If you follow the advice of Caterina Sforza, “you will see that thing become so narrow that you yourself will be in admiration.”
The Lady of Forli was one of several writers in Renaissance Italy that dealt with matters of sex in their Books of Secrets. In her article, “Impotence and Corruption: Sexual Function and Dysfunction in Early Modern Italian Books of Secrets”, Meredith Ray examines these works to see what advice they were giving about sexual performance.
Caterina Sfroza (1463-1509), who ruled the Italian cities of Imola and Forli and was famous for her battles with the Borgia family, was also very interested in scientific matters, and wrote a book called the Experimenta, which offered over 300 recipes and formulas of alchemical, medical and cosmetic secrets. By combining various foods, herbs, plants, minerals and precious stones, she says they can deliver all kinds of cures and marvels, from getting rid of lice to making coins appear more golden. She adds that her beauty recipes will even allow a 70-year-old look like she is 20.
Sforza includes several recipes for women that all her to become “the most natural and perfect virgin”. In one “true and marvellous recipe”, all you need is to distill sage and water in an alembic, and then over time applying the mixture to the vagina. Other recipes are more complex, including one that involves 10 ingredients and takes two weeks to complete.
Attention to simulating or “restoring” virginity is common among the pages of early modern books of secrets. In Sforza’s cases, however, the emphasis assumes additional valence. As a military leader who knew the importance of crafting a public persona, an alchemist who sought not to produce gold but rather to create metals that had the appearance of gold, and a woman who exploited the transformative power of cosmetics on female beauty, Sforza’s understanding of the power of simulation was pragmatic and extensive…it is not the actual condition of being a virgin that is important in her Experimenta, but rather the practical and convincing imitation of that culturally privileged state.
Meanwhile, Caterina Sforza also offers a way to tell if a woman is still a virgin. She writes:
How to tell if a woman is a virgin, or rather corrupt. Take sal ammoniac and dissolve in water and give it to drink to whoever you wish. If she is a virgin, it will have no effect; if she has been corrupted, she will urinate immediately.
Her Experimenta also offers recipes for men to give them better sexual performance (and to make sure that their women do not seek another lover). She even partially encrypts these instructions (but provides the key to the code in the manuscript) to produce recipes that were either to be drunk or applied directly to the penis. Using items such as satyrion root, wild boar fat, pepper or a skink (a small type of lizard), she says a man can make his member larger or have sex longer. In one recipe, which promises that a man stay erect all night long, Caterina writes, “you will be able to go to bed with a woman and you will see that you will stay erect and be able to do anything you want and enjoy yourself.”
Meredith Ray adds that “whether presenting recipes for determining female virginity or formulas for correcting male impotence, these compilations approach matters of sex through the lens of commonplace knowledge, contemporary medical culture and familiar alchemical principles of transformation and simulation in order to enhance healthy physiological function. At the same time they also serve to uphold social and sexual custom by seeking to contain sexual activity – for women at least – within the confines of marriages, thereby protecting men from the prospect of cuckoldry.”
“Impotence and Corruption: Sexual Function and Dysfunction in Early Modern Italian Books of Secrets” appears in Cuckoldry, Impotence and Adultery in Europe (15th-17th century), a collection of ten articles edited by Sara Matthews-Grieco. Click here for more details about the book from the publisher.
Meredith Ray, who is Associate Professor of Italian at the University of Delaware, has also written “Experiments with Alchemy: Caterina Sforza in Early Modern Scientific Culture” which appears in the 2010 book Gender and Scientific Discourse in Early Modern Culture and the book Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy.