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Veronica Gavagna*
Abstract: Practica arithmetice represents a work of transition from different points of view. Concerning
Cardanos mathematical corpus, it is
the irst step of his ambitious arithmetical encyclopedia, the Opus perfectum, whose unique published volume
was the famous Ars magna. In the
Renaissance mathematics, it marks
the passage from the abacus tradition
to a more modern approach to algebraic rules, deeper developed in the
Ars magna few years later. In this pa-

per we briely describe the genesis of

the Opus perfectum and discuss some
algebraic rules contained in the Practica. We focus our attention on the interpretation of the method of the
auxiliary unknown provided by Cardano and illustrated by the Regula de
duplici and the Regula de medio, inherited by medieval algebra, and the
original Regula de modo, suitable to
solve a linear system of two equations in two unknowns.

1. From Practica arithmetice

et mensurandi singularis to Opus perfectum

mong the reasons why Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576) devoted himself to the teaching and study of mathematics was the state of poverty in which he found himself in the early 1530s and his long thwarted desire to be accepted into the College of Physicians in Milan. Although
such a statement might seem paradoxical, referring as it does to the one
who is considered one of the most important mathematicians of the Italian Renaissance, it is Cardano himself who gives us to understand in De
utilitate ex adversis capienda that:
Multis obest inopia: velut et mihi, cum ob paupertatem Mathematicas proiteri cogerer. Non ignorabam enim quantum auctoritati in Medicina ob hoc decederet. Sed quid facerem? Non habebam.
[Cardano 1663, vol. 2 p. 129].

* Veronica Gavagna, Universit di Salerno, Dipartimento di matematica e informatica, Via

Ponte don Melillo, 84084 Fisciano (Salerno); vgavagna@unisa.it
Bollettino di storia delle scienze matematiche Vol. XXX 2010 Fasc. 1


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Cardanos professional aspirations, initially oriented towards law, became directed towards medicine once and for all. After his degree, obtained in Padua in 1526, and a period of apprenticeship as medical oicer in a small town, in 1529 Cardano went to Milan hoping to be
admitted into the local College of Physicians. Instead, his request received the irst of many refusals to come, oicially being given due to his
illegittimate birth. The long struggle ended only in 1539 with Cardanos
complete acceptance into the College, but it left a deep scar on the author who would often resentfully remember the controversy in his autobiography, hinting at the suspicion that rivalry and envy, instead of his
illegittimacy, were the actual reasons for the refusals given by the members of the College.
The decade 1529-1539, during which Cardano could not have a regular
job as doctor, he distinguished himself through a long series of negative
events, recollecting in dramatic tones in De vita propria: the collapse of
his house, his debilitation due to a long disease, his chronic lack of regular income, his gradual impoverishment due to taxes (tributis intollerandis quasi perpetuo) and, not least, his bad luck at gambling
(playing dice he lost his wifes jewellery and his household furnishings).
In this desperate situation, Cardano accepted with considerable relief
(exigua spes afulsit [Cardano 2004, p. 178]) the job of teaching mathematics minimo tamen honorario that was ofered to him in 1534 at the
Piatti Foundation, thanks to the intercession of the inluential Milanese
diplomat, Filippo Archinto, and of the governors of the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan.1
Although not much information about the Piatti Foundation is available, it is plausible to suppose that they were comparable to schools of
university level. In the drafts of 1557 and 1562 of De libris propriis, Cardano indeed states that he had been assigned the task of teaching arith1 The Piatti Foundation was founded according to the dispositions by will of 17 January
1499 by the nobleman Tommaso Piatti, counsellor of Ludovico Sforza, who left his belongings
to the Ospedale Maggiore, provided that they were used to found public schools where Greek,
dialectics, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy were taught. Piatti died on 18 June 1502 and
the schools began their activity in 1503, to be later united with the Scuole Canobiane in 1579
instituted in 1557 thanks to the legacy of Pietro Canobio where ethics, logic and dialectics
were taught. In 1503 the teaching posts of arithmetics and geometry were left respectively to
Fabio Calvi and Fazio Cardano, Girolamos father. Still, it is possible that sometimes teaching
posts of mathematics were merged and given to just one teacher, as was documented in 1508
[Spinelli 1937] and is supposed to have happened from 1534 to 1536, a two-year period during which Cardano deinitely held both teaching posts. Regarding the Piatti Foundation see
[Pagani 1892].

