Ovid in Cheap Prints: Re-writing Mythological Tales in Renaissance Rome

Marta Balzi (Ralegh Radford Rome Awardee 2019–20) provides insights on her research recently conducted at the BSR.

One of the many perks of residing at the BSR is the opportunity to enjoy the quiet, greenery and panoramic views of the Villa Borghese Gardens, which lie just a few minutes away from the BSR. A walk to the Temple of Asclepius, a run around the oval track in Piazza di Siena and a coffee at Casina del Lago became a cherished distraction from a day of study in the library. Further within the park there is also the Borghese Gallery, which is an unmissable reference point for Renaissance scholars. It is precisely with the Borghese Gallery, or better with a painting housed in this art gallery, that I would like to introduce this brief account of the research I conducted during my residency at the BSR.

Rutilio Manetti’s Andromeda: Ovidian myths and their translations

marta balzi image 1

Figure 1. Rutilio Manetti, Andromeda, c. 1612, oil on canvas, 177 × 20, Galleria Borghese, Rome.

The painting Andromeda by Rutilio Manetti (c. 1612) illustrates an Ovidian myth from the Metamorphoses that was particularly dear to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century artists: the myth of Andromeda and Perseus.

According to the classical myth, Andromeda was offered in sacrifice to a sea monster in order to appease the gods. Just before the slaughter, the hero Perseus happened upon Andromeda, naked and chained to a rock. Inflamed by her beauty, Perseus engaged in a battle with the monster and rescued her from the monster’s assault.

This painting conveys the rich eroticism and wittiness of Ovid’s narration, but a closer look reveals that the Latin Metamorphoses was not Manetti’s primary source of inspiration. Ovid had Perseus fly in winged sandals, and not on a winged horse:

pennis ligat ille resumptis

parte ab utraque pedes teloque accingitur unco

et liquidum motis talaribus aera findit.

(Ovid, Met., iv. 665–7)

[Then Perseus bound on both his feet the wings he had laid by, girt on his hooked sword, and soon in swift flight was cleaving the thin air.]

In Manetti’s painting we see an overlapping of Perseus and another mythical figure: the winged horse Pegasus. The link between these two characters was not new to Renaissance art and literature, but it gained currency in the late medieval treatment of Andromeda’s rescue (Javitch 1978).

By the time Manetti composed his painting, the popularity of this version was also intensified thanks to the work of Giovanni Andrea dell’Anguillara (1519–69), the author of the sixteenth-century best-seller translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This Italian translation offered the same combination of Perseus and Pegasus:

Quando su‘l pegaseo veloce ascese

Perseo, e per l’Etiopia il volo prese.

(Anguillara 1563, iv. 411. 7–8)

[Perseus mounted the fast Pegasus, and took off towards Ethiopia.]

The example of Manetti’s Andromeda in the Borghese Gallery testifies to the importance of intermediary sources in the reception of the Ovidian myths in the Italian Renaissance. The Metamorphoses surely constituted the most important repertoire of myths, an encyclopaedic work plundered by writers, musicians and painters. This work, however, was often read through vernacular translations.

Ovid translated in cheap prints

Despite increasing scholarly interest in vernacular translations of the ‘full text’ of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, little attention has been paid to the production and dissemination of vernacular re-writings of the Ovidian myths in cheap prints. The purpose of my research at the BSR was precisely to give visibility to these translations in cheap print and shed further light on the reception of mythological tales in Renaissance Rome.

The term ‘cheap print’ has been employed in recent publications to refer to printed matter more affordable than ‘proper books’ (Watt 1991; Salzberg 2014). These publications could be loosely bound pamphlets printed on a single sheet of paper, which was then folded into an octavo, quarto or even sextadecimo. Alternatively, they could be printed on a single flier or broadsheet. Either way, they were often accompanied by woodcut illustrations that were rarely produced specifically for the text (Rothstein 1990; Salzberg 2014: 21; Niccoli 2017: 188). Despite their affordability, these publications were not definable in relation to a single social group, but were characterised by a high ‘consumability’ that went beyond social boundaries (Braida and Infelise 2010).

One of the fascinating examples of cheap print that I studied in Rome is the Historia di Perseo. This is a loosely bound pamphlet printed in Florence around 1530. Here, the adventures of Perseus are translated in ottava rima, a metre that since the Middle Ages was used by storytellers and also street singers to sing chivalric tales. The woodcuts in the pamphlet suffer from reprinting. They seem not directly related to this publication and were likely rehashed from previous publications.


Marta Balzi image2

Figure 2 La historia di Perseo (Florence: n.p., [c. 1530]), held at The British Library in London (shelfmark: 1071.m.17.(13.))

