Reading Group: Klestinec

Join us as we focus on changing conceptions of the body and its surface in the context of medical rhetoric and the influence of the sixteenth-century medical marketplace.

We welcome Professor Cynthia Klestinec (Miami University, Ohio) to our first meeting of the Renaissance Skin Reading Group for 2018/19, at which she will lead a discussion on the medical agon and changing conceptions of the early modern body.

Klestinec's paper, 'The Medical Agon and the Early Modern Body', is an initial inquiry into the agon in traditional and untraditional medicine in the Renaissance. As William Eamon has described, agonistic rhetoric and agonistic conceptions of medication were a notable trend in the medical marketplace of the sixteenth century. The empiric surgeon Leonardo Fioravanti promoted powerful drugs that could engage in a battle with disease and like Mars, the God of War, emerge victorious. We tend to place the agonistic rhetoric of medicine in a more contemporary framework, most fully articulated by Susan Sontag in Illness as Metaphor (1978), a work in which she criticised the metaphorical associations with chemo-warfare in depictions of cancer and its treatments. But the Renaissance witnessed several formulations of the agon in medicine. Klestinec's paper will explore them, not to establish a long historical chronology connecting Fioravanti to Sontag, but rather to consider the conceptual nature of this agon and its material consequences (for the patient and the practitioner) in the Renaissance. It will then develop an account of the conceptual dimensions of the agon related to the reception of classical mechanics and anatomy, which emphasised a practitioner’s encounter with the surfaces of the body. Debates about mechanics in medicine tended to concern these surfaces. Even Fioravanti, who has been repeatedly cast as an anti-establishment character, engaged in these debates, circulating ideas about mechanics in medicine and adapting his work to them.

In thinking about and framing our discussion, we are combining Klestinec’s draft paper with two further readings, in order to invite discussion on the importance of 1) agonistic rhetoric and agonistic conceptions of medication in the Renaissance; 2) the conceptual nature of this agon and its material consequences (for the patient and the practitioner); and 3) the role of the agon in the reception of classical mechanics and anatomy, which emphasized a practitioner’s encounter with the surfaces of the body.

  • William Eamon, 'Pharmaceutical Self-Fashioning or How to Get Rich and Famous in the Renaissance Medical Marketplace', Pharmacy in History, Vol. 45, No. 3 (2003), pp. 123-129.
  • Selections from Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York, 1978).

This is an informal and friendly discussion lasting about 90 minutes, and then followed by refreshments.

The event is open to participants from any discipline and at any stage of study. To attend, please register by emailing the team (see Contact page). The readings will be circulated in advance and will be available from Tuesday 28 August, once registered. We encourage anyone to bring materials, images, anecdotes, and ideas for discussion. There is no deadline to register but attendance will be guaranteed on a first-come first-served basis.

Klestinec specialises in the history of anatomy, surgery, and the body in early modern Italy, and is the author of Theaters of Anatomy: Students, Teachers, and Traditions of Dissection in Renaissance Venice (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).

Her current work examines the shift in the late Renaissance to a conception of the body as solid, with structures, surfaces, and boundaries that could be manipulated by practitioners. For centuries, physicians for centuries had emphasised the four humors - black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood - and the matter theory that related these humors to the four qualities of hot, cold, wet, and dry. Yet, for many Renaissance practitioners - educated surgeons, barbers, and the makers of cosmetics, wigs, and prosthetics of all kind - the body was perceived as a solid one, prompting theoretical and practical questions about how the health of the body should be restored by manipulating the body’s structures and surfaces, not its internal humoral balance. Klestinec's current project therefore explores how the solid body emerged with new significance during the early modern period as a consequence of several interrelated forces: the alliances between medical practitioners and artisans, the anatomical culture of the period, and the medical marketplace.

Image: Detail from 'Le arti per la via' from Giuseppe Maria Mitelli, Sanpaolaro  (1660)