cardano s practica arithmetice


metics, geometry and astrology (indicated without distinction as astronomy) on non-working days, but, in order to attract a more numerous audience he was able to teach architecture instead of arithmetic and geography instead of geometry.1 It is also possible to conjecture which were
the texts on which he based his teachings, since in the various drafts of
De libris propriis Cardano writes that in 1535, to coincide with his assigned
work, he began to write several commentaries: to Sphaera by Sacrobosco, to the irst and seventh books of Geographia by Tolomeo, to De Architectura by Vitruvio and to Elementa by Euclid, as well as the pamphlet
de circulis ad imitationem Campani and a text on spherical geometry in ten books totam circulorum rationem continentes. In 1557 these
texts were still far from being a inal version (Hucusque multa paravi,
sed nihil editione dignum [Cardano 2004, p. 180]) and, actually, they
were never published individually, but, at best, they were included in other works.2
Afraid that such an intense activity in the ield of mathematics could
make him lose credibility in the medical milieu, Cardano temporarily left
those writings and produced two pamphlets on medicine in order to recover the prestige he had lost and two on astrology to try to obtain the
benevolence of Pope Paul III.3 Since his eforts had proven to be in vain,
he decided to go back to his mathematical interests and, between the end
of 1536 and the beginning of 1537, he revised his earlier Arithmetica rudimenta,4 and began to write a librum de Arithmetica magnis laboris that
1 It is to be remembered that, barely twentyone-year old, Cardano was already a lecturer of
Euclid in Pavia. According to what he says in his biography, the experience was nevertheless brief,
since shortly after he had to leave the city, involved in the war between Francesco I and Carlo V
for the possession of the duchy of Milan [Cardano 1663a, p. 3, Cardano 2004 p. 172].
2 We particularly refer to the commentaries to Geographia by Tolomeo, to Tetragonismus by
Campano, to Sphaera by Sacrobosco, to Architectura by Vitruvio, that, as Ian Maclean observes,
were probably included in De rerum varietate and in De subtilitate [Cardano 2004, pp. 56-60].
Regarding the unpublished commentary to Elementa, indicated later on with the title Nova
geometria, see [Gavagna 2003]. It is also worth noticing that in Somniorum synesiorum [] libri iii,
published in Basilea in 1562, Cardano included Encomium geometriae as well, that is the text of an
inaugural lecture held at the Piatti Foundation in 1535, on which [Maracchia 1984] can be
3 Indeed, in De libris propriis of 1554 Cardano writes: Cum multi invidi dicerent, me literas
medicinae nescire, quod totus Mathematicis viderer intentus, dierum xv spacio, duos libellos qui
nunc extant edidi Sed intelligens Pontiicem Astronomia delectari, duos libros exaravi: alterum
cui titulus Ephemeridum supplementum: alterum qui est de emendatione motuum coelestium
[Cardano 2004, p. 130].
4 In his biography, Cardano writes that on two occasions he destroyed his writings. The irst
time he burnt about nine books saving from the ire only De malo medendi usu, that became his
irst printed publication, and Arithmetica rudimenta, ex quibus construxi Arithmeticam parvam [Cardano 1663a, p. 41].


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was published in the Spring of 1539 in Milan with the title of Practica
arithmetice et mensurandi singularis.1
The Practica arithmetice is made up of 68 chapters, nearly half of which
are dedicated to the classiication of numbers in four categories (integer, fractus, surdus, denominatus) and to calculations between numbers
either of the same or a diferent kind. After some brief chapters dedicated to calculations with numbers expressed in sexagesimal form, to the
mnemonic techniques of calculation and to matters concerning the
calendar, a long chapter follows illustrating 136 myriicae properties of
numbers. The strictly arithmetical part concludes with the rule of three
as well as the rule of false position. An algebraic appendix devoted mostly to the classiication of equations follows. The second part of the work
is dedicated to practical arithmetics and geometry and it concludes with
a collection of geometrical and arithmetical problems and their resolutions.
Nevertheless, reading the various redactions of De libris propriis, the
emphasis that Cardano attributes to his irst printed mathematical work
Practica arithmetice is greatly inferior to that reserved for the commentaries on the works of Tolomeo, Sacrobosco, Euclid and Vitruvio, which
never had an actual published version. The reason for this lies in the fact
that Cardano considered Practica arithmetice little more than the preparatory text of a much more ambitious work with the title of Opus perfectum in itself able to sum up all arithmetical knowledge.2 Since 1543, the
plan of this encyclopedia of arithmetics is outlined very clearly: strictly
following the structure of Practica arithmetice, the fourteen books composing Opus perfectum would have needed to contain the fundamental
calculations between integer, fractional, irrational and denominated
numbers (books I-IV), proportions (book V), the properties of numbers
(book VI), commercial arithmetics (books VII-IX), algebra (book X),
plane and solid geometry (books XI-XII) and arithmetic and geometry
problems (books XIII-XIV).3 The succession of the topics presented in
1 Practica arithmetice [Cardano 1539] is made up of 304 papers in unnumbered octave. In the
recto of the fourth paper, we can ind the letter of dedication, dated In kallendis Ianuarii 1537,
adressed to Francesco Gaddi, prior of the canons of Saint Agostine, that Cardano had cured ex
lepra biennali [Cardano 1663a, p. 32]. On the verso of the paper 304 we can read the sentence:
Anno a virgineu partu. M.D.XXXIX. Io. Antonius Castillioneus Mediolani imprimebat Impensis
Bernardini Calusci. Practica arithmetice was later published in [Cardano 1663, vol. 4, pp. 13-216].
Given the lack of numeration of the pages of the princeps, we refer to the pages of the seventeenth-century edition.
2 On Opus perfectum and its history, see [Cardano 2004, pp. 64-66] and [Tamborini 2003].
3 As a demonstration of this, in the edition of De libris propriis published in 1544, but dated 10
October 1543, Cardano writes: Opus perfectum, nec ab re: nam in primo libro de integris agi-

