In another world

Galileo Galilei, Vincent van Gogh, Primo Levi

publisher: il Saggiatore
year: 2023


What is the thread connecting Van Gogh, Primo Levi and Galileo? What can hold them together? At first sight, nothing. Except maybe for Galileo and Levi, who had in common a scientific background. Usually, it is rare to find the three of them all together. The reader is used to meeting them in distinct disciplinary fields, in books placed on different shelves. Since, normally, science is here and art is there, and literature in some other place. However, if we observe them more closely, these characters - though different and distant from each other in time - share a common aspect: they are discoverers of another world, of a world which is other than that commonly accepted and perceived. Each of them was involved in such overwhelming events that, afterwards, their lives were no longer the same.

This book intends to narrate how they encountered those “other worlds”: as immense and faraway as the Moon and the stars; as minuscule and familiar as hayfields or blooming gardens; as dark and evil as some prison-towns built by men to incarcerate and kill other men. Three borderline experiences which broke any notion of continuity with the past, in the name of that radicality of thought and imagination which only a few were able to achieve.

An experiment of writing about the interweaving of discovery, life and world representation.


There was no student who did not know who was “Peretto”, or better “Petrus Mantuanus”. To look at him, small, ugly and quite weird, nobody would have paid attention to him nor would have given a penny for the fellow. As reported by the chronicles of that time, he was: «a very little irrelevant man, whose face indeed recalled more the Jews than the Christians, and also his style was rather of a rabbi than a philosopher, always shorn and shaven; [and] spoke also in a peculiar manner, as a German Jew who wants to learn Italian». However, that day, too, as always happened when he gave a lecture, the room was packed like sardines. For more than a decade he had been successfully – and also with much concern from his colleagues – appointed to the chair in Primary Philosophy at the Studium in Bologna.

It was March 18th 1523. That year the course given by Pietro Pomponazzi included the exposition of Aristotle’s Meteorologica with Averroes’ commentary. In particular, the lesson of March 18th focused on some passages of the second book, which dealt with a topic that had become greatly popular: how large was the inhabited part of the globe, that is, what were the furthest limits that humans had reached since their appearance on earth. After reading Aristotle and analysing Averroes’ arguments in favour of the thesis of the uninhabitability of the lands south of the Tropic of Capricorn, Pomponazzi concluded his own commentary in an unexpected way, leaving everybody speechless. Abandoning Aristotle and Averroes to their fate, he concluded the lecture with a news story that he had been recently told by a Venetian friend, appointed to the retinue of the Papal Nuncio to the Court of the King of Spain. The story was about the crossing completed by brave seamen who, once over the Torrid Zone, ventured many miles further in the Austral hemisphere. «Once beyond the Pillars of Hercules, they sailed in this hemisphere for three months and ran into more than three-hundred islands, separate one from the other, which not only were inhabitable but were inhabited». And then, staring at each of his young students, he exclaimed with malicious irony: «What do you say? What do you think now of Aristotle’s reasoning and Averroes’ apodictic arguments to the contrary?»

Who knows what his students felt, while he was uttering such biting words which did not leave any room for doubts and uncertainty. Who knows what they imagined, what they said to each other after such an irreverent lecture, where the account of a journey carried out by unknown sailors confuted the conception of one of the most important philosophers of ancient times.

Those who knew him were not taken by surprise. His doctrines on the distinction between the truth of reason and the truth of faith, on the negation of supernatural causes to explain wonders and miracles as well as on the impossibility of rationally demonstrating the immortality of the soul: all this had already long been suspected of heresy. His most devoted students were used to his way of suddenly overturning arguments, switching from a measured and detailed commentary of writings to unexpected flashes, heterodox and non-conformist digressions, references to dangerous and shocking theories, which allowed them to see other ways to conceive the human being and the world.

In 1516, the newly published Tractatus de immortalitate animae by Pietro Pomponazzi was condemned by the Church and burnt in a public square in Venice. Exactly one century later, on March 5th 1616, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium by Nicolaus Copernicus was  included in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum and Galileo was admonished not to teach, treat nor defend the heliocentric theory. In little more than a century lands and heavens are no longer the same, they no longer resemble what was held as true, and slowly but unceasingly they provoke epistemological breakthroughs and new trends of thought throughout Europe.

What I have just recounted is an episode of five centuries ago which involves an author who, almost forgotten today, is still very effective in making his listeners immediately experience the sense of novelty and unrest that emerged in the Modern age after the exploration of new lands and seas.

