The Italian Monk Who Foresaw Europe’s Obsession With Eugenics

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Like many before him and many after, Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639) imagined a utopia. The Dominican friar envisioned a more perfect world at the turn of the seventeenth century, just as Spanish imperial power had transformed his homeland into a wayward province. In his thirtieth year, Campanella had returned home to Calabria, in Southern Italy, after a brush with the Inquisition. Increasingly convinced that astrological signs and prophetic texts foretold great upheaval, he was denounced for fomenting a rebellion in order to transform Calabria into a republic—the only chance, he believed, to save it from the tyrannical rule of the Spanish crown. Two of his fellow conspirators cracked and revealed his plot to the Spanish authorities. Campanella was arrested. Despite the pressures of interrogation under torture sanctioned by Pope Clement VIII, he refused to accept the accusation of rebellion, continually insisting that he had simply been following the prophesies from ancient texts and an unusual number of eclipses. The year 1600, he said, foretold great, turbulent changes. He was not rebelling, but simply acting upon the signs of nature. The authorities thought this insane, which worked out well for Campanella, as it made him unable to repent and thus not an appropriate victim for the death penalty.

For Campanella, demography was a yardstick of power.

Following this conflict with the Church and viceregal authorities, Campanella penned La citta del sole (The City of the Sun). The book transformed parts of Plato’s Republic into an imagined new world located somewhere near equatorial Taprobane in the Indian Ocean, an island that had long floated on the margins of European knowledge and wonder. There lived the Solarians, whose society enacted key Renaissance ideals. With them, whether he meant their predilections to be read sincerely or in jest, Campanella’s present-day reality bled inconspicuously into early modern science fiction. Just like elite Europeans, the Solarians invested in their animals; more to the point, “highly esteemed among them is the art of breeding horses, bulls, sheep, dogs, and every sort of domestic animals, just as it was in the time of Abraham.” The Solarians would have found similar breeding practices in Renaissance European stables, such as those throughout Campanella’s native Southern Italy. In both places, experts monitored animal breeding. Stallions and mares were not “set loose in the meadows” but instead brought “together outside their farm stables at the opportune time.” These breeders even orchestrated animals’ pairings to match the constellations. Horses required Sagittarius ascendant, in conjunction with Mars and Jupiter, while Taurus yielded the best oxen, and Aries improved sheep. In Europe, beautiful images were hung upon barn walls during mating season as a means of spurring the imaginations of the livestock, which was thought to produce ever lovelier offspring. Likewise, the Solarians employed “magic to induce these creatures to breed in the presence of paintings of horses, bulls, or sheep.”

However, while Europeans and Solarians shared practices for systematically developing animals, they diverged in their treatment of humans. Campanella’s central narrator, “the Genoese Sea-Captain,” had encountered Solarian society and returned to Italy to explain its wonders. In one of many such explanatory passages, the captain described how Solarians looked down on what they believed to be a contradiction among Europeans: “Indeed, they laugh at us who exhibit a studious care for our breeding of horses and dogs [ch’attendemo alla razza delli cani e cavalli], but neglect the breeding of human beings.” By contrast, the Solarians had created a superior society because they were willing to apply the rational principles of good animal husbandry to crafting generations of humans. They understood breeding to be broadly defined—encompassing education and reproduction alike, and pertaining to the fruits of human wombs just as to the seeds of the earth. The Solarians had mastered a Renaissance version of eugenics—a feat that many Europeans would have envied, others loathed, and still others doubted.