cardano s practica arithmetice


Opus perfectum is the same that can be found in Practica arithmetice, but,
at the same time, reveals an evident symmetry with the Euclidean Elementa geometrica suggesting that Opus perfectum should be considered as
a sort of Elementa arithmetica.1
The editorial project of Opus perfectum was never completed: in the last
version of De libris propriis (1562) [Cardano 2004, pp. 247-248], Cardano
maintained that he had completed only ive of the expected fourteen
books, that is the irst (de integris), the third (de lateribus quadratis,
cubisve), the fourth (de incognitis), the sixth (de numerorum proprietatibus) and the tenth (de regulis magnis). The only volume that was
actually published while Cardano was still alive was the tenth, the famous Ars magna, dedicated to algebra. This was published in Nremberg
in 1545 and its entire title is Artis magnae, sive de regulis algebraicis liber unus. Qui & totius operis de arithmetica, quod Opus Perfectum inscripsit, est in
ordine decimus.2
Ars magna, conceived to develop and deepen the algebraic section of
Practica arithmetice, was therefore to be included in an editorial project of
far greater signiicance. The main reason why the author immediately
published one of the volumes of Opus perfectum was the opportunity to
publish a result that would cause a sensation: the resolutive formula of
third degree equations. As is known, that formula had been told to Cartur, ritusque Graecorum, Latinorum, Indorum, Hebraeorum, ac Barbarorum explicantur, numerandi, multiplicandi, dividendi, addendi, detrahendi, latera supericialia, vel solida quaerendi,
progrediendi. In secundo, omnia haec in numerorum partibus ostenduntur, in tertio in irrationalibus. In quarto, in denominationibus, ac mixtis. In quinto, in proportionibus. In sexto quingentae vires numerorum explicantur, cum vix quadraginta praecedens aevum potuerit invenire:
septimus, octavus ac nonus mercaturae dedicantur: decimus inscribitur Ars magna, continet
sexaginta septem capitula: ex his quorum antiquitas universa, vix septem potuit invenire: undecimus metiri ac dividere supericies docet: duodecimus eadem in corporibus ostendit facere:
teriusdecimus ac quartusdecimus, quaestionibus Arithmeticis et Geometricis destinantur
[Cardano 2004, p. 131].
1 In passing, it is worth observing that in these years Cardano was also writing a commentary
on Elementa that was later given the title Nova geometria and that the author wanted it to constitute a sort of updating of Euclids work. On this matter, see [Gavagna 2003].
2 Nevertheless, in the fourth and tenth volume of the seventeenth-century Opera omnia, the
doctor from Lione Spon published two uncompleted works: De numerorum proprietatibus liber unicus [Cardano 1663, vol. 4 pp. 1-12] and Tractatus de integris [Cardano 1663, vol. 10 pp. 117-128] that
breaks of right in the middle of a sentence. These brief writings respectively represent part of the
sixth and irst books of Opus perfectum. This conviction is supported both by the contents and the
opening lines; De numerorum proprietatibus liber unicus begins with Numerorum alii dicuntur
primi and Tractatus de integris with Si ab antiquitate aut necessitate disciplina: these sentences
correspond literally to the opening lines of the sixth and the irst books of Opus perfectum that
Cardano records in the versions of De libris propriis of 1557 and 1562. If we consider the amounts
declared by the author, an approximate calculation leads us to suppose that about 30 of the 40 folia
of Tractatus de integris and about 90 of the 100 folia of De numerorum proprietatibus were lost.


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dano by Tartaglia in the spring of 1539 with the prohibition of spreading

it, but the Milanese doctor considered himself released from the promise when, during a trip to Bologna in 1542, he found out that Scipione del
Ferro had already made the discovery of the formula in around 1515.1
2. Practica arithmetice and the abacus treatise
Practica arithmetice, the contents of which have previously been briely
summarized, presents all the topics typical of the abacus treatise: the
elementary four operations, the rules of three and false position, the
commercial problems, the calculation of surface and volumes and the
problems of measuring by sight. Furthermore, many of the problems in
Practica can be traced back to typologies illustrated in abacus literature.
To give some examples, we can mention the problems of the travellers,
the problems concerning the sale of eggs, the determination of two or
more numbers that satisfy particular conditions and all the matters concerning commercial arithmetics. Furthermore, Practica also takes terminology from the abacus tradition; an awkward heritage as it presents the
diiculty of translating some particular expression of the abacus vulgar
lexicon in latin terms. Sometimes the solution to this diicult problem can
be reduced to a simple adaptation, like in the case of the neologism
schisatio that is to be interpreted as reductio ad minores denominationes, manente eadem quantitate, that is as the representation of a
fraction in reduced form, with numerator and denominator that are
relatively prime. Nevertheless, Cardano himself cannot have been
completely satisied with the hybrid language of Practica, so much so that
in Tractatus de integris, the irst volume of Opus perfectum (see note 2, p. 65),
he adopts a completely diferent approach, abandoning the terminology
of the abacus for a lexis more representative of the purity of latin.2 And
so, for example, the term irrationalis is preferred to surdus3 and the
powers of the unknown, traditionally indicated with the terms cosa,
census, cubus, census census, relatum primum, relatum secondum are
respectively given the names of positio, quadratus positionis, cubus
positionis, quadratus quadrati, primum nomen, secundum nomen.
1 Literature concerning the solution of third degree equations and the querelle between
Cardano and Tartaglia is quite vast. We just point out [Bortolotti 1926], [Bortolotti 1947],
[Freguglia 1987], [Maracchia 1979], [Tartaglia, Ferrari 1974].
2 Cardano writes indeed: sed nihil tam arduum quam vel nova novis rebus imponere nomina, quaedam vero obsoleta etiam in usum revocare ac in his omnibus Romanae linguae candorem retinuisse [Cardano 1663, vol. 10 p. 117]. For some aspects of Cardanos mathematical
lexis see [Kouskoff 1980].
3 In Practica arithmetice, Cardano uses the two terms without distinction.

