SEVERINO, Marco Aurelio

SEVERINO, Marco Aurelio Vipera pythia, id est, de viperae natura, veneno, medicina, demonstrationes, & expermenta nova

Padua, Paolo Frambotto, 1650


FIRST EDITION. 4to, pp. (xvi) 522 (xx). Roman and italic letter, woodcut floriated initials and endpieces. T-p within handsome engraved border with snakes interlaced to form medallions in which vipers, animals, the caduceus and allegorical figures are depicted, 24 quarter to full-page engravings illustrating the anatomy of vipers, mythological creatures, deities and coins associated with snakes, signed by Giovanni Georgi. Small ink stains to blank margin of t-p and two ll., almost imperceptible waterstain to three initial ll. A very good, clean and wide-margined copy in contemporary vellum, covers a bit soiled with small hole to upper fore edge. Spine later gilt ruled in compartments with ink stamped floral ornaments at centres, very small hole towards tail, a.e.r. ‘Gaddesden Park’ in pencil on flyleaf with shelf mark above, c.1900 Gaddesden Library armorial bookplate (Halsey family of Gaddesden, Hertfordshire) to front paste-down.


Rare first edition of this finely illustrated and fascinating work on vipers. 


Marco Aurelio Severino (1580-1656) was a distinguished professor of anatomy at the University of Naples and surgeon at the Ospedale degli Incurabili. His numerous works on medicine and surgery, particularly the first textbook of surgical pathology (De recondita abscesso natura, 1632) and the earliest treatise on comparative anatomy (Zootomia democritea, 1645), made him famous and respected throughout Europe. Important contemporary physicians including William Harvey, Thomas Bartolin and Johannes Vesling were among his correspondents.


‘Vipera pythia’ combines folkloristics beliefs surrounding vipers with ‘new experiments’ conducted by the author to test the effects of their venom. The treatise is divided into three parts. The first describes the ‘nature’ of these animals, which is ‘revolting and hideous’ but also ‘divine’; the author begins with presenting the occurrence of snakes in ancient mythology and the superstition surrounding them, then moves on to describing their anatomy, behaviour and reproduction. This section contains many curious attractive engravings of snakes depicted on ancient coins, associated with Greek and Latin gods, celestial bodies (the sun) and dragons. The second section is entirely dedicated to the viper’s poison, focusing on how it is produced and where; illustrations here show details of the viper’s head, teeth and mouth. Interestingly, Severino supports the thesis that the poison in itself is harmless, and that instead the wound caused by the bite is dangerous and potentially fatal. “On the basis of only two experiences, one with the crest of a cock and the other on a bite of the hand of one of his household, he [Severino] denied absolutely that the yellow liquid was poisonous. He also still repeated (…) that applying a freshly cut off head of a viper to its bite was a marvellous antidote, that music would revive the dead victim of a viper’s bite and that the spittle of a fasting man would kill a viper”. (Thorndike) The third and final part deals with the many therapeutic uses of viper’s poison and flesh, for example in the preparation of theriac. At the end, a brief section of ‘addenda’ includes a letter sent by Severino to Bartholin, in which he answers some questions Bartholin asked him about vipers’ behaviour (e.g. explaining that they can ‘climb’ rough and uneven surfaces more easily than smooth ones), quoting contemporary and ancient authors.


The beautiful title page and all the illustrations were made by the Italian Giovanni Giorgi, a remarkable artist who worked for booksellers and also realised the engravings appearing in Vesling’s popular ‘Syntagma anatomicus’. 


A 1643 edition of this work is sometimes mentioned in the literature, but this is a mistake that arose because some copies are missing the initial 8 ll. (containing the dated t-p) – ‘year 1643’, appearing at the end as the date of the appended letter, was erroneously considered the printing date of the edition.

USTC 4048758; BM STC It. 17th century, p. 847, Brunet VI, 5851; Bibliotheca Osleriana 3961. This ed not in Krivatsy or Graesse. Not in Garrison-Morton or Heirs of Hippocrates. Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, Vol VIII (1958).

Out of stock