In a wonderful book, “Why Read The Classics?”, the author, Italo Calvino, writes on the “gambling scholar”, Cardono.
“What is Hamlet reading when he comes on stage in Act 2? To Polonius, who asks him this, he replies ‘words, words, words’, and our curiosity remains unsatisfied. However, if the ‘To be or not to be' soliloquy, which opens the Prince of Denmark's next appearance on stage, offers any clue as to his recent readings, it ought to be a book which discusses death as though it were sleep, whether visited or not by dreams.
Now this theme is discussed in considerable detail in a passage of Gerolamo Cardano's De Consolatione, which was translated into English in 1573 and dedicated to the Earl of Oxford, therefore familiar in circles frequented by Shakespeare. Amongst other things, it says, 'Certainly the sweetest sleep is the deepest sleep, when we are almost like the dead, not dreaming anything; whereas the most irksome sleep is the one that is very light, restless, interrupted by constant waking, tormented by nightmares and visions, as happens to those who are ill'.
To conclude from this that the book read by Hamlet is definitely Cardano, as is held by some scholars of Shakespeare's sources, is perhaps unjustified. And certainly that little ethical treatise is not sufficiently representative of Cardano's genius to become evidence for Shakespeare ever having encountered his work. However, that passage does discuss dreams and this is no accident: Cardano returns insistently to dreams, especially his own, in several passages of his works, describing, interpreting and commenting on them. This is not only because in Cardano the factual observation of the scientist and the reasoning of the mathematician somehow derive from a life dominated by premonitions, signs of astrological destiny, magic influences, and diabolical interventions, but also because his mind refuses to exclude any phenomenon from objective enquiry, least of all those that surface from the deepest wells of subjectivity.
It is possible that some of the restlessness of Cardano the man comes across in the English translation of his rather awkward Latin. In that case it is highly significant that if it is Cardano's European reputation – Cardano was famous as a medical man, but his works embrace all branches of knowledge and enjoyed considerable posthumous popularity - which authorises the link between him and Shakespeare, it does so actually on the periphery of his scientific interests, in that vague territory which will be later thoroughly traversed by the pioneering experts in psychology, introspection and existential anguish. These were the areas into which Cardano probed in an epoch in which this branch of knowledge did not even have a name; nor did his enquiries have a clear objective, but were merely driven by an obscure but constant inner necessity.
This is what makes us feel close to Gerolamo Cardano, today on the fourth centenary of his death. But this is not to take anything away from the importance of his discoveries, inventions and intuitions which ensure that his name figures in the history of science as one of the founding fathers of various disciplines. Nor does it detract from his fame as a magus, a man endowed with mysterious powers, a reputation that followed him around but which he himself also broadly cultivated, and which was at times the object of his boasts, at times the source of his own apparent amazement.
His autobiography, De Propria Vita, which Cardano wrote in Rome shortly before his death, is the book which keeps his name alive for us both as a writer and as a personality. He was a writer manque at least as far as Italian literature is concerned, because if he had tried to express himself in the vernacular (and it would certainly have been an Italian as rough and ungainly as Leonardo's), instead of doggedly composing all his works in Latin (he felt that only Latin could guarantee immortality), sixteenth-century Italian literature would have had not another classic writer, but another weird one, though one that was all the more representative of his age for being eccentric. Instead, adrift as he is on the high seas of Renaissance Latin, he is now read only by scholars: not that his Latin is as clumsy as his critics claimed (in fact the more elliptical and idiosyncratic his style, the more pleasant it is to read him), but because it forces us to read him through a glass darkly, as it were. (The most recent Italian translation is, I believe, the one published in 1945 in Einaudi's Universale series.)
Cardano wrote not just because he was a scientist who had to communicate the results of his research, or a polygraph bent on contributing to a universal encyclopedia, or a compulsive scribbler obsessed with filling page after page, but also because he was a genuine writer, who tried to capture with words something that appeared to elude them. Here is a passage about childhood memories which would merit a place in any future anthology of ‘precursors of Proust’: it is a description of visions or daydream reveries or flights of fancy or psychedelic hallucinations to which he was subject - when he was aged between four and seven - when he stayed in bed in the morning. Cardano tries to provide the precisest possible record both of this inexplicable phenomenon and of the state of mind in which he watched this 'diverting spectacle'.
