Fall 2009

Inventory / When in (Renaissance) Rome...

A piece of advice

Arielle Saiber

“Inventory” is a column that examines or presents a list, catalogue, or register.

Nanna (a prostitute): Suppose there’s a nobleman asking for you [to attend a social gathering]. … You have to know how to talk: answer to the point, don’t ramble on. … Don’t sit there looking too gauche or too flirtatious, but carry yourself gracefully. And if there’s playing or singing, keep your ears fixed on the music or song, praising the musicians and the singers, even if you don’t enjoy it or understand it. And if there’s a scholar there, approach him with a cheerful face, showing you appreciate him more—­yes, even more—than the master of the house.

Pippa (Nanna’s daughter and an aspiring prostitute): Why do that?

Nanna: Out of respect.

Pippa: Oh, come on!

Nanna: Why, all you need is for one of those fellows to attack you in writing, and to have the gossip spread everywhere, with those slanderous things they’re so good at saying about women.


Good advice from a fictional prostitute, created by the renowned and feared cultural critic, Pietro Aretino (1492–1556), whose pen could make or break a reputation. Aretino’s 1536 text Il Dialogo, recently translated as The School of Whoredom, is a relentlessly explicit satire of the Renaissance advice book, and the mores of virtually everyone who might seek out such a thing—the aristocracy, landed gentry, commoners, artists, clergy, merchants, military, academics, courtesans, and courtiers.

The Renaissance was a golden age for art and literature, and so too for advice. Before the late fourteenth century, there were some advice manuals but, with the invention of the printing press, the increase in literacy, and the rising importance of vernacular writing, the genre exploded. Across Italy, and especially in cities such as Florence and Venice, the middle- and upper-classes were acquiring a greater sense of personal agency, and discussions of individual “virtuosity” and self-fashioning were often paired with those of moral and civic “virtue.” With this came anxiety over the relative merits of high birth and earned status, and in books circulated widely in the newly blossoming print culture, dissimulation came to be openly discussed as a kind of art. The codification of comportment flourished through the dispensation of advice on just about every aspect of body, mind, soul, and property. One wonders how much these advice texts facilitated social reform, and how much they were an instrument of social control; how much they formulated new ideals of doing and being, and how much they reflected what had already evolved.

­Woodcut illustration accompanying 1485 edition of Aesopus Moralitus: Vita, Fabulae. This popular book of moralized tales, most of which involve animals, was among the standard texts used to teach young children to read. In this scene, Aesop is shown attempting to reform his adopted son—who had been caught plotting Aesop’s murder—by giving him a series of precepts by which to live. Overcome by guilt, the son throws himself off a steep cliff. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

­Advice guides in the Renaissance, while not the money-makers they often are today, came in many formats. Some appeared as small, paperbound print editions, and­ some as luxury tomes, such as the first edition of Castiglione’s The Courtier. Some advice books were practical instruction manuals, teaching read­ers how to do things like mix paint (Cennini), have gorgeous, brilliant children (Marinello, Mercurio), or live long and age well (Zerbi). Some were compilations of rules, like Della Casa’s famous Galateo, a precursor to Miss Manners, while others drew on advice that had originally appeared in religious sermons, such as those of the famous and frightening Ferrarese monk, Girolamo Savonarola. Some advice appeared in epistolary form intended for a small readership or sole reader, such as Piccolomini’s letter for the ten-year-old future King of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Others—Annibale Guasco’s counsel to his daughter, for example, as she embarked on a career as lady-in-waiting to the Infanta, Caterina of Spain—were in fact written with distribution in mind. Advice also took the form of aphorisms (Petrarch’s Remedies) and preening autobiographies telling “how I did it” (Cornaro). Some books, like Giambattista Della Porta’s massive compendium of “secrets,” were written in Latin and billed as valuable, hard-to-acquire wisdom that should not be spread around, yet were translated immediately into many languages and sold widely. Cookbooks were printed (Maestro Martino, Scappi), as well as many recipe books for beauty products. One famous advice book was written in the hopes of winning back the job of its author, then in exile: Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Often, advice writing took the form of a dialogue between friends, or between an elder and student or young relative. Less of it was written by women, although they were often subjects (and objects) of the texts, and their avid readers. Much advice pointed to the importance of finding a middle ground or equilibrium. And while biblical references were common, citations from classical authors demonstrating the pedigree of both the advice and the advice-giver were equally frequent. Parodies like Aretino’s were not unusual, but the helpful tips listed below were written in all seriousness, despite what reading them in this form might suggest. My advice: caveat lector!

