RSA Conference Toronto 2019

The Renaissance Skin team headed to Toronto in balmy March as locals cheerfully skated on the outdoor ice rink outside the conference venue for the Renaissance Society of America’s annual meeting (17-19th March 2019).

The Renaissance Skin panel was scheduled as one of the second sessions of the last day (Tuesday). Since Hannah could not be there, our colleague generously offered to read (and interpret very effectively) her paper on a work of recent interest to the project - Jan Jessen's De cute et cutaneis affectibus. Although Jessen's text offered little by way of innovation, it draws together a set of developments that underpinned sixteenth century attitudes to skin. Her paper argued that skin emerged as a disease category throughout the sixteenth century, and that this was part of a broader shift within surgical and pharmaceutical approaches to disease, which conceived of the body as matter, and was linked to new procedures, treatments and ideas of the senses.

Paolo dug deep into the trial case of a 17th century empiric surgeon from Pisa, Giovanni Battista Terrarossa. By using both static or normative documents (licenses, official regulations, barber-surgeon’s manuals) and more dynamic sources (the trial of Terrarossa), he asked what was an expert on skin diseases in this period, and how the loose category of “skin diseases” came into being under the influence of medical theory, surgical practice, patient demand, and civic regulation of medical practice. He showed that by the late 17th century “skin disease” became an independent category, the surface an independent object, and the empiric surgeon an expert of surfaces. Human skin as a surface acquired autonomy as an object of knowledge and practice; moreover, a class of experts on this surface emerged at the same time following a path which was in large measure independent from the transformations of Galenic medicine and the rise of mechanistic medicine which are typically described as central in this period.

Finally, Kathleen addressed the specificity of dog skin in medical treatises and why it would have been considered so appropriate to place on human flesh, while also examining animal skin and its similarities and divergences from human skin in a medical context. The use of dog skin gloves, stockings, and girdles in treating assorting ailments from chilblains to gout or as cosmetic devices appears in many sixteenth and seventeenth century medical treatises. A major focus was a dog-skin birth girdle that appears in surgical and midwifery texts (particularly Ambroise Paré, Jacques Guillemeau and Louise Bourgeois). Soaked in ointment it was applied to the belly of a pregnant woman to preserve the expanding skin underneath. The fact that the animal used for all these procedures is a dog appears to be quite incidental. The importance is not the animal itself but its disembodied skin, in particular: prepared tanned skin: flexible, soft, thin, absorbent and this is attested in the language used in these texts.

The panel was a success, and the full house asked several questions ranging from dogs to surgical tools, producing a lively debate. We are grateful to all the people who came to the panel and to our chair and sponsor Caroline Petit (University of Warwick).

Among the many different sessions we attended, the session on Sunday morning (17 March) ‘Saxa Loquuntur: Early Modern Geology and Mineralogy in Latin’ was particularly helpful for the Renaissance Skin team. In this session, three scholars from the Leopold-Franzens-Universität Innsbruck discussed sixteenth-century geological texts (Dominik Berrens ‘Names and Things: The Case of the Bermannus’, Martin Korenjak ‘The Taste of Stone: Descriptive Techniques in Conrad Gessner’s De rerum fossilium figures’ and Irina Tautschnig’s Plane admirabile fossilium theatrum: Promoting Mineralogy in the Seventeenth Century). Martin Korenjak’s paper reminded us to look at the surface of rocks in the context of ‘skin’, particularly when authors like Gessner’s attempted to describe them with sensory and comparative methods. For Gessner geodes were like quail eggs (and squealed when placed in water) while flurorites resembled goiters or thunderstones resembled the horns of animals and smelled of burnt horn or cat urine (!). The project’s Noscemus database ( on early modern Latin scientific literature is a great scholarly tool.

