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Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 July; 54(3): 403–404.
PMCID: PMC2889462

Book Reviews

Spaces, objects and identities in early modern Italian medicine
Reviewed by James Shaw

Sandra Cavallo and  David Gentilcore (eds),  Spaces, objects and identities in early modern Italian medicine,  Oxford,  Blackwell in collaboration with the Society for Renaissance Studies,  2008, pp.  123, illus., £19.99 (paperback  978-1-4051-8040-5). 

This volume republishes a collection of essays that first appeared in print in Renaissance Studies, 2007, 21 (4). The essays exemplify the recent trend for the history of medicine to broaden its scope to encompass diverse aspects of social and cultural life. The essays focus on Italy in particular, but will be of interest to anyone studying the social history of early modern Europe.

The papers by Elizabeth S Cohen and Filippo de Vivo both study the commercial spaces of apothecary shops in the seventeenth century. Cohen’s essay is a superbly researched microhistory of a criminal trial from Rome. The apothecary alleged that an intrusive guild search for counterfeit confectionary had provoked his wife’s miscarriage and subsequent death. The case incidentally reveals much intriguing detail about the spatial and social organization of shop and home, the role of women in a family business, and the policing activities of guilds. It is a fascinating case that repays such close examination, casting light on many aspects of medicine, culture and society. De Vivo’s essay is a brilliant study showing how apothecary shops in Venice were not simply spaces for buying products, but also centres for socializing and exchange of information, constituting a “public sphere” before the better-known coffee-shops and salons of the eighteenth century. Such was the social importance of these spaces that the security council, particularly concerned that dangerous ideas might spread across social levels, set spies to keep a close eye on the flow of customers.

Other papers centre on the body, addressing the relation between science, society and religion. Gianna Pomata’s study of the role of doctors in canonization proceedings, looks at the case of the body of Saint Catherine in Bologna. This is a very interesting exploration of cooperation between religious and medical authorities in the scientific investigation of purportedly miraculous cures and instances of bodily “incorruption”, often flying in the face of popular cults. Related themes appear in Lucia Dacome’s essay on Anna Morandi, an unusual case of a female anatomist and maker of wax anatomical models in Bologna. The essay provides enthralling details of one of the lesser-studied aspects of empirical science in the eighteenth century, and the opportunities open to a woman in this field. It also contains interesting reflections on the particular qualities that made wax such an effective substitute for flesh, and its associations with religious practices, such as death masks. A similar emphasis on the socially embedded nature of scientific research and medical practice is found in Silvia De Renzi’s essay, a comparative study of the careers of two doctors in seventeenth-century Rome. She examines the various factors that determined professional success, from anatomical research to hospital practice to dealing in art. Overall this is an excellent and consistently interesting collection of research papers, that reveals new aspects of the central importance of medicine in early modern society and culture.

Articles from Medical History are provided here courtesy of Cambridge University Press