The body, public health and social control in sixteenth-century Venice

Date of Completion

January 1998


History, European|History of Science




Through a blend of political-institutional, medical, and socio-cultural history, this dissertation demonstrates dig the rapid development of sixteenth-century Venice's public health policy marks not only “the medical renaissance of the sixteenth century,” but highlights an important development in the history of mentalities as well. Using a wide range of archival and published sources, I argue that when the pre-modern cultural universe—epitomized by a unified, anthropomorphic body—was under siege during the 1500s by a divided Christendom and warring inchoate nation-states, one prescription for Venice in the throes of a major European-wide “paradigm shift” was to invoke this metaphor of the body (in all of its manifestations: whether as a medical body, a body social, a body politic, etc.), and entrust the continued welfare of this ailing embodiment to its newly created health magistracy, the Provveditori alla Sanità. ^ Since the Venetian patriciate at the time was preoccupied with public exhibitions and ritual assurances of order within the body social and hierarchy within the body politic, the broader social and cultural implications of early modern epidemiology encouraged a rapid multiplication of the magistracy's powers during the sixteenth century. Those who were perceived as a threat to this order were—as a result of the overlapping metaphors of the body in the early modern worldview—frequently understood to be sources of contagion and/or diseases like the plague who were dangerous to the medical body as well. ^ At the same time, the increasing separation between elite and popular cultures reinforced these associations: physicians—engaged in their own processes of “self-fashioning”—would theorize that the poor possessed a physiologically different body which was inherently predisposed to epidemic disease. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Venetian Magistracy's public health authority would thus extend beyond disease control and sanitation to include the regulation of marginalized groups such as the poor, prostitutes, and popular healers. My dissertation consequently traces the processes by which contemporary visions of the body, health and disease were informed and transformed by the Sanità's particular reactions to the perceived crises in sixteenth-century Venice. ^