During my residency, I also had the possibility to study other cheap prints held in the Vatican Library, such as:

  • Lettere amorose, et Sonetti familiari in diversi propositi; Confrontati alle lettere per poter scriver a casi occorrenti, di nuovo posti in luce (Venice: In frezzeria al segno della regina, 1580). (Shelfmark: V681(34));
  • Nuova inventione et poetica fantasia; nella quale si disputa fra Marte, et Nettuno della bellezza di Roma, et di Venetia; Et quale di esse merita preceder, facendone Giudice Paride. Con Un sonetto vago e piacevole dove si va scherzando in metafora sopra alcune cose antiche, e belle. (Venice: [n.pub.], [n.d.]). (Shelfmark: V681(104);
  • Opera nuova alla ciciliana. De un gentil’huomo, che per amor’ andò a l’inferno, per accusar la sua innamorata dinanzi a Plutone. Con la risposta del Demonio cosa molto dilettevole: aggiontovi alcune ottave alla ciciliana ritrovate da Alfonso Cortese alias trastullo di succio muccio di Castrocucco ([n.p.]: [n.pub.], [n.d.]). (Shelfmark: V681(50)).

Lettere amorose e sonetti familiari is a collection of love letters and sonnets involving mythological characters. Nuova invenzione e poetica fantasia re-writes the ancient myth of the judgment of Paris, who, in this new version, was appointed to select the most beautiful city between Venice and Rome. Opera nuova alla ciciliana is a parody of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

The place I will miss the most: the BSR library

In the BSR library, I found a vast secondary literature that proved essential to expand my knowledge of Renaissance popular culture in Rome. The beautiful spaces, the quiet and the professional help of expert librarians made the library my favourite room in the BSR. A safe space where I focused on my new research and also worked on my forthcoming publications.


Braida, L., and M. Infelise (eds), Libri per tutti. I generi editoriali di larga circolazione tra antico regime e età contemporanea (Turin: Utet, 2010)

Bucchi, Gabriele, “Meraviglioso diletto”: la traduzione poetica del Cinquecento e le Metamorfosi d’Ovidio di Giovanni Andrea dell’Anguillara (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2011)

Burke, Peter, ‘Oral Culture and Print Culture in Renaissance Italy’, ARV: Nordic Yearbook of Folklore, 1998, 7–18

Carnelos, Laura, ‘Words on the Street: Selling Small Printed “Things ” in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Venice’, in News Networks in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Raymond Joad and Noah Moxham (Leiden: Brill, 2016), pp. 739–55

D’Ancona, A., La poesia popolare italiana, 2nd edn. (Leghorn: Giusti, 1906)

Daniels, Rhiannon, Boccaccio and the Book: Production and Reading in Italy 1340–1520 (London: Legenda, 2009)

Degl’Innocenti, Luca, and Brian Richardson and Chiara Sbordoni (eds.), Interactions between Orality and Writing in Early Modern Italian Culture (Farnham: Ashgate, 2016)

Degl’Innocenti, Luca, and Massimo Rospocher and Rosa Salzberg, ‘The Cantastorie in Renaissance Italy: Street singers between Oral and Literate Cultures’, Special Issue of Italian Studies, 71.2 (2016)

Di Mauro, Alberto, Bibliografia delle stampe popolari profane dal Fondo Capponi della Biblioteca Vaticana (Florence: Olschki, 1981)

Guthmüller, Bodo, ‘Cantari cinquecenteschi di argomento mitologico’, in Mito, poesia, arte: Saggi sulla tradizione ovidiana nel Rinascimento (Rome: Bulzoni, 1997), pp. 187–212

‘La Historia de Orpheo: modelli e tecniche narrative’, in Il cantare italiano fra folklore e letteratura, ed. by Michelangelo Picone and Luisa Rubini (Florence: Olschki, 2007), pp. 301–37

Ovidio metamorphoseos vulgare, trans. by Paola Picchioni (Fiesole: Cadmo, 2008)

Infelise, Mario, Prima dei Giornali. Alle origini della pubblica informazione (secoli XVI e XVII (Rome and Bari: Laterza, 2002)

Ivaldi, C., ‘Cantari e poemetti bellici in ottava rima: la parabola produttiva di un sottogenere del romanzo cavalleresco’, in Ritterepik der Renaissance, ed. by K. W. Hempfer (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1989), pp. 35–46

Javitch, Daniel. 1978. ‘Rescuing Ovid from the Allegorizers’, in Comparative Literature, 30: 97–107

Masetti Zannini, G. L., Stampatori e librai a Roma nella seconda metà del Cinquecento: documenti inediti (Rome: Palombi, 1980)

Milner, Stephen, ‘“…Fanno bandire, notificare, et expressamente comandare…”. Town Criers and the information economy of Renaissance Florence’, I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, 16.1/2 (2013), 107–51

Niccoli, Ottavia, Profeti e popolo nell’Italia del Rinascimento (Bari: Laterza, 1987)

Niccoli, Ottavia, ‘Italy’, in The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture, ed. by Joad Raymond (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 187–95

Novati, F., Scritti sull’editoria popolare nell’Italia di antico regime, ed. by E. Barbieri and A. Brambilla (Rome: Archivio Guido Izzi, 2004)

