Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 15, 2017
Frances Gage Painting as Medicine in Early Modern Rome: Giulio Mancini and the Efficacy of Art University Park: Penn State University Press, 2016. 248 pp.; 48 color ills.; 18 b/w ills. Cloth $89.95 (9780271071039)

Frances Gage’s Painting as Medicine in Early Modern Rome: Giulio Mancini and the Efficacy of Art investigates the medical rationales for collecting art that are scattered throughout a well-known treatise by Giulio Mancini (1559–1630), Pope Urban VIII’s physician. Mancini’s medical thought was retardataire in the era of the Lincei, but his artistic connoisseurship was innovative. Thanks to Gage’s book, Mancini can now be appreciated for adding painters to Sandra Cavallo’s categories of “artisans of the body.”

Following an introduction, biographical notes, and a chapter indicating the confluence of medicine and art in seicento Rome’s visual culture, three chapters analyze the medical applications of three categories of paintings: landscapes, paintings for the nuptial chamber, and histories. The physician’s observations on the bodily effects of these paintings are contextualized with reference to (mostly) earlier artworks; historical documents including family correspondence; and, above all, previous treatises on art, medicine, and customs.

The chapter on landscapes, echoing Gage’s “Exercise for Mind and Body: Giulio Mancini, Collecting, and the Beholding of Landscape Painting in the Seventeenth Century” (Renaissance Quarterly 61, no. 4 [Winter 2008]: 1167–1207), elaborates on Mancini’s claim that landscape painting comforts the eye with greenish hues and gentle incitement to ocular movement. Although Gage associates these ideas with the Italian Renaissance, they originated in classical thought and recrudescences can be found throughout history. For example, Carole Rawcliffe’s “‘Delectable Sightes and Fragrant Smelles’: Gardens and Health in Late Medieval and Early Modern England” (Garden History 36, no. 1 [Spring 2008]: 3–21) draws attention to such notions in the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, and suggests that green walls and viriditas in tapestries were used in medieval England to replicate nature’s healthful qualities. Gage follows a well-trod path when associating Mancini’s passages on landscape painting with the longstanding medical commonplace that artworks, like music and fables, promoted health by affording distraction and delight. This medical rationale for art has been analyzed in relation to Renaissance collecting and villa culture by David Coffin, Arnold Witte, Elizabeth MacDougall, Claire Pace, Sandra Cavallo, and Tessa Storey, whose works serve as Gage’s compass. Surprisingly overlooked is the research that uncovers this medical rationale for art in explicitly medical contexts, including John Henderson’s The Renaissance Hospital: Healing the Body and Healing the Soul (London: Yale University Press, 2006) and my article “The Making of a Plague Saint: Saint Sebastian’s Imagery and Cult before the Counter-Reformation” (in Piety and Plague: From Byzantium to the Baroque, eds., Franco Mormando and Thomas Worcester, Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2006, 90–131), which showed how pleasing imagery in Renaissance plague art served a prophylactic function.

Wanting here is a deeper examination of the analogous interplay between music and health via theories of the nonnaturals. Gage mentions that Marsilio Ficino and Pedro Mexía endorsed music’s curative effects, but this is the tip of the iceberg (see e.g., Music as Medicine: The History of Music Therapy Since Antiquity, ed., Peregrine Horden, London: Routledge, 2000). Music occupied a central place at the Barberini court (documented by Frederick Hammond, Claudio Palisca, and Margaret Murata), and this was a missed opportunity to examine its medical applications, such as when Urban VIII entrusted his health to Tommaso Campanella’s planetary music after astrologers predicted he would die. This lacuna is all the more unfortunate since two of Rome’s premier landscape painters deeply understood music’s influence on the spirit: Domenichino, who experimented with harmonic theory, and Nicolas Poussin, who applied the modes of Greek music to art (surely with the aim of manipulating the passions).

Also overlooked is the phenomenon of “locus terribilis” landscape paintings, including those by Antonio Tempesta, Poussin, Sébastien Bourdon, Otto Marseus van Shrieck, Salvator Rosa, and Alessandro Magnasco. The use of tempests, vermin, pestilence, and thieves to render landscapes frightening has been considered in Karin Leonhard’s “Painted Poison: Venomous Beasts, Herbs, Gems, and Baroque Colour Theory” (Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art 61, no. 1 (2011): 116–47) and in my “Poussin, Plague, and Early Modern Medici” (The Art Bulletin 86, no. 4 (2004): 659–89). In the latter work, Poussin’s Plague of Ashdod (1630–31) is characterized as a deliberately horrifying image that flouted conventional plague advice about avoiding painful passions in order to offer benefits like catharsis and inoculation.

