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Reading Celsus in Early Modern Italy

Marquis Berrey

University of Iowa

Early modern Italy probably counted more professional medical readers of the Roman encyclopediast Celsus' De medicina than did antiquity. After the copying of the Laurentian manuscript in the early fifteenth century and subsequent printing Celsus was read intensively among elite Italian practitioners, from the Florentine surgeon Antonio Benivieni (1443-1502) to Giovanni Battista Morgagni (1682-1771), professor of anatomy at Padua. While both wrote influentially on Celsus, their discussions differed. Benivieni covertly appropriated Celsus' surgical techniques; Morgagni gave explicit historical and philological analysis to the text of De medicina. I argue that Celsus' medical reception among these early modern practitioners succeeded inversely to the growth in pathological and surgical knowledge over the period, offering a metric for the text's disciplinary reception.

As the most wide-ranging Latin medical text surviving from antiquity Celsus' De medicina was valued for its documentation of ancient practices and theories, as well as the quality of its Latinity. Read throughout Europe, Celsus may have remained a focus for elite Italian practitioners because of his ostensible Italian origins (3.22.8, 3.25.1). Benivieni's De abditis nonnullis ac mirandis morborum et sanationum causis (partially published 1507) presents a series of case histories from his own medical practice. Benivieni continually leans on Celsus' pathological identifications (Weber 1994: 51-53; Weber 1994: 61 with Celsus 4.15) and covertly adopts his surgical procedures (Weber 1994: 89-91 with Celsus 7.29; Weber 1994: 189-91 with Celsus 7.26.2-3). Benivieni's appropriation corresponds with early modern understandings of ancient Empiricism. The explicit recognition of Celsus serves as means of securing learned, humanist status for Benivieni's surgical interventions. Morgagni by contrast wrote a series of eight open letters (1720-1750) studying Celsus' life and establishing the correct text of De medicina with anatomical and philological acumen. The letters aim to discover Celsus' authorial intention by removing manuscript accretion (Epist. 7) and establishing correct usage (Epist. 5). Morgagni's masterpiece of pathological anatomy, De sedibus et causis morborum per anatomen indagatis (1761), contains only six mentions of Celsus, two of which (Art. 2.2, 13.25) pursue further philological analysis.

Scholarship has often seen Benivieni and Morgagni themselves as important premodern or early modern empirical predecessors of the modern anatomical pathology that arose in Parisian hospitals during the early nineteenth century. The contrast between Benivieni's ready medical appropriation of Celsus and Morgagni's historical analysis of the text is heightened by the fact that both practitioners were advancing the same early modern documentation of empirical case histories: they supplied their own and drew upon an enormous historical literature for a particular pathology. If for us these facts belong equally to the history of medicine and the history of philology, they also show the increasing separation between the disciplines over time. For historical practitioners' interest, however, the contrast shows that the leading edge of medical knowledge passed by Celsus' surgical techniques and pathological identifications. Reading Celsus as a medical act waned in early modern Italy. Celsus' reception was therefore inextricably linked to the disciplinary growth and development of medical knowledge over the same period.

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Afterlives of Ancient Medicine

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