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Okay, we are already a couple of weeks into the new year and how many of you made New Year’s resolutions: perhaps with the intention to follow a new diet so that you might eat healthier, join a gym to get fitter or to download a new App to help you sleep better? Notions of what constitutes good health and our interest in holistic wellbeing is not a modern thing, travel back to early Renaissance Italy and advice on healthy living was also a feature of people’s lives. One of my favourite books on my bookshelf is the ‘Tacuinum Sanitatis An Early Renaissance Guide to Health’ by Alixe Bovey written to accompany  an exhibition of miniatures  from the  Liechtenstein Tacuinum Sanitatis at Sam Fogg , London  back in 2009.

Moderation and Balance were the key words related to health in Renaissance Italy. During this period health was based on the theory of the humours derived from the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates and the Roman physician Galen. Humoral theory centred upon the balance of the four humours: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. The correct balance of these substances was necessary for good health and related to this is the notion of the ‘six non naturals’ the proper balance of air, food and drink, movement and rest, sleep and the moderation  of extreme emotions.

The richly illustrated Liechtenstein Tacuinum Sanitatis (Table of Health) is a product of this school of thought. It was made in Padua in the 1450sand contains 130 miniatures. It is one of five (the others are found throughout Europe). Translated from the Arabic into Latin it contained everything one needed to know on how to live a healthy and happy life and covers everything from what to eat, how to exercise and how long to sleep for (the Tacuinum Sanitatis recommends eight hours of sleep every night). The focus of the Tacuinum Sanitatis was prevention of illness rather than cure enabling one to avoid the more scary encounters with physicians bearing in mind this was an age of barber surgeons, bloodletting etc. The guide would have been a ‘go to’ for advice for very wealthy patrons who would have had a copy on their bookshelves probably alongside an illustrated herbal.  

Its beautiful illustrations offer a glimpse into the everyday lives of people in the early Renaissance and one could really spend forever looking at all the details within. Some of the illustrations appear quite humorous for example that depicting sleep talking with two women standing  by a bed in the hope that they might overhear anything of interest that  the gentleman in the bed might utter in his sleep. According to the Tacuinum Sanitatis the problem with sleep talking is that others might overhear unpleasant things.  

With my interest in medicinal plants I am particularly drawn to the illustrations showing herbs including one depicting an elegantly dressed man harvesting fennel which the Tacuinum Sanitatis claims is good for eyesight amongst other things. One of my absolute favourites is the illustration showing  a lady gathering rose blossoms in a basket in preparation for making rose water which the guide claims is good for the heart.

It must be noted that the Tacuinum Sanitatis does also contain some strange advice; for example the consumption of rooster testicles to boost sperm production and crocuses soaked in raisin wine to counteract drunkenness (don’t try these at home folks!) but I’m sure even some modern lifestyle guides may also include some apparently weird snippets of advice.  

With all good intentions I’m now off to enjoy a gut shot drink before ‘clocking up’ some steps before I wind down for the day reducing my exposure to all blue light so I can get a good night’s rest!

I first encountered the name of Pio Fedi not through one of his many excellent sculptures but whilst I was doing research for my book: ‘In Search of Annalena A Life of Tragedy and Triumph in Renaissance Florence’.

Annalena Malatesta (the subject of my book) founded a convent in the middle of the 15th century, known as the Monastero di San Vincenzo or the Annalena convent. The convent was located along the Via Romana in the Oltrarno (area south of the river Arno) in Florence. Around the same time and within the vicinity of the Annalena convent (in the Via dei Serragli) another convent, that of Santa Chiara, was founded whose church can still be seen today, although much altered. In my book I discuss in detail the reconstructed chancel chapel of Santa Chiara which is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the only Italian Renaissance chapel that can be seen outside of Italy. The 19th century sculptor Pio Fedi purchased the former convent church (89 Via dei Serragli) in 1842 and made it his studio. The chapel was originally located in the church of Santa Chiara and appears to have passed into the hands of an unnamed owner who sold it to John Charles Robinson, the first curator of the art collections at the South Kensington Museum, London (now the V&A) in 1860. Robinson paid £386 for the High altar chapel and High altarpiece. At the time my interest of course was directed at a comparative study of the Santa Chiara chapel in relation to the Annalena convent church. However, this was the first time that I had heard of the name of Pio Fede.

