Cover image for Painting as Medicine in Early Modern Rome: Giulio Mancini and the Efficacy of Art By Frances Gage

Painting as Medicine in Early Modern Rome

Giulio Mancini and the Efficacy of Art

Frances Gage


$112.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07103-9

248 pages
8" × 10"
48 color/18 b&w illustrations

Painting as Medicine in Early Modern Rome

Giulio Mancini and the Efficacy of Art

Frances Gage

“Gage breaks fertile new ground for the history of medicine and religious studies as well as art history and the history of collections. Highly recommended.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
In Painting as Medicine in Early Modern Rome, Frances Gage undertakes an in-depth study of the writings of the physician and art critic Giulio Mancini. Using Mancini’s unpublished treatises as well as contemporary documents, Gage demonstrates that in the early modern world, belief in the transformational power of images was not limited to cult images, as has often been assumed, but applied to secular ones as well.

This important new interpretation of the value of images and the motivations underlying the rise of private art collections in the early modern period challenges purely economic or status-based explanations. Gage demonstrates that paintings were understood to have profound effects on the minds, imaginations, and bodies of viewers. Indeed, paintings were believed to affect the health and emotional balance of beholders—extending even to the look and disposition of their offspring—and to compel them to behave according to civic and moral values.

In using medical discourse as an analytical tool to help elucidate the meaning that collectors and viewers attributed to specific genres of painting, Gage shows that images truly informed actions, shaping everyday rituals from reproductive practices to exercise. In doing so, she concludes that sharp distinctions between an artwork’s aesthetic value and its utility did not apply in the early modern period.

“Gage breaks fertile new ground for the history of medicine and religious studies as well as art history and the history of collections. Highly recommended.”
“Gage’s book provides an engaging, lucid, and learned account of how medicine and painting coincided in the thought of Mancini and his contemporaries. In doing so, it ranges over a vast gamut of secondary literature drawn from several distinct fields, and it grapples with many of the most stimulating lines of inquiry in the current scholarship on early modern visual culture.”
“An important contribution which reminds readers of the strong ties between scientific and artistic thinking in early modern Rome, and urges scholars to push further the discussions of art beyond the limits of aesthetic discourse.”
“The vast range of primary source materials that builds this argument makes this volume especially useful to both historians of science and historians of art.”
“An important addition to studies in early modern criticism that are on a larger scale rethinking the emotional work of the early modern self. . . . Painting in Early Modern Rome is a well-organised and ambitious book, and it is worth noting that the book is gorgeous, with many works included to illustrate Gage’s analyses.”
“Many scholars have noted the originality and value of the papal physician Giulio Mancini's writings as a source for artists and artistic thinking in seventeenth-century Rome, but Frances Gage is the first to devote attention to his therapeutic and historical theories regarding painting and its display as contributing to the maintenance of good health. She presents an absorbing view of the relations between art and medical thought of the period, and in so doing contributes significantly to the histories of both art and science.”
“Mancini's treatises are regarded as precious, if baffling, testimony about the early modern display of art. Frances Gage’s original approach illuminates how Mancini's mentality and training as a physician colored his writing. Mancini focused on the effects of beholding paintings, especially in domestic settings. Aesthetic criteria are considered alongside values aligned with humanist medicine, as Mancini attends to how the various genres and qualities of painting should be deployed to affect a viewer—to influence his health, shape the beauty of eventual progeny, exercise or tire the eye, or inspire virtue by presenting models of civil order.”
“A remarkable study of the way in which seventeenth-century viewers often looked at paintings through a very particular and unusual lens, one focused on the various ways in which pictures affected health. This analysis of the ‘efficacy of art’ brings us a new perspective with which to consider seicento art and culture. Among the dozens of intriguing ideas Frances Gage brings to our attention is the concept of the ‘maternal imagination.’ In this period, women were thought to be extremely sensitive to pictures—so much so that, while they were pregnant, images they viewed could be internalized via their fertile imagination (literally). The wrong images could have harmful effects and even produce birth defects and ‘monsters.’ This book will be of interest to scholars of women’s studies, anthropology, the history of science, and religious studies, in addition to all art historians. Gage’s scholarship is deep; her citations are wide ranging. The writing is very clear and a pleasure to read.”
“A text that is exceptionally pleasant to read. All students of painting in Rome—and beyond—will need to take note of it.”

Frances Gage is Associate Professor of Fine Arts at Buffalo State College, State University of New York, where she focuses on early modern Italian Art. She has contributed widely to books and journals, including Renaissance Quarterly and Burlington Magazine.


List of Illustrations


List of Abbreviations


1 Art, Medical Culture, and Mancini’s Critical Fortune

2 Illness, Health Preservation, and Recreation

3 From Exercise to Repose

4 For Beautiful, Healthy Children

5 Preserving the Civic Body






In early 1622, plans were made in Rome to celebrate the 1620 victory of the Holy Roman emperor Ferdinand II over the Protestants. The triumphal procession would at once commemorate a major Catholic victory in the Thirty Years’ War and mark the arrival in Rome, and installation on the high altar of Santa Maria della Vittoria, of the miraculous image (later destroyed) to which the emperor attributed his remarkable defeat of the Protestant forces. The diarist Giacinto Gigli digressed at length upon the circumstances leading to this victory, in which the Discalced Carmelite priest Domenico di Gesù Maria was to play a central role. A resident of Prague in 1620, Fra Domenico had happened upon an image of the Holy Family, cast upon the ground and vandalized, the eyes of the figures having been scratched away. Moved to compassion for the painting, Fra Domenico picked it up and hung it around his neck. Traveling to the imperial camp, he rallied the captains of the emperor’s far outnumbered troops, who had been dangerously close to defeat, and brought about the successful recapture of Prague. Shortly thereafter, Fra Domenico took up residence in Rome, bringing with him the image, now richly adorned with pearls and jewels bestowed by the emperor. Learning that his order was building a new convent and church there, he arranged for his miraculous image to take an exalted place on the high altar. At the public ceremony marking the occasion, the pope would be the guest of honor.

