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.

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