The team members split up to attend several panels. While the stones were talking, the first panel of a series titled “Patterns of Knowledge Production in Early Modern Graphic Collections” was exploring ways in which visual information could be translated into mostly written knowledge. Genevieve Warwick (University of Edinburgh) spoke of how drawings were arranged into albums in early modern Italy. Discussing exemplary cases as Giulio Mancini’s and Cassiano dal Pozzo’s collections, she argued that “taccuini,” portable hybrids of image and text, were true “research instruments”, which were treated as such and kept in library as they were books. Irina Schmiedel, (Johannes Gutenberg Universiät Mainz) intriguingly explored the visual analogies between family and plant genealogies and showed how “portable galleries” contributed to the formation of 17th century expertise in both human and natural history. Katherine Reinhart (CRASSH, University of Cambridge) presented the Making Visible project she is part of and, starting from the famous “scrapbook” (ms 131) of the Royal Society, she offered a broad overview of the practice of collecting images of individual specimens, events, or objects for epistemic purposes in early modern scientific academies. Distinguishing between “explicit practice” (intentional collection of images) and “implicit practices” (collective, later work of assembling images together) she also explored the fate of collections of drawings in such institutions.

Other papers that day included Alexandra Marraccini’s (Warburg Institute) ‘The Nautilus and the Pearl: Accretion and Motion in the English Early Modern Collection’ (in the session ‘On Motion and Mobility: Mimesis, Kinesis, and the Liveliness of Things’) which featured nautilus shells, a subject of interest to us when thinking about animal coverings and surfaces. The session ‘Botany, Astrology, and Pastoral in the Atlantic World’ included Elizabeth Gansen’s paper ‘Monopolies of Knowledge: The Case of Vilasante’s New Balsam in Oviedo’s Historia general (1535)’ which was an interesting case on the measures to restrict knowledge of the New World Balsam tree in line with royal monopolies on the plant in Santo Domingo.

Also on Sunday, Renaissance Skin has followed with great interest the panel “Artistic Expertise and the Rhetoric of Knowledge, 1500–1650.” During that session, Lisa Jordan (Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck-Institut) connected in a very interesting way anatomists, draughtsmen, and surgeons, and explored the relationships between art and surgery starting from a motto attributed by Guercino to the painter and surgeon Ercole Gennari: “hands in the eyes, eyes in the hands.” Jordan argued that painters and surgeons (and barber-surgeons) both manipulated the surface of their materials, and had a common view of craftsmanship. Food for thought for Renaissance Skin!

In the “Matters of Life and Death in Renaissance Health Care” panel on Sunday afternoon Spirit-Rose Waite (University of Toronto) intriguingly connected gender, bodily fluids, and textiles in her exploration of the material culture of the Hospital of the Innocenti in Florence. Waite described the use of menstrual cloths and emphasised the tactile tacit knowledge implied in their use, production, and maintenance, thus offering an example of a bodily technology and a way of managing female patients in the closed space of the hospital. She also discussed swaddling clothes and how foundling inmates too old for swaddling clothes would wear a piece of cloth pinned to their robes that had the image of a swaddled child.

Spedale degl’Innocenti, Florence.

Spedale degl’Innocenti, Florence.

Monday morning started with earthquakes. The first panel of a series titled “Natural Disasters and Environmental Interventions in the Early Modern World” opened with Monica Azzolini’s (University of Bologna) paper on Francisco de Borja, saint and protector from earthquakes. Theology, history of canonization, popular devotion, and natural philosophy, Azzolini presented a case in which all these things mixed together: she inquired how the 16th century Jesuit Borja, who lived in Rome most of his life and was canonized only in 1670, became in the 17th century the patron saint of the city of Bogotá, in the “new world,” and the protector from earthquakes, without the Roman curia knowing it at first. Curiously, Borja was believed to heal both sick bodies and the “sick” earth causing earthquakes – ever more connections between human and earth surfaces.   

