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13.10.03, Crisciani and Zuccolin, eds., Michele Savonarola: Medicina e cultura di corte

13.10.03, Crisciani and Zuccolin, eds., Michele Savonarola: Medicina e cultura di corte

In 1440, the year he turned 55, philosopher-physician Michele Savonarola (1385-1466), grandfather to the Dominican reformer Girolamo, departed his native Padua for Ferrara, to serve for the rest of his life as court physician of the House of Este, first under marchese Niccolò III, then under Niccolò's successors Leonello and Borso. The move ended Savonarola's affiliation of more than twenty-five years with the university in Padua, and brought on a transformation of his writing. At Padua he had produced a few Latin works on practical medicine, including most of a great compendium, the Practica maior, of conventional later medieval scholastic type. These works were dry, technical, and intended for an elite academic readership. At the Este court, Savonarola wrote more freely and prolifically, for both learned and lay readers, in Latin and the vernacular—and not only on medicine, but also ethics, politics, history, morality, and Christian devotion.

Michele Savonarola: Medicina e cultura di corte is an interdisciplinary and international collection of eleven essays that together aim to understand Savonarola's Ferrarese medical writings. They work to analyze these writings in general as products of a Renaissance courtly milieu, and in particular as witness to the role of the Italian Quattrocento court physician not only as guardian of the prince's physical health, but also as his pedagogue and counselor on ethical and political matters. The origin of this volume is a small conference organized by co-editors Chiara Crisciani and Gabriella Zuccolin, held at Pavia in November 2005. The collection aspires, however, to be more than a simple volume of conference proceedings. This is in keeping with its inclusion in a book series ("Micrologus' Library") associated with Micrologus, a prestigious journal of the history of science in cultural context. Seven essays are far longer than could have been read or adequately condensed in the half- hour allotted to each presenter according to the conference program (which can still be found online). [1] Crisciani, moreover, frames the volume's contents with a dense but lucid introductory essay that finds in them a rough but serviceable order. The first two studies present general concerns for the advancement of the study of Savonarola's courtly oeuvre. Monica Ferrari introduces the figure of the Renaissance court physician as prince's pedagogue with the example of Jean Héroard, tutor to the future Louis XIII, and briefly surveys recent historiography on the subject. Riccardo Gualdo outlines prospective challenges to editing Savonarola's vernacular texts. The last three essays illuminate the cultural background of Savonarola's intellectual activity. Antonia Tissoni Benvenuti assesses the contents of the libraries of the quattrocento Este princes through the analysis of surviving inventories. Maria Luisa Piscascia surveys contemporary literature that prescribed princely comportment, including Savonarola's vernacular biography of Borso, Del felice progresso. Silvia Nagel offers a fascinating account of Ferrara as a vital Jewish intellectual center in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The middle six studies get down to the core task of text analysis. They include a survey by Danielle Jacquart of the Practica maior; a brief look by Romana Martorelli Vico at De regimine pregnantium, Savonarola's vernacular manual on pregnancy, childbirth, and puericulture, which he dedicated to the "women of Ferrara"; and consideration by Elena Past of De tutte cose se magnano, his vernacular treatise on dietetics for courtiers.

Crisciani, Picascia, Tissoni Benvenuti, Nagel, and Jacquart are well- known veteran scholars, with rich publication histories extending back before 1980. Theirs, however, are not the most compelling and impressive contributions to the volume. The best pieces rather belong to three comparatively junior scholars: Marilyn Nicoud, Stefano Cracolici, and Zuccolin.

Nicoud examines De balneis, Savonarola's treatise (addressed to Borso) on balneotherapy and the thermal baths of Italy. She gives special attention to the ways, often innovative for the period, in which Savonarola uses various types of experience to produce scientific knowledge. For historians of science, her study signifies a welcome advance over Lynn Thorndike's dated and exploratory treatment. [2]

Cracolici's essay, "Michele Savonarola e le bizzarie di corte," finds parallels between remarks on temperament in several of Savonarola's Ferrarese medical works and humoral discourse and contemporary humanist literature and poetry. Cracolici's point of departure for this deft lexigraphical, literary, and philosophical exploration is a striking passage from Speculum phisionomie, Savonarola's monograph (dedicated to Leonello) on physiognomy. The passage concerns the temperament of practical musicians. Our Michele observes that the sort of master string and wind players to be found at court tend to exhibit melancholic behavior and to lack prudence. They would often refuse to play unless moved by their own fantasy. Common folk call such characters bizari, or describe them as vexed by bizaria. [3] Cracolici studies corresponding remarks on the "bizarre," the melancholic, and the choleric, elsewhere in Savonarola's works, including the Practica and Del felice progresso, along with a vernacular treatise on gout and De nuptiis Batibecho et Seraboca, an allegory of vices and virtues of speech at court. Cracolici connects Savonarola's discourses on bitter, irascible, and astringent tempers with passages in Burchiello, Marco Piacentini, and Alberti. He thereby shows Savonarola's scholastic learning, recast under Este patronage, to be congruent with contemporary humanist letters, and thus to belong to a broad and lively world of elite intellectual activity outside the university.