I saw aery images which seemed to be composed of tiny rings, like those in chain mail (lorica), even though I had never seen them at that age. They rose from the right-hand comer of the bed, ascending slowly from the bottom to form a semicircle and then descending to the lift-hand comer where they disappeared: castles, houses, animals, knights on horseback, blades of grass, trees, musical instruments, theatres, men dressed in different guises, particularly trumpeters playing their trumpets, though no sound or voice could be heard, and then soldiers, crowds, fields, shapes I had never seen before, woods and forests, a whole range of things which flowed past without merging into each other but instead seeming to jostle each other. Diaphanous figures, but not like empty, non-existent forms: rather they were at once both transparent and opaque, shapes which lacked only colour to make them perfect, but which yet were not only made up of air. I used to enjoy gazing at these spectacles so much that once my aunt asked me: 'Mat are you looking at?' and I refused to answer, afraid that if I spoke, the source of these displays, whatever it was, might be annoyed and stop the entertainment.
This passage comes in the autobiography in a chapter dealing with the dreams and other unusual physical features he was heir to: being born with long hair, the cold of his legs at night, his hot sweats in the morning, the recurrent dream of a cockerel which seemed permanently on the verge of uttering some dire warning, the moon he saw shining in front of him every time he looked up from the page he was writing after solving a difficult problem, his emission of sulphurous or incense-filled odours, the fact that whenever he was in a fight he was never wounded, nor wounded other people or even saw others being wounded, so that once he realised he had this gift (which however did not work on several occasions) he would fling himself fearlessly into every quarrel and riot.
His autobiography is dominated by a constant preoccupation with himself, with the uniqueness of his own person and destiny, totally conforming to the astrological belief which held that the sum of disparate particulars which make up the individual finds its origin and raison d'etre in the configuration of the sky at the moment of birth.
Thin and unhealthy, Cardano was triply concerned with his own health: as a doctor, as an astrologer, and as a hypochondriac, or as we would say now, as someone with a psychosomatic condition. As a result the clinical chart he has left us is extremely detailed, ranging from lengthy life-threatening illnesses to the tiniest spots on his face.
This is the subject matter of one of the first chapters of De Propria Vita, which is a biography constructed around themes: there are chapters on his parents ('mater fuit iracunda, memoria et ingenio pollens, parvae staturae, pinguis, pia' (my mother was an irascible woman with a powerful memory and intellect, small in stature, fat and pious)), his birth and star sign, a physical self-portrait (which is meticulous, ruthless and complacent in a kind of inverted narcissism), his diet and physical routine, his virtues and vices, his favourite things, his consuming passion for gaming (dice, cards, chess), his manner of dress, his gait, his religion and other devout practices, houses he lived in, poverty and losses to the family patrimony, risks taken and accidents, books written, the most successful diagnoses and therapies of his medical career, and so on.
The chronological account of his life occupies just one chapter, not very much for such an incident-packed existence. But many episodes are recounted at greater length in various chapters of the book, from his adventures as a gambler both in his youth (including how he managed to escape with the help of his sword from the house of a Venetian patrician card-sharp) and when a grown man (at that time chess was played for money and he was such an invincible chessplayer that he was tempted to abandon medicine to earn a living from gaming), to his amazing journey across Europe as far as Scotland where an archbishop who suffered from asthma was waiting for him to cure him (after several unsuccessful attempts, Cardano managed to improve the archbishop's condition by forbidding him the use of his feather pillow and mattress), to the tragedy of his son who was beheaded for killing his wife.
Cardano wrote over 200 works of medicine, mathematics, physics, philosophy, religion and music. (It was only the figurative arts that he steered clear of, almost as if the shade of Leonardo da Vinci, a spirit who resembled his own in so many other ways, was enough for that area.) He also wrote a eulogy of the Emperor Nero, and an encomium of gout, as well as a treatise on spelling and one on gambling (De Ludo Aleae). This last work is also important as the first text on probability theory: hence the attention devoted to it in an American book which, leaving aside its more technical chapters, is extremely informative and enjoyable, and is, I think, still the most recent monograph on Cardano to this day (Oystein are, Cardano, The Gambling Scholar, Princeton, 1953).
'The gambling scholar': was that Cardano's secret? Certainly his life and works seem to be a succession of games involving risk, and the possibility of losing as much as winning. Renaissance science no longer seems to be for Cardano a harmonious unity of macrocosm and microcosm, but rather a constant interaction of 'chance and necessity' which is refracted in the infinite variety of things, and in the irreducible uniqueness of individuals and phenomena. The new direction of human knowledge had by now begun, aimed as it was at deconstructing the world bit by bit rather than at holding it together.
'This goodly frame, the earth,' says Hamlet, with this book in his hand, 'seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours . . .’”