Healthy Homes, Healthy Bodies

Domestic Culture and the Prevention of Disease in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy

Medical historians have long been aware of the crucial value that renaissance and early modern societies assigned to the prevention of disease, however, we still know very little about the precautions adopted in daily life to promote health. The guides to healthy living that were published in great numbers in the Italian states between 1540 and 1700 offer a mine of information in this regard. Largely published in the vernacular, they provided practical advice about how one should sleep, eat, dress and clean in order to keep healthy but also about how the house should be chosen and built, furnished and managed.

We are conducting an in-depth study of this neglected genre over more than two centuries to explore contemporary understandings of what constituted a healthy domestic interior and to identify changes and continuities in the recommended measures from the introduction of print to the eighteenth century. We relate the dynamic elements in the advice given to changing ideas about the body and humoural physiology but also to broader cultural trends such as changing views of age, gender, social distance and comfort during the period.

An array of complementary sources ranging from treatises on architecture to household inventories and family correspondence, and from visual representations of the home to museum artefacts will then be employed to investigate the extent to which the recommendations found in regimens resulted in their application: whether they informed the professional activity of architects and affected the material culture of the home, the design and furnishing of residential buildings, and the ways in which people managed their bodies.

This project brings together the skills of gender and medical historians and of experts in the visual and material culture to examine how the physical domestic environment responded to the requirements of healthy living. It uses household objects and images, alongside texts, as historical evidence. By placing domestic practices and the physical and material home at its core it adds a new dimension to the study of the environment.

Investigators: Dr Marta Ajmar-Wollheim, Professor Sandra Cavallo, Dr Tessa Storey
Funding Source: Wellcome Trust
Funding Amount: £183,706
Start Date: 16 January 2009
End Date: 15 December 2012