Campanella’s vision of controlling the breeding of men and women so that “they bring forth the best offspring,” just like other domestic animals, was built around the language of razza, a term that, as Dániel Margócsy has put it, “meant race, breed, and stud all at once.” In Campanella’s time, breeders across the European countryside and Europe’s American colonies applied terminology with its origins in the stable to describe the populations of livestock and other domesticated animals that they had bred. To Campanella, his Solarians, and other Renaissance thinkers, the word razza was associated with a specific population that could share qualities, and was often employed in breeding projects aimed at creating the “perfect” animal. A razza did not have inflexibly fixed characteristics, though; these were instead evanescent and easily lost, and their persistence resulted from reproductive work. Most of all—although, unlike widespread animal breeding, it was rarely realized—Campanella’s fiction encouraged readers to use this attention to razza to reshape human populations. Just as animal breeding required careful staging and rational decision-making, Campanella’s narrative suggested that similarly, human breeding could—and should—be carefully controlled.


The Perfection of Nature: Animals, Breeding, and Race in the Renaissance by Mackenzie Cooley has been shortlisted for the 2023 Cundill History Prize.


Beyond that, Campanella’s vision of improved nature reflected widespread beliefs and more than a century of real investment in animal breeding projects. Razze of horses joined collections of books and exotica from around the globe, displayed in their stables like objects in kunstkammer in order to evoke wonder and princely power. Numerous princely families, from the Spanish Habsburgs to the Gonzaga of Mantua, created their own “races” of horses, dogs, and other domesticated animals, their experts’ efforts recorded in a mass of bureaucratic texts. A paper trail ballooned around such projects, complete with the brands stamped into the animals’ flesh, their diets, lifespans, coloring, and other details. Through the ceaseless writing down, labeling, and categorizing of animal life, the language of razza was cemented and increasingly but unsystematically tied to specific traits. Each time these categories were written down and used in a sale, or read at the palace, or referred to in court proceedings, these documents helped to consolidate the idea of razza as a nameable, visible, and legible reality. Race, that complex concept, emerged through efforts both conscious and unconscious, but animal records represent one of the many spokes of the wheel. For Campanella, humans were the telos of breeding’s powers, animals the epiphenomenon. This book partially inverts that anthropocentric emphasis.

Campanella wrote almost a century after the cascade of American encounters—from Christopher Columbus’s voyages (1492–1504) to Hernán Cortés’s seizure of Mexico-Tenochtitlan (1519–21) and Francisco Pizarro’s thuggish domination of Cusco (1533)—when the glow of discovery had started to fade, leaving in its wake questions about the feasibility of long-term domination and permanent conversion. As Campanella sat in prison, King Philip III’s Spain was zealously guarding a vast swath of the known world. The domains of his father, Philip II (1527–1598), had encompassed the Iberian Peninsula, stretched across the Italian peninsula, extended up to the rebellious Low Countries, spread over large sections of North and South America, and extended to a smattering of islands across the Atlantic and Pacific and to strongholds up and down the coasts of Africa and Asia.

As a Habsburg subject in the non-Spanish possessions, Campanella wrote extensively about the Spanish monarchy, especially the Habsburg family, and the implications their imperial actions had for their dynastic fate. Freed from his Neapolitan prison and writing from Paris at the outset of a long war between France and Spain (1635–59), he prophesized that Spain’s failure to change its tactics to improve integration meant that it would lose its power to the French, who would reunify Christians. His reflections on the monarchy took the Catholic mandate of universal conversion seriously, but he increasingly believed that the Spaniards were squandering their position as a superpower through their pride. Consistent with the ideas he articulated in City of the Sun, marriage and the problem of population emerged as central to Campanella’s critique of the Spanish monarchy, as he saw Spain’s population as declining, with young men dying in war and women growing infertile. For Campanella, demography was a yardstick of power, and what is demography but the creation of a human population through choices made by generation upon generation? Although he overestimated its demographic collapse, Campanella had a point about Spain’s demographic travails and the role of war and empire. The Habsburgs, however, did not follow Campanella, either in terms of imperial population or in applying the lessons of animal husbandry to elite marriages, deferring instead to the pressures of honor, family loyalty, and dynastic strategy.


Excerpted with permission from The Perfection of Nature: Animals, Breeding, and Race in the Renaissance by Mackenzie Cooley, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2022 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

Mackenzie Cooley

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