cardano s practica arithmetice


The maintenance of the topics, the typology of the problems and the
terminology of the medieval abacus tradition, highlight the knowledge
and mastery of practical mathematics, acquired, according to the author,
not by following steady studies in abacus schools, but thanks to his fathers teachings and to his own skill as a self-taught man. In his autobiography, Cardano states that he received a rudimentary mathematical
education from his father Fazio Euclidis operum studiosus; at the age
of nine he was taught arithmetics and at twelve was introduced to the
study of the irst six books of Euclid [Cardano 1663a, p. 26].
The only weak thread that could connect Cardano to his attending the
abacus milieu of the time is his frequently mentioned relationship with
Gabriel Arator, arithmeticus optimus, who gave himself the title Magister generally reserved for abacus masters. According to Cardanos
writings, both in his Practica and in Liber de exemplis centum geniturarum,
Arator mathematice publice docente [Cardano 1663, vol. 4 p. 78]
encouraged him to write and publish the manual of practical arithmetics
and, materially contributed to the writing of the text by explaining to the
author some algebraic rules including the so called regula de medio, that
Luca Pacioli had taught him.1
Most of his knowledge of practical mathematics came from some of
the most widespread works of the age mentioned in Practica arithmetice:
irst of all Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalita by
Luca Pacioli,2 Nuovo lume by Giovanni Sfortunati and Libro de abacho by
Pietro Borghi.3
1 Indeed, Cardano writes in his Practica arithmetice: Et hanc [Regulam de Medio] habui a
Magistro kabriele de Aratoribus qui eam habuit a Fratre Luca et est ingeniosa valde hic autem
Magister kabriel fuit ille qui impulit me ut componerem hunc librum [Cardano 1663 vol. 4 p.
87]. As is known, Pacioli lived in Milan between the years 1496-1499, where he gave lectures on
Euclid at the Piatti Foundation. It cannot be excluded that Gabriel Arator di Caravaggio, who,
according to Liber de exemplis centum geniturarum by Cardano [Cardano 1663, vol. 5 p. 492], was
born on 31st December 1480, was one of Paciolis pupils. Cardano reairms how inspiring this
mathematicus optimus (hortationibus suis induxit me ad edendum ea quae edidi) had been,
while in De libriis propriis (1544) he recalls that in 1535, as he was writing a work on spherical geometry in ten books, it was the amicus Arator to point out to him that the charts of the ninth book
had already been published by Regiomontano (presumably De triangulis of 1533) [Cardano 2004,
pp. 128-129]. The same debt of gratitude is also emphasized in Tractatus de integris [Cardano
1663, vol. 10 pp. 117-128], when Cardano reminds us that Arator encouraged him in every way,
even libris adiuvando, quorum mihi ab initio parva copia erat.
2 Summa was one of the irst printed texts of practical mathematics, certainly the most complete and famous of the age. Literature concerning Summa is quite wide, we limit ourselves to
pointing out the miscellaneous volume [Giusti 1998].
3 As documented by [Smith D. E. 1908], the editio princeps of Nuovo lume was published in
Venice in 1534 and had six following editions until 1568; Libro de abacho was published for the irst
time in Venice in 1484 and until 1577 had 16 editions.


