Wellcome Unit Seminars Monday 2nd February

‘Visual and Material Culture in the History of Medicine’
Conveners: Sloan Mahone and Erica Charters

Week 3 – 2 February

John Henderson, Birkbeck, University of London

The material and visual culture of health in Renaissance Tuscany

The material and visual culture of health in Renaissance Tuscany
Historians have only very recently begun to examine the visual and material culture of health in Renaissance Italy. Central to this theme is the crucial association between medicine, religion and art. This paper will explore how the spaces of the Renaissance hospital were used, through examining the function of a wide range of objects commissioned by and for them, from important altarpieces to fresco and sculptural cycles to pharmacy jars, beds and patients’ clothes, underlining the central function of these major institutions in healing the body and healing the soul.

Professor Henderson has long been interested in two major historical themes which are as relevant today as they were in medieval and renaissance Europe. The first is the way in which society dealt with poverty; by examining the poor relief and welfare structures in the past we can discover not just the origins of present systems, but also the enduring attitudes and prejudices towards poorer members of our society. The second is how society coped with epidemics, especially the two major diseases which dominated this period: plague and syphilis. Once again, examining reactions in the past to emergencies caused by both acute and chronic epidemic disease can help us to understand why and how societies of the 20th and 21st centuries reacted to the new epidemics including AIDS, SARS, malaria and Ebola.

He is Director of a new Research Project ‘Medicine and the Medici in Grand-ducal Tuscany’ at the Medici Archive Project, Florence; co-founder and Chair of the International Network for the History of Hospitals, which organises a bi-annual conference and publishes the proceedings and a regular Newsletter. (see: http://inhh.homestead.com/); and special advisor on history of health and hospitals for international project: ‘Tolerance and the city: human interaction in social and urban space’, University of Kristiansand, Norway.

Select Publications

Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994, xviii + 545 pages; revised paperback ed.: Chicago University Press, 1997

The Great Pox. The French Disease in Renaissance Europe, with J. Arrizabalaga and R. French, Yale University Press, 1997

The Renaissance Hospital. Healing the Body and Healing the Soul (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006)

Coffee will be available from 14:00. Please note there is no parking available at the Unit.