John Henderson

University of London, Department of History, Classics and Archaeology Birkbeck, London,

UK; University of Cambridge, Wolfson College, Cambridge, UK

Valentina Živković

Institute for Balkan Studies, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Belgrade, Serbia

Experiencing Disease and Medical Treatment in Renaissance Italy: Cardinal Pietro Bembo and his Circle

Abstract: This article, which examines contemporaries’ personal experience of illness in Re- naissance Italy, is part of a growing literature which concentrates on the patient rather than the practitioner. The basis of this study is the correspondence of Pietro Bembo, the well-known humanist, papal secretary and latterly Cardinal, with his cousin Gian Matteo Bembo and his long-standing secretary and friend, Cola Bruno. These letters are revealing of how a non-medical man understood and described illness in the sixteenth century, and his personal experience associated particularly with “mal delle reni”, which he shared with his friends and recommended treatments. It also reveals his attitude towards medical prac- titioners, ranging from scepticism to fully embracing new therapies such as Holy Wood, which was used to treat the new epidemic disease of the Great Pox. Indeed he shared his enthusiasm for the efficacy of this drug with his great friend the physician Girolamo Fracastoro, the author of Syphilis, the poem which he dedicated to Bembo, and also of the treatise De contagione et contagiosis morbis (1546).
Keywords: Pietro Bembo, Girolamo Fracastoro, Gian Matteo Bembo, Cola Bruno, the Great
Pox, “mal delle reni”