Zuccolin's piece, "Nascere in latino e in volgare," is, at seventy- three pages, by far the longest in the collection--a practical monograph, complete with appendix. [4] This remarkable length meets its formidable task of comparing De regimine pregnantium to the portions of the Practica maior from which Savonarola took its content, thus vulgarizing his own work. Zuccolin shows that Savonarola's work of self-translation was no simple dumbing-down of highly technical obstetric and pediatric material originally intended for scholastic physicians. The Este court doctor rather carefully crafted De regimine pregnantium to suit an increasingly sophisticated public outside academia, and to present himself to that public not only as a scientific authority, but also a "moral- pedagogical" one. The work has a marked didactic bent that aims to extend its author's masculine authority over the feminine realm of midwives, wet-nurses, and mothers in particular, and over vernacular culture in general.

As a whole, this collection of studies marks a welcome advance in the study of Savonarola's courtly scientific works. It establishes Savonarola as a key figure in the development of Renaissance princely courts as centers of knowledge production, and illuminates the impact of later scholastic medical learning on the world outside the university. It does have the shortcoming of not including--either in Crisciani's introductory essay or in an appendix--some basic account of Savonarola's life, along with a single, comprehensive list of his extant works. For scholars who are not already Savonarola specialists, this makes the riches of the collection much more difficult to access. Interested readers are advised first to read the bio-bibliographical studies of Pesenti (1977) and Segarizzi (1900). [5]



1. The program of the conference, which was titled "Michele Savonarola: Medicina, etica e cultura di corte," is publicly accessible from the server of the scholarly website Philosophia Medii Aevi (, but no longer linked within the site proper. The program lists thirteen presenters, including Zuccolin, whose contribution to the volume appears to be the only one not to originate from the conference; see n. 4 below.

2. Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, vol. 4 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1934), 183-214; esp. 197- 214.

3. Cracolici, 25-6, notes that this pregnant passage attracted Thorndike's notice; see also Thorndike, 196. In n. 5, Cracolici also duly cites musicologist Rob C. Wegman, whose sharp analysis of it in terms of later medieval learned physiology and psychology anticipates much of Cracolici's own approach. See Robert C. Wegman, "'And Josquin Laughed...': Josquin and the Composer's Anecdote in the Sixteenth Century," The Journal of Musicology 17.3 (1999), 319-57, esp. 338-57.

4. Zuccolin (138, n. 6) tells us that her contribution means to be a "deepening" (approfondimento) of her tesi di laurea, Stratificatizione di generi, destinatari, e scopi nel De regimine pregantium: Michele Savonarola medico tra addestramento pratico e divulgazione (University of Pavia, 2001-2). This reviewer was unable to obtain the work for comparison. The Pavia conference schedule has Zuccolin presenting a paper on Savonarola's physiognomy. Zuccolin is currently in the process of producing a critical edition of Savonarola's Speculum phisionomie. On this key work of Savonarola's courtly career, besides Cracolici, see Thorndike, History of Magic, 190-7, and Zuccolin, "The Speculum phisionomie by Michele Savonarola," in Universalità della Ragione: Pluralità delle Filosofie nel Medioevo / Universalité de la Raison: Pluralité des Philosophies au Moyen Âge / Universality of Reason: Plurality of Philosophies in the Middle Ages: 12. Congresso Internazionale di Filosofia Medievale: Palermo, 17-22 settembre 2007, ed. A. Musco, Biblioteca dell'Officina di Studi Medievali 14.1 (Palermo: Officina di Studi Medievali, 2012), 2.2: 873-86.

5. Tiziana Pesenti, "Michele Savonarola a Padova: L'ambiente, le opere, la cultura medica," Quaderni per la storia dell'Università di Padova 9-10 (1977), 45-102.

Arnoldo Segarizzi, Della vita e delle opere di Michele Savonarola medico padovano del secolo XV (Padua: Fratelli Gallina, 1900). This brief work of eighty-seven pages has been quite difficult for scholars in North America to access. Thorndike knew of only one copy in the United States. This belonged to the former Library of the Surgeon General's office, now the National Library of Medicine (NLM); see Thorndike, History of Magic, 183, n. 1. Given its rarity, Thorndike saw fit to repeat much of its biographical data, indeed more than he would have "were Segarizzi's pamphlet more accessible to most readers." It is curious that there is no trace of the work in the current online catalog of the NLM. In 1974, Ynez Violé O'Neill called Segarizzi's work an "extremely rare pamphlet" ("Michele Savonarola and the Fera or Blighted Twin Phenomenon," Medical History 18.3 [1974], 252, n. 7). Wegman ("Josquin Laughed," 338, n. 50), reports that he was unable to consult it, but recommends for "an accessible overview of Michele's life" Massimi Alberini, Breve storia di Michele Savonarola sequita da un Compendio del suo "Libretto de tutte le cosse che se manzano," 2 vols. (Padua: Editoriale Programma, 1991), 1.19-38. Readers may be relieved to know that Segarizzi's work has been digitized and made publicly accessible by Google, although it cannot be found in a Google search for its author's name or its proper title. This digitization is of a print copy that exists at the University of Michigan as the eleventh item in a bound miscellany of fourteen contemporary studies of Italian literature, with a table of contents in manuscript. The volume is number 103 of the University of Michigan's large collection of antique Italian scholarly pamphlets, imaginatively titled Miscellanea. The direct link to Google's digitization of Michigan's Miscellanea 103 is