The neurophysiology of Giovanni Battista Giovannini (Milan 1632 - Madrid 1691) in seventeenth century Spain

Jesús V. COBO
Department of Mental Health, Corporación Sanitaria Parc Taulí de Sabadell; and Center for the History of the Sciences, University Autònoma of Barcelona, Spain.  jcobo AT

In the context of medicine at the Spanish court at the end of the 17th Century, a movement of innovation appears with the name novator. This movement, fed by the scientific revolution in Europe and supported by medics, surgeons, mathematicians and physicists, grouped the elite of the court scientists at that time. Among them are authors who write neurological works or study the neurophysiologic aspects, specially Giovanni Battista Giovannini (Milán, 1632 – Madrid, 1692) called Juan Bautista Juanini in Spain. Giovannini was a medic surgeon, educated at the Pavia University, and other european universities. Most of his live passed at the spanish court, where represented a main actor in introduccion of modern medicine. He was also author of a monographic work on neurophysiology. This work is conceived as a conversation by letter between several European scientists, mainly the Italian Francesco Redi (1626-1697).


  1. Describe the neurophysiological hypothesis developed by Giovannini in the context of medicine and surgery at the Spanish court by the end of the 17th Century.
  2. Relate the hypothesis brought up by this author with other ideas of the same school and to the historical and medical context.


The medic-surgeon Giovanni Battista Giovannini develops an original interpretation of the functioning of the brain, based on the principles of neural circulation. This interpretation was basically iatrochemical, meaning that it explains the functioning of the brain according to the principles of chemistry of that time.

The succus nerveus or intranerveous liquid consists of alkali and acid atoms and circulates through the nerves from the brain towards the periphery. Several kinds of succus nerveus exist, and they all have different functions. The main role of the succus nerveus in the work of Giovannini is a motor function, moved by the impulsive force of a chemical fermentation process. This fermentation takes place in the anterior ventricles of the brain.

Giovanni Battista Giovannini relates the neurophysiology of the brain to macroscopic anatomy and to the results of microscopic anatomy that he carries out personally. Moreover, he links these neurophysiological hypothesis to a number of clinical cases after post-mortem examinations. The seat of the sensitive soul, moreover, was in the front part of the ovale centers. The formulations of Giovannini developed a methodological approach based in his own experiences and observations and devoted on the value of the experiment.


Giovanni Battista Giovannini (1632-1691) develops an original hypothesis about the functioning of the central nervous system, based on iatrochemical concepts and on his own clinical, anatomical and anatomopathological observations of certain patients. Although these hypothesis have their own wordings, they can be framed within the concept of neural circulation, especially the ones related to the role of the brain ventricles, the location of the soul and the functions of the succus nerveus.


  1. JUANINI, Juan Bautista (1691) Cartas escritas a los muy nobles Doctores, el Doctor Don Francisco Redi... . Madrid, Imprenta Real, 1691.
  2. CLARKE, Edwin (1978) The neural circulation. The use of analogy in medicine. Medical History, vol. 22, pp. 291-307.
  3. MARTÍNEZ VIDAL, Àlvar (1989) Neurociencias y revolución científica en España. La circulación neural. Madrid, CSIC.
  4. COBO GÓMEZ, Jesús (2006) [Juan Bautista Juanini (1632-1691): Medical knowledges and Chirurgical Practices in the First Generation of the Novator Movement] [In spanish]. Doctoral Dissertation, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Poster Session
Saturday, 24 June 2006, 11.00 am - 12.30 pm

11th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Pavia, Italy, 2006