As the scheduled day 8 April 1622 neared, however, Pope Gregory XV became so severely ill that it was feared he would not live to witness the event. Fra Domenico again sought to intervene. Visiting the fever-struck pope, the friar petitioned God for the pontiff’s health, requesting that heaven transfer the illness to his own body. And so it was done, Gigli declared. Pope Gregory soon recovered, and the victory procession was rescheduled for a month later, 8 May 1622. The pope specifically selected this day because it was the anniversary of another important procession centered upon a miraculous image: that of the Virgin and Child in Santa Maria in Aracoeli, thought by some to have been the same one through which Gregory I had liberated the city from the plague in 590. Gregory XV exploited these circumstances to draw an analogy between the miraculous victory over heresy performed in Prague, the miraculous cure of the plague in late antiquity, and his own providential recovery of health. If Gigli’s narrative highlighted an unusual convergence of events, it nevertheless captured the dynamic interplay in Roman culture after Trent between the Catholic reform, health care, the preservation of art, the perceived efficacy of sacred images, and the history of cult images in Rome.

The fortune of the cult image in the Renaissance and beyond—and with it the very conception of the image—has been a subject of fierce debate in recent years. In his groundbreaking Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art (original German edition, 1990), Hans Belting observes that cult images, traditionally embodying a sacred personage who might work miracles, had developed in close alignment with the relic, whose powers it had already assumed by the sixth century (when saints’ images were impressed on edible material so that the embodied divinity literally became medicine). Sometime between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Rome’s churches began to be filled with miraculous images. Throughout the early Renaissance, cult images were the focus of both individual and collective petitions in times of illness or danger, even as they became recipients of prayers of thanksgiving when an individual or community was released from peril. But the Reformation, Belting claims, brought about the abrupt decline of the cult object, with its miraculous or magical powers, and heralded the advent of “art” and the rise of art collections. By the early sixteenth century, the cult object’s powers had been stripped away and the image became the art object, a representation of the artist’s idea. These once powerful images were “neutralized, . . . recast as sources of aesthetic pleasure or historical pride,” writes Alexander Nagel in his recent book The Controversy of Renaissance Art, when characterizing the new functions that art assumed in Renaissance picture galleries. Similarly, Joseph Leo Koerner argues in The Reformation of the Image that Protestant reformers sought to remove the “sacred force” of both icons and relics. These arguments have been persuasive, and although Belting and Koerner are primarily concerned with the image in northern Europe, historians of Italian art, such as Sylvia Ferino-Pagden, have observed a related phenomenon in which the cult of the artist in the sixteenth century replaced the cult object. Art’s power, Ferino-Pagden argues, resided no longer in an embodied divinity but in a “divine” artist.

As Gigli’s narrative demonstrates and as recent research confirms, the cult object did not, in fact, decline in Counter-Reformation Italy; it actually flourished across the peninsula. David Freedberg and Fredrika Jacobs have noted the overwhelming importance of the miracle-working Madonna dell’Arco in Naples and her ongoing popularity even after the seventeenth century. Kirsten Noreen argues that during sixteenth-century renovations to the high altar of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome, an altarpiece by Raphael was removed and a medieval icon, associated with the very quelling of plague in 590 that Gregory XV was so eager to exploit, was reframed and put in its place. In this instance, Romans embraced the traditional cult object, privileging it above the work of a High Renaissance master and calling attention to its salvific powers. The many examples cited by Gigli of miraculous images appearing both within and outside the walls of Rome offer further confirmation that Roman beholders of varied classes were eager to attribute miraculous healing powers to religious images on streets, in piazze, and even in houses. But if the church was generally cautious about sanctioning phenomena that rose up from the lower strata of society, it eagerly promoted cult images in its temples. As in Rome, so in Tuscany, cults to the Virgin Mary, with associated miraculous images, blossomed forth over the course of the Renaissance, reaching a high point in the seicento. And numerous miraculous Madonnas and their cult images were venerated in Milan and the Veneto during these years as well.

<1>Cult Images and Collected Images

Many of the most interesting implications of the observation that Italy witnessed a revitalization of the cult object in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have yet to be addressed, however. If, as Belting and Nagel argue, the very existence of the cult image, possessing “magical” powers, was threatened by the rise of the art object and by art collecting, how are we to characterize the history of the image at a historical moment and within a geographical context in which the two actually flourished side by side? In spite of recent interest in the efficacy of art, no attempts to revise the prevailing theoretical conceptions of the relationship between these two types of image have yet emerged. These interpretations posit either an evolutionary model, as does Ferino-Pagden, in which one image type gives way to another, or a synchronic model, advanced by David Freedberg and Carlo Ginzburg, in which the two occupy conceptually separate realms that presuppose distinctly different viewing strategies. They are taken to inhabit opposing spaces, zones, and cultures: public versus private, low versus high. The one appeals to an indiscriminate audience that responds intuitively, the other to a cultivated elite that responds in accordance with learned aesthetic values. This conceptual pairing of low/efficacious and high/aesthetic, and the tendency to dismiss the former as unworthy of art-historical study, has recently been called into question by Fredrika Jacobs, who reminds us just how widespread cult objects were during the Renaissance in Italy.

Ferino-Pagden is certainly correct to identify the Renaissance as the period in which the idea of art in a distinctly modern sense began to emerge, but this development cannot be framed merely in terms of cultural evolution, which oversimplifies historical processes. The present book reexamines the degree to which the idea of painting as an agent intervening in beholders’ daily lives coexisted with the idea of painting as an aesthetic object. I take up this question from a new angle, that of the history of the collection (the very cultural institution that Belting avers undid the cult image) and from the perspective of both sacred and secular images. These issues are investigated within the geographical context where the cult object’s survival was most certain: Rome in the period following the Council of Trent (1545–63). In the Eternal City, the notion of painting as an agent of physical, mental, and spiritual healing did not merely survive Protestant attacks on the magical force of the image and reflect Catholic interest in defending the use of images within religious ritual. The perception that painting provided benefits to its beholders flourished even in relation to secular images within secular contexts.