Petrucci, Armando, Scrittura e popolo nella Roma barocca 1585–1721 (Rome: Quasar, 1982)

Rothstein, M, ‘Disjunctive images in Renaissance books’, Renaissance and Reformaiton, 14:2 (1990), 101–20

Rozzo, Ugo, La Strage Ignorata. I Fogli Volanti a Stampa Nell’Italia Dei Secoli XV e XVI (Udine: Forum, 2008)

Salzberg, Rosa, Ephemeral City: Cheap Print and Urban Culture in Renaissance Venice (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014)

Segarizzi, A., (ed.), Bibliografia delle stampe popolari italiane nella R. Biblioteca nazionale di San Marco di Venezia (Bergamo: Istituto Italiano d’Arti Grafiche, 1913)

Ugolini, Francesco A., I cantari d’argomento Classico (Geneva and Florence: Olschki, 1933)

Ugolini, Francesco A., ‘I cantari di Piramo e Tisbe’, in Studj Romanzi, 24 (1934), 19–208

Watt, T., Cheap Print and Popular Piety 1550–1640 (New Haven: CT: Yale University Press, 2005)

Marta Balzi, Ralegh Radford Rome Awardee 2019–20.



A trip to Reggio Calabria

Dustin McKenzie (Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar, 2019–20) recalls his recent time spent at the BSR and his trip to South Italy as part of his research focusing on the Strait of Messina, and the cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria.


Waterfront and Monument of Athena, with Sicily in background. Photograph: Dustin McKenzie

In January 2020 I took up residency at the British School at Rome as the Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar, and began, almost immediately, to think about how space shapes our experiences — the BSR’s position on the edge of the Valle Giulia, looking out at the other academies; the seemingly endless routes a taxi can take between the BSR and Termini; the proximity to the city, while being just far enough away that each trip out the door is a journey. I am currently undertaking a PhD at Macquarie University, Sydney in ancient history and archaeology — titled ‘Landscape, Empire, and Identity in the Roman Strait of Messina’ — and much of the focus is on the relationship between ancient peoples and their natural and constructed environments. It is not surprising that Rome is an excellent case-study of this relationship. Whether it be how the hills and valleys shaped the city in antiquity, how the Tiber impacted infrastructure decisions in antiquity and the modern day, or how the lack of a metro to Trastevere still makes organising your Friday ‘aperitivo’ for ten people a logistical nightmare, this relationship between people and the spaces they inhabit captivated me during my time in Rome.

While I have been fortunate enough to visit the Eternal City on several occasions, I cannot stress the degree to which the varied experiences, disciplines and backgrounds of my fellow award-holders made my residency. Not only am I now proud to call these colleagues friends for life, but their own experiences and interests in Rome led me to spaces I never would have found on my own. One particular day led us down into the undercroft of the Basilica di San Clemente, opening my eyes once more to the stratified history of Rome — the current Basilica was built in the twelfth century, atop a fourth-century Roman basilica, which itself was built atop the ruins of a Republican era villa. While Rome is always a joy to walk through, I must confess its true purpose for my research was as a forward research base while I travelled south to my true destination, and the focus of my PhD research – the Strait of Messina, and the cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria.

The Strait of Messina separates Italy from Sicily by only a few kilometres, but that short distance has a long history. The waters of the Strait are infamously changeable, and in antiquity were the inspiration behind and mythical home of Scylla and Charybdis. The uplands of the Strait were inhabited by early bronze age groups before its coasts were colonised by Greek settlers in the eighth century BCE. By the end of the third century, Rome controlled the Strait, and Messina and Reggio Calabria each played major roles in securing not only the waterway, but the whole of South Italy and Sicily for the Republic. The close relationship between Messina and Reggio Calabria, despite their separation by the Strait, was well understood in antiquity and throughout history, with the prospect of a bridge across the Strait being proposed by no less than the Romans, Charlemagne and the Normans, with a further nine attempts made since the unification of Italy. In my opinion, this is beside the point — the strength of the relationship between Messina and Reggio Calabria is not in the potential of a bridge, but in the ways people have been bridging this gap for thousands of years through a shared sense of space and identity.


Reggio Street, looking to Sicily. Photograph: Dustin McKenzie

Before the pandemic I was able to spend a week in Reggio Calabria, having visited Messina years prior on a separate research trip. Owing to my research interests in space and landscapes, I opted to catch the train. While these trips took the better part of an entire day by themselves at a brisk seven hours  each way, it was fascinating to watch the landscape shift and change as the train travelled down the coast, darting inland or through tunnels when it wasn’t hugging the coast. I spent most of my time in Reggio walking through the city and visiting the public archaeological sites and museums, and was taken aback by the degree to which the city has adapted to its environment and physical space. First and foremost, there is a strong sense of navigability in Reggio. Much the same way as I navigate Rome by knowing my location relative to manmade and natural landmarks, I could find my way through Reggio with relative ease. Many of the east–west oriented vie have clear lines of sight to Sicily, which dominates the western horizon, and to the Aspromonte Mountains to the east. While the streets and levels of Reggio can be a little disorientating or steep at times, these aspects of the landscape actually allowed me to re-orientate myself, and firmly placed in my mind not only the impact of physical space on an individual’s everyday experience, but how such a space encourages identification and engagement with those experiencing it. Moreover, while a lot of my research has me thinking of horizontal space (distances from A to B, city limits, urban layouts), Reggio Calabria and Rome reminded me of the importance of vertical space.

