Paper: Breaking Skin in Renaissance Italy

Evelyn Welch, 'Breaking Skin in Renaissance Italy'

Paper to be presented at the international conference Representing Infirmity: Diseased Bodies in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy

This paper presents the challenges of representing infirmities, from smallpox to toothache, that involved rupturing the skin posed in Early Modern Europe. Since Galen, skin, the top layer of the body, has been considered a porous mesh that was easily penetrated by internal or external disruptions. Ideal skins, male and female, were unblemished and smooth, demonstrating that the internal complexion of the body was, and had always been, in a healthy, well-balanced state. Where this was not the case, there were numerous recipes for creams, lotions and waters designed to erase the records of past marks. It was indeed rare, for a portrait, to depict anything but perfect skin. But numerous infirmities challenged this visual ideal, often resulting in scars, weals, pimples and poxes. In other cases, disease or the fear of disease encouraged practitioners, ranging from barber surgeons to farriers, to deliberately open the skin as part of their treatment. The techniques of phlebotomy, scarification, or cupping resulted in instructional images (identifying veins or points of entry), numerous genre scenes, and satires, printed versions of which proliferated by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 

The conference Representing Infirmity: Diseased Bodies in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy represents the first analysis of how diseased bodies were represented in Italy during the 'long Renaissance' (c.1400-c.1650). It addresses the construction of the notion of disease, and aims to present a new paradigm for the field.

The conference takes place from 13-15 December at Monash University Prato Centre. Further information here.

Image: Bullet extractor; France; 1501-1600; Science Museum, London (A121646). Image courtesy of Wellcome Images available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0