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EGNATIO DANTI
by Simonetta Ercoli, Planetarian December 2013

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Egnatio was born in Perugia in 1536 and was baptised with the name of Carlo Pellegrino in the Church of San Domenico, one of the oldest and most important churches in the old city. He changed his name to Egnatio on 7th March, 1555 when he entered the Dominican Order to take up the priesthood. Although he was born into the Rinaldi (or Randali) family, who by tradition were important goldsmiths and architects, Egnatio used his family name only occasionally in print, preferring the pseudonym 'Danti', in deference to Dante Alighieri, author of the renowned ‘Divine Comedy’, thereby alluding to the cultural standing of many family members.

As a boy in the family goldsmith’s workshop, his father Giulio introduced him to the study of the design and measuring instruments while his grandfather Pier Vincenzo taught him to construct mechanical devices. Under his aunt Teodora he studied Mathematics, Geometry and Astronomy.

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He spent the years from 1562 to 1575 at the Medici court in Florence where he taught mathematics and the sciences to Cosimo I's children and where he also painted fifty-three maps of the then-known world on the panels of the Guardaroba in Palazzo Vecchio. Fourteen panels show European regions, eleven deal with Africa, fourteen depict Asian regions and another fourteen the Americans. Danti painted thirty-five of them himself and annotated coordinates and reduced scale in each of them.

During this period he built numerous astronomical instruments like astrolabes, globes and anemoscopes, which can be seen today in the Museum of the History of Science (Museo della Storia della Scienza) in Florence. He lived in the Santa Maria Novella Convent until 1571, where he built a marble sundial and an equinoctial armilla on the church facade. He also calculated the dates of the equinoxes and the astronomical year with these instruments, during which time he realized that the Julian calendar contained a mistake: the exact date of the equinox was eleven days before the 22nd of March. Thanks to this he became an important figure in the reform of the Gregorian calendar. When Cosimo I died, Egnatio had to break off his ambitious project to connect Florence both to the Tyrrhenian Sea and to the Adriatic Sea by means of a complex system of canals, lakes and tunnels through the Apennines because Cosimo I’s son and successor did not support him and asked for him to be transferred.

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In 1576 he taught Mathematics at the University of Bologna, where he built other anemoscopes and a gnomon at the church of San Petronio. In 1577, having returned to Umbria, he made a series of chorographic and topographic maps of the entire Perugia territory, taking angular measurements with an instrument called Radio Latino which he had constructed himself.

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In 1580 he was called to Rome by Pope Gregory XIII where he became the Papal cosmographer and mathematician, and where he also worked on the reform of the calendar and planned the decoration of the gallery in the west wing of the Vatican Belvedere, later known as the Map Gallery. In 1583 he became a member of the Accademia di Santa Lucia in Rome, and on 11st November of the same year Pope Gregory XIII nominated him Bishop of Alatri.

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In 1586 he directed the work of erecting the obelisk in Saint Peter’s Square in Rome which he used as a gnomon and inscribed the solstices, the equinoxes and a wind rose on its base. After finishing the job, while on his way to Alatri, he died.

 

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