Paper: Suffering Through It

Paolo Savoia, 'Suffering Through It: Representations of Bodies in Surgery in Italian Books, ca. 1550-1650'

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

In the Galenic tradition, medicine was distinct from surgery. While the former dealt with diseases caused by internal conditions (internal humoral imbalances), the task of surgery was to treat conditions that affected the external parts of the body. In theory, physicians healed through oral medicaments, and surgeons through the work of their hands. However, in practice things were more complicated. Both surgeons and physicians referred to both kinds of conditions as “diseases.” Moreover, surgeons’ duties included treating both swellings and sores visible on the external part of the body, as well as wounds and accidents caused by external factors, such as arrows and bullets. This paper will focus on this ambiguity and on the marginal status of surgery by exploring the representation of surgically “diseased” bodies in a series of books published in Italy ca. 1550-1650. While representations of bodies in pain are generally idealized and abstract in the books of university-trained surgeons, books by empirically trained surgeons and barber-surgeons, who specialized in bloodletting, are more vivid and realistic. However, this paper will focus on an exception and follow the editorial history of an image popularized in the Latin and vernacular editions (1573 and 1583) of the very famous and learned Venetian surgeon Giovanni Andrea Dalla Croce. This image depicts a Christian soldier and a “Turkish” soldier undergoing the removal of an arrow from their chests on the battlefield. By comparing it with contemporaneous images of martyrdom and surgeons’ written suggestions for managing surgical pain, it demonstrates how representations of suffering patients touched upon a wider imagery of bearing pain.

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: Battlefield surgeons extracting an arrow from a knight's chest from Giovanni Andrea Croce, Cirurgia universale e perfetta (Venezia: Giordano Ziletti, 1583)