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After 1494, the year Summa was published, anybody who wanted to
write a text of this kind in order to enjoy an income, had to present his
work as an improvement; this publishing strategy to a certain extent justiies the hostility that Cardano shows towards the Friar from Sansepolcro. Indeed, one of the most recurrent topic of Cardanos work is the
comparison, resolved in favour of the mathematician from Milan, with
Summa by Pacioli. Cardano even reserves the last chapter of Practica
arithmetice to list and discuss some of the errors in the text by Friar Luca. In the same way he also explains the low esteem in which he held the
treatises by Sfortunati and Borghi. These handbooks, direct heirs of the
abacus treatise of the fourteenth and ifteenth centuries, were little more
than a collection of problems that could be traced back to a few distinct
typologies. In contrast to Summa, the texts by Borghi and Sfortunati did
not constitute a model, even a negative one, for Practica arithmetice, but
represented only a miscellany of problems, sometimes successfully resolved, of which one could make use.1 Nonetheless Cardano does not
limit himself to proposing themes and techniques typical of the medieval tradition, but he often tries to give a new interpretation to them
especially as far as the algebraic ield is concerned. This was the case, for
example, with the method of the auxiliary unknown, for which Cardano
presents an original variation which would be regarded highly even by
Vite some decades later.
3. The method of the auxiliary unknown:
the regulae de duplici et de medio
The regulae de duplici et de medio are usually applied to problems solved
by second-degree system in two or more unknowns: they are based on
the introduction of one proper auxiliary unknown that makes it possible
to reduce the system to the resolution of one or two second-degree
equations. Cardano indeed says:
Quando aliquis ponem quaestionem in pluribus numeris et non nominat aliquem illorum, tunc oportet uti regula quae vocatur de duplici, etiam a me in
lucem cum pluribus aliis edita et inventa.
[Cardano 1663 vol. 4 p. 86]

Although Cardano seems to claim paternity of the rule or, at least, the
primacy of its difusion in print, tecniques like the regula de duplici or the
regula de medio had been well known by the most skilled masters of the
1 On the connections between Practica arithmetice and the handbooks by Borghi and Sfortunati, see [Gavagna 1999 pp. 290-296 and 307-309].

cardano s practica arithmetice


abacus tradition since the fourteenth century: Antonio Mazzinghi from

Peretola, for example, applied them to particularly complex problems in
his Trattato de ioretti.1 The choice of writing in latin rather than in vernacular, nonetheless made Practica arithmetice and Ars magna which
dedicated chapters IX and X to the method of auxiliary unknown one
of the main means for spreading this technique throughout Europe.2
To understand how the regula de duplici works, let us consider a practical example, in which we have to ind two numbers, the sum of whose
squares is equal to a given number, and such that their sum plus their
product is equal to another given number.3 In modern terms, the problem is algebraically represented by the system:
x2 + y2 = a
x + y + xy = b

Cardano observes that the usual procedure, that is the method of

substitution, greatly complicates calculations and leads rarissime ad
capitula nota. The strategy suggested by the regula de duplici is that of
introducing an auxiliary unknown, that will be indicated with t, equal to
the aggregatum numerorum, that is t = x + y. This hypothesis enables
the above system to be rewritten as:
t2 2(b t) = a
xy = b t

since x2 + y2 = a is equivalent to the expression (x + y)2 2xy = a. If the

positive solution of the equation is indicated with tp, the initial problem
can be led to the determination of the solutions of the following system
xy = b tp
x + y =


that is immediately translated into a second degree equation. The regula

de medio is a variation of the preceeding one, in which, instead of choosing the sum of x and y as the auxiliary unknown t, x + y = 2t is posed, and
1 We have come to Trattato de ioretti only through a selection of problems referring back to
this work that are comprised in the ifteenth-century codex L.IV.21 of the Biblioteca degli
Intronati in Siena attributed to M Benedetto from Florence. Later, Trattato was published in
[Mazzinghi 1967]. On the life of M Antonio see [Ulivi 1996] and on his work in general see
[Franci 1988].
2 On that matter see also [Cifoletti 1994].
3 We are referring particularly to problem 35 of Chapter 51: Invenias duos numeros quorum
quadrata iuncta sint 20 & ducto uno in alterum additisque numeris ipsis producatur 10 [Cardano 1663 vol. 4 pp. 86-87].


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then one proceeds as above. The ability of the mathematician is therefore revealed in the choice of the proper auxiliary unknown; this choice
varies according to the characteristics of the problem. In the case of
problem 93 of chapter 66 of Practica, deined by Cardano the clavis intelligendi regulam de medio, the resolution of the problem suggested
by the Milanese mathematician distinguishes itself by its originality and
simpliication of calculations.
Let us consider the problem: ind two numbers, such that the product
of their diference and the diference between their squares is 10 and such
that the product of their sum and the sum of their squares is 20. In modern terms, the problem is solved by two cubic equations in x and y:
(x y) (x2 y2) = 10
(x + y) (x2 + y2) = 20

Following the usual method of auxiliary unknown, the main unknown

(x) is indicated with co. while the secondary unknown (y) is indicated
with quan.. At this point, Cardano suggests that one should attribute
using modern notation the value of 1 to y (cum ponis unum numerum
1 co. et alium unitatem illa unitas gerit locum quantitatis surde in universalitate) to obtain the following system:
(x 1) (x2 1) = 10
(x + 1) (x2 + 1) = 20

