One of the joys of having run a moderately successful history of science blog for a number of years, and thus become somehow respectable, is that I occasionally get to review books; this is one of those reviews. Regular readers will know that I tend to bang on a bit about astrology. This is not because I particularly like it or that I’m one of those people who won’t put a foot in front of the door without consulting their horoscope for the day but because of its historical significance. Justifying a popular lecture on the history of astrology that I held in January I said that astrology had played a central role in, not only the history of science but in the social, economical and political histories of Europe for a period of about two thousand years. The role of astrology was ignored by historians of every colour for a very long time. In the eighteenth century during what is commonly known as the Enlightenment astrology, along with alchemy, magic, witchcraft, etc., was consigned to the dustbin of human history. Following this degradation, historians applying a mixture of the Whig interpretation of history and presentism thought it was in order to ignore astrology as a historical error, which humanity had now grown out of. This attitude led to a crass falsification of history. In more recent decades historians became aware of this failure on their part and began to treat the history of astrology with the seriousness it deserves, although their first efforts concentrated almost exclusively on investigating the reasons for humanity, or at least the intellectual part of humanity, freeing itself from this pernicious superstition. This in its own way led to more perversion of history. There are quite a lot of texts out there pointing out how Pico della Mirandolla killed off the belief in astrology with his posthumously published Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem. The only problem with this claim is that astrology was still very much alive and kicking and occupying a central position in European discourse one hundred and fifty years later.
After a couple of centuries of total rejection and then a somewhat unfortunate initial phase I can happily report that the history of astrology has become a well established discipline producing some excellent work, even if quite a lot of academics still tend to reward it with nasty looks. It is now generally recognised and acknowledged that astrology played a central role in Renaissance culture and most historians will make suitable comments in this regard when talking about the Renaissance. However what exactly was the day-to-day role of astrology during the Renaissance? Although we now have a growing pile of specialist academic literature on various aspects of astrology there has been up till now a surprising lack of general literature explain the role of astrology within the context of everyday life in the Renaissance. One important recent publication that attempts to fill part of this gap is Monica Azzolini’s The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan.
I will start off by saying straight out that this is an excellent book, if you have any interest in the history of astrology in the Early Modern Period obtain a copy of this book and read it! I guarantee you won’t regret it. So if you take my advice and acquire the book what do you get?
Azzolini deals with the problem of giving us an overview of everyday Renaissance astrology by presenting us with an extended case study of the use made of astrology by four Sforza dukes of Milan starting with Francesco Sforza (ruled 1450 – 1466) through to Ludovico (ruled 1494 – 1499). However before she starts in on the twisted family politics of the Sforza dynasty Azzolini introduces us to the world of the fifteenth century medical astrology. In her opening chapter Azzolini tries to reconstruct the corpus of books that a student of medicine would have studied at the University of Pavia in the fifteenth-century in order to acquire the necessary knowledge of astrology that he would need to exercise his profession as an astrological physician, what she terms a Corpus Astrologicum. This task is not made easy, as there are no surviving curricula or similar documents with a suitable reading list for the students of the medical faculty. Azzolini’s analysis is therefore per force speculative. However her speculations are always both well argued and solidly founded on the available indirect information that she has brought together to undertake this task. This first chapter alone repays the student of the history of astrology for having undertaken the task of reading this book.
In the four subsequent chapters we get introduced one by one to the four Sforza dukes of Milan and to the use each of them made of astrology during their respective reigns. Through this device we get introduced to the various aspects of the art of astrology as practiced in this period in Renaissance Italy and to those practitioners who served the Sforza dukes.
Azzolini takes us in turn through medical astrology, natal astrology, the use of astrology in planning dynastic marriages and the timing of the consummation of the resulting partnerships, astrology used in political decision making and in the case of Ludovico astrology used daily for almost every single act in his rather turbulent life. At each stage in our journey through the Sforza family history Azzolini explains clearly and lucidly the social and political background to all that is taking place, as well as giving clear explanations of how the astrologers go about their tasks.
The book is very well written and a pleasure to read but it is so multi-layered and dense in detail that it pays to read slowly and with maximum concentration so as not to miss some nugget of information on a multitude of historical topics. Azzolini is a first class historian but she wears her scholarship with ease.
This book is an academic book and for me an academic book lives and dies on the quality of, what I term, its academic apparatus, i.e. foot- or endnotes, bibliography and index. In all three aspects this book is absolutely first class. Although I am on record as preferring footnotes to endnotes I feel in this case the decision to use endnotes is justified. The 212 pages of text are followed by a whopping 108 pages of highly detailed endnotes, enough to satisfy even the most pedantic citation fetishist. Endnote four to the introduction is in itself a masterpiece. We get presented with a multilingual list of books and papers on Renaissance astrology that would serve as a reading list for any university course on the subject. (However it does contain one of my few objections to Azzolini’s book. In this endnote she lists Claudia Brosseder’s Im Bann der Sterne. Casper Peucer, Philipp Melanchthon and andere Wittenberger Astrologen, now I personally think that all copies of this book should be collected in and ceremonially burnt in the courtyard of Wittenberg University, it’s that bad in my anything but humble opinion.) The thirty-page bibliography more than matches the high standard set by the endnotes and up till now I have found no reason to complain about the comprehensive index. This is an all round excellent book, which is also, as one would expect from Harvard UP, nicely presented.
This is as I said an academic book and its first audience is of course historians of astrology, however it can and should be read by historians of politics, of medicine, of science, of the Renaissance and of general history at all levels from the undergraduate to the expert historian. All of them can learn much from this book and all would profit from reading it. Although I am now repeating myself, this is an excellent book, which deserves to become a classic and almost certainly will and I regard it as a privilege that I have been allowed to review it.
 Monica Azzolini, The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 2013.