Career Updates, Research and Activities

Output Report 2019

Santa is on his way, the new year is coming, and it’s time for my annual output report. Here it is…


Gundissalinus on the Angelic Creation of the Human Soul: A Peculiar Example of Philosophical Appropriation

Oriens 47/3-4 (2019): 313-347.

DOI: 10.1163/18778372-04800200

With his original reflection—deeply influenced by many important Arabic thinkers—Gundissalinus wanted to renovate the Latin debate concerning crucial aspects of the philosophical tradition. Among the innovative doctrines he elaborated, one appears to be particularly problematic, for it touches a very delicate point of Christian theology: the divine creation of the human soul, and thus, the most intimate bond connecting the human being and his Creator. Notwithstanding the relevance of this point, Gundissalinus ascribed the creation of the human soul to the angels rather than God. He also stated that the angels create the souls from prime matter, and through a kind of causality which cannot be operated by God. What are the sources of this unusual and perilous doctrine? And what are the reasons which led Gundissalinus to hold such a problematic position? This article thoroughly examines the theoretical development and sources of Gundissalinus’s position, focusing on the correlations between this doctrine, the overall cosmological descriptions expounded by Gundissalinus in his original works, and the main sources upon which this unlikely doctrine is grounded: Avicenna and Ibn Gabirol.


The Liberal Arts: Inheritances and Conceptual Frameworks

With G.E.M. Gasper, S. Sønnesyn, N. Lewis, and J. Cunningham.
In Knowing and Speaking: Robert Grosseteste’s De artibus liberalibus ‘On the Liberal Arts’ and De generatione sonorum ‘On the Generation of Sounds’, ed. byG.E.M. Gasper, C. Panti, T.C.B. McLeish, H. Smithson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 36–50.

To contextualize this somewhat beguiling treatise is to understand it at once product of Grosseteste’s own thinking, as as a a response and reaction to his inheritances, ancient and more contemporary, and as a distinctive contribution to wider shifts in the way that the arts were conceived. What follows offers a description and commentary of the developments of the liberal arts, as conceptual framework and institutional platform, from late antiquity to Grosseteste’s lifetime. This allows an overview of changes to the liberal arts as a whole, and within the individual arts, and a wider perspective in which to consider Grosseteste’s achievements in this area. Some of the authors and texts discussed would not have been familiar to Grosseteste, but others would, bringing to the fore questions about the textual sources he dwelt with in the composition of his treatise.


The Use of the Stars: Alchemy, Plants, and Medicine

With G.E.M. Gasper, S. Sønnesyn, A. Lawrence-Mathers, and N. El-Bizri.
In Knowing and Speaking: Robert Grosseteste’s De artibus liberalibus ‘On the Liberal Arts’ and De generatione sonorum ‘On the Generation of Sounds’, ed. byG.E.M. Gasper, C. Panti, T.C.B. McLeish, H. Smithson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 166–195.

The final sections (§§11-13) of On the Liberal Arts move to the uses of astronomy in natural philosophy with three specific examples: the planting of plants, the transmutation of metals, and medical interventions. Grosseteste’s conceptual framework for astronomy emerges from a variety of sources, mediating different models of the cosmos and its operations and components. The emphasis on the quadrivial arts and their application within the disciplines of natural philosophy marks his text out as significantly different from previous medieval treatises on the liberal arts, and the focus on astronomy as the culmination of the applicability of the arts is rarer still. The stress laid on astronomy at the culmination of the treatise offers particular insight into the broader worldview that frames Grosseteste’s conception of the liberal arts.


Andreas Lammer. The Elements of Avicenna’s Physics: Greek Sources and Arabic Innovations. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 2018. ISBN 9783110543582

Isis 110/3 (2019): 586-587.

DOI: 10.1086/704724



Matters Entangled. An Early-Career Symposium

Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, 12 July 2019. Organisers: Elena Baltuta and Nicola Polloni.

Cross-Pollinations and Creative Interpretations: The Place of Toledo in the History of European Philosophy

Panel at the International Congress “The Multi-Ethnic Borderlands of Medieval Toledo: New Directions”, Toledo (ES), 5-7 June 2019. 


Shadows of Gundissalinus in the Summa Halensis

Conference: The Summa Halensis: Philosophy and Reception. King’s College London and University of Oxford, Oxford (UK), 23-25 September 2019.

In the past few decades, important studies published have shed some crucial light on the impact exerted by Gundissalinus on some central medieval authors. His theories provided them with a first interpretation of sometimes exotic doctrines derived from the Arabic texts he himself translated into Latin in Toledo. However, only a few medieval authors explicitly mentioned Gundissalinus’s name or that of his works. In contrast to this rather meagre set of references, his influence appears to have been greater, although in a subtle, murky, shadowy way. My talk is focused on a preliminary analysis of the influence that the theories of Dominicus Gundissalinus have had on the Summa Halensis, directly and indirectly. In other to have some discussion about that, I shall start with a general account of what I mean when I say that Gundissalinus’s reception is problematic and why some of his philosophical stances are quite peculiar, sometimes ingenuous, other times bizarre.

