Unexpected antiquarians: Venetian diplomatic doctors in search of the past in the eastern Mediterranean and Levant

Valentina Pugliano (Università Ca’ Foscari, Massachusetts Institute of technology)

Valentina Pugliano is Marie Curie Fellowship at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice since January 2024. Previously, she was Lecturer and Research Associate in History and the Program in Science, Technology and Society at MIT, and a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science of Cambridge University and a Junior Research Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge. She is currently working on two books: the first based on her doctorate, completed at Oxford University, on the role of apothecaries and pharmacies in the development of early modern natural history; and a second on the diplomatic medicine of the Venetian Republic in the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant, and its intellectual and scientific exchanges with Mamluks and Ottomans, ca. 1400-1730.

The flourishing study of antiquities across early modern Europe benefited from the contribution of a little-known category of travelling actors: medici condotti. These were physicians, surgeons and apothecaries appointed by the Venetian Republic to its gubernatorial and consular bases to ensure the health of its diplomats and merchants across its seaborne empire and its trading colonies in Mamluk and Ottoman lands, notably Syria and Egypt. Between 1350 and 1700, medici condotti were regular fixtures in Crete as well as in the Venetian embassy in Istanbul and its consulates (fondaci) of Alexandria, Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, and Tripoli.

While their remit was a medical one, their appointment was quickly repurposed for different ends. Beginning in the fifteenth century, influenced by wider cultural trends across Europe, Italian physicians began to seek the condotta medica in order to travel eastward with Venice’s patronage and pursue their intellectual interests, particularly natural history, the study of Graeco-Roman antiquities, and Arabic medical manuscripts. In the hours they could spare from medical practice, they picked up their notebooks and went exploring the neighbourhoods, shops, fields and monuments of the towns and countryside that hosted them. While a standard appointment lasted two years, in parallel with the Venetian consul’s, many sought re-appointment and a few ended up spending decades abroad, refining their knowledge of the country and its core language, be it Greek, Arabic or Turkish.

Of those condotti who engaged in antiquarian pursuits, a handful were driven by the desire to complete thought-out, large-scale projects. The majority, however, seem to have undertaken lower-intensity, piecemeal work. After all, knowledge gathering was not part of their contractual obligations. Accordingly, the records of their activities vary considerably: some wrote little, while other fully invested in building a network of like-minded correspondents and published lengthy treatises once back in Europe.

While on the surface