Important insight into the fact that perceived analogies existed between the effects of public sacred images and of private secular images within the domestic sphere is provided by two sixteenth-century Catholic writers who set out to defend religious images in general and the cult object in particular. To this end, in his De cultu imaginum (1542), Ambrogio Catarino Politi, a major figure in the Council of Trent, introduced Terence’s story of Chaerea, a young man who disguised himself as a eunuch in order to gain access to his beloved. As Chaerea arrived within the house of his beloved, he observed her readying herself for her bath. When both lover and beloved inadvertently gazed upon an image upon the wall of Jupiter’s seduction of Danaë, it stoked the fires of passion, leading Chaerea to imagine himself in the position of Jupiter. As Carlo Ginzburg has noted, Politi likened the efficacy of this lascivious picture to that of sacred images. A similar tack was taken by the archbishop of Bologna, Gabriele Paleotti, one of the most important Counter-Reformation writers on art, whose treatise Discorso intorno alle imagini sacre et profane of 1582 laid down for both artists and patrons the expectations of the Council of Trent concerning images. In this instance, Paleotti turned, quite remarkably, to the fields of philosophy and medicine in order to defend the religious image, arguing that effective properties naturally inhering in images enabled them to imprint themselves on the imagination. Paleotti strikingly averred that the vehemence of Saint Francis’s imagination, concentrated upon Christ’s wounds (he does not say whether Christ appeared in a mental or physical image), had facilitated the imprinting of the stigmata on his body. Teasing out an analogy that Jacobus de Voragine had previously made, Paleotti drew a parallel between the effects of the imagination in this instance and those of the maternal imagination, in which a woman gazing upon a picture during lovemaking produced a child resembling the image. Echoing Politi, Paleotti suggested that since “forms leave alterations and striking signs on the bodies of persons,” in these instances “the painter may grasp that what he is about to make may, with divine assistance, stamp the true cult of God” onto its beholders. In other words, if secular paintings acting upon the maternal imagination might produce such marvelous effects, then there could be no doubt that religious images would prove even more efficacious. To the extent that both image types operated as agents working directly upon the bodies, minds, and imaginations of their beholders, the cult object, embodying a divine personage, and a profane image, working through marvelous but natural means (through form and color), could be understood as fundamentally similar in nature.

The nature of beholder response to collected images has been theorized in relation to modern aesthetics, which posits the existence of detached observers responding to the stylistic qualities of painted and sculpted images. The very notion of a painting or sculpture forming part of a larger collection or set, typically understood to mean one classified in accordance with historical or geographical categories, would seem to work against the idea of the image as agent, with its suggestion of the stand-alone object. Of course, there has been an acknowledgment that talismanic or magical objects existed within domestic spaces, but these are not figured as part of a collection but rather as artifacts belonging to an entirely different class, customarily falling outside the purview of art-historical study, a premise of David Freedberg’s Power of Images (1989). But what historical evidence actually undergirds the assumption that the very act of collecting presupposes not merely the privileging of historical and aesthetic modes of perception but the exclusion, indeed erasure, of any other? The reconsideration undertaken here of early modern theoretical treatments of collected images, primary documents, and the paintings themselves sets forth a far broader range of conceptions of the image at play in this period than has to this point been sufficiently acknowledged.

Closer scrutiny of early modern sources, however, proves that the conceptual boundaries between images providing benefits, on the one hand, and those within early modern collections (and appreciated at least in part for their aesthetic qualities), on the other, begin to disappear. This is the case in one of the most important theoretical treatments of collecting of the early modern period: Giulio Mancini’s precepts in the chapter “Regole per comprare, collocare e conservare le pitture” in his Considerazioni sulla pittura (ca. 1619–after 1624). This treatise and Mancini’s other writings, which constitute the point of departure for examining the efficacy of painting in early modern Roman collections, remained unpublished in his lifetime but nevertheless circulated widely among his learned friends and patrons within and outside the ecclesiastical hierarchy. During his long career in Rome, from 1592 to 1630, Mancini, one of the four medical doctors at the Hospital of Santo Spirito, subsequently named papal physician to Urban VIII in 1623, was esteemed as an intendente of painting. In his medical profession, he moved among men of a variety of professions, including artists, acquiring a broad perspective on the role of art in society.

Mancini’s precepts for collectors are routinely invoked in studies of art collecting, for they provide rare insight into the conceptual framework for distributing and displaying images in early modern collections. Paola Barocchi considers Mancini’s theories in relation to the development of the history of art, while Donatella Sparti situates them in the context of the emergence of seventeenth-century taxonomic classification. These and other attempts to contextualize Mancini’s ideas have not quelled the long-standing debate, however, over how closely his recommendations concerning the distribution of paintings correspond to seventeenth-century practices, raising questions concerning Mancini’s commitment to textual authority or to experience in his theory of art. Cristina De Benedictis, in Riflessioni sulle “Regole per comprare, collocare e conservare le pitture” di Giulio Mancini (2005), argues that Mancini’s instructions regarding the organization of paintings according to subject matter, artist, and school did not find immediate counterparts in contemporary collections. His ideas were taken up seriously only in the following century, in public collections such as that of the Uffizi. Quite a different conclusion is reached by Patrizia Cavazzini, who observes analogies between distinct aspects of Mancini’s theories and the modes of display applied in specific collections. She, Michele Maccherini, and Lilian Zirpolo conclude that Mancini was, at least in part, codifying existing practices.

These treatments, though important, skirt the most interesting principle of Mancini’s theory of collecting—that the potential efficacy of paintings may be mobilized toward medical and ethical ends within the domestic sphere. It is an observation missed by virtually every writer on the subject of Mancini and collecting except Michael Bury, who is primarily interested in Mancini’s comments concerning print collecting. Bury correctly observes that what motivates Mancini’s instructions for distributing paintings throughout a palace in accordance with subject matter, room type, and audience is not principally decorum, as is often remarked, but rather the creation of a customized environment of “visual stimuli” adapted to distinct classes of individuals and founded upon medical and philosophical theories. As Mancini declared openly, paintings should be located in distinct spaces of the household in order to make “them seen by this or that sort of men according to complexion, age, sex, habits, and mode of life that it is desired to maintain, augment, diminish, correct, or convert to the contrary.” Painting thus corrects or perfects behavior. It also heals.