In medical literature stemming from the Regimina sanitatis, the danger of looking at horrendous things or pictures of them is not attributed talismanically to the thing or picture itself, but to the onlooker’s imagination and fearful reaction, efficient causes of harmful changes in temperature and complexion. The viewer’s imagination receives scrutiny in Gage’s chapter on the use of paintings to aid conception and influence fetal development. She explains that whereas nearly all physicians contended that the mother’s imagination impacted the developing fetus throughout pregnancy, Mancini believed that this imprinting occurred only during conception, and that both the mother’s and the father’s imaginations contributed to the form of their offspring. While most physicians warned pregnant women not to look at ugly things to avoid deforming the fetus, Mancini counseled both parents to choose carefully the things they looked at preceding conception. Mancini’s theory—albeit a minority position—points to a current shortage of scholarship on the paternal imagination, to which the myth of Athena’s genesis would be relevant.

Gage laments that “scholars still underestimate the degree to which [maternal imagination] informed attitudes toward and practices of reproduction” (94), under which term she includes art collecting. To this end, she adduces erotic paintings, a canvas by Jusepe de Ribera whose imagery deformed a fetus, and portraits of individuals whose appearance might have endangered pregnancies, but none of the birth salvers and similar historiated gifts for new mothers that Jacqueline Marie Musacchio (The Art and Ritual of Childbirth in Renaissance Italy, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) demonstrated to have been created expressly for the maternal imagination. One piece of evidence introduced by Gage—a letter sent between two members of Urban VIII’s court regarding a painting to be given to the pregnant queen of England—offers useful insight. It proves the adaptation of art-viewing practices to the contingencies of pregnancy, but it also shows that Mancini’s claim that the maternal imagination does not affect fetal development after conception was ignored at the Barberini court.

Discussion of the maternal imagination shifts to women’s capacity for understanding art. According to Gage, Mancini and his contemporaries believed that the educated male viewer, by virtue of his faculty of reason, was better equipped to appreciate art’s aesthetic qualities than the female viewer, who responded only to the subject matter. Perhaps Mancini would have accepted that education could rectify a woman’s condition, especially since he qualified connoisseurship as a skill learned by looking at art and listening to experts. Was Mancini unaware of Italy’s prominent women collectors, including Isabella d’Este, Margaret of Austria, Alfonsina Orsini, Caterina Nobili Sforza, and Maria Magdalena von Habsburg? Certainly, Rome alone had no shortage of female patronage or female audiences for art, as shown by Pamela M. Jones’s Altarpieces and Their Viewers in the Churches of Rome from Caravaggio to Guido Reni (London: Ashgate, 2008, esp., 201–59), and in the many contributions of Carolyn Valone (e.g., “Women on the Quirinal Hill: Patronage in Rome, 1560–1630,” The Art Bulletin 76, no. 1 (1994): 129–146).

In the chapter on history painting, Gage pinpoints a connection to medicine in the head/body metaphor Mancini employed when defending monarchical ideology, and in Mancini’s use of eye movement to judge figural compositions (he criticized compositions that overworked the eye by hiding the protagonist). Interweaving these issues, she proposes that Mancini believed history paintings healed the social body by comforting viewers’ eyes. This somatic account of history painting’s efficacy seems beside the point in an age of rampant political allegories and expertly honed visual rhetorical devices, all aimed at the viewership’s intellective faculties. As a counterbalance to Gage’s intriguing but perhaps excessively esoteric hypothesis, one might read Sybille Ebert-Schifferer’s “L’expression contrôlée des passions: Le rôle de Poussin dans l’élaboration d’un art civilisateur” (in Poussin et Rome: Actes du colloque actes du colloque de l’Académie de France à Rome et à la Bibliotheca Hertziana, 16–18 novembre 1994, ed., Olivier Bonfait et al., Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1996, 329–52).

In both its opening and its conclusion, Painting as Medicine in Early Modern Rome contends that the paintings in post-Tridentine Rome’s galleries were both aesthetic objects and “agent[s] intervening in beholders’ daily lives” with powers like those of cult images, effecting “physical, mental, and spiritual healing” (3). This theory does not account for the fact that the viewer’s imagination was a necessary coefficient in these operations, and that the faculty of reason could derail responses to art, as noted in Gage’s chapter on images and procreation. Also, this theory of the agency of secular images implies animistic or talismanic beliefs at the very time when the Catholic Church was attempting to stamp out the idolatrous and superstitious use of images. Near the book’s end is an appendix of documents, some of which may contain tiny errors. The passage “paesi et 4 di lapis rosso” is probably “paesi et c[etera] di lapis rosso,” and “lapis rosso” would be “red pencil,” not “red lapis.” “Invention della Croce Baldassare,” translated “an Invention of the Cross by Baldassare,” may be “an invenzione by Baldassare Croce.”

Although a few topics were overlooked in this ambitious study, Gage’s book provides an engaging, lucid, and learned account of how medicine and painting coincided in the thought of Mancini and his contemporaries. In doing so, it ranges over a vast gamut of secondary literature drawn from several distinct fields, and it grapples with many of the most stimulating lines of inquiry in the current scholarship on early modern visual culture.

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

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