Treasures from the London Library: Unlucky genius

Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros explores the life and work of Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia, one of the less fortunate and most cantankerous polymaths of the Italian Renaissance.

Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia was one of the less fortunate and most cantankerous polymaths of the Italian Renaissance. He was born in 1500 in Brescia, the son of a humble courier who was murdered when Niccolò was only six years old. The Fontana family had always been poor, but after the father’s death their situation became desperate. Only six years later, Niccolò received the second major blow of his life, this time literally. In 1512, his home town of Brescia was sacked by French soldiers during the War of the League of Cambrai. It is estimated that over 45,000 residents were killed in the ensuing massacre and twelve-year-old Niccolò was left for dead after receiving horrific sabre wounds to his jaw and palate. Although he survived the attack, Niccolò's severe injuries left him with a permanent speech impediment, which earned him the nickname ‘Tartaglia’ (stammerer). He could not hide his stammer, but as soon as he was able to Niccolò grew a beard to hide his scars. Destitute, disfigured and with a stammer, Niccolò could not have hoped to have much of a life. However, when it came to mathematics, he was a child prodigy. Niccolò also had great self-belief, which some called arrogance, and managed to find a patron who paid for him to study in Padua. By 1516, the teenager was already teaching mathematics in Verona, but still lived in relative poverty. He moved to Venice, in 1534, where he spent most of the rest of his life.

Niccolò Fontana is best known for devising a method to solve cubic equations and for his bitter quarrel with Girolamo Cardano. Cardano, who was also a mathematician and lecturer at the Piatti Foundation in Milan, had persuaded Tartaglia to tell him about this method after swearing that he would never reveal it. Soon after, however, Cardano discovered that another mathematician, Scipione Ferro, had been the first to find a solution to cubic equations. In 1545, Cardano published Artis magnae sive de regulis algebraicis liber unus, or Ars magna as it is more commonly known, which included solutions to both cubic and quartic equations as well as the work Cardano himself had done based on Tartaglia’s solution.

It is unclear whether Tartaglia wanted to publish his method himself or if he was saving it to use in the many mathematical debates in which he took part and which had served to enhance his reputation. Whatever the reason, Tartaglia felt Cardano had betrayed him. He was furious and never forgave Cardano. In 1548, his reputation was seriously dented when, sensing defeat, he walked out of a mathematical debate against Lodovico Ferrari, Cardano’s pupil.

Tartaglia published the first Italian translation of Euclid's Elements, in 1543, as well as translations of the works of Archimedes. He is also remembered for his work in military science and in 1537, he wrote Nova Scientia on the application of mathematics to artillery fire. It is not surprising that after his childhood experience of the sacking of Brescia, he should devote some of his considerable intellect and ingenuity to designing fortifications and devising formulae to calculate the reach and trajectory of cannonballs and other missiles.

Less well-known, however, is that Tartaglia was also interested in marine engineering and salvage.

The London Library holds a copy of his work, printed in Venice in 1551, on methods for raising sunken ships, which includes several designs for diving bells: Regola generale da sulevare con ragione e misura nõ solamte ogni affondata naue : ma una torre solida di mettallo (General rule for raising not only every sunken ship correctly and with care but also a tower of solid metal).

Despite Tartaglia’s genius and intellectual achievements, he never managed to make the social connections that would have secured him lucrative employment and he died in poverty at the age of 51. His life was blighted by tragedy, violence and the highly damaging feud with Cardano.


Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros is head of Bibliographic Services at the London Library.

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