It has long been recognized, of course, that Renaissance beholders expected painting to represent exempla of heroic or admirable deeds, most often performed by young men and embodied in idealized nude bodies such as that of Saint Sebastian. But Mancini did not conceive of painting as merely illustrative of good behavior. Rather, it was a mechanism that also effectively produced this behavior by imprinting the mind and, through the imagination, the body of the beholder. Along similar lines, painting represented a potential remedy to those who were ill, as Mancini made explicit in his first iteration of this same chapter, his “Discorso di pittura” (ca. 1617–19), where, on the authority of Marsilio Ficino, he indicated that “to cholerics or melancholics cheerful paintings are suitable.” The implication here is that these pictures represent a medical aid to those suffering from an excess of these humors. Mancini, whose historical importance has been tied to his development of a theory of connoisseurship and the informed examination of the image as art object, must now also be recognized as an advocate of art’s power to transform its beholders. The collection—indeed, the entire domestic sphere, if we are to credit recent research in this area—is filled not with inert objects but with agents that, under the command or guidance of the collector, may produce varied effects upon distinct classes in accordance with the nature of the object, the space, and the beholder.

The transformative effects of art were repeatedly remarked upon by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian writers on art, and were even represented by contemporary artists such as Francesco Albani, whose Conversion of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (private collection) represents a hermit holding up before the female saint an image of the Madonna, by which she was converted. Paleotti, whose interest in the effects of art has already been considered, asserted that art might convert its beholders and in doing so repair social divisions. A Milanese man bent on killing his enemy entered a church, and upon seeing an image of the Crucifixion felt a dramatic change of heart and repented of his evil plot. Art might be a mechanism for the preservation of an entire community, so Mancini alleged in his inventory of the marvelous effects of paintings in his treatise “Della Ginnastica, della Musica e della Pittura,” referring to Torquato Tasso’s narrative of how the presence of an image of “Our Lady, carried by Saladin . . . defended Jerusalem from calamity.” Granted, these narratives concern paintings in the public sphere, but they are often discussed in the same breath, as it were, with works hanging in domestic contexts. As Paleotti had formerly done, Mancini narrated a form of secular conversion in which a prostitute was prevented from committing her dishonest deed after witnessing, in an image of the philosopher Polemon, “the majesty of his face.” That the art in galleries could operate in fundamentally analogous ways was asserted by the humanist and art theorist Franciscus Junius, who declared that art lovers within “well-hung chambers and well-furnished galleries” are effectively purged of “violent” and malicious passions such as envy, hatred, and blind love, and are even made “innocent” by the pictures in these spaces. Such claims for painting come resoundingly close to those made centuries later with the advent of the public museum, an institution justified in part by the notion that art civilizes its beholders. This suggests that the early modern perception of art’s powerful effects represents a fundamental feature of the long history of collecting.

<1>Cult Images in Roman Collections

The protective role of devotional images within the domestic realm, particularly in the bedchamber, is addressed by early modern writers on both art and medicine—and the boundaries between devotional and cult images are often collapsed. In his De’ Veri Precetti della Pittura (1587), Giovanni Battista Armenini explained that the bedchamber is the place where men and women repose and pass the major part of their lives in “the sweetest quietude” (con dolcissima quiete). “Where,” he asked, “but to these beautiful images are we to turn each day to petition God, who grants our prayers, maintaining us in his grace and in a happy state?” If Armenini suggested that within the bedchamber the devotional image ensured one’s spiritual and physical well-being, Mancini was to make a similar claim. “Paintings of Christ, the Virgin, Saints and . . . the sacred [images] are placed in . . . bedrooms where one sleeps,” Mancini explained in his Considerazioni, while in his “Discorso di pittura” he had made explicit the idea that sacred paintings should hang in the bedchambers and “in the most secret chambers, where grave things are treated and there is need of divine aid.” He thereby effectively attributed the properties of the public cult image—a mobilization of divine assistance—to the private devotional image.

A similar suggestion that the bedroom is a site for daily devotions intended to secure life and well-being—implicitly performed through devotional images that appropriated the powers of cult images—is made by the physician Scipione Mercurio in his outline of morning rituals of hygiene in De gli Errori Popolari d’Italia (1603). As soon as one rose, he remarked, one should pray to God, thanking him for having brought one through the night and petitioning him to guide one throughout the day, counsel, as seen above, that presumed the mediation of an image. In an era when slumber was regarded with great anxiety as a metaphorical death, it should come as no surprise that physicians would urge devotional practices believed to ensure the protection of the individual. That the devotional or cult image was an instrument of spiritual and corporeal therapy appears in Mercurio’s recommendation that “beautiful paintings, particularly of saints” adorn the rooms of the sick, as in fact they do in the hospital ward in which Adam Elsheimer set his early Saint Elizabeth Tending the Sick (fig. 14). This notion was echoed in the testament of Deiphebus Baittocchus, who, on 6 October 1642, bequeathed a painting of the Madonna with a crown, then hanging in the room “where the testator lies in bed,” with the implication that this anticipated his deathbed. This document suggests Baittocchus’s awareness of the relevance of the picture to his current state; in its likely position above his sickbed, it invited him to petition God for the health of his soul and body. These practices perpetuate older traditions that, as Jacqueline Musacchio demonstrates in Art, Marriage, and Family in the Florentine Renaissance Palace, already existed in the fifteenth century, when most households possessed at least one apotropaic image, which, by its daily proximity to residents, was held to be even more important to their life and well-being than corresponding images located in churches or public squares.