Papers on Monday also included Peter Pormann (Manchester)’s paper ‘Ibn Serapion’s Practica as a Transcultural Text on Obstetrics’ (in the session ‘Contested Bodies: Pregnancy and Motherhood in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period’), which discussed the translations of the lost Syriac original (3 into Arabic, 2 into Latin, and 1 into Hebrew from one of the Latin versions). Pormann also discussed sources for ideas about uterine suffocation in Alpago revision translation in the Renaissance. There were many papers of interest in the two sessions on Disease and Disability in the Renaissance. Erin Travers (University of California, Santa Barbara) paper ‘Constructing a Corpus: Anatomical Exemplars in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art Literature’ focused on  Jacob van de Gracht taking examples from anatomical atlases and modifying them to enable the study of anatomy by artists . Caterina Agostini, Rutgers University–New Brunswick paper ‘Art in the Time of Syphilis: A Medical Narrative in Benvenuto Cellini's Works‘ examined how Cellini recorded epidemics. Brian Nance’s  (Coastal Carolina University) paper The Imaginary Pauper: Wealth, Charity, and Petrus Forestus' Treatment of Delusional Melancholia zoomed in on one case in Forestus’ Medical Observations concerning a rich Delft merchant and Forestus attempts to educate his patients and persuade them (and their families) that his diagnosis was legitimate.

Tuesday was a plethora of medical session. It started with ‘Medicine, Books, and Herbs: Pharmacology in Renaissance Europe’. Caroline Petit (University of Warwick) paper ‘Galen's Treatises on Pharmacology and Their Readership in Sixteenth-Century Europe’ on Renaissance translations on sections of Galen’s copious On Simples Drugs. Apart from the Latin translations and Greek editions (in particular the translations by the Polish physician Josephus Struthius), she focused on French translations destined to be read by barber surgeons and the role Jean Canappe in widening access to these texts.

Barbara Di Gennaro’s (Yale University) Theriac in Print Culture (1497–1800) was an overview of her quantitative research project, mapping theriac titles (1497-1800) in order to understand literary trends, readership of pharmaceutical knowledge and relationship to medical practice. This great session ended with Ilaria Andreoli’s (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) paper on  Pietro Andrea Mattioli's Discorsi on Dioscorides: The Publishing Strategies behind a Renaissance Bestseller. Mattioli’s ‘update’ of Dioscorides (adding around 100 more plants) became the standard reference book of medical botany of second half of 16th century and was a huge best seller, with the publisher even having to deal with the trouble of pirate editions. 

Tobias Stimmer, A Dog Looking to the Right, 1564. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tobias Stimmer, A Dog Looking to the Right, 1564. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The very medical day concluded with ‘Technologies of Health, 1400–1700’, This included Sharon Strocchia’s (Emory University) paper ‘Fare la prova: The Use of Human Subjects in Renaissance Drug Trials’ which looked at at tests using of human subjects conducted for purpose of patented medicines in major Italian states. Subjects included prisoners, soldiers in state employment and hospital patients. It was a case of medical innovation driven by commercial consideration and mediated by structures of power. Danielle Abdon (Temple University) paper ‘Visual and Structural Purification: Controlling Dead Bodies and Waste in Renaissance Hospitals’ focused on Renaissance hospital architecture at Lisbon’s Hospital Real de Todos-os-Santos and how contemporary ideas of poor relief affected architecture. Katherine M. Bentz (Saint Anselm College) gave a paper on ‘Scamozzi's Guide for Healthy Living: The Gallery in Early Modern Italy’ which discusses the construction and use of galleries and loggias as spaces to promote healthy living and walking.

Kathleen also visited the Bata Shoe Museum, The Textile Museum, and the Royal Ontario Museum (nautilus cups a plenty), looking out for potential project sources. The exhibition ‘Art and Innovation: Traditional Arctic Footwear from the Bata Shoe Museum Collection afforded so many opportunities to look at the use of animal skin by indigenous communities in the Arctic. Most notable was a parka made by a Yup’ik seamstress of seal intestine, which weighed less than 200 grams and had excellent wind and water repelling properties. Nearly everything in the exhibition was constructed from animal fur or leather, often specifically harnessing the qualities of a particular part of the animal, such as shoes with soles made from the skin between a reindeer’s foot to allow for better traction when walking on ice. 

Seal intestine parka, Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto

Seal intestine parka, Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto

Title image: Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Discorsi (1555).