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“In this our lightye and learned tyme”: Italian baths in the era of the Renaissance

“In this our lightye and learned tyme”: Italian baths in the era of the Renaissance

By Richard Palmer

Medical History, Supplement No. 10, 1990

Bernardino Luini (c.1480-1532)

Introduction: The sixteenth century saw a transformation in medicine as it came to be dominated by the ideals and methods of the Renaissance. The recovery of lost texts, and the availability in print of a wide-ranging medical literature from the ancient world, aroused overwhelming enthusiasm. The first phase of this development, marked above all by the printing of the works of Galen in Greek and of a flood of Latin translations, was complete by the mid-century. Medicine, and especially its literature, had put on a new cultural dress. Further change was nevertheless to come in the second half of the century as particular branches of medicine were re-explored in the light of the classics and brought into the mainstream of the medical Renaissance.

Amongst the specialisms which physicians sought to re-clothe in the new Renaissance fashion was balneology. Here, however, there were problems. Medicinal waters, as certain Renaissance doctors admitted, were more an empiric than a rational therapy. Common experience, trial and error, were the guides to their use, and even responsible for their first introduction. Gabriele Falloppia argued so in his lectures De medicatis aquis at Padua in 1556. He pointed out that the discoverer of the Aqua Brandola in 1448 was none other than a diseased cow which chanced to drink the health-giving water. Worse still, neither Galen nor any of the other classical princes of medicine had written at length on the subject. Why, asked Andrea Bacci, was Galen so negligent? Why did he not get his feet wet? Falloppia, too, noted that Galen wrote very little about baths, and coldly at that. Galen, he argued, liked to link reason and experience and to support one with the other; he had little faith in medicinal waters which were a purely empiric therapy. Accordingly, some of the early champions of Renaissance medicine, notably Giovanni Manardi and Matteo Corti, were lukewarm, or even hostile, to the baths.

The tide began to turn with the publication in 1553 of an encyclopaedic work which brought together, in its 497 folio pages, the bulk of the extant literature, both ancient and modem, on medicinal waters. Ambitiously entitled De balneis omnia quae extant, it was the work of the Venetian Giunta press, which had already brought out the most popular edition of Galen in Latin. Parts of De balneis were specially commissioned by Tommaso Giunta, and he included a compendium of all the scattered comments of Hippocrates and Galen on the subject. Taken together, these totalled a semi-respectable 40 pages. The book also demonstrated from later writers, such as Oribasius and Aetius, the importance of bathing in late antiquity. Archaeological evidence was also pressed into service. Gian’ Antonio Secco, who practised as a physician in Venice, contributed an elegant drawing of a Roman bath house, and he urged his readers to “confirm and perfect ancient medicine not only in words, but in use, so that the baths of the ancients, now at death’s door, may be restored to public use and live again.”

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See also: Did people in the Middle Ages take baths?

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