Paintings of this sort, as seventeenth-century letters, testaments, and inventories attest, hung in one of the most privileged sites in the domestic sphere: the “private” zone of the bedchamber, where they occupied an exalted zone above the bed, an area often reserved for objects assuming traditional devotional functions and, according to Mancini, channeling divine aid to the inhabitant. A 1638 testament of Steffano Pelliccioni stipulates that he is leaving to the recipient the painting of the Madonna then hanging above his bed, so that the recipient would be reminded to pray to God for his soul, thereby ensuring the spiritual well-being of the giver. An Annunciation by an unidentified artist, which Mancini had received as a special gift of gratitude for having cured the marchese Sannesio, was bequeathed to Mancini’s good friend Agostino Chigi, with the explicit expectation that it would hang above Chigi’s bed. As a gift associated with recovery from an illness, this picture may even have been thought to have assumed curative powers that might be available to its future owner.

Other types of images and objects in domestic settings likewise provided healing benefits. When, on 23 April 1568, the Portuguese ambassador to the Holy See was leaving Rome, he presented the pope with a vase from the West Indies thought to protect against poison. In the following century, an unidentified painting representing the Virgin Annunciate that would ward off the colds anticipated during the winter season was sent to the mother of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi. And in February 1628, Mancini himself received from one Giovanni Battista Gherardi in Genoa an unidentified drawing (surely of a religious subject) by Lucas van Leyden (authenticated, Gherardi asserted, by the Genoese painter Giovanni Battista Paggi), a gift that Gherardi declared he hoped would add years to Mancini’s life—Mancini was sixty-nine at the time (see letter no. 9 in the appendix). Drawings by the Netherlandish Renaissance master are exceptionally rare, and the medium is among the most fragile. Having survived for more than a hundred years by the time of its donation to Mancini, this drawing itself had become a figure of longevity. We might be tempted to regard this as a mere literary conceit, but the prevalence of expectations concerning the power of images within domestic spaces to heal and preserve argues strongly otherwise.

Patrizia Cavazzini has recently argued that “devotion and self-protection were the most common motivations in acquiring paintings” among seventeenth-century Roman collectors, a statement that underscores the need to reassess the significance of art collecting in the Eternal City. She demonstrates, moreover, that the most common pictorial subject of collected paintings in middle-class households was the Madonna and Child, while imitations of miraculous cult images in Roman churches and at the Sanctuary of Loreto were especially sought after. Since copies of miraculous paintings were believed to absorb at least some of the power of the original, many of these works, Cavazzini observes, must have been acquired, displayed, and collected for their potential miracle-working properties. Examples appeared in both middle-class and elite collections, as in those of the marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani and Cardinal Antonio Barberini, two paradigmatic figures in seventeenth-century collecting, as well as in the Alessandrino-Bonello, Colonna, and Salviati collections.

<1>The Efficacy of Secular Images

Mancini’s Considerazioni attests, then, to the fact that traditional expectations of religious images remained intact in elite households in seventeenth-century Rome, even at a moment when he himself was arguing for the importance of informed judgment of the artistic qualities of painting. Although Mancini’s treatise establishes more fully the contours of prevailing expectations of the cult image within the collection, it goes well beyond this to point to the fact that secular paintings were similarly thought to yield important benefits to their beholders. Reexamining the efficacy of paintings in collections through the lens of Mancini thus comes to be doubly important. In fact, Mancini’s distributory scheme is developed in relation to the varied effects that pictures produced. Although this point remains less than fully developed in his Considerazioni, it is cast into greater relief by an examination of the intertextual relationship between his comments on collecting and those concerning the effects of harmony upon listeners in his unpublished treatise of circa 1617, “Alcune considerationi del’honore fatte da Giulio Mancini per suo trattenimento” (Barb. lat. 4314). The effects fall into three categories: piety, cheerfulness, and the imitation or emulation of customs. These are strikingly similar to the generic classifications he adumbrates in his guidelines for picture collectors, where he recommends the separation of devotional paintings from “cheerful” ones (a group comprising representations of landscapes, depictions of the seasons, images of pagan deities, and lascivious paintings). Whereas cheerful paintings, with the exception of those representing nudes and pagan deities, might be located in domestic spaces accessible to anyone, devotional images Mancini directs to the bedroom (thus ensuring that the most efficacious paintings are the most private and their effects under the control of the resident). The third of Mancini’s categories of listener response—imitation or emulation of customs—though not explicitly associated with a pictorial genre in these recommendations, nevertheless corresponds to traditional expectations concerning history painting. This genre can be linked to pictures of “civil action” and “military action,” classifications that Mancini himself developed and that are not included in either of his other categories of cheerful or devotional subject matter. As discussed at greater length in chapter 5, Mancini expected that history painting and the genre of civil action would not merely inspire but would instill virtue in their beholders and in society. Following these indications, I concentrate upon three distinct types of efficacious image in this book: landscape painting, that which imprints the maternal imagination (including erotic paintings), and history painting.

<1>Efficacy and Aesthetic Values

Where does this leave the aesthetic values that are taken to be axiomatic of audience response within an art collection? The copies of miraculous Madonnas, Cavazzini concludes, generated little aesthetic interest. This idea may be underscored by Mancini’s relative silence regarding the artistic values of this category of image; he did not provide principles by which to judge cult objects as he did for landscapes or portraits—quite the contrary. Mancini frequently remarks of paintings from the medieval period—the period in which the miraculous paintings he discusses were produced—that, “although poorly made, [they are] nevertheless [worthy] of consideration for their antiquity.” One of the motives for his negative judgment of medieval painting is that it “does not make itself felt.” His commitment to art that impresses itself upon the senses, that affects the beholder, is strikingly evident here. At the same time, however, the Considerazioni presents miraculous images as historical products, to be classified with the art of a given period, a move that indicates that even if Mancini considered them inferior to the paintings of his own day, he was attempting to identify their stylistic qualities and compare them with those of other periods. This suggests that cult objects did not uniformly fall outside aesthetic judgment in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy.

