Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 30, 2015
Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 336 pp.; 23 color ills.; 56 b/w ills. Cloth $99.00 (9780199678136)

In late Renaissance Italy, prosperous individuals had the luxury of options when it came to such essential concerns as diet, dwelling, grooming, and sleep. Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey, the authors of Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy, look carefully at what Renaissance Italians did to preserve their well-being and at the medical arguments behind these determinations; in doing so, they furnish a key for understanding the behaviors, attitudes, and material culture of the period. A holistic study on this topic of preventative healthcare is long overdue. Cavallo and Storey’s remarkably diversified approach to the intersection between medical theory and the daily lives of early modern people not only fills the lacuna but also provides the essential foundation for the new sub-field they have mapped out.

Cavallo and Storey employ a three-pronged strategy to explain how health concerns impacted everyday lives. The first part of this strategy is a survey of fifty vernacular regimens published from 1508 to ca. 1660. The 1508 publication date of the “first vernacular works entirely devoted to healthy living” (17) belies the fact that they were written more than fifty years earlier. Indeed, many of the sixteenth-century publications considered in the book were written in previous centuries. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, authors were penning new health treatises, and these differed from the earlier regimens in their increasingly specialized topics, such as the airs of Rome or the benefits of drinking chilled beverages (22). Physicians, the professional group that quickly gained the upper hand in this publishing niche, dispensed advice that derived from Hippocratic treatises, Galen, and a number of medieval authorities including Arnaldus de Villa Nova, Petrus Hispanus, and Taddeo Alderotti.

The quantity and variety of the treatises studied in Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy guarantee a representative picture of this publishing activity in central and northern Italy. Unfortunately the geographic coverage of the book’s source material does not extend any farther south than Rome. The omission of treatises from the southern peninsula would have been mitigated had the authors succeeded in their search for Bruno Cibaldi’s regimen from 1662 (17n14). Cibaldi was the pen name of a Palermitan physician named Giuseppe Galeano (1605–1675), whose books include Hippocrates redivivus paraphrasibus illustratus (1650), Del conservar la sanità libri sei di Galeno (1650), and Del vero metodo di conservar la sanità, e di curare ogni morbo col solo uso dell’acquavita, discorso di Bruno Cibaldi romano (1662).

The business strategies behind the publication of regimens held implications for the kind of medical information made accessible to vernacular audiences. Cavallo and Storey attribute the growing specialization of regimens to the saturation of the market for the more general variety. Publishers also created layouts facilitating reference use to capture new audiences for the traditional regimens (27). To maximize the market for these publications, physicians directed their advice to the widest public possible and insured that the medical classification of bodies was restricted to differences that laymen could recognize: gender, age, and class. One small blind spot in Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy is that no consideration was made of manuscript regimens; it would have been useful to compare these with the published regimens to see if the abovementioned characteristics were indeed market driven.

Cavallo and Storey’s second major research strategy is a study of archival evidence from two sources: the private correspondence between the Spada and Verralli families, and some ninety Roman inventories dating from 1553 to 1692 and representing a wide range of social strata. This archival component aims to indicate the degree to which the medical theories disseminated in the health treatises penetrated laypersons’ everyday practices. In doing so, it also provides useful information about laypersons’ health practices, such as the healing stones advocated by Maria Spada (59). It is a small point, but I disagree with Cavallo and Storey’s classification of this specific practice as “natural magic.” The term physicians used to denominate stones’ powers, “virtù,” is the same one used to identify the powers of herbs. Moreover, physician Andrea Bacci wrote his lapidary (Delle dodici pietre preziose [Rome, 1581]) with the same scientific scrutiny he applied to his writings on the salubriousness of mineral baths and wines. Both the wearing of gemstones and the ingesting of gemstone powders were medical therapies whose cost restricted their usage to the wealthy; it would be mistaken to associate them with “a popular, non-learned culture” (60).

In scouring the Spada-Veralli archive, Cavallo and Storey uncovered fascinating insights into the daily management of health. The families’ relationship with doctors is particularly well documented. It is no minor detail that their family doctor “for at least twenty years from the 1640s” was Gabriele Fonseca (61), the physician of Innocent X Pamphili until his fall from the pope’s graces in 1654, and the subject of a portrait bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in San Lorenzo in Lucina. The authors speculate that Fonseca’s attitudes toward preventive medicine were influenced by his uncle Rodrigo Fonseca’s book on the topic. Gabriele Fonseca also owned a villa in Frascati, which demonstrates his enthusiasm for the health benefits of villeggiatura; his book Medici oeconomia (1623) analyzes the airs of Rome and the surrounding countryside.

