CritCom | Homepage

The Prince’s Body: Vincenzo Gonzaga and Renaissance Medicine

0 Comments 🕔29.Oct 2015

Once in a while, one happens upon an academic book that is simultaneously erudite and a pleasure to read, even hard to put down. The Prince’s Body: Vincenzo Gonzaga and Renaissance Medicine, Professor Valeria Finucci’s latest effort, I am happy to say, is one of these. As can be expected by anyone familiar with Finucci’s previous publications, this book is based on rigorous historical research: this is clear not only from the body of the text, but also the fact that The Prince’s Body contains over seventy pages of notes, ranging from simple references to original-language quotations from a variety of sources and in-depth scholarly analyses; these might have made the body of the text more burdensome to the general educated reader, but their inclusion will likely prove delightful to specialists. Impeccably argued, the book’s historical and literary argumentation is presented in a clear and engaging style that includes the occasional whimsical epigraph or explanation, be it from Yeats or Freud, Shakespeare, Steve Martin, or Jim Morrison. All of these qualities make The Prince’s Body an informative and enjoyable book.

Finucci, Professor of Italian Studies at Duke University, explores the cutting edge of early modern medicine in Italy through the life of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua (1562-1612), generous patron of the arts and sciences. Vincenzo was powerful, self-centered, and wealthy enough to be able to afford the very best contemporary medicine had to offer in terms of treating his diverse bodily ailments. In addition to an introduction, which includes a helpful and compelling biography of Vincenzo Gonzaga, and a brief epilogue, the book is divided into four chapters, each of which divides Gonzaga’s disorders into issues of sexuality, beauty, pain management, and aging.

Chapter 1, “The Virgin Cure: Manual Exams and Early Modern Surgeons,” delves into the physiopathology of human reproduction through the examination of a youthful episode in Vincenzo’s life: his inability to consummate his first marriage to Margherita Farnese. This first chapter details the ramifications of this early failure for Vincenzo’s personal and political biography and sheds light on the imbrications of moral chastity and physical virginity in the context of the history of the body (particularly female anatomy).

Chapter 2, “The Aesthetic Cure: Skin Disease, Noses, and the Invention of Plastic Surgery,” focuses on the science of rejuvenation through aesthetic medicine. Gaspare Tagliacozzi’s lavishly illustrated book on the surgical reconstruction of noses, De curtorum chirurgia per insitionem (1597), was dedicated precisely to Vincenzo Gonzaga, whose passion for aesthetic refinement was well known, and whose nose caused him much grief. Although it is not certain whether Vincenzo’s nose problems were due to a skin rash or to syphilis (which commonly caused a depressed, or “saddle,” nose), the absence of a nose in early modern Italy was more common than it is today, for, in addition to the ravages of syphilis, men might lose their nose in battle or duel or as punishment, an all-too visible sign that one had lost his honor. Considering the sexual connotations of a nose, and of its absence, it is possible to understand the not uncommon desire for a surgical intervention that was painful and dangerous but, ultimately, unnecessary.

Chapter 3, “The Comfort Cure: Managing Pain and Catarrh at the Spa,” describes the pursuit of wellness care at a time when most diseases were chronic and palliatives the only therapeutic option. On the basis of written descriptions of his symptoms and family history, Finucci hypothesizes that Vincenzo may have suffered from rickets and tuberculosis, and this chapter describes the treatments he sought at a number of spas, both in Italy and abroad, in the context of the history of thermal treatments before and during his time, including the wishful belief in mineral water as a fountain of youth.

Chapter 4, “The Sexual Cure: Searching for Viagra in the New World,” is concerned with the aspiration to combat the aging process, particularly as it affects a man’s sexual performance. In an era marked by a passion for travel and collecting, it is not surprising that the prodigal and notoriously sex-obsessed Vincenzo should send an envoy – the young apothecary Evangelista Marcobruno – as far as the New World in search of a poisonous worm known as a gusano as a remedy for the his sexual dysfunction. Alas, before the duke could test the gusano’s effectiveness, he died, and Marcobruno was kidnapped by pirates on his way back from the Americas. (It is not known whether he ever made it back.)

Throughout, Finucci’s book is accompanied by the reproductions of relevant artworks, such as Pourbus’s portrait of Vincenzo Gonzaga, showing his saddle nose, and Rubens’s portrait of the Gonzaga family, and, even more interestingly, scientific illustrations from the period, including a series on surgical reconstruction of the nose which is especially informative and memorable.

In The Prince’s Body, Valeria Finucci succeeds brilliantly in what she sets out to do, namely to explore, through the particular health issues of a prominent and wealthy nobleman in early modern Italy, “pertinent, often fascinating preoccupations of the medical culture of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries regarding function and meaning” (152). The book will be of great interest to scholars of the early modern period, as well as to historians of medicine and Italianists more generally. The placement of specialistic information in the notes also assures that The Prince’s Body will be read with pleasure and profit by scholars and the general educated reader alike.

Reviewed by Cristina Mazzoni, University of Vermont

The Prince’s Body: Vincenzo Gonzaga and Renaissance Medicine
by Valeria Finucci
Harvard University Press
Hardcover / 288 pages / 2015
ISBN: 9780674725454

No Comments

No Comments Yet!

No one has left a comment for this post yet!

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *