You may not have heard of Girolamo Cardano, but his contributions to math, science, and philosophy typify the Renaissance spirit. Also known as Jerome Cardan and Hieronymus Cardanus, the polymath - and one of numerous Renaissance mathematicians - wrote about algebra, optics, and morality while producing intellectual offerings that have long outlived him. Cardano's work continues to influence thinkers today. His life, though, was full of incredible struggle.
Born in 1501, Girolamo was the son of Fazio Cardano, a well-known lawyer and an associate of Leonardo da Vinci. Cardano might have appeared destined to lead a charmed life, but the actual facts of his life are tragic. From an illegitimate birth to an interrogation by the Spanish Inquisition to disowned children, Cardano couldn't catch a break.
Cardano grew up in Pavia, Italy, with his parents, Chiara Micheri and Fazio Cardano. Fazio Cardano was an elderly lawyer in Milan who had developed a relationship with Micheri, a much younger widow; the two did not marry. Micheri had her baby in Pavia to avoid a scandal in Milan (and perhaps to circumvent the plague outbreak in the city), but before giving birth, she tried to end the pregnancy.
After a reported three days of labor, Chiara Micheri gave birth to Girolamo Cardano on September 24, 1501. By his own account, he was "taken by violent means from my mother, I was almost dead." He went to live with a wet nurse, who soon died of the plague. Girolamo then developed carbuncles on his face. While the plague killed Micheri's other three children, Girolamo survived.
His mother and father continued to live separately until they established a "common household... and were considered married." Even then, Fazio Cardano did not recognize Girolamo as his son until just before his own death in 1524.
Cardano described his mother as short-tempered and indicated that both of his parents "lacked consistency and constancy in their love for their children." He said his father was more loving than his mother, but emphasized that his father did not hesitate to beat him. In fact, his mother, father, and aunt Margherita all whipped him on occasion.
Cardano thought highly of Fazio Cardano - a skilled lawyer who allegedly had a knack for geometry and had received counsel from Leonardo da Vinci on occasion - but disregarded his wishes by studying medicine instead of law. Fazio felt distressed by this - he saw law as a nobler profession that could advance the family's status.
While studying medicine in Pavia and then at Padua, Cardano became troubled by questions about his legitimacy, which plagued his early career.
Cardano struggled with poor health for most of his young life. His infancy included variolas (swellings) on his face; he had dysentery when he was 8. He once fell down a flight of stairs while holding a hammer, which became lodged in his forehead. Despite his weak body, when Cardano came of age, he worked as his father's assistant and traveled with him.
These health problems may have contributed to Cardano's impotence, which ended in the early 1530s when his wife, Lucia Bandareni, gave birth to the first of their three children.