In other terms, proiting from the homogeneity of the system, we obtain

a single equation in the unknown yx (x > y). Since 20 is double 10, we immediately obtain the equation:
(x 1) (x2 + 1) = 2(x 1) (x2 1)
x3 + 1 + x2 + x = 2(x3 + 1) 2(x2 + x)
x3 + 1
= x(x + 1)
So, if we divide by x + 1 we obtain the second degree equation
x2 + 1 x = 3x
from which we have
x2 4x + 1 = 0
the solutions of which are
x1 = 2 3

x2 = 2 + 3

cardano s practica arithmetice


Next Cardano considers the problem of inding two numbers that for
greater convenience are indicated with a and b that are in the ratio (2 +
3) : 1, the sum of which, multiplied by the sum of their squares, is 20.1
a : b = (2 +
3) : 1
(a + b) (a2 + b2) = 20

Cardano assumes that the irst unknown is x and that the second (2 +
3) x; in this way he has to merely solve a simple cubic equation like the
following one
kx3 = p
that leads to the required solution. In Zethetic XXI of Zeteticorum libri
quinque, Vite mentions this problem,2 observing
At Cardanus, in Arithmeticis, quaestione 93 Cap. 66 bene animadvertit in hac hypothesi laterum proportionem esse, minoris nempe ad maius, ut 2
3 ad 1,
seu 1 ad 2 + 3, sed latera ipsa subnotavit infeliciter.

4. The regula de modo

The ambitious aim of Practica arithmetice, enunciated by Cardano in the
dedicatory letter, was that of causing a resurgence of arithmetics ex ipsis Orci tenebris in which it had been for a long time (miror cur tanto
tempore imperfecta iacuerit). To reach this aim, Cardano looked for a
solution that could be a compromise between the all-inclusive Summa di
Pacioli and the more traditional collections of solved exercises like
the texts by Borghi and Sfortunati whilst being enriched by several original elements. This sort of synthesis of the most popular specimens of
arithmetical works was not addressed to the mercantile class like abacus
manuals; the choice of writing in latin reveals the intention of the author
to address a more cultivated, and not exclusively local, public.
Even a swift examination of the structure of Practica arithmetice highlights immediate diferences in comparison to the medieval tradition.
The irst part of the work is indeed reserved to the explanation of deinitions and rules and a few related examples, while the inal part presents
a collection of arithmetical and geometric examples super capitula
praecedentia. In this section, we can notice the mathematicians cautious attempt to distance himself from the analogic-mnemonic model of
1 The minor solution 2 3 is not taken into consideration because it corresponds to yx .
2 I owe inding this observation to the kindness of A. C. Garibaldi, whom I wish to thank


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learning, typical of abacus didactics and to propose a more logic-deductive approach in which only a few general rules are explained to the reader, who can derive diferent applications from it. One of the numerous
criticisms that Cardano polemically directs towards the works of Pacioli,
Borghi and Sfortunati is indeed just that of making their texts dull with
a multitude of basically equal problems, that only apparently seem applications of many diferent rules, whilst in fact being easily traceable
back to a few general rules.
The efort to single out some general algorithms that can simplify
calculations and make them automatic leads Cardano to formulate the
regula de modo (rule of method), in which a few historians have recognized
a irst attempt of application of the method of Cramer [Procissi 1946].
The rule is presented by Cardano with much emphasis1 and it is found
again, with the same example, also in chapter 29 of Ars magna. Let us
consider then, problem 24 of chapter 51 of Practica: 7 brachia of green
cloth and 3 of black cloth cost 72 librae, while 2 brachia of green cloth and
4 brachia of black cloth cost 52 librae. The price of both pieces of cloth is
required.2 In modern terms, the problem translates into a linear system
of two equations in the two unknowns x and y that represent the price
of the green cloth and of the black one respectively:
7x + 3y = 72
2x + 4y = 52

At the beginning, Cardano resolves the problem using the traditional

method of substitution in order to justify the use of the algorithm that
is presented immediately after. Let us follow the explanation of Practica
arithmetice, while translating it into modern symbols.
1. From the irst equation, the price of 3 brachia of black cloth is found
3y = 72 7x

and so, dividing it by the coeicient 3, we obtain the unitary price of the
black cloth
1 Est etiam regula de modo a me appelata, quoniam ex ipsa habentur regulae ininitae in
rebus, maxime mercantilibus, et potes replere librum ex ipsis in uno mense diversarum operationum, quae omnes regulae diversae videbuntur: et ita Frater Lucas, Borgias, et Sfortunatus, fecerunt libros pro neotericis instruendis, et ita tu lector poteris quotidie novas regulas et inusitatas
fabricare [Cardano 1663 vol. 4 p. 79].
2 Modus est talis: solve quaestionem quamvis per algebra, deinde detrae la co. et serva operationes easdem in terminis suis, et erit regula generalis. Exemplum: brachia panni viridis 7 et
brachia 3 nigri, valent libras 72; atque eodem pretio brachia 2 panni viridis, et brachia 4 panni nigri valent libras 52. Quaeritur pretium utriusque. [Cardano 1663 vol. 4 p. 79].

cardano s practica arithmetice


y = 24 2 1 x

2. The obtained expression is to be multiplied by the correspondent

coeicient 4 of the second equation
4 (24 2 1 x) = 96 9 1 x

3. The obtained expression is substituted and the unknowns are moved

to the irst member.
9 1 x 2x = 96 52

4. The indicated calculations are made until a irst degree equation is

7 1 x = 44

from which the value of x is easily derived.

