interviews / profiles / critical studies  
publicity / contact

In My Good Books

Renaissance Man, Warts and All

James Fenton
copyright © 2005

Originally published in The Guardian
29 October 2005

Autobiography in its contemporary forms is so pervasive and so popular that it is easy to suppose that it has always been with us, or that every age in the past, and every great literary culture, had its own version of it. In fact, the further back we look, the fewer examples we find. Questions which for the modern writer have become matters of diplomacy, nuance and tone - to what extent can I be frank about my family? how can I tell a story that redounds to my credit without coming across as boastful? conversely, how much do I want the reader to know about my failures and shortcomings? - were once unimaginably forbidding obstacles. In an age that lived by its codes of honour, how could any writer conceive of presenting himself in a less than favourable light?

The amazing Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576), when he set out to write The Book of My Life, found himself short of precedents, classical or otherwise. He wanted to write something to rival the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, but he saw that Marcus Aurelius had depicted himself as he thought he ought to be. Today we probably hardly think of the Meditations as autobiographical, but the first chapter is a series of acknowledgments of his mentors. These formal acts of obeisance (like the lists of acknowledgments in an Oscar-winner's speech) build up into a self-portrait.

The other precedent Cardano mentions is Josephus, who wrote truthfully of his own life, but with all his shortcomings carefully suppressed. Cardano by contrast is only a few pages into his self-portrait when he mentions (and this would have been one of the reasons why early writers though he must be mad) that he was impotent between the ages of 21 and 31. He devotes a chapter to his vices, which include a tendency to retain servants whom he knows to be utterly useless to him, or even a cause for shame, and a tendency to get landed with pets. "I become the owner of all sorts of little animals that get attached to me: kids, lambs, hares, rabbits, and storks. They litter up the whole house."

A pioneer of algebra, he was addicted to gambling, and he makes an interesting distinction between being addicted to (or as he puts it "immoderately given to") a thing, and actually liking it. He did not love gambling, he says, but he loathed the necessities which goaded him to it - "calumnies, injustices, poverty, the contemptuous behaviour of certain men, the lack of organisation in my affairs, the realisation that I was despised by many, my own morbid nature…" One half expects him to add low self-esteem, for that is surely what he is describing.

He has a gripping chapter called "Perils, Accidents, and Manifold, Diverse, and Persistent Treacheries," which begins with him walking to the university in Pavia where he taught, and pausing to relieve himself by a ruined wall. Because he is unable to follow his companion along a snow-covered part of the street, he misses being killed by a tile that falls from a roof. On another occasion he suddenly decides, for no reason, to cross a street, and immediately a great mass of cement falls from a cornice onto the spot he would have reached had he not crossed over.

From such accounts of portents we move on to academic disputes fought hard and dirty. He is denounced for unnatural relations with his young male servants (a common hazard of Renaissance life). He avoids a booby-trap. He wakes in the night to find a sapphire ring missing from his hand, calls for a light and discovers, with difficulty, that the ring has mysteriously found its way under the bed. In such cases it is not the weight of the incidents themselves, but the glimpses they offer of everyday domestic life - the panic in the dark, the servant unable to find a light, the strange behaviour of a candle - that are precious to us.

In a world in which everyone lives in fear of poisoning, Cardano, to his complete dismay, finds his elder son accused of plotting the murder by poison of his wife. The son is executed, and the father's life and reputation are shattered. Mathematician, astrologer, physician, among his many works he had written three books on poison. The Book of My Life was reissued in 2002 in paperback, with notes and a good introduction by Anthony Grafton, by New York Review Books. Grafton tells us that, although Cardano was famous and respected when he died, had he lived somewhat longer "he might have ended on a pyre like Giordano Bruno."

Recent Articles

17 May 2008
Thomas Hope

10 May 2008
Seaman's Secret Diary

3 May 2008
Creation of Canons

26 April 2008
Handel operas

19 April 2008
V&A's Hidden Artworks

12 April 2008
Coleridge & Faust

5 April 2008
Garden at Tresco

29 March 2008
Nazi leaders & Cranach

15 March 2008
On Rooms

8 March 2008
Metropolitan Museum in New York

1 March 2008
Bach's Passions

23 February 2008
Neoclassical Sculpture

16 February 2008
Saint Sebastian

9 February 2008
Origins of the Flower Trade



Read additional archived articles at


Cardano, Girolamo. The Book of My Life, with notes and introduction by Anthony Grafton. New York Review Books, 2002.


interviews / profiles / critical studies            
publicity / contact
Last update: 24 April 2010
Official Website Since 2005
  Text and Notes Copyright © James Fenton
Website Design Copyright © Ryan Roberts
Please read the disclaimer and email questions to the webmaster