Tiziano Dorandi's contribution focuses on zoological references in the tradition of paradoxography, in particular in the collections by Antigonus of Carystus and Aristophanes of Byzantium. He concludes that copies of (some) zoological treatises must have circulated in Alexandria and Pergamum in the last centuries BCE, as paradoxographers were able to incorporate them in their works.

In his paper, Pietro Li Causi examines the reception of Aristotle's zoological corpus in the Elder Pliny's encyclopedia. Pliny turns out to transform Aristotle into a Roman version of a scientist, who ends up resembling Pliny himself: Aristotle likewise was a collector of data provided by a higher political power.

'Il bestiario di Galeno' is the title of Lorenzo Pirelli's article, in which he explores Galen's involvement with zoology. Surprisingly, other aspects of Aristotelian philosophy received more attention from this medical author, yet his anatomy clearly shows influence from the taxonomic vocabulary used in De partibus animalium, as Pirelli demonstrates with long extracts from Galen's work. Although Galen is shown to be a critical user of Aristotle, Pirelli can highlight several mistakes made by both authors that had to wait until the 16th century for Vesalius to correct them.

Philippe Hoffmann writes about the reception of zoology in late antique Neoplatonism, or rather its seeming absence, as no commentary on any of the treatises is known before Michael of Ephesus filled in the lacuna in the early 12th century. Hoffmann therefore investigates the place that the Neoplatonists attributed to them in their systems of scientific knowledge, quoting passages from Olympiodorus, Philoponus, Simplicius, and Proclus.

Henri Hugonnard-Roche's paper deals with traces of Aristotelian zoology in the Syriac tradition. All attestations in these languages are without exception indirect. Most of them touch on the fabulous and the anthropomorphic interpretation of animal behavior.

Elisa Coda takes on the task of surveying the Arabic and Hebrew branches of the transmission. She lists the extant translations in Arabic, their reception in the form of compendia and commentaries, and their afterlife in the Hebrew language. Coda's contribution is dedicated to the memory of Mauro Zonta, great expert of medieval Jewish philosophy, who passed away in 2017.

Pietro B. Rossi's paper mainly summarizes the arrival of Aristotle's physics, metaphysics, and ethics in the Latin West in the 12th century, and of his zoology in the next. The discussion of the reception of the works on animals is accompanied by the transcription of prefaces from five unpublished Latin commentaries on De animalibus.

Rossi's contribution is supplemented by the Stefano Perfetti's piece, which focuses on Albert the Great's commentaries on Aristotle's zoology. Albert is characterized as a hyper-Aristotelian, in the sense that he enlarges the ancient philosopher's scientific enterprise by filling in the gaps left by that authority. As there is no formal concluding section to the volume, Perfetti also addresses the question that formed the overall thesis for this collection of papers. There can be little doubt that in the 1,500 years between Aristotle and Albert, zoology was not at the center of scientific research. Perfetti, however, claims that the latter did not renew the Aristotelian program in zoology, as he misunderstood some methodological points and was mainly focused on the alignment with the medical doctrines of Galen and Avicenna.

The book closes with an index of manuscripts and two others containing historical and modern personal names. In contrast to the care with which the articles are edited, the indices show several minor mistakes. Brams and Conti Bizzarro each have two separate entries, while Dummer preceeds Dod, Kaimakis comes after Kalof, and Orth and Oroz switch places. Obviously, these trivial flaws do not harm the helpfulness of the book as a whole. Since the publication was aimed at providing a diachronic overview of the topic, it will primarily serve as an introduction and as a guide to further reading. In this objective it succeeds admirably well.

Authors and titles

Prefazione di Maria Michela Sassi
Maria Michela Sassi: 'I trattati di Aristotele "sugli animali": nascita di una disciplina'
Giuseppe Feola: 'Alcune considerazioni sull'ordinamento del corpus biologico di Aristotele'
Tiziano Dorandi: 'La ricezione del sapere zoologico di Aristotele nella tradizione paradossografica'
Pietro Li Causi: 'Un Aristotele romano? Ricezione e metamorfosi del corpus zoologico in Plinio il Vecchio'
Lorenzo Perilli: 'Il bestiario di Galeno'
Philippe Hoffmann: 'I trattati di storia naturale e la zoologia nella classificazione neoplatonica degli scritti di Aristotele tra il V e il VI secolo d.C. '
Henri Hugonnard-Roche: 'Les Livres sur les animaux d'Aristote dans la tradition syriaque: quelques aperçus'
Elisa Coda: 'Il "Libro degli animali" (Kitāb al-Ḥayawān). Materiali di studio sulla zoologia aristotelica nel Medioevo arabo ed ebraico'
Pietro B. Rossi: 'L'entrata dei libri De animalibus nel Medioevo latino'
Stefano Perfetti: 'La disseminazione del sapere sugli animali (dalla tarda antichità al XIII secolo) e l'iperaristotelismo di Alberto Magno'
Indice dei manoscritti
Indice dei nomi antichi e medievali
Indice dei nomi moderni


1.   James Lennox, "The Disappearance of Aristotle's Biology: A Hellenistic Mystery", in Apeiron 27 (1994), pp. 7- 24. Reprinted in Aristotle's Philosophy of Biology. Studies in the Origins of Life Science. Cambridge: CUP, 2001, pp. 110-125.

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