Between 1550 and 1650, therapeutic and preservative effects traditionally ascribed to cult images were increasingly attributed to secular images. Strikingly, an analogous process can be traced in England, where, as Keith Thomas demonstrates in his seminal Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), healing spells, charms, and ceremonies adhered to Catholic models, even though these practices were given a thinly veiled secular guise. Cult images represent loose models for emerging classes of images in Italy—each nevertheless working according to specific modalities, as I discuss more fully below. The widely diffused claims that secular images promised to help and heal ultimately bolstered assertions in Catholic Italy that the traditional properties of sacred images remained immutable. But just as there was no fixed or stable notion of the image in the public sphere in Italy in this period—as Nagel has demonstrated convincingly in The Controversy of Renaissance Art—so too was this the case in the domestic sphere, which certainly had not yet fully embraced a modern conception of the pictorial image as art. Early modern men and women attributed to paintings in collections and domestic contexts effects similar to those that they produced in public contexts: over and above instructing, delighting, and moving their audiences, they possessed the potential to transform beholders, effect conversion, imprint or alter the body, repair broken lives, restore the sick, soothe the soul, or prevent harm from befalling individuals and communities. Twenty-first-century readers will consider this superstition, but that does not alter the pervasiveness of the early modern belief in the transformative capacity of the image, which was considered at once an object to be judged and an agent in human communities, with powers transcending the human, capable of improving, altering, and even saving the lives of individuals and collectives.

The early modern Roman palace, then, was a space in which the utility and efficacy of images mingled with notions of informed judgment, where miraculous cult images might coexist with marvelous pictures operating in accordance with natural magic. As we shall see in chapter 4, writers asserting a fundamental functional analogy between miraculous images and marvelous paintings located the powers of the latter in the formal and coloristic properties of represented figures. Art might transform its beholders, but it also required learned judges who knew how to respond appropriately to those formal properties in order to control, exploit, or manipulate their effects. Increasingly, therefore, writers assumed that an object’s efficacy depended upon the mediation of an intendente, who would consider how well a painting accorded with rationalized aesthetic principles. A study of art collecting in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy affords us an arena in which to examine an important historical moment when the efficacious and aesthetic values of images reinforced each other, a notion that would be imperiled with the publication of Kant’s Critique of Judgment in 1790.

<1>Methods and Conclusions in the History of Collecting

Studies of the utility and efficacy of collected paintings have lagged behind those pertaining to the functions of images in the public sphere. This oversight is a consequence of limited evidence and of the prevailing methods and assumptions of historians of collecting. It is indeed the case that the attitudes, decisions, and social practices informing the assembly and viewing of a collection are difficult to reconstruct, because much of this culture was ephemeral. The manners and gestures the collector displayed when he presented an object to the eyes of a visitor, like their conversations, are rarely recorded. Where correspondence accompanying a gift or a collector’s acquisition has survived, it has been detached from the object, which may now be lost. The most abundant source of information about collections emerges in inventories and testaments, which typically do not reveal how a collection was assembled, or how its contents were used or viewed. The comparatively large quantity of notarial documents has tended to yield the conclusion that collected objects remained relatively silent items of adornment or eloquent symbols of wealth and prestige. Although there can be no doubt that collected objects functioned as symbolic declarations of the splendor and social standing of the collector, it has proved difficult to balance this interpretation with a consideration of the aesthetic values of specific collected objects and with notions of their function, utility, and efficacy. Historians would do well to reconsider Mancini’s remarks in the introduction to his Considerazioni sulla pittura that the prudent judge considers the bontà—literally meaning “goodness,” a term referring at once to artistic quality and to the representation of virtuous and beautiful figures and actions—of paintings and the utility, value, and price of an item within the civic community, by which he meant more than monetary value.

In applying a Kantian aesthetic framework to their studies of the history of art collecting, art historians have largely sidestepped questions of art’s “utility” (used here to refer to art’s perceived benefits rather than to any practical functions). Historians such as Krzysztof Pomian, in his highly influential 1987 study Collectionneurs, amateurs et curieux: Paris, Venise, XVIeXVIIIe siècle, reconceived the relationship between use value and symbolic meaning of collected objects by collapsing conceptions of exchange value and use value, arguing that when objects enter the collection they are removed from circulation and become “semaphores,” or objects bearing meaning. The fundamental importance of Pomian’s arguments is evident in the degree to which they continue to ground studies of collecting such as Renata Ago’s Il gusto delle cose (2006), the first major synthetic treatment of possessions in Roman middle-class households. The nature of and motives for the acquisition and conservation of goods, Ago argues, though often bound up in the creation of lasting individual and familial identities and in the construction of lineage, were multivalent. Distinct social groups conceived of objects in distinct ways, women and those with less access to high culture being more attached to the useful (which Ago, like Pomian, tends to define in relation to exchange or devotional value), cultivated men privileging beauty and transcendent values. Significantly, Ago considers questions of functionality, concluding that if objects (particularly those belonging to women) were temporarily removed from exchange, they often remained financial investments, but her book still posits too rigid a divide between collections concerned with the use value of the objects and those driven by aesthetic interests, seen as largely incompatible. These categories, however, reflect the Kantian perspective that has so deeply informed modern disciplinary distinctions between the fields of anthropology and art history and the concepts of “artifact” and “art.” To twenty-first-century audiences it might appear nonsensical to consider the “utility” of a painting apart from its exchange value, but this is to fail to historicize fully the conception of the image and to deny that early modern audiences attributed to art powers that are inimical to modern conceptions.

Interpretations of collecting as an activity motivated almost purely by economics are abundant, a principal example being Richard Goldthwaite’s Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300–1600 (1993), in which collecting is treated in the context of emerging capitalism, which, Goldthwaite argues, prompted the development of new specialized spaces within palaces and in turn increased demand for material objects and luxury goods, whose functions and uses were modified. Emblematic of this process was the reconception of the religious image as an aesthetic object. It is indeed the case that monetary interest might at times override religious, ethical, or medical considerations in the minds of certain collectors, as is suggested by a seventeenth-century description of the dazzling accumulation of gold and silver objects in the palace of the prince of Eggenberg, duke of Krumlov, ambassador to the Holy Roman emperor—a display so overwhelmingly splendid that it caused “near nausea” (quasi-nausea), according to one visitor, a passage that affirms a connection between aesthetics and illness. But in early modern Italy the economic values that Goldthwaite associates with art collecting were aggressively questioned and countered. Granted, Mancini must have thought that certain illustrious collectors diverged from his ideal of a judge who “cannot be dazzled by the passion of interest or of hate,” or one who is invulnerable to the passion of monetary desire, though Mancini himself sometimes fell short of this ideal, as his letters attest. His Considerazioni, nevertheless, responds to tensions inherent in Mancini’s culture between the pleasure in material display, on the one hand, and the desire for moral virtue, on the other (ideas taken up more fully in chapter 5), evident in the principles he established by which a collector might assemble a collection that truly supported his claims to honor and nobility based upon knowledge, prudence, health, and virtue. And similar philosophical conflicts between moral censure of wealth and material display, though at an earlier historical moment, have been examined by Stephen Campbell in the context of the studiolo of Isabella d’Este. In a culture proclaiming the importance of moral virtue, economic interests were often disguised and surely did not constitute the sole driving force behind collecting.

