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The physician’s manifesto
Medicine was a respectable profession during the Renaissance. But just barely
On March 28, 1574, the physician Francesco Longo summoned a notary to his house in the tiny parish of San Marcilian, at the northwestern edge of the city of Venice. Longo remained sound in body and mind even at the age of 68—a remarkably good run for the era, as he conceded. Now, on his sickbed, it was time to make his final will and testament, always an unpleasant task. Even the most straightforward part of this endeavor, arranging the disposition of his property, raised anxious questions: What if his heirs should fight, as so many did, over their inheritances? How could he be sure that the written word, however carefully chosen, would convey his precise meaning? As a man of learning, he knew that every syllable has a vast semantic range. Longo had taken his first doctorate in the liberal arts at the University of Padua in 1530 and his second in medicine, also at Padua, in 1535. Like most of his colleagues, he could have written this document in his own hand and even in Latin, but he didn’t have the strength.
Longo had also made a testament 22 years previously, during an illness. He knew how to go about the task then, but life had become more difficult in the meantime. And his personality further complicated the undertaking. Like all testators, Longo aimed to put his property in order, but for him “legacy” meant ethical precepts as much as cash or household goods.
Who surrounded the old physician as he embarked on his final testament? The notary Giovanni Girolamo Longin appeared at Longo’s bedside that day, fortunately with ample supplies. Most testators, from tile workers to doges, had little to say. In a few sentences or, at most, a few pages, they bequeathed their property to wives, husbands, and children, leaving perhaps a ducat or two to one of the city’s charitable foundations after Longin had prodded them on the point, as Venetian notaries were required by law to do. Longo, however, was that rarer client who took an expansive approach to the testament; he would take not the usual single sheet of paper but almost 10 to make his wishes known. Longin’s hand would cramp before the job was done. Two other men appeared to serve as witnesses, verifying the speaker’s identity and, in due course, attesting that the written text matched the dictation. As usual, the witnesses were colleagues and friends of the testator. In this case, they were Adrian Vidal, a pharmacist who ran the apothecary shop once owned by Longo’s father, Pietro, and Flamino de Ca’ de Mezzo, a nobleman whose friendship Longo had made thanks to the ascent along the social ladder that the medical profession initiated.
Since the testament existed as a secret trust between testator, notary, and witnesses until the postmortem publication of the document, these four men were the protagonists of the event. But for Longo, as for many testators, family and friends were present in mind if not the room. By this point in his long life, he had lost many of his closest family members, including his wife, Marietta, who had died nine years earlier, and his younger brother, Girardo, who had passed away long before that, probably in the plague of 1555. Yet many other people remained to be considered. Longo’s daughter, Virginia, had taken her vows at the nearby convent of Corpus Domini around 1562, but he continued to look after her. He also had three sons. Pietro, the eldest, had taken his medical degree from the College of Physicians in Venice in 1556 and was now a practicing physician in his own right. Longo’s youngest, Nonio Cornelio, had aspirations as an entrepreneur. These two young men would be the old doctor’s principal heirs. Giulio, Longo’s middle son, elicited fatherly concern but could not be a major beneficiary, because he had suffered an incapacitating ailment or accident.
Francesco Longo had a share of worries equal to those of most testators, but he dictated a will on that March day that modeled Stoic equanimity and emotional equilibrium. Longo’s testament is an unusual, but not a unique, document. Like some artisans, merchants, priests, and especially physicians, this doctor used his testament to construct a monument of character and learning. He shared with other testamentary humanists the determination to insert claims to cultural legitimacy even within constraints of notarial boilerplate. The difference was Longo chose to make these claims less in fretful passages of self-glorification and more through philosophical lessons.
