Continued studies in France and Italy
By Sebastian Olden-Jørgensen
Niels Steensen’s first stop was Paris where he quickly became part of the circle around the prominent academician, Melchisédec Thévenot (1620-95). Steensen demonstrated his anatomical discoveries with great success in Paris, and while he was there the doctor’s degree was conferred on him in absentia from Leiden. In the beginning of 1665 he held his famous lecture on the anatomy of the brain at Thévenot’s home, demonstrating failings in current approaches to understanding the brain—not least among the Cartesians—and he articulated principles for future brain research. This lecture is a methodological tour de force and can be read with benefit to this very day.
After his stay in Paris, Niels Steensen visited the famous protestant university in Montpellier before proceeding to Italy in March 1666. The grand duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand II de’Medici, and later his son Cosimo III became Niels Steensen’s loyal benefactors and friends. At that time Tuscany was a flourishing principality and the grand dukes were renowned not only for their patronage of the arts, but of the sciences as well. By virtue of their patronage Steensen immediately joined the circle of prominent scientists at the Medici court working in the tradition of Galileo: Vincenszio Viviani, Francesco Redi and Lorenzo Magalotti. He also made the acquaintance of the well read and pious Lavinina Arnolfini (1631-1710), wife of the Luccan ambassador to Tuscany, and discussed religion with her. Lavinia Arnolfini put Steensen in contact with her confessor, E. Savignani SJ, with whom he could discuss the finer points of theology.