Born in Naples in 1668, Giambattista Vico, in his autobiographical Vita (1725), describes his temperament as a “concourse” between his father's cheerful (“allegro”) and his mother's melancholic (“malinconica”) temper. At age seven he fell from a ladder, and it was predicted that he would either die of the cranial concussion he had suffered or become an idiot. Neither prediction came true, but he later attributed to this accident his “melancholy and irritable temperament such as belongs to men of ingenuity and depth” (Autobiography, translated by Fisch and Bergin [henceforth abbreviated A], 111).
Between his tenth and his eighteenth year his mind was shaped by his Jesuit education at the Collegio Massimo in Naples, where he studied Latin and Greek grammar before proceeding to the study of rhetoric, philosophy, and canon law. Among the books that shaped his thinking were the Disputationes metaphysicae of Francisco Suárez and the Institutiones iuris civilis a Justiniano compositas commentarius of Hermann Vulteius; he also took courses in canon law given by Francesco Verde. His health was delicate, his financial means were limited, and he had “an ardent desire for leisure to continue his studies, ” coupled with “a deep abhorrence for the clamor of the law courts” (A 118). He was fortunate when he met the jurist Monsignor Geronimo Rocca, bishop of Ischia, who hired him to tutor his nephews in the castle of Vatolla in the Cilento region south of Naples. Vico spent most of the next nine years in that castle (1686-95), studying canon law and writing poetry in the manner of Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Dante (A 119-20). Upon his return to Naples in 1695, trained as he was in the Greek philosophical tradition, he found himself “a stranger in his own land, ” since the geometrically based philosophy of Descartes was very much in fashion and Aristotle had been relegated to the rank of fable (A132). Rejecting an invitation