The ninety inventories provide some information about beds and other valuable possessions but are reticent regarding “small, economically insignificant objects” (64), such as toiletries and brushes. As a suggestion for future research, the Medici Archive Project’s Building Interactive Archives database affords a means of tracing such items. A database query reveals, for instance, that Cosimo I de’ Medici had a special soap for his beard and Eleonora di Toledo used a specific one for her hands. A packing list assembled by Cosimo’s ambassador Bartolomeo Concini in the 1550s shows that he did not travel with soap, but he did bring handkerchiefs, towels, a pillow and pillowcase, a spoon, a fork, a cup, sugar, aloe, oil of hypericon, and scissors.

The final section of this study is the book’s longest. These chapters cover the major topics of the regimens, i.e., the six non-naturals (air, sleep, movement and rest, food and drink, repletion and evacuation, and the soul’s passions), examining them in relation to material culture. Additionally, this section explains in historical medical terms the physiological functions at stake. A surprising amount of attention, for example, was dedicated to keeping the “pores” of the body free of impediments, and to maintaining a dry brain and comfortable heart.

The chapter on air touches on the problem of airborne pestilence, and how it spawned topographical studies of air quality in individual cities. Architects took atmospheric conditions into consideration in order to insulate buildings’ inhabitants from climatic extremes, while inside the home, man-made instruments for improving air quality included fireplaces, potpourri, and perfumes, the latter serving to protect the brain from smells wafting up from the body (103).

The sleep chapter reveals that this activity was considered intrinsic to digestion and thus critical to the health of the body. Sleep was one of the few areas in which the elites were most likely to contravene medical advice, either sleeping too much or adopting a nocturnal schedule and sleeping during the day. When it came to exercise, elites often combined pleasurable pastimes, such as looking at art or relaxing in gardens, with the obligation to put the body into gentle motion. Cultural associations of the noble body with stately composure and gravitas discouraged upper-class men from vigorous exercise (158). Pregnant women were counseled to avoid any unnecessary movement for almost the entire term (173). Quite unexpected activities qualified as salubrious exercise, including “gestational” or passive movements, such as being carried in a litter or riding in a carriage.

One chapter surveys regulation of the emotions, and examines at length the issue of melancholy. Melancholy’s status as a psychosomatic disorder is notable, as well as its mysterious and confounding nature; Cavallo and Storey found “no overall coherence of approach, as each physician seems to negotiate his own particular route through this confusing inheritance” (191). Mild cheerfulness was touted as the best defense, and so there was a medical rationalization for a range of vanities: horses, dancing, music, novels, and looking at green things, artworks, and beautiful fabrics. In this context, the authors discuss villeggiatura, since time spent at the villa was devoted to the abovementioned distractions, in addition to sleeping and exercise, all for the sake of health. Visual experience was also attended to at the villa; the landscaped grounds delighted the eye with an easy freedom of ocular movement, while artworks extended the theme of landscape indoors and recounted cheerful stories (201–2).

The chapter on diet and health, on which there is already a vast literature, focuses on quandaries faced by early modern Italians. One such difficulty regards Lent, when fasting and the meatless diet imposed by the Catholic Church posed a health threat to certain individuals due to their weak constitutions. The practice of chilling beverages with snow also produced consternation; in this instance the conflict was not between doctors and priests but among the doctors. Another problematic issue centered on foreign food and drink, such as hot chocolate and (although not mentioned in the book) beer, which were thought to be better suited to the constitutions of northern Europeans.

In the chapter devoted to the hygienic practices by which the waste products were removed from the body, Cavallo and Storey point out that while mineral baths were encouraged, ordinary domestic bathing was regarded with suspicion due to the accompanying exposure to cold (254). Instead of bathing, people engaged in frequent changes of undergarments and linens to keep the body clean (256), along with spot-cleaning individual body parts. The rich were at an advantage in the realm of hygiene because many grooming rituals were carried out by servants, as was the ferrying of commodes.

The mountain of evidence assembled in Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy amply supports the conclusion that regimens offered laypersons a means for gaining control of their bodies and their physiological destinies. Because it provides a coherent and penetrating vision of the vast corpus of thought on maintaining health, Cavallo and Storey’s important book ought to be obligatory reading for anyone interested in the history of medicine in early modern Italy. It will also generously reward other readers seeking to benefit from its bounty of illuminating insights pertaining to art history, gender studies, and social history.

Sheila Barker
Director of the Jane Fortune Research Program on Women Artists, Medici Archive Project

Please send comments about this review to