A Matter to Be Grasped: Epistemic Strategies and Ontological Problems about Prime Matter

Lecture. Radboud University, Nijmegen (NL), 20 September 2019.

The lecture examines the medieval reception of two epistemic strategies proposed by Aristotle to know (prime) matter. Both analogical and negative strategies are developed from two main tensions this metaphysical concept is constructed upon. On the one hand, the tension between metaphysics and natural philosophy, on which the analogical strategy is based, focusing on the role of prime matter as physical substrate. On the other hand, the tension between metaphysics and logic, from which the negative strategy arises in its consideration of prime matter as general subject. It is from the borderline encounters of these philosophical disciplines that the conundrum of matter has been nurtured since the Greek commentators of Aristotle, if not before.

Matter as Epistemic Object: Intellection, Manipulation, and Particularisation in the 13th Century

2019 Meeting of the History of Science Society. Utrecht (NL), 23-27 July 2019.

The paper explores the richness of scientific and philosophical approaches to matter in the thirteenth century. The twelfth-century Arabic- and Greek-into-Latin translation movements provided, in a relatively short time, Latinate audience with different accounts of matter as epistemic object proper to diverse disciplines—natural philosophy, logic, metaphysics, as well as alchemy, medicine, and astronomy. I will discuss tensions and implications arising from a consideration of such a plurality of meanings and theories of matter and materiality in the thirteenth century.

Robert Grosseteste: Patterns of Causality, Matter, Light, and the Divine

2019 International Medieval Congress,  University of Leeds, Leeds (UK), 1-4 July 2019.

Light. From the myth of the cave of Plato’s Republic to the holy atar of Zoroastrianism, up to the dreams of galactic warp-engines, light has always played an enveloping role in human imagination and thought. Light is intimately related to goodness, in its founding link with the Idea of the Good, again in Plato’s Republic, which shines goodness over the universe in analogy to the Sun, whose light provides visibility and, therefore, truth and even existence upon the world. Light also coincides with being, existence, and form. In Plotinus’s Enneads, for instance, the images of the transcendent forms, like rays of light, are reflected off the darkness of matter as off a dark mirror. Finally, light is perspicuity of knowledge, the final resolution of doxastic belief as expounded by Augustine’s theory of divine illumination and, following a much-complicated process, Aristotle’s theory of the soul in its Arabic and Latin developments.

Experiencing Matter: Translations and Transitions in Grosseteste’s Early Works

Conference: Premodern Experience of the Natural World in Translation. Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin (DE), 27-28 June 2019.

Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175-1253) was a most influential scientist and philosopher active in England in the Middle Ages. My contribution will explore the curious development of a philosophical concept of matter in Grosseteste’s reflection. Differently from most of his colleagues, Grosseteste did not receive a proper philosophical training. His first works were focused on scientific themes (astronomy, optics, alchemy) and characterised by “empirical attitudes”. Grosseteste grounded these works on Arabic scientific texts translated into Latin a few decades before and providing him with specific notions of natural matter. This first phase of Grosseteste’s reflection is indeed marked by a consideration of matter as “experienceable materiality”—a substantively different notion from Aristotle’s. Gradually, though, Grosseteste would have to combine his early notion of matter with Aristotelian matter. How did these two notions interact in Grosseteste’s reflection? Did Grosseteste’s proto-empirical approach reflect in his philosophical position of matter as natural principle? And did a gradual access to different sets of translated sources impact on this conceptual elaboration?

Movements, Clusters, and Teams: Modern Perspectives on Premodern Translations

Conference: The Multi-ethnic Borderlands of Medieval Toledo: New Directions. Texas State University and Universidad de Castilla La Mancha, Toledo (ES), June 5-7, 2019.

Premodern scientific translations into Latin have been a central aspect of cross-cultural studies in the last century. Consideration of how books and ideas, problems and doctrines have easily crossed cultural, political, and religious boundaries throughout the Middle Ages has substantively reshaped the intellectual history of Premodern Europe. In the twelfth and thirteenth century, Toledo has been a most eminent venue of this “translation movement”. Translators like Gerard of Cremona, Dominicus Gundissalinus, Marc of Toledo, and Michael Scot contributed to make available to the Latin public a fundamental set of scientific and philosophical works which would have had major revolutionary outcomes in Europe. Undoubtedly, the historical relevance of the Toledan translation movement is central. This paper addresses a different question. It does not concern the relevance of this phenomenon, but our approach and implicit understanding of its intrinsic dynamics. What is it that we mean when we refer to a translation “movement”? What are the unspoken implications of our consideration of this activity (or activities) as an implicitly organised and organically developed phenomenon? And finally, if not a movement, how should we consider and refer to it when we study the crucial cultural events that took place in Toledo?