The following pages, too, deal with the theme of discovery and invention of new worlds. Arisen in a period of captivity, when Covid-19 suddenly entered our lives – these pages helped me evade from the world into which  ̶  as most of us  ̶  I had fallen and to enter other worlds with which my work gave me the privilege to be acquainted. And it is my intention not to to treat this topic in an abstract philosophical perspective, in which subjects are concepts rather than people in the flesh, but by plunging into the vortices and concerns of memorable and, at the same time, tragic lives.  

In order to understand what happens when one crosses a certain threshold and enters a world which cannot be compared with that generally perceived, I have chosen three exceptional fellows in adventure. Thanks to them, the reader will experience new ways of seeing the sky, nature and the human being: the world discovered and invented by a mathematician-philosopher who accomplished the first scientific revolution; that of a visionary and audacious artist who managed “to find the real character of things” and to show them to us as nobody had done before; and that of a witness and extraordinary writer who, after having himself been part of the machinery in an harrowing experiment, made us deeply reconsider the notion of humanity. The former recreated the whole fabric of cosmos from top to bottom: after two millennia, in the early 17th century, the sky as known until then was inexorably destroyed and replaced by a new image of the world. The second was able to redesign the world’s surface, leading us to fields of imagination that exceed any resemblance to reality. The latter, lastly, unveiled the roots and essence of evil.

However, my intention here is not to tell in detail their lives. There are all too many works of this kind. And many are quite similar to each other, following an utterly ‘vertical’ structure ̶  a well-known cliché  ̶  which outlines a story based on the binomial “life and works” with no room for openings, digressions, crossings and contaminations.

My intention is rather to focus my gaze on some crucial moments of their existence, trying to understand how going through or tenaciously seeking certain experiences might have affected them, changing their lives and mental processes.

What we feel, when we enter a world whose laws and values are exactly the opposite of those commonly accepted, where the rules of civil society, common and good sense are  infringed every day. What we feel, when we see something in the sky or on earth that nobody has seen nor imagined before. Which circuits of perception, thought or speech the discoverer’s mind and soul access and which energies emerge from such discoveries. And then: how to transpose in writing and painting what the eye saw, the ear heard, the hand touched. How to tell about it to those who do not know, who were not there and did not see. Which words to use, which strategies to adopt, which images and metaphors to choose, in order to overcome their resistance and convince them of the actual existence of other worlds. This is the torment of not being believed or of being considered a visionary or a fool, prey to the delusions of his own mind, confusing illusion and reality.

Of course, each of them is an explorer in his own way, each of them bears his own, irreducible anomalies and peculiarities. However, despite this fundamental difference, each of them shares with the others a feeling of vertigo and extreme. And challenge: that of a mathematician who tenaciously struggles to be accepted and recognised as a philosopher of nature; that of a young man who took up a career as a preacher and missionary and finally decided to give up everything in the name of painting, considering this latter as the extreme form of knowledge and inner liberation; lastly, that of a chemist whose deep wish was to write and who fully dedicated himself to it in his later life, when he was 56. All three of them were resolute to play out their match with life and fate. All three of them were committed to seeking knowledge and truth. And, almost always, in solitude.   

Yes, solitude, indeed. Here is another aspect that they have in common. An atypical greatly famous scientist who, forced into silence, concludes his existence under the surveillance of the emissaries of the Holy Inquisition. An artist whom no new young painter  could ever replace and who over ten years of tireless work managed to sell only one painting at a decent price. And, the last one, a witness-writer who carries the burden and responsibility of surviving also for the others, and who  ̶  at least during a part of his existence  ̶  withdrew from the Italian and international literary community.

It is redundant to add that each of these three stories is a narrated story. None of them is romanticised.



Part 1: Van Gogh, the colours of mind
Chapter 1: From the heart of earth DOWNLOAD A SAMPLE
Chapter 2: Vincent’s Choice
Chapter 3: The long road to color
Chapter 4: The House of Utopia

Part 2: Primo Levi, the dots of reality
Chapter 1: The world of Descartes DOWNLOAD A SAMPLE
Chapter 2: Her Majesty the Chemistry
Chapter 3: “A gigantic biological and social experience”
Chapter 4: The discovery of the punctiform evil

Part 3: Galileo, the invention of a new heaven
Chapter 1: Hotel Galileo DOWNLOAD A SAMPLE
Chapter 2: The destruction of a perfect world
Chapter 3: No escape