Men Are From Mantua, Women Are From Venice

by Jen Nessel

HOW TO DO IT: GUIDES TO GOOD LIVING FOR RENAISSANCE ITALIANS • by Rudolph M. Bell • University of Chicago Press • 392 pp • $25 • March 1999

If I had friends who wished to conceive a boy, I'd first make sure they had at least three daughters. Then I'd be willing to pass on the following hints from Rudolph M. Bell's new book, How to Do It: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians. Father-to-be, tie your left testicle in a tourniquet and make sure your sperm is hot; Mother-to-be, turn onto your right side and prop yourself up with a pillow so the right-testicled sperm plants itself on the right side of your uterus. Make sure the northerly winds are blowing, and set the mood by spraying the room with musk, aloe, and amber, and hang pictures of strong, brave men engaged in manly acts. Oh, and try to avoid sneezing, lest the sperm be squirted back out.

These prescriptions from the sixteenth century should work about as well as any current method short of test tubing it. How to Do It is a scholarly survey of the "problem-oriented, indexed, books aimed at middling folk" which, but for their vellum and dust, could probably pass unremarked on the shelves of any self-improvement or home-health section at your local bookstore. Apparently, not much has changed in our quest for advice in the last four hundred years. These manuals were once as ubiquitous as Bibles wherever people could read--and Bell estimates that nearly 90 percent of the urban bourgeoisie in Renaissance Italy were literate.

Bell, a history professor at Rutgers, co-wrote the classic Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christendom, 1000--1700 (Chicago, 1986) with Donald Weinstein and is best known for his controversial book Holy Anorexia (Epilogue, 1987), in which he argued that women who mortified themselves--like Catherine of Siena, who sucked the pus from the wounds of plague victims--often derived enormous power from their acts. He may have downplayed the religious aspects of these saintly compulsions a bit much for some historians, but most found the work fascinating nonetheless.

Though many of the texts in Bell's new volume contradict each other, his authorities agree about a great deal, especially when it comes to sex. They concur that a moderate amount of mounting is good for the man's body and soul and even banishes headaches, but too much sex, well, that can have some dire consequences: According to Bartolomeo Boldo's Libra della natura (Book of Nature), it "damages the eyes and all the five senses, causes headaches, nervousness, chest pains, kidney problems, backaches and sore legs; facial paleness ensues, along with rapid aging and even early death...loss of memory, tremors...and bladder problems." (Those hairy palms are sounding better and better.) Of course, it is a sin to spill your seed outside the vase. In addition, the Dominican friar Cherubino da Firenze warned that "sex while standing would lead to debilitation of the legs and feet," while Boldo added that sex "with the woman on top or with the couple in a lateral position is sinful unless excused for a physical disability."

Though it won't come as a surprise to read about the woman as vessel or the absolute power of a man in marriage, Bell has unearthed other information that may open up our view of the period: shelters for battered wives in Rome, advice to widows to avoid remarriage, and the absolute necessity of the female orgasm in order for conception to occur. Bell also explains that the conjugal debt was owed by both spouses; St. Paul taught not only that the wife's body belonged to her husband but that the husband's body belonged to his wife.

As for the children of the sixteenth century, Bell finds that they enjoyed the benefits of their very own Dr. Spock: Their parents could refer to Dr. Michele Savonarola to learn that rubbing hare's brain on their infant's gums would soothe teething pain. Bell also believes that Renaissance Italians defined a stage of development characterized by "familial dependency, self-exploration, sexual experimentation, and societal toleration of misbehavior." Perhaps it's time to rethink the notion that adolescence is a nineteenth-century invention. Corporal punishment was generally frowned on by pundits unless, of course, "you want to raise a servant or a mechanic," in which case the occasional beating is just fine. Servants and mechanics aside, physical punishment is against nature. Matteo Palmieri's Della vita civile (On civil life) sets forth the following talking points to use with a kid who has misbehaved: "cite good examples of other youths he knows, vilify the bad ones...punish him with a long examination of his behavior.... Put him in isolation, deny him delicate foods, prohibit his wearing a favorite outfit--whatever will cause a fuller reflection on the error committed."

Adolescent girls, as usual, posed particular problems. Renaissance authors offered a number of points of advice to beleaguered parents: Don't send your daughters on errands alone; watch out for any sudden attention to grooming and dress; and keep them busy with the housework, lest they end up becoming one of the hookers "required by law to stand naked to the waist on the Bridge of Tits (Ponte delle Tette) in Venice, to entice young men away from their penchant for sodomy."

We tend to think of our own culture as being overly therapized, New-Aged, twelve-stepped on, too ready to turn to the latest fad diet, homeo-aromatherapy ear candles, or Alexander technique to tell us how to lead our lives. And yet, the average middle-class Renaissance Italian seems to have been just as willing to seek out any easy-to-read guide to life he or she could afford. In his final chapter, Bell admits to devoting "a disproportionately large number of words to conveying jokes and the exotica." That may well be the case, and yet the moral of his book rings out loud and clear. If the Venetians had had television, they would have had infomercials for the latest in pessaries and uterine fumigators. •

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