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  • Dawn Cumming

Early Renaissance Pictures of Health


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!

























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