Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

History, Antiquarianism, and Medicine: The Case of Girolamo Mercuriale

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

History, Antiquarianism, and Medicine: The Case of Girolamo Mercuriale

Article excerpt

Writing around 1568, the antiquarian Onofrio Panvinio compiled a list of recent writers on Roman history and antiquities that served simultaneously to register his own closeness to the center of contemporary scholarship and patronage dedicated to ancient Rome, to settle some old scores, and to express historical judgments. "These," he declared, "are indeed all the people in the present century who have dealt with res romanae in a systematic way. For I have deliberately omitted all those who, in our own time or earlier, wrote commentaries on that subject and whom I judge not to have treated it in a manner worthy of its dignity." Among the authors who merited inclusion was "my friend Girolamo Mercuriale of Forli, physician to the eminent Cardinal Ales-sandro Farnese, [who] in six books described all the exercises of the ancients in an outstanding manner and with admirable erudition and diligence."1

Panvinio's praise may have been in part a personal tribute to a friend who for six years had been his colleague in the household of Cardinal Farnese, but it was well deserved. Throughout his career, Girolamo Mercuriale (1530-1606) stood out as a physician of exceptional erudition.2 Yet what distinguished him among his medical colleagues was not of course that he looked back to antiquity; that stance was to a greater or lesser extent universal in humanist medicine and related fields, even in such innovative and expanding areas of knowl

edge as anatomy and botany.3 But to an unusual extent Mercuriale combined mastery of the usual techniques of medical humanism-a mixture of philological and clinically-oriented critique of ancient medical texts4-with much broader philological, historical, and antiquarian learning and interests. In an age in which narrative history chiefly concerned itself with political affairs, antiquarians took as their province the laws, customs, and material remains of the past-in short, everything that one might now call institutional, cultural, or economic history, or history of technology (in the same period, histories of the arts and sciences multiplied in a related but distinct development of disciplinary history).5

In the intellectual milieu of late Renaissance universities Mercuriale's integration of interests and methodology characteristic of humanist medicine with aspects of a broader historical culture was by no means isolated or idiosyncratic. Rather, his endeavors constitute an exceptionally striking example of a type of late Renaissance medical erudition that has attracted relatively little attention either from intellectual historians or from historians of science and medicine. No doubt this has been so because the historicizing and antiquarian aspects of sixteenth-century medical learning are difficult to fit even into a standard account of the impact of humanism on the sciences, had little perceptible effect on medical practice, and are seldom associated with scientific innovation. Yet the prominence and respect accorded to this type of medical learning in its own day casts light both on the uses of history and historical evidence in late Renaissance scientific culture and on the way in which medicine shared in broad intellectual currents of the time.

Mercuriale's two most important historical contributions are De arte gymnastica, the work to which Panvinio referred, and a Censura Hippocratis, in which he attempted to distinguish authentic and spurious works of Hippocrates.6 But his historical and antiquarian (as well, of course, as his philo

logical) interests and methodology also emerge prominently in his collection of variant readings from ancient medical authors and in his commentary on Books 1 and 3 of the Hippocratic Epidemics. …

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