Investment in luxury goods has been linked to claims of prestige and social rank. On a deeper level, it must be associated with an active promotion of political and familial agendas. Antiquities, for example, could typically fall within the purview of only the wealthiest collectors (who in seventeenth-century Rome, with few exceptions, were identified with the papal families), for whom they represented, Patricia Falguières observes, a concrete means of displaying distinctly Roman values, both ethical and genealogical. When so few papal families in this period were native Romans or descended from noble families, these collections provided material support to their claims to native and noble ancestry. The opportunity to burnish familial and civic identities likewise represented important objectives for the collector of painting, Mancini argued in his Considerazioni.

Aesthetic motivations for collecting have not been ignored, but the literature has too often framed these as a matter of the collector’s personal taste. Marc Fumaroli, Michael Moriarty, Elizabeth Cropper, and Charles Dempsey have shed significant light upon the historical notion of aesthetic “taste” as an informed inclination to, or pleasure in, a particular object or activity, pointing to the significance of the word’s etymology. Here, it is important to consider the broader context of gastronomy, whose position within early modern Italian social practices (as in gift giving and banqueting) was in certain ways analogous to that of the visual arts. As Sandra Cavallo remarks in her essay in the 2006 exhibition catalogue from the Victoria and Albert Museum At Home in Renaissance Italy, considerations of the healthfulness of food were often more important than taste, an observation that suggests that the perceived benefits of using an object may have outweighed or at least equaled its pleasures.

Increasingly, historians and art historians have suggested that any notion of the “use value” of collected objects—including painting and sculpture—inevitably lies in the degree to which they are integrated into social and intellectual practices, an approach that has produced richer and more nuanced treatments of collecting habits and the significance of collected objects. In his study of the Farnese Gallery, Fumaroli reconstructs the practices that animated this reception room, a site for the display of a portion of the family’s remarkable collection of antiquities, alongside a fictive collection of paintings, sculpture, stucco, and bronzes, frescoed by Annibale Carracci and his pupils. This functioned as an elite locale for the performance of civility and play, wherein visitors strolled while engaging in witty civil conversation, including the recitation of epigrams.

A collection might be a space for other kinds of elite performance, such as those among scholars, as Paula Findlen argues in her study of natural history collections, Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Findlen observes that sixteenth-century collectors of natural history aimed to assemble efficacious objects, namely, simples (specimens in medical botany), whereas in the following century collectors’ goals tended to be taxonomical in nature. That the collection was a site for the display of knowledge and judgment on the part of a social and intellectual elite, who sought to perform their nobility through the demonstration of specialized knowledge (such as distinguishing between a copy and an original, or recognizing distinct schools and periods of art), has also been suggested by Elizabeth Honig in her study of Flemish picture collections in Painting and the Market in Early Modern Antwerp.

The abundance of scholarship on the history of collections dispels all doubt that collected objects assumed many diverse meanings—symbolic, aesthetic, economic, medical, ethical—a list that does not purport to be complete. Regardless of how scholars define these values, the presumed ontological status of these collected objects is indeed that they were “neutralized.” Historians of collecting have occluded the historical distance between “modern” and early modern conceptions of the collected image, casting the latter within our own philosophical frameworks, imagining early modern paintings to be inert products of capitalist desires. A perusal of early modern literature on art, particularly Giulio Mancini’s guidelines, provides a valuable corrective, reminding us that Mancini’s contemporaries thought the image within the collection might qualify as miraculous or marvelous, and, with little or no prompting, might act upon its beholders, yielding therapeutic and preservative benefits. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century documentation increasingly confirms the idea that these powerful effects were widely attributed to collected images and objects.

<1>Studying the Efficacy of Collected Objects

The past twenty-five years have witnessed a surge of scholarly interest in the efficacy of art, beginning with David Freedberg’s Power of Images, which addressed the subject of the psychological and behavioral effects of art. Only a handful of scholars, however, have laid a foundation for research into the function and efficacy of art in the domestic sphere or within the space of a collection. These studies, though relatively few, nevertheless demonstrate the breadth with which current scholarship interprets the term “efficacy” to mean a range of effects—from spurring devotion to producing beautiful male heirs. One of the earliest studies on the history of collecting to consider this issue is Pamela M. Jones’s Federico Borromeo and the Ambrosiana: Art Patronage and Reform in Seventeenth-Century Milan, which argues that Borromeo promoted the reform of art and sought to bring about the creation of sacred art that instructed beholders, moved them to prayer and devotion, inspired the love of God, and facilitated a direct means of communicating with the saints in heaven. Painting assisted in the fulfillment of man’s highest goals, those of contemplating and communicating with God. Although the opportunity to promote his ideas within his academy distinguishes Borromeo’s project from Mancini’s, strong historical currents unite the perspectives of the two men. Both linked painting to concepts of spiritual, physical, and mental health and associated the beauty of the body with health, goodness, and high moral purpose. But Borromeo and Mancini pursued separate paths when it came to the devotional value of art, a subject that principally served Mancini as a foundation for broadened claims concerning the efficacy of art.

Rather than focus upon a particular collector or collection, Jacqueline Musacchio takes an anthropological perspective when considering how religious and secular images and objects mediated sexual relations and birthing practices in Renaissance Florence in her essay “Imaginative Conceptions in Renaissance Italy” (1997), a study that reaffirms the overwhelming significance attached to collected objects in generation and lineage. This essay represents a major contribution to the study of early modern Italian perceptions of the transformative capacity of art in the Renaissance household. Musacchio demonstrates convincingly that Renaissance men and women believed that images and objects aided in procreation and assisted throughout the period of a woman’s confinement. Birth trays and bowls used to carry food to an expectant mother in Renaissance Italy often pictured nude male children. They not only reinforced the message of the desirability of healthy male offspring and heirs but also were believed to increase the likelihood that a woman would give birth to a healthy boy, an argument in which Mancini’s theory of collecting plays an important role. But Musacchio does not sufficiently consider the artistic value of these objects, and the reader may wonder how paintings that suppressed both artistic and descriptive sensuality (of the body itself and of the manner in which it is painted) might nevertheless have made good upon the promise to excite a young couple to fulfill their conjugal duties.

The wide array of objects within the domestic realm perceived to contribute to the health of their owners and their offspring should not surprise us. Sandra Cavallo reminds twenty-first-century readers that medical care in the early modern period was most aggressively pursued in the domestic sphere in the centuries witnessing chronic bouts of plague. Scented objects thought to ward off plague and induce cheerfulness filled Renaissance residences and adorned the bodies of men and women. The degree to which early modern physicians were concerned with the siting and nature of domestic spaces and their furnishings is confirmed by an examination of contemporary medical literature, in which physicians including Mancini, Scipione Mercurio, Mattia Naldi, and Rodrigo Fonseca commented not only on the most healthful location of rooms but also on the materials and types of furnishings and clothing most likely to ward off infection during various seasons of the year. In other words, how one lived and engaged with the material environment within the domestic sphere was considered fundamental to the maintenance of health and well-being, as Sandra Cavallo and Tessa Storey demonstrate abundantly in Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy.

Another important demonstration of the therapeutic function of collected images emerges in a 2004 article by Sheila Barker concerning the cathartic properties of two easel paintings by Nicolas Poussin, The Plague at Ashdod of circa 1631 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) and The Empire of Flora of 1631 (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden). Although they represent divergent subjects, an Old Testament narrative and a synthetic description of Ovidian transformations of pagan deities into flowers, both paintings, Barker concludes, functioned as “visual medicine.” The former, which Barker termed “an impassioning device,” generated emotions of pity and fear, as in tragic theater, thereby bringing about the purgation of these emotions in the viewer. Through The Empire of Flora, a beholder might achieve renewed health by entering the “mythic realm” of a garden, a setting long associated with salubrity. Although Barker considers the efficacy of individual easel paintings produced for domestic settings, she does not frame her study with reference to collecting practices. She concludes that “there do not appear to be any clear precedents for Poussin’s use of visual art as a curative therapy according to a medico-scientific rationale.”

Surely this is not the case, however. Important Renaissance precedents exist, even if they represent divergent modalities. Collected images indeed performed therapeutic and prophylactic functions, as Campbell has recently demonstrated concerning the studiolo of Isabella d’Este. Campbell situates the collecting of art in relation to humanistic discourses on the moral dangers of the acquisition of luxury objects, seeking to understand how a collector such as d’Este might justify her desire for them. Considering the collection as a mechanism of self-fashioning, Campbell examines how it “could produce . . . the effect of nobility and virtue” by alleviating a melancholic state and the perturbations of the soul. Isabella herself declared that the health of the mind trumped even the health and comfort of the body, indicating that she adhered to the humanist ideal of employing leisure time for productive or beneficial ends. Francesco Gonzaga articulated a related idea in his assertion that “painting delights us in no small way, and by its pleasures we often console our mind from the various occupations, anxieties and cares in which it is involved.” These expectations were not extraordinary, nor were they limited to the Mantuan court. As the Venetian collector Gabriele Vendramin declared in his will, his collection had “brought a little peace and quiet to my soul during the many labors of mind and body that I have endured in conducting the family business.” Campbell’s framework is primarily the world of Renaissance humanism, but these observations nonetheless share a conceptual connection to the medical context examined here.

The present book builds upon these recent discoveries while seeking to demonstrate the broader impact of social, political, and medical concerns on the reception of paintings in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Roman collections. I argue that the belief in the curative and prophylactic potential of painting was not restricted to cult images or to objects destined for particular audiences, such as women, whose lives were regularly put at risk during childbirth, or even to single collections. Rather, Roman collectors and audiences in the period following Trent viewed painting as a fundamental aid, the medical benefits of which enhanced the lives of men and women in body and mind and facilitated their performance of virtuous actions that contributed to civic harmony and well-being. These effects were far-reaching and were felt among various constituencies. Yet painting did not necessarily heal or preserve individual viewers indiscriminately. Rather, it promised to benefit certain audiences more than others, because efficacy was often intimately tied to viewer response and to the degree to which a beholder was equipped to judge the object in question.

The first chapter considers the development of Mancini’s ideas about medicine, art, and collecting from his early years at the University of Padua through the high point of his career as papal physician in the context of his critical fortune, which has contributed to his neglect. I argue that his rightful context is as a representative of humanist medicine, though his thought and practice, especially in the context of artistic judgment, reflect his awareness of a gradual paradigm shift to the new science. Chapter 2 considers the degree to which medical and cultural concerns were mutually constitutive in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Rome, informing conceptions of health, pleasure, and the perceived benefits of the arts. The third chapter considers Mancini’s conception of landscape painting as a visual articulation of a balanced regimen of exercise and repose in relation to the perceived health benefits of exercise and viewing landscapes. Chapter 4 examines the argument articulated by an increasing number of writers in this period that the “natural” properties of man-made images might be manipulated to create healthier and more beautiful offspring and a more perfect society. The final chapter argues that Mancini identifies history painting as the most efficacious of all genres of painting, in that it fulfills the highest objectives of art, namely, to promote the health of a well-formed civic community. In sum, Mancini believed that art could minister to a broad set of health needs, from those of the individual to those of the community as a whole.

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.