19 March 2020

Filippo Mazzei – physician

Liberal thinker was praised by John F Kennedy


Filippo Mazzei contributed to the wording of America's Declaration of Independence
Filippo Mazzei contributed to the wording
of America's Declaration of Independence
Globe-trotting doctor Filippo Mazzei, who was a close friend of the American president, Thomas Jefferson, died on this day in 1816 in Pisa in Tuscany.

During the American Revolutionary War, Mazzei had acted as an agent for Jefferson, purchasing arms for Virginia.

President John F Kennedy paid tribute to Mazzei’s contribution to the Declaration of Independence in his book, A Nation of Immigrants.

Mazzei was born in 1730 in Poggio a Caiano in Tuscany. He studied medicine in Florence and then practiced in both Italy and Turkey. He moved to London in 1755 and set himself up in business as an importer, while also working as an Italian teacher.

In London he met both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who would become two of America's Founding Fathers, and came up with the idea of importing Tuscan products, such as wine and olive trees, to the New World.

In 1773 Mazzei boarded a ship from Livorno to Virginia, taking with him plants, seeds, silkworms and farmers from Lucca.

He visited Jefferson at his estate in Virginia and was given a large piece of land to start an experimental plantation.

Thomas Jefferson and Filippo Mazzei shared similar political values
Thomas Jefferson and Filippo Mazzei
shared similar political values
Mazzei and Jefferson started what was to become the first commercial vineyard in Virginia. They were both interested in politics and discovered they shared similar liberal values, becoming good friends.

After Mazzei returned to Italy in 1779 he became a secret agent for the state of Virginia, buying and shipping arms to them.

He also travelled through Europe promoting Republican ideals, writing a political history of the American Revolution, which he published in Paris in 1788.

While in the Polish Lithuanian commonwealth, Mazzei became attached as a Privy Councillor to the court of King Stanislaus II. The King then sent him to be Poland’s representative in Paris.  After Poland was partitioned between Russia and Prussia in 1795, Mazzei was given a pension by Russia.

While in France, Mazzei became active in the politics of the French Revolution under the Directorate, but when Napoleon overthrew that Government, Mazzei returned to Pisa, where he died in 1816. He was buried in the Pisa Suburbano cemetery.

It has been claimed that Jefferson had a falling out with George Washington over a letter he had sent to Mazzei in Italy that criticised Washington’s administration. The letter was eventually published overseas and in the US.

A plaque marks the house in Via Giordano Bruno in Pisa where Filippo Mazzei died on March 19, 1816
A plaque marks the house in Via Giordano Bruno in Pisa
where Filippo Mazzei died on March 19, 1816
But John F Kennedy acknowledges Mazzei’s contribution to the Declaration of Independence in his book: A Nation of Immigrants. He states: ‘The great doctrine ‘All men are created equal’ and incorporated into the declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson was paraphrased from the writing of Philip Mazzei, an Italian-born patriot and pamphleteer, who was a close friend of Jefferson.’

Kennedy said in his book that scholars try to discredit Mazzei as the creator of this statement but he insists that it was written in Italian in Mazzei’s own hand several years before the Declaration was written.

Kennedy writes: ‘No one man can take complete credit for the ideals of American democracy.’

In 1980 a 40-cent US airmail stamp was issued to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mazzei’s birth. The World War II Liberty Ship SS Filippo Mazzei was also named in his honour.

Mazzei lived his final years in a house in Via Giordano Bruno in Pisa, which is identified to visitors by a plaque on the wall. He was said to have been a regular visitor to the Caffè dell’Ussero, a coffee house frequented by intellectuals that occupies the ground floor of the Palazzo Agostini, a striking four-storey Gothic building by the river on Lungarno Antonio Pacinotti.

The Villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano, where visitors can view apartments used by the Medici family
The Villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano, where visitors can
view apartments used by the Medici family
Travel tip:

Poggio a Caiano, where Filippo Mazzei was born, is a town and comune in the province of Prato in Tuscany. It lies nine kilometres south of the provincial capital of Prato. One of the most famous sights in the area is the Villa Medici, designed by Giuliano da Sangallo in around 1480. Today it is a public building housing a museum and the historic apartments where members of the Medici family used to stay.

Pisa's Torre Pendente - the leaning tower - is a monument recognised all over the world
Pisa's Torre Pendente - the leaning tower -
is a monument recognised all over the world
Travel tip:

Pisa, where Filippo Mazzei died and was buried, is famous for its leaning tower, Torre Pendente, which is one of the four buildings that make up the cathedral complex in the Field of Miracles (Campo dei Miracoli). The Duomo was the first to be constructed and then the Baptistery was added. While work on the tower was being carried out, a cemetery (Campo Santo) was added. During the summer the tower is open to visitors from 08.30 to 22.00. Tickets to climb the tower are limited and booking in advance is recommended if you want to avoid queuing. For more details, visit www.towerofpisa.org/tickets.


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