Now let us see, with a procedure symmetrical to the one applied so far,
how the coeicients at stake are manipulated:



1. Division: considering the irst equation (that is the irst line of coeicients), the coeicient of one of the two unknowns y in our case is
written under the other two and then they are divided by the number under consideration1


2. Multiplication: the two new coeicients have to be multiplied by the

number of the second line which corresponds to 3, that is 42


1 Reduc modo ad regulam et dices in talibus divide quantitatem brachii panni maiorem, et
pecunias seorsum, per quantitatem panni minorem, videlicet divide 72 et 7 per 3 exeunt 24 et 21.
2 et haec multiplica per numerum panni eiusdem generis in secunda positione et fuit 4 et
iunt 96 et 91.


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3. Subtraction: the terms of the second line that have not yet been used
are written and then the subtraction is made1


4. Division: 44 is divided by 71 and the value of the unknown, that is the

unitary price of the black cloth, is derived.2
If we reproduce the same operations on coeicients respecting the steps
summed up by Cardano in the following scheme, we can efectively see
a irst attempt at solving a linear problem of two equations in two unknowns in an automatic procedure:
bra. 7
bra. 2

bra. 3
bra. 4

lib. 72
lib. 52

bra. 7
bra. 3

lib. 72
lib. 13

bra. 21
bra. 4

lib. 24
lib. 14

bra. 91
bra. 2

lib. 96
lib. 52

bra. 71

lib. 44

It is evident, though, that talking about a sort of rule of Cramer ante

litteram is totally incorrect, since the regula de modo, being a simple
formalisation of the method of substitution, can be applied easily only
to the linear systems of two equations in two unknowns and even the
extension to systems of three equations in three unknowns does not
seem to be a trivial question at all.

1 detrahe numerum alterius panni et est 2 ex producto brachiorum et est 91 et libras 52 ex

libris ultimo productis et sunt 96 remanebunt brachia 71 ex parte brachiorum et libras 44 ex parte
2 divide libras 44 per brachia 71 exibunt libras 6 pro brachio: et tantum valebit 1 brachium
panni plurium brachiorum idest panni virides.

cardano s practica arithmetice


5. New algebraic rules

As we have seen, one of Cardanos main concerns is that of streamlining
calculation techniques which had been weighed down by an inadequate
symbolism, making them more efective. For example, let us think about
the diiculty of making calculations with radical expressions; this diiculty is not smoothed away in Summa by Pacioli, where dealing with radical expressions is carried out as a prolix description of Book X of Elements in arithmetical terms. In his Practica, Cardano tries to detach the
dealing of radical from the Euclidean text and limits himself to distinguishing three kinds of root: the simple root, the universal root and the
bound root.1
In order to facilitate the multiplication and division of radical expressions, Cardano introduces the radix distincta vel disiuncta, and considers
this new object so important that he places it at the top of Index eorum
quae in hoc libro praeter reliquos noviter inventa continentur, a list that describes the 25 most important innovations of Practica stated in the foreword of the 1539 edition.2
The introduction of the radix distincta, described so emphatically by
its author, is actually one of the most questionable innovations of Cardanos algebra. First of all the deinition is ambiguous; indeed it is written: radix distincta 9 p. radix 4 vult dicere 3 et separata. In other words,
to extract the distinct root of a + b means to consider the numbers a
and b separately, whatever this adverb may mean. When we check
what happens when we square a radical expression per modum radicis
distinctae, we realise that the rule prescribes simply the squaring of the
single components. This rule is applied mainly in the multiplication and
division of bound and universal roots [Cardano 1663 vol. 4 Chap. 17,
rules 9, 10, p. 33 e Chap. 21, rule 2, pp. 22-25].
When we multiply a + b to c + d, for instance, Cardano prescribes
squaring the two expressions per modum radicis distinctae, obtaining
a2 + b and c2 + d respectively, then cross multiplying and, inally considering the bound roots of the four obtained addends
1 In modern terms, with radix universalis and radix ligata (bound root) of a and b it is
meant, respectively, a+ b and a + b. It is just worth observing that the necessity of this classiication is due to the lack of an efective sign to indicate the radix.
2 Inventio radicis distinctae, sine qua impossibile est operari in regulis algebraticis et solvere
ininitas quaestiones et reducere librum decimum Euclidis ad actum praticum, cuius etiam
ignorantia Frater Lucas maximos commisit errores, reliqua cum magna diicultate evasit
[Cardano 1539 cc. 1r-3v].


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a2 d +
bc2 +

Cardano was deinitely able to multiply a number by a root [Cardano

1663 vol. 4 p. 22] and, consequently, the only reason that can justify the
introduction of this odd rule seems to be its being a mere device not to
forget to square the factor that includes the root.
The rule conveyed by Gabriel de Aratoribus for the rationalization
of radicals of the type

is much more useful.