Marginal Epistemologies of Matter: Premodern Strategies for Knowing the Prime Substrate

Conference: Philosophy  in the Abrahamic Traditions: Intellect, Experience and More. Università di Pisa, Pisa (IT), 22-25 May 2019.

This paper explores some relevant strategies adopted by medieval authors in order to supersede the intrinsic limitations on prime matter’s knowability as implied by the “otherness” of its peculiar ontological status. In particular, I shall focus on how medieval authors have engaged with problematic passages from (and hermeneutics of) Aristotle’s Metaphysics Ζ, 10 and I, 8; Physics Α, 7; and Plato’s Timaeus, 52b. Examination of relevant cases will show a fundamental tension in place between the scanty conditions of knowability of prime matter and the pivotal role this notion was meant to play in both natural philosophy and metaphysics.

Le questioni sulla Fisica di Ruggero Bacone: il problema della materia

Conference: La Fisica di Aristotele nel Medioevo. Parigi e Oxford (1210-1270). Università di Roma “Tor Vergata”, Roma (Italy), 3 April 2019.

Il problema della materia, di cosa sia questa entità di cui l’universo è composto in modo radicale e originario, è uno dei problemi più affascinanti, duraturi e al contempo tra i più complessi della tradizione filosofica. Sotto molti aspetti, il mistero della materia non è oggi più chiaro di quanto lo fosse in antichità, ma di sicuro la posizione del problema è ben diversa. Non si tratta di campi elettromagnetici discreti che circoscrivono il vuoto e di particelle subatomiche che, con fare felino, sono e non sono al medesimo tempo. La fisica premoderna si basa su concetti diversi, fondamentalmente radicati su una visione del mondo come un continuo fisico, in cui il vuoto non esiste e dove spesso il discreto di riduce al continuo.

Premodern Translations into Latin: Rhetorical Strategies and Historical Reconstructions

Conference: Mapping the Rhetoric of Science Writing in Antiquity and Beyond. Ionian University, Corfu (GR), 28-29 March 2019.

This paper approaches a specific problem concerning a rather peculiar phenomenon: the translations into Latin made in the Middle Ages. How can we distinguish between rhetorical exaggerations and reliable descriptions in letters and prologues accompanying the translated texts? To what extent can they be considered as trustworthy witnesses of the translator’s activity and social context? From this starting point, questions on the use of rhetoric in Premodern translations will be extended to our contemporary consideration of that phenomenon. How does rhetoric shape our scientific discourse on cross-cultural historical events like translations and doctrinal appropriations? And how much does our consideration of contemporary problems affect implicitly our appreciation of the past? Notwithstanding our historical distance, it will be argued, Premodern and modern rhetorical approaches to cross-cultural phenomena do not appear to differ much in style, as they do in orientation.

Greek Summary of my talk

Looking into the Unknowable: Premodern Conundrums of Prime Matter

Lecture. Durham University, Durham (UK), 5 March 2019.

In his Allegoria Peripatetica, the renaissance scientist and philosopher Fortunio Liceti engaged with a “sharp man” who claimed that prime matter is a sort of nothingness which can be grasped only by imagination. Fortunio’s short reply is lapidary. Prime matter does exist and has a marginal substantial existence. Moreover, it is knowable not through imagination, but through the intellect—and indeed only the fools are unable to conceive prime matter, as they have no intelligence. Less than a century afterwards, another philosopher and scientist with much prestige, Francis Bacon, would claim that the prime matter is nothing but a fairy matter, completely useless if not dangerous. Even more, Bacon adamantly acknowledges that any claim that things are made of this fairy matter is perverse and utterly inappropriate for natural philosophy. Be a matter of fairy tales or for very intelligent people, the notion of prime matter has fascinated generations of philosophers with its manifold tortuous intricacies. Medieval thinkers were no exception. This talk engages with some of these intricacies and tortuosities, examining how premodern thinkers acknowledged that prime matter was indeed knowable, at least under certain conditions.

Inside Marc of Toledo’s Approach to Ibn Tûmart and His Philosophical and Theological Doctrines

(with Pedro Mantas)

Conference: Trespassing Walls. Jews, Christians and Muslims around Their Texts and Traditions. Universidad de Córdoba, Cordoba (ES), 29 January 2019.

In our presentation we summarise our plans of collaboration within a forthcoming project leads by Juan Pedro Monferrer. The first step consists in a survey of Marie-Therese d’Alverny’s paper on Marc of Toledo and his translations commanded by Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada and master Maurice (it includes a summary of their edition, their philological analysis and commentaries). The second step combines a review synthesis of ibn Tūmart doctrine. With the third step, we enter what we consider the most relevant part of our contribution. We analyse key aspects of Rodrigo’s intellectual-political biography; the context of his Historia arabum as strategic political narrative, and his rational more than tolerant attitude toward Muslims and the Arab culture. Through this third step of our study, Marc of Toledo’s translations could be considered as an instrument which served Jiménez de Rada’s political purposes.


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