Pio Fedi (1816-1892) was a classical sculptor in the years when Florence was the capital of the new kingdom of Italy (from 1865-71) and he produced many great works including his masterpiece ‘the Rape of Polyxena’, 1865 which can be seen on the left side of the open air gallery of the Loggia dei Lanzi in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. In this outstanding 4-figure group sculpture executed from a single block of marble, we encounter an embodiment of tangled limbs and despair. Polyxena (daughter of the King of Troy) is being wrenched from her pleading mother and murdered brother to be sacrificed on the tomb of Achilles after the fall of Troy. Following the unveiling of this sculpture Fedi enjoyed extraordinary success and became one of the leading sculptors of his day. He was well known at the time in both Europe and in the United States.

Further sculptures by Fedi can be seen in the Loggia of the Uffizi and include those of Nicola Pisano and Andrea Cesalpino. Additionally, in the basilica of Santa Croce we can admire Fedi’s figure of ‘Crowned Liberty’ sometimes called ‘The Liberty of Poetry’ executed for the funeral monument to the playwright and patriot Giovanni Battista Niccolini, 1870-1876. This sculpture may possibly have served as the inspiration for the famous Statue of Liberty in New York.

Within the Pitti Palace there is a group sculpture of Pia de’Tolomei and Nello della Pietra, 1861. Those who are familiar with Dante’s Divine Comedy will know the unfortunate story of Pia de’Tolomei which is summarised in Purgatory. Pia’s husband Nello unfairly suspected her of adultery and locked her up in his castle in Maremma where she died of malaria. Fedi made many replicas of the group since it was so successful. Indeed, a marble replica of this work exists in my local museum the Ashmolean in Oxford. Standing so aptly amidst a backdrop of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, this group sculpture signed and dated 1872 shows the couple at the moment when Nello begins to suspect Pia of infidelity. The sculpture screams out to be examined in the round and the viewer will be rewarded with Fedi’s attention to psychological drama and detail. The exquisite textures and fine patterning of the medieval costume reflect Fedi’s training as a goldsmith and engraver. Fedi produced several smaller versions of this sculpture for British tourists who were familiar with similar such elements in Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Little did I know that my research into 15th Florentine convents would introduce me to one of the most important and famous sculptors of the nineteenth century, but I am so pleased that it did.

Pio Fedi, Florence

Pio Fedi, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

I’ve always been interested in ceramics, indeed long before I began studying the history of art I had a passion for English pottery and porcelain especially Minton porcelain. I attended Summer schools to learn more about the subject and even began to collect a few pieces of my own. I would scour antiques fairs and markets for an interesting piece at a bargain price and I soon got into the habit of turning a china cup or plate upside down to check its factory and date markings. Although the pottery and porcelain that I bought were of no real monetary value, to me they were priceless since they were aesthetically pleasing and I felt, worthy of occupying a shelf in a cabinet in my living room.

When I began studying the history of art my interest in pottery and porcelain widened to include the study of European ceramics especially Italian Renaissance Maiolica. Since I am also extremely interested in the use of plants and herbs in medicine I found myself particularly drawn to the wonderful painted tin-glazed earthenware ‘albarelli’ or apothecary jars that have survived from the period. The Victoria and Albert museum in London have some lovely examples including some that were produced for the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence and the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena.

I was also fascinated to discover that the first European soft-paste porcelain was made in Florence between c.1575 and 1587 in a workshop under the patronage of Francesco I de’Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany who had a passion for alchemy. The porcelain produced in Florence was known as ‘Medici porcelain’ and it was made in imitation of the Chinese blue-and-white hard-paste porcelain that was held so precious in Italy during the Renaissance. It took about ten years of experimentation before the workshop in Florence could manufacture the soft-paste porcelain. The porcelain enterprise under Francesco only operated for about twelve years and since it was technically difficult and expensive to make. ‘Medici porcelain’ was produced in very small quantities. Only about seventy pieces are known today.

I am fortunate that my local museum the Ashmolean in Oxford contains one of these rare examples in the form of a very beautiful blue-and-white soft-paste porcelain ewer with floral pattern, (the aforementioned Victoria and Albert museum also houses a few fine pieces of ‘Medici porcelain’). The Ashmolean ewer is housed in its own glass case and is exquisite to behold . A nearby 19th century painting entitled ‘The Collector at Home’ portrays Charles Drury Edward Fortnum an art collector, historian and a member of the family who owned the grocery store Fortnum & Mason, holding the ewer (sorry the photo I took is not very good but it is very high up on the wall). He was one of the most generous benefactors to the Ashmolean.

The accompanying label informs us that the marking on the underside of the ewer is the Dome of Florence cathedral with the letter ‘F’ below. Yes you guessed it, how I would have loved to have turned this piece upside down to see it.

Reverse of dish (V&A museum) with Medici porcelain marking of the dome of Florence cathedral with the letter 'F' below

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