Piazza Italia sits at the centre of Corso Garibaldi, Reggio’s main commercial and pedestrian-only street, and is the seat of the municipal government and provincial administration. While I was aware that the Piazza was built atop the location of the Greek agora and Roman forum, I had no idea part of the Piazza was excavated and viewable. Like the Basilica di San Clemente back in Rome, the square rests atop centuries of viewable history, with a section of subterranean excavation revealing the earliest storefronts of the Greek agora and a portion of the Roman-period street. Elsewhere, a few streets east and uphill, are what remains of the Greek odeon, now located behind a locked door within a gated residential block. While seeing the odeon proved, uh, ‘tricky’, it quickly became clear that thanks to its elevation and orientation, the audience in antiquity would have enjoyed an uninterrupted view downhill and across the Strait (similar in scope to the vistas afford by the amphitheatres of Taormina and Segesta in Sicily), a suitably poetic backdrop for the presentation of the arts. The constructed waterfront of Reggio Calabria seems to have maintained this desire for a poetic and picturesque vista.


Roman street under Piazza Italia. Photograph: Dustin McKenzie

The coast of Reggio Calabria and the lungomare (waterfront) heavily influenced my understanding of the space of the Strait and the impact it continues to have on those living there. A friend and PhD student at Sapienza — Università di Roma, who was showing me around the city, proudly claimed that early twentieth-century Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio referred to the lungomare as ‘il più bel chilometro d’Italia— ‘the most beautiful kilometre in all of Italy’ — and with its views of Sicily from Cape Pelorus to Mount Etna on a clear day, it is easy to see why. Indeed, to stand on the beach in Reggio and look north towards Cape Pelorus is to believe you are on the shore of a lake rather than a strait. This illusion has duped many in the past — one tradition, preserved by first-century CE Roma geographer Pomponius Mela, claims that Cape Pelorus is named for Hannibal’s helmsman of the same name. Upon sailing into the Strait, Hannibal scanned the horizon and, believing the shore to be continuous and impassable, killed Pelorus for betraying him. The waterfront also houses some Roman period remains, including tombs, a section of a baths complex, and part of the impressive city walls, as well as numerous signs detailing the ancient foundation of the city on the waterfront, each of which serve to highlight the continued inhabitancy of the city for nearly 3,000 years.


Waterfront Roman baths. Photograph: Dustin McKenzie


Waterfront ancient city wall. Photograph: Dustin McKenzie

During our day together, my PhD friend, with her own roots in Reggio, was taken aback that I had been studying Reggio for over a year and had never visited. ‘If I want to understand the city’s history’, she reasoned, ‘I must understand the present city and its people.’ My home in Australia may be on the other side of the world, and the global pandemic may be keeping us all in our homes for now, but I have made a start in understanding Reggio Calabria, and I will be back for another attempt


Waterfront looking north. Where does Italy end and Sicily begin? Photograph: Dustin McKenzie

Dustin McKenzie (Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar, 2019-20)

Medieval medicine meets the digital age

Claire Burridge (2019-2020, Rome Scholar) provides a valuable insight into medieval medicine and the research she has undertaken at the BSR.

Let’s begin with a sample of medical advice from the ninth century — but please note: although these remedies may look tempting in our current circumstances, do not try them at home!

Picture1.pngFor cough: chew oregano on an empty stomach; it is wonderful.

Likewise: drink pounded fennel roots in wine on an empty stomach for 9 days.

Likewise: take mallow with food.

Likewise: drink agrimony with old wine on an empty stomach.

Likewise: betony – 2 [units not given] – ground with honey; take for 9 days on an empty stomach.

Likewise: bake elecampane roots among hot ashes and then soak them in honey; chew as much as possible on an empty stomach.

Picture2For dry cough: skimmed honey – 1 ounce, black pepper – 2 ounces, myrrh – 1 ounce, long pepper [no amount given]; grind this up well and mix it in honey; use 3 spoonfuls morning and night.

Likewise, an electuary for those affected by a cough: butter – 4 [units not given], terebinth – 2, horehound – 4, nard, this is also called spica [i.e. spikenard] – 9; grind and mix together; chew 1 spoonful with honey.

Picture3Picture4For those who cannot breathe: 1 part fenugreek, 9 parts pepper, 10 parts costus – as much as you think seems fit – mix together into a powder and give a full spoon mixed in water.

Picture5Picture6Pills for cough: poppy – 2 scruples, myrrh – 3 scruples, storax – 2 scruples, galbanum – 4 scruples; then make into pills and use.


Pre-modern medicine has been in the news more than usual in recent weeks, with comparisons of our current situation to past plague pandemics, a growing interest in the origins of ‘quarantine’, and so on. Yet unlike many areas within the history of health and medicine, my research offers few potential points of comparison with our present circumstances, though it has provided a fascinating glimpse into the ways individuals in the early middle ages may have sought to treat some of the symptoms associated with COVID-19. (Note: for those interested in how historians of medicine (and not just medievalists!) have reflected on the current coronavirus crisis and responded to the media’s use/abuse of history, I have included some links in an addendum below.) In this post, I shall endeavour to keep things topical by using the remedies for coughs and breathing difficulties illustrated above as an entry point into my current research.

My project at the BSR, ‘The Movement of Early Medieval Medical Knowledge: Exchange in the Italian Peninsula’, is underpinned by two linked objectives: a) the identification of non-classical information recorded in early medieval remedies (and possible sources for this information), and b) an investigation into the role of Italian centres of manuscript production in the introduction and movement of this knowledge. Both objectives are dependent on first transcribing and editing medical recipes from a dozen manuscripts today held in libraries in Rome, and then analysing this material with a combination of recently developed digital tools. Much of my time at the BSR has therefore been focused on assembling this material: transcribing, editing, and translating texts while establishing my digital ‘toolkit’. The creation of a complex database that tracks individual recipes, their ingredients, and any additional information associated with them (such as units of measurement, instructions for preparation, etc.) in concert with their manuscript context allows for a systematic analysis of this material. While it is impossible to condense the full extent of these results into a blogpost, the remedies above showcase a number of important findings from my research so far. In particular, my development of a remedy database has highlighted the vast range of medical knowledge preserved within these manuscripts, a topic we shall explore in more detail below.

Diversity between and within manuscripts

Given the complex processes involved in the composition and production of manuscripts, it has long been accepted that no early medieval codex is identical. When considering manuscripts containing medical texts, this degree of variability can be taken even further: cataloguers and historians have shown that all surviving manuscripts with medical texts preserve a unique combination of writings. My research not only confirms this great diversity between codices, but it also sheds light on the varied nature of the information contained within individual manuscripts. More specifically, by considering not simply the composition of manuscripts as a whole, but by analysing their recipes down to the level of their constituent parts (namely, their ingredients, instructions for preparation and dosage, units of measurement, etc.), it is possible to take a much closer look at the range of material preserved within these texts.

Consider the remedies exhibited above: Figures 1–4 present a total of ten treatments, including seven remedies for a cough (Figures 1 and 4), one remedy for a dry cough (Figure 2), and two remedies for ‘those who cannot breathe’ (Figure 3). These ten prescriptions list a total of 27 ingredients, meaning that this sample contains an average of less than three ingredients per remedy. Significantly, of these 27 ingredients, only four occur in multiple recipes: wine, myrrh and black pepper are each listed twice, while honey appears four times. In other words, there is very little overlap among the ingredients listed in these treatments. In fact, each of the ten remedies offers an entirely unique treatment. This general pattern of diversity holds up when considering the entire sample of remedies in my corpus; although there are examples of parallel or related treatments within the full collection (which contains several thousand remedies), the enormous range in information presented in these prescriptions remains a consistent pattern.

Why does this variety matter, and what can we learn from it? Crucially, the diversity of treatments reflects the differences in the sources used to compile these collections of remedies at two levels. First, variation seen between manuscripts composed at different scriptoria indicates that each site of manuscript production contained a unique collection of sources. Again, consider the remedies exhibited above: Figures 1 and 2 present recipes from Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (hereafter BAV) pal. lat. 1088, a manuscript written in the area around Lyon in the middle or third quarter of the ninth century, while Figures 3 and 4 offer treatments from BAV reg. lat. 1143, an early ninth-century manuscript composed near Mainz. In addition to the treatments sampled here, both codices contain a number of other medical texts, such as excerpts from earlier medical authors. For example, BAV pal. lat. 1088 contains excerpts from Galen and a medical poem by Quintus Serenus, whereas BAV reg. lat. 1143 includes a selection from Theodorus Priscianus’ Euporiston and Alexander of Tralles’ Therapeutica, revealing that their libraries likely held different collections of medical writings (or at least distinct exemplars on which each of these manuscripts was based). Both manuscripts, however, also contain excerpts from the letters of the late antique physician Vindicianus, testifying to some shared sources.

Secondly, there is a tremendous range in the information contained within a single manuscript. Take the six different prescriptions to treat a cough, Ad tussem, illustrated in Figure 1. The penultimate remedy in this cluster can be traced to a late antique medical treatise that describes the medicinal uses of the herb bettony, De herba vettonica liber. Many recipe collections were structured by their ingredients, suggesting that the compiler of the collection of recipes in BAV pal. lat. 1088 sought to present treatments in a different format, instead arranging them by symptom. This individual would therefore have drawn on a range of different sources, selecting relevant material from other texts; in this case, he or she assembled six recipes related to coughs. As above, this range of information demonstrates that an individual scriptorium likely had access to a diverse array of sources. This diversity has important implications for understanding the process of manuscript production, the movement of knowledge, and the composition of these remedy collections. These topics are all central to my project at the BSR and thus illustrate the value of the new digital tools involved in my research.

While this blog has used remedies for coughing and breathing problems as an inroad into my project, there is much more to share. Perhaps a future post can discuss more specific findings relating to the introduction of new sources for medical knowledge in the Latin west and the role of scriptoria in the Italian peninsula in this process — stay tuned!

Addendum: The history of medicine meets current affairs

Finally, for those interested in how historians of medicine (and not just medievalists!) have reflected on the current coronavirus crisis and responded to the media’s use/abuse of history, I would recommend the following lectures, podcasts, articles, etc.—many thanks to Monica Green, Winston Black, Guy Geltner, and others for sharing them originally:

Brief bibliography

Manuscripts seen above:

BAV pal. lat. 1088, digital facsimile: https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Pal.lat.1088
BAV reg. lat. 1143, digital facsimile: https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Reg.lat.1143

Printed sources:

Pseudo-Antonius Musa, De herba vettonica liber, ed. Howald and H. E. Sigerist, Corpus Medicorum Latinorum IV (Leipzig, 1927), 3-11

Secondary scholarship:

Beccaria, A., I Codici di medicina del periodo presalernitano (Rome, 1956)

Bischoff, B., Katalog der festl.ndischen Handschriften des neunten Jahrhunderts (mit Ausnahme der wisigotischen), 3 vols (Stuttgart 1998)

Glaze, F. E., ‘The perforated wall: the ownership and circulation of medical books in medieval Europe, ca. 800-1200’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Duke University (1999)

Horden, P., ‘What’s Wrong with Early Medieval Medicine?’, Social History of Medicine 24 (2011), 5-25

Wallis, F., ‘The Experience of the Book: Manuscripts, Texts, and the Role of Epistemology in Early Medieval Medicine’, in D. G. Bates (ed.), Knowledge and the Scholarly Medical Traditions (Cambridge, 1995), 101-26

Figure captions

Figure 1: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana pal. lat. 1088, f. 36r: For a cough (Ad tussem), 6 remedies

Figure 2: BAV pal. lat. 1088, f. 48v: For a dry cough (Ad tussem aridam), 2 remedies

Figure 3: BAV reg. lat. 1143, ff. 105r–v: For those who cannot breathe (Ad eos qui non suspirant), 1 remedy

Figure 4: BAV reg. lat. 1143, ff. 170r–v: Pills for a cough (Cataputias ad tusse), 1 recipe


Claire Burridge, Rome Scholar, 2019/2020

Meet the artists…Wendelien Bakker

An interview with Wendelien Bakker, the BSR Wallace New Zealand Residence Awardee, in which she speaks about the works she has produced during her residency at the BSR in January–March 2020.

Artisst studio at the BSR.jpg

BSR artist studio. Photo: courtesy of the artist

In your practice, you often use your body in connection with water, sometimes against it. Could you tell us more about this relationship?

Water comes in so many different forms, it can be fluid or frozen, super forceful like waves or a gushing river or it can be gentle and calm. I’m interested in the challenge of trying to change the form or how to fight it as a human being. For example, when I’m sweeping away the pressure of a wave and how I can physically work against it. I enjoy exploring the limits of what my body can do and the determination and ‘wanting’ to change something using physical exertion. To make the water run uphill for example, everyone says it is impossible, but I would say oh yes, I want to try it, there must be way! This particular idea really intrigues me, I’m curious on how you could make water run uphill which I suppose is seeking a limitation of the material.
What I gravitate towards is to see how far I can get with limitations; I have to wait and see. Sometimes it is a success, sometimes it’s really not. But it is also about the journey to get to the point of failure, or of a potential failure. My initial plan when I first arrived here was using water in a way that could break something as hard as marble. It’s mind-blowing to me that you can use such a simple element as water to create such a powerful force that it can break such a hard material. Water can be also that, it can have such a force that it can break a rock.

Carrara marble quarry.jpg

Carrara marble quarry. Photo: courtesy of the artist

I am intrigued by the way you use the environment that surrounds you to play with paradox: you build swimming pools where you cannot swim, you attempt to catch the movement of the water, you try to move the horizon. How did you use the environment of the BSR?

I have never really had a studio; I work in my backyard or wherever I find the space to work so this is the first time I have been given such a big space that is very specific in its use. Outdoor spaces have much less restrictions. In the first week I was kind of terrified as I felt I had to fill my studio up with things as it was so empty. I started creating very practical stuff, like a toothbrush holder, jugs out of stones or tool holders with materials that I found in the very close proximity of the BSR. Pebbles from around the tennis court, bits of marble…
I’ve been thinking about how people generally use a studio, people with a studio practice. Experimenting with materials, making things/objects related to other things/objects they’ve made but this is not how I normally work. For me it has become interesting to understand how to use the space of the studio in a way that reflects the different moments and materials I experience within the space.
What I generally tend to do is very site specific and research based: I come up with an idea, like I want to come to Italy and I want to split a rock. But here, now that I have an assigned studio, I feel like I have to use this space. So it is less of a research project but it is more of a kind of filling a space with things. I regularly used the library at the BSR, looking up ancient mining/rock splitting techniques.
I am very very aware of my surroundings, constantly observing my environment and I always want to try and see how I can use it in the most practical sense.

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Untitled, 2020, marble, tape, b&w photo. Photo: courtesy of the artist.


The artist in her studio at the BSR. Photo credt: Viviana Calvagno

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser)


Meet the artists…Max Fletcher

An interview with Max Fletcher, our 2019-2020, Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture, in which he speaks about the works he has produced during his residency at the BSR.

Max Fletcher, Footnotes on a Materialist Theatre, 2019, acrylic paint, gesso, canvas, 152x112 cm, Photo credit Roberto Apa.jpg

Footnotes on a Materialist Theatre, 2019, acrylic paint, gesso, canvas, 152 × 112 cm. Photo credit: Roberto Apa

How is literature important to your work?

I often use literature as generative device for making work. Yet, it is the footnotes, marginalia, or the act of translation, rather that the text itself that I tend to engage with when making work.

In Rome I have been working with the play titled El Nost Milan, by Carlo Bertolazzi. It was written in Milanese dialect and despite being in many ways radical in form, it never achieved popular success. In this occasion I’ve also collaborated with artist Andrea Celeste La Forgia, with whom I’ve made paintings that isolate various characters speech which is then translated. One of the paintings we produced, for instance, is based on the translation of a speech by the character Gasper. In short, the translation of El Nost Milan becomes the basis for a series of paintings.

The other painting that I’ve been working on, also made in collaboration with Andrea, is based on a postcard sent to Antonio Gramsci while he was imprisoned by the fascist government. The postcard quickly becomes detached from its original context, and the act of enlargement into a painting drastically changes the nature of imagery. The painting itself has little reference to literature but becomes a placeholder for a wider set of questions that do engage with literature. Gramsci’s writing advocated Luigi Pirandello’s Liola, another dialect play. The play was seen as being capable of subverting and undermining the official policy of the state. Yet, the play’s lead Liola, is a misogynist, and Pirandello was a supporter of the Italian state. My work seeks to question such antinomies, querying the space between ideology and literary form.

How have Gramsci and Pasolini influenced your work and what is the connection between them?

Perhaps Pasolini’s most famous poem and the title of a collection of his poems is Le ceneri di Gramsci or Gramsci’s Ashes. That Gramsci had a profound impact on Pasolini hardly needs to be stated and affected much of his thought. It is however a shared view on language and dialect that has most shaped the work that I have made in Rome, especially the collaborative work with Andrea.

As an adult, Pasolini learned Friulian dialect, something that despite shared roots with the Italian language was no small undertaking. Many of his early poems and theatre were written in Friulian, while his early film scripts were often in Roman. For Pasolini, dialect represented not only an authentic voice, but also the voice of history, often ignored in the present day. Gramsci was perhaps a little more suspect of dialect, seeing it as something of a paradox. On one hand, it offered a counter to the unified Italian language, and he was supportive of new generations learning it. On the other hand, he saw dialect as inherently provincial, and to solely speak in dialect was to be excluded from the possibility of affecting wider societal change. The paintings that I have made with Andrea seek to utilise such a contradiction, while also placing dialect theatre in relation to other realist fiction.

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Untitled, oil paint, canvas, gesso, 182 × 152 cm. Image: Courtesy of the artist


The artist in his studio at the BSR. Photo credt: Viviana Calvagno

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser)

Rome Transformed: new ERC-funded research project gets underway

The Caelian hill in Rome, which occupies much of the south-east quarter of the city within the Aurelian walls, is today dominated by the archbasilica of Rome, Saint John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano). Yet between the 1st and 8th century AD it grew from an area of private luxury dwellings, to the site of a major military camp, to the construction of fortifications and later the world’s first cathedral. The Rome Transformed project aims to reveal how these constructions were a reflection of the prevailing political, military and religious ideas.

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Rome Transformed team. Photo credit: Ian Haynes

The ERC advanced grant funded (2019-2024) project draws together expertise from Newcastle University, the Università degli Studi di Firenze, the British School at Rome and the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche. The project is led by Professor Ian Haynes, together with Professor Paolo Liverani (a BSR Honorary Fellow), Stephen Kay and Dott. Salvatore Piro, together with two recently appointed project Research Associates, Dr Thea Ravasi and Dr Francesca Carboni.

Over the course of the next two years the team from the BSR, Archaeology Officer Stephen Kay and Geophysics Researcher Elena Pomar, will focus on the sub-surface mapping of large areas across the Caelian Hill. Principally using Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) and Electrical Resistance Tomography (ERT) the team will use these geophysical prospection techniques to enhance of our understanding of a number of buildings across the research area, including the Castrense amphitheatre, the Sessorium and Aurelianic walls.


Stephen Kay and Elena Pomar (BSR) conducting GPR survey in the grounds of Villa Wolkonsky. Photo credit: Ian Haynes

Rome Transformed draws upon the experience of several years of fieldwork mapping the 5,000 square metres of excavations under the basilica of San Giovanni (updates from each season can be found in the PBSR Archaeological Fieldwork Reports). More recently, with the generous support of a BSR donor, the project has been recording the early Imperial houses preserved underneath the Hospital of San Giovanni.

In January 2020 a first season of fieldwork was undertaken, recording the standing monuments in the grounds of Villa Wolkonsky, the residence of the British Ambassador to Italy. Thanks to the kind support of the UK embassy, the team were able to begin a geophysical survey of the gardens, a structural analysis of the Neronian spur of the Aqua Claudia and the Colombario of Tiberius Claudius Vitalis, as well as record the structures with laser scanning and HD photography.

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Alex Turner and Jon Allison (NCL) conducting laser scanning inside the Tomb of Tiberius Claudius Vitalis. Photo credit: Elena Pomar

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Thea Ravasi and Francesca Carboni (Rome Transformed Project Research Associates). Photo credit: Elena Pomar

In March team returned to focus on several monuments. The structural analysis and laser scanning continued of the Aqua Claudia and detailed recording was made of the tombs preserved in Via Statilia. The geophysical survey undertaken by the BSR explored the area alongside the Aurelian walls, using the technique of ERT to better understand the depth of stratigraphy and to locate suitable deposits for subsequent mechanical coring. In front of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran the team from CNR used the technique of GPR to investigate the sub-surface, building upon results collected during the earlier San Giovanni in Laterano project. Sadly the season was curtailed after 1 week due to the current COVID-19 pandemic but preparations are underway to continue the fieldwork once the current restrictions are lifted.


The CNR team led by Salvatore Piro surveying in front of St. John Lateran Basilica, March 2020. Photo credit: Ian Haynes.


Alex Turner undertaking photography of the Aqua Claudia. Photo credit: Elena Pomar.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 835271). The project is grateful to the staff of the La Soprintendenza Speciale Archeologia Belle Arti e Paesaggio di Roma and Roma Capitale – Sovrintendenza ai Beni Culturali for their support. Our thanks is also extended to the British Ambassador to Italy and San Marino Jill Morris CMG and the team at the British Ambassador’s residence at Villa Wolkonsky, in particular Allegra Serrao the Residence Manager.



Meet the artists…Bea Bonafini

An interview with Bea Bonafini, our 2019-20 Abbey Scholar in Painting, in which she speaks about the works she has produced during her residency at the BSR.

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I conversed with you in dream, 2020, gouache on inlayed cork, 40 ×  30 cm. Image: courtesy of the artist

This is your second show at the BSR as an Abbey Scholar. What has changed in your practice since the show in December?

I’ve shifted my attention to looking more into the origins of the grotesque in painting. The Domus Aurea wall paintings for example, or the decorative painting framing frescoes in the Vatican or in the Orvieto cathedral, and so on. The term grotesque was applied to fresco painting in the ancient Roman ruins that were being discovered in the 15th and 16th centuries. They inspired artists at the time to consider surreal, bizarre or fantastical elements in painting as tools to move towards a freer, dream-like figurative depiction, that included the monstrous or the ugly. I’ve been thinking of the grotesque body as the site of fluid transitions: from human to animal, or from animate to ornamental. Nothing is what it seems. Anything is granted the ability to transform into something else, or to behave abnormally. I’ve been thinking about how we experience painting without borders, across space; how our way of consuming images is slowed down through the fragmentation of the picture plane. Different from my work in the previous Mostra, I’ve now used an inlay and engraving technique with cork, which is then painted with gouache to create quite condensed, intimate scenes.

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Grotesque in Luca Signorelli’s frescoes. Photograph by the artist

Can you talk about your relationship with colours?

Colour and texture need to work together, I don’t consider them to be separate things. There is no colour without texture, and there is no texture without a surface. So working backwards, I give a lot of thought to the colour-texture of the materials I’m working with. Cork has a patterned and absorbent surface that I hide or expose. I prefer thinking of painting as a staining process. Right now I make puddles of diluted paint that get absorbed into the cork, which gradually becomes more and more saturated with pigment, so that the brush marks are never visible. In the same way that my figures transition, so do colours. I treat them like a body that is blushing, creating its own glowing puddles of colour, emerging softly from a material, from within.

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Reliefs from the facade of Orvieto’s Cathedral by Lorenzo Maitani. Photograph by the artist.


The artist in her studio at the BSR. Photo credt: Viviana Calvagno

Interview by Marta Pellerini (BSR Fine Arts Adviser)