The method shown by Cardano [Cardano 1663 vol. 4 p. 78] implies
3c, that is 3cb 2, and to multidetermining the third proportional after b,
ply numerator and denominator by
3c +


that enables us to reduce the denominator to the rational expression

b2 b
The great mastery of the techniques of calculation leads Cardano, not
possessing the resolutive formula of three degree equations yet,1 to elaborate some strategies to succeed in solving cubic equations. First of all
he tries to identify the widest subset of cubic equations that can be transformed into second degree equations with some proper artiice. In Practica we ind the discussion of many particular cases that can be solved by
factoring the polynomial x3 a3 according to the formula
x3 a3 = (x a)(x2 ax + a2)

For example, if we consider the cubic equation of the kind x3 = bx + c

with c = b 1, the equation can be written as x3 + 1 = b(x + 1) and can
therefore be reduced to the second degree equation x2 = x + b 1.2
Later Cardano tries to ind some meaningful connections between the
coeicients and the solutions of the cubic equation and attains an interesting result: given four numbers in continuous proportion a, b, c, d
1 As is known, Tartaglia sent the solution to Cardano a short time after the printing of Practica. At the beginning, the Milanese mathematician planned to publish a Supplementum practicae
in which he could insert the solution in the more general and wide arithmetical context of Book
X of Elementa, but then he abandoned the project in favour of Ars magna. Supplementum practicae
was published later in 1663 with the title of Ars magna arithmetice. An autographed version of this
work is in the Biblioteca Trivulziana in Milan.
2 A list of these cases is in [Gavagna 1999, pp. 289-290].

cardano s practica arithmetice


a:b = b:c = c:d

we can immediately prove that

a is a solution of x3 + b3 = (a + d)x2;
c is a solution of x3 + b3 = (a + d)bx.
Vice versa, given a cubic equation
x3 + q = px2

3q, are respectively the irst and the second of

we can verify that x and
four quantities in a continuous proportion in which the sum of the irst
and the fourth quantity is equal to the coeicient of the quadratic term
3q =
3q : y = y : (p x)

The third quantity y is a solution of another cubic equation lacking in the

quadratic term
y3 + q = p

Cardano has therefore found the way to transform an incomplete cubic

equation with the quadratic term into an incomplete cubic equation
with the linear term, through the change of variable


Once in possession of the resolutive formula of the third degree equation,

applicable to the equations of the kind x3 = px + q and x3 + q = px Cardano,
with the use of famous formulas presented in Ars magna, could confer
general validity to the formula of Tartaglia and Scipione del Ferro.
6. Conclusions
In the mathematical corpus by Cardano and in Renaissance mathematics,
Practica arithmetice certainly represents a work of transition: it marks the
passage from mathematics that still had a clearly medieval stamp to more
modern mathematics. This statement is particularly true if referred to algebra: indeed in Practica, Cardano revises in an original way techniques
typical of the best abacus tradition, as the regulae de duplici et de medio,
and presents new methods aiming to simplify the algorithms of calculation, as the regula de modo.
Furthermore, in this work the igure emerges of a mathematician
aware both of opportunities that were ofered by the development of algebra and of the contradictions that could arise from an uncritical ap-


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proach to this discipline. Indeed Cardano resolves a problem of hydrostatics as the classic of Hierons crown with a purely algebraic formula,
thus proposing a irst attempt to describe a physical phenomenon in
purely mathematical terms; this kind of approach is also presented later,
in 1570, in Opus novum de proportionibus, but it is the object of a more complete and accomplished theorization from the seventeenth century on.1
The immense potential of algebra is somehow reduced by some relections on the congruence between the methods of resolution applied in
a problem and the nature of the solutions obtained. For example, Cardano reprimands Pacioli for having chosen as unknown, in a problem of
travellers, a term belonging to a geometrical progression of integers and
then of having found the irrational value of it through algebra without
pointing out any contradiction.2
In Practica, algebra is to a great extent inluenced by the eforts of its
author in solving cubic equations, but, as often occurs, even though Cardano does not succeed in determining the correct formula, he is however able to ind appreciable results. For example, he manages to present
particular transformations which eliminate the quadratic terms, thus
managing unawares to guarantee the generality of the algorithm
passed down from Tartaglia a few months later. Once Cardano comes into possession of the solution, Practica loses much value in his eyes and,
as a irst reaction, he tries to complete the work with a Supplementum
Practicae. He then abandons the project to entertain an even more ambitious one, Opus perfectum. The only volume of this all-embracing arithmetical encyclopedia that has actually been realized is just Ars magna, in
which Cardano selects the best of Practica and detaches himself from the
abacus tradition. However, the choice of writing Practica in latin was a
decisive factor in not permitting this work to be completely obscured by
the fame of Ars magna. Better still, thanks to the spread of Ars magna and
Cardanos fame, Practica arithmetice became an eicacious mean of diffusion of the techniques and the topics of Italian medieval practical
mathematics all over Europe in the sixteenth century.
1 The description of the solution of the Archimedean problem of Hierons crown can be
found in [Gavagna 1999, pp. 300-301].
2 On problem about travellers published in Summa and on Cardanos criticism towards it, see
[Gavagna 1999, pp. 302-304].

cardano s practica arithmetice


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Pervenuto in redazione il 20 settembre 2009