The pedagogical and ethical qualities of Longo’s last recorded thoughts strike the reader from the outset. Early-modern testators were expected to begin by bequeathing their souls, humbly and with penitence, to God. Longo eventually made that spiritual bequest, but he began with himself and a display of his learning. He made elegant rhetoric and moral reflections out of what was customarily a legalistic preamble:
I have often been moved to consider a subject that no one can ever ponder too often and that few people ever consider sufficiently—that is, our end, or death. This train of thought, this meditation, can never be unnecessary, nor can it ever be too carefully pondered. Knowing that death is a certainty for everyone, but our final hour impossible to guess, I have thought it both useful and proper for each person to ponder their affairs before death strikes—death, which forebodes her imminent presence to us through the myriad and various moments of doubt we feel in the midst of our daily business. Yet many people brush aside these warnings, not realizing that death is quite near to them, even though they are young, not in their dotage, as I am, having by God’s grace lived 68 years sound in body and in mind. And so I have set out to put in order both myself and my possessions, and wish to organize everything in this my final will—though, to tell the truth, my belongings are so few and so trifling that I am almost ashamed to mention them in a testament. Still, rich and poor alike worry about their possessions, however unequal their estates may be.
Longo thus traced his philosophy, putting himself forward as a model testator and pointing out the dangerous negligence of others. He had begun by dispensing advice to an imagined audience that no doubt included his immediate heirs, Pietro and Nonio Cornelio, but his phrasing and use of the first-person plural rather than the second alerts us that he had more than these young men in mind; his vision of audience encompassed posterity in its fullest sense. He declared to himself, his sons, the notary, witnesses, other family, and anyone else who might then or at any time see this stack of paper that “we” must attend to the odd moments of uncertainty in the midst of day-to-day business. And he paused to reflect on the equality of rich and poor: We all worry about our possessions and legacies. Longo’s claim to belong to the ranks of the poor, terming his estate a collection of “trifles,” did stretch the truth. He was no land magnate, but among his possessions were a residence, two rental apartments, and small plots on the terraferma beyond the lagoon city, as well as modest investments, including his wife’s artisan level dowry of 1,500 ducats.
Like many testators, Longo undervalued his possessions to reduce the notarial fees (usually a portion of the total value of the estate) as well as the taxes his heirs would have to pay. Still, by the standards of his wealthy city, Longo’s financial situation, even at a generous estimate, put him on the low end of the middling ranks.
Longo’s textual wealth, by contrast, was considerable. Here we have a man who was “cash poor, but culturally rich.” Longo displayed from the outset evidence of his intellectual and literary assets. His first sentences draw out universal meaning from an individual case (himself, as it happened), a characteristic manner of working for a thinker and, given the precepts he derived, a moral philosopher.
I write about Venetian men and women living outside the circles of power, and the Renaissance they experienced. Scholars and broader audiences alike tend to level charges of elitism at “the Renaissance” as a cultural phenomenon, and with some justice. Patrons of culture had uncommon wealth. And even if most producers of paintings and sculpture had relatively humble origins they enjoyed uncommon talent. Yet ordinary people also participated energetically, most notably in collecting (or borrowing) books—and attending to the middle class offers a sharper picture of the era’s intellectual and literary ferment.
Physicians became an unexpected focus of my research, growing out of a chance encounter with the uncharacteristically wordy, semiautobiographical testaments of Francesco Longo (1506–76). Why would a physician seem so hungry to be recognized as a man of wide experience and learning? Why did Longo not feel that as a medical doctor he had sufficient honor or cultural legitimacy? His university credentials surely brought considerable prestige. And the long tradition of literary attacks on physicians as manual laborers with delusions of grandeur had subsided by the 16th century. Medicine had achieved a reasonably stable place, alongside the law, as a civil profession.
Yet on closer inspection, physicians protested a good deal, about their humanistic learning and the need for society to give their profession more credit as a liberal art. It was as if they feared that their contemporaries still viewed their work as baser than the other learned professions, in part owing to its unavoidable contact with human bodies. Medicine, it seems, was still fighting for recognition as scientia and ars.
Sarah Gwyneth Ross is an associate professor of history at Boston College and the author of The Birth of Feminism: Woman as Intellect in Renaissance Italy and England (2009). Her essay here is drawn and adapted from her latest book, Everyday Renaissances: The Quest for Cultural Legitimacy in Venice, by permission of Harvard University Press (Copyright © 2016 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College). All rights reserved.