Girolamo Ruscelli (1518–1566) was an Italian mathematician, polygraph, and cartographer active in Italy during the early 16th century. He was born around 1518 in Viterbo to a family of minor nobility and humble origins. Throughout his life, Ruscelli moved around, living all over Italy. He started in Aquilea, but his work soon drew him to more important centers of learning. He moved first to Padua, and around 1540, he settled in Rome, where he founded his Accademia dello Sdegno. Around 1545, Ruscelli left Rome for Naples, and in 1548 he finally settled in the city that would make him most famous, Venice.
While posterity primarily remembers Ruscelli as one of the most important cartographers of the Venice School, his primary source of income came from publishing – both his works and copying the work of others. While he wrote on a broad range of subjects himself, the works plagiarised from others were often published by his partner, Plinio Pietrasanta. This lucrative relationship lasted until 1555 when Ruscelli was arrested and tried by the Inquisition for re-publishing a satirical poem by Pietrasanta without his formal permission. Any confrontation with the Inquisition was unpleasant enough, but Ruscelli may have been particularly susceptible to pressure because his wife’s family entertained Protestant sympathies. His brother-in-law was burned at the stake in Rome some years later.
The relationship with Pietrasanta had nevertheless soured, and the publishing firm was soon closed. Instead, Ruscelli partnered up with another Venetian publisher, Vincenzo Valgrisi. It was with Valgrisi that Ruscelli published his famous Ptolemaic Geografia in 1561. This atlas contained sixty-nine engraved maps sporting the latest ideas in Italian cartography. Despite containing some of the latest cutting-edge ideas about the world’s composition, Ruscelli’s atlas also drew heavily on earlier works. Forty of the 69 maps in Ruscelli’s atlas were copied almost directly from Giacomo Gastaldi’s Geografia from 1548.
Despite Ruscelli’s fame as a cartographer, he also achieved considerable recognition under his pseudonym Alessio Piemontese. His greatest success in this regard came the same year as his arrest (1555), with the publication of De Secreti del Alessio Piemontese. In this book of alchemy, Ruscelli reveals himself as a true Renaissance man, dabbling proficiently in multiple disciplines at the same time. His ‘Secrets‘ contained instructions on how to make everything from alchemical compounds and medicines to cosmetics and dyes. The work was so popular that it was re-issued numerous times over the next two centuries, and translated into French, English, German, Latin, Dutch, Spanish, Polish, and even Danish.