If a nobleman asks you for a loan:
I would sooner give him twenty as a gift than a hundred on loan. I would gladly avoid him altogether so as to have to do neither.
—Leon Battista Alberti, The Family in Renaissance Florence (ca. 1434–1443)

When choosing what to wear, as a male courtier:
Black is more pleasing in clothing than any other color … I mean of ordinary attire, for there is no doubt that bright colors are more becoming on armor.
—Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (1528)

How to approach, for the first time, a woman you love:
His first words shall test her mind and probe her wish in a manner so ambiguous as to leave her a way of certain escape by making it possible for her to pretend not to see that his talk is actually of love.
—Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (1528)

When looking for someone to help you mix ultramarine blue paint:
Beware of elderly women.
—Cennino Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook (fourteenth century)

If you think you might get poisoned at a meal:
Anoint yourself with a special cream or oil around your heart before you go, and once again when you return.
—Isabella Cortese, Secrets (1561)

To make a black star appear on the forehead of a white horse:
Get a mole, cook it in water, and beat it finely with an iron tool. Attach the [animal] to the forehead of the horse for a full day and night, and in a few days the hairs below will fall out and black ones will grow in.
—Isabella Cortese, Secrets (1561)

After blowing your nose:
You should not open your handkerchief and look inside, as if pearls or rubies might have descended from your brain.
—Giovanni Della Casa, Galateo (1558)

How to catch a partridge:
Partridge love deer exceedingly … thus, if a man put on a deer skin, and the horns upon his head, and come closely to them, they, supposing it is a deer indeed, will entertain him, and draw near to him, and will not fly away, and embrace him as much as one would do a friend come from a long journey. But by this great friendliness, they get nothing but nets and snares.
—Giambattista Della Porta, Natural Magic (1589)

How to make a virgin of a deflowered woman:
Make little pills … of burnt alum and mastic with a little vitriol and orpiment. Make them into very fine powder, that you can scarce feel them … let them dry, being pressed thin, and lay them on the mouth of the matrix, where it was first broken open. Change it every six hours, always fomenting the place with rain or cistern water. … [After twenty-four hours] it will here and there make little bladders, which being touched, will bleed much blood, that she can hardly be known from a maid. … [Alternately,] inject the dried blood of a hare or pigeon, which being moistened by the moisture of the matrix, shows like live, fresh blood.
—Giambattista Della Porta, Natural Magic (1589)

To stay young:
Suck the blood of a youth … an ounce or two from a scarcely opened vein on the left arm … when the moon is waxing.
—Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life (1489)

The correct position for the matrimonial act:
The wife must be with her face upwards towards the heavens, and the husband with his face downwards; this will facilitate pregnancy. But how shocking when, by means of diabolical habits and notions, married people do the reverse!
—Frate Cherubino da Siena, Rules of Married Life (ca. 1490)

A father, to his daughter, on the current trend:
Don’t dye your hair blond.
—Annibale Guasco, Discourse to Lady Lavinia, His Daughter (1586)

If you are from Lombardy, but wish to speak well:
Dip a little bit the pencil of your tongue in the fresh and clear color of the Tuscan language, whereby you shadow the stains of our mother tongue, yet so lightly, that your speech is [still] known for the Lombard.
—Stefano Guazzo, The Art of Conversation (1574)

Conversing with princes:
[It] should be avoided as much as possible.
—Stefano Guazzo, The Art of Conversation (1574)

To be a successful boss:
Injuries must be done all together, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; and benefits should be done little by little so that they may be tasted better.
—Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1513)

How to cook octopus:
Octopus is a vile fish of little worth: cook it however you wish.
—Maestro Martino, The Art of Cooking (mid-fifteenth century)

To sing more sweetly:
Put a leaden plate on your stomach [as Nero did]. ... Cabbage soup is useful for the same effect.
—Giovanni Camillo Maffei, letter on singing (1562)

How to know if a woman is pregnant with a boy:
When she has a nosebleed, the blood comes more from the right nostril than from the left one.
—Giovanni Marinello, Medicine for Women’s Infirmities (1563)

To have beautiful and noble progeny:
According to Hippocrates, and before him Empedocles, one should have excellently done paintings, portraits, or statues of one’s relatives, or other illustrious people, in the bedroom [to be recalled, or gazed upon during copulation].
—Girolamo Mercurio, The Midwife (1596)

In teaching a young child to read:
Use fruits or pastries cut out in the shapes of different letters.
—Matteo Palmieri, On Civil Life (1529)

If you have insomnia:
Stay awake and enjoy it!
—Francesco Petrarca, On Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul (ca. 1366)

When speaking or writing:
Take to heart what Caesar, a man of great talent and wisdom, said in the first book of his On Analogy: “Avoid as you would a rocky promontory a strange and unfamiliar word.”
—Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (later Pope Pius II), letter for the future King Ladislas of Bohemia (1450)

To help strengthen your memory:
[If you nap midday, though you shouldn’t,] get your sleep with your feet uncovered by any shoes, … keep your head covered moderately with cloths, … avoid sleep reclining on the back, … [when awakening] rub the head with an ivory comb and a rough, coarse rag, … swallow six raisins and as many juniper berries.
—Jacobus Publicius, The Art of Memory (1482)

To keep yourself from the sins of the senses and imagination:
Carry a small figure of death made of bone in your hand.
—Girolamo Savonarola, sermon (1496)

How to cook carp tongue:
Detach the raw tongue from the head allowing part of the throat to remain attached. If one wishes, one can make a potage with zibibbo and other raisins, spices, juice of unripe grapes, water, white wine, and minced little herbs. But I find that the best way to cook it is to boil it in water and salt, and then sprinkle it with fennel flowers, grease it with oil, and cook on the grill. Serve with orange juice and pepper—more [pepper] than one would use for other dishes.
—Bartolomeo Scappi, The Art of Cooking (1570)

To dye your hair blond:
Get cumin and requilina [perhaps the herb horsetail] and boil them with alum ash, and when you wash your hair with this, your hair will become blond and [the color] will last a long time.
—Caterina Sforza, Recipes for Beauty (late fifteenth century)

To defend against nervous ailments, paralysis, twisting of the mouth, spasm, and trembling:
[Use] pigeon nests to scent [your] home.
—Gabriele Zerbi, On the Care of the Aged (1489)

To prevent spleen problems:
They say, if we can believe it, [put] the right shoe on first.
—Gabriele Zerbi, On the Care of the Aged (1489)

Translations mine, unless otherwise noted in bibliography.

Leon Battista Alberti, The Family in Renaissance Florence [1434–1443], trans. R. Neu Watkins (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2004), p. 236.
Pietro Aretino, School of Whoredom [1536], trans. R. Falvo, A. Gallenzi, R. Skipwith (London: Hesperus, 2003), pp. 20–21
Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier [1528], trans. C. Singleton (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), Book II, §27, p. 89; Book III, §65, p. 198.
Cennino Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook [fourteenth century], trans. D. V. Thompson (New York: Dover, 1960), §62, p. 39.
Isabella Cortese, I Secreti (Venice: G. Bariletto, 1561), Book I, p. 1; Book III p. 213.
Giovanni Della Casa, Galateo [1558], trans. K. Eisenbichler and K. Bartlett (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 1986), p. 7.
Giambattista Della Porta, Natural Magick [1589 edition], (London: T. Young and S. Speed, 1658), Book XV.iii, p. 330; Book IX.xix, pp. 252–253.
Marsilio Ficino, Three Books of Life [1489], trans. C. V. Kaske and J. R. Clarke (Tempe, AZ: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1989), Book II.xi, pp. 197–199.
Frate Cherubino da Siena, Regole della vita matrimoniale [ca. 1490], reprint of the 1888 edition, ed. F. Zambrini and C. Negroni (Bologna: Commissione per i Testi di Lingua, 1969), Chapter 3, pp. 88–89.
Annibale Guasco, Discourse to Lady Lavinia, His Daughter [1586], trans. P. Osborn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), First Day, p. 79.
Stefano Guazzo, The Art of Conversation [1574], (London: J. Brett, 1738), Book. II, p. 113; Book. II, p. 161.
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince [1513], ed. and trans. H. C. Mansfield (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), §8, p. 38.
Maestro Martino, The Art of Cooking: The First Modern Cookery Book [mid-fifteenth century], trans. J. Parzon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 108.
Giovanni Camillo Maffei, “Letter on Singing” [1562], in Readings in the History of Music in Performance, trans. C. MacClintock (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), p. 60.
Giovanni Marinello, Le medicine partenenti alle infermità delle donne (Venice: Giovanni Bonadio, 1563), Book III.iii, p. 208r.
Girolamo Mercurio, La commare o raccoglitrice [1596] (Venice: G. B. Ciotti, 1601), Book I.xi, p. 61.
Matteo Palmieri, Libro della vita civile [fifteenth century], (Florence: Heirs of F. di Giunta, 1529), Book I, §57.
Francesco Petrarca, On Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul [ca. 1366], trans. C. Rawski (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), Book II, §18, p. 63.
A.S. Piccolomini, letter dated 1450 to the tutors of future King Ladislas of Bohemia, in Humanist Educational Treatises, trans. C. Kallendorf, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 203.
Jacobus Publicius, Oratoriae artis epitome [1482], trans. H. Bayerle, in The Medieval Craft of Memory, ed. M. Carruthers and J. Ziolkowski (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), pp. 247–248.
Girolamo Savonarola, Sermon 28: “On Ruth and Micah: On the Art of Dying Well,” delivered 2 November 1496, trans. K. Eisenbichler (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2003), p. 135.
Bartolomeo Scappi, Opera dell’arte del cucinare (Venice: Michele Tramezzino, 1570), §136, p. 131r.
Caterina Riario Sforza, Ricettario di bellezza [late fifteenth century], ed. Luigi Pescasio (Verona: Wella, 1971), p. 24.
Gabriele Zerbi, On the Care of the Aged [1489], trans. L. R. Lind (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1988), pp. 103, 109.

Arielle Saiber is associate professor of Italian at Bowdoin College. Her publications include essays on Dante, medieval and Renaissance mathematics, Renaissance typography, genre theory, and electronic music; a co-edited volume of primary documents, Images of Quattrocento Florence (Yale University Press, 2000); and Giordano Bruno and the Geometry of Language (Ashgate, 2005). She is currently writing a book on the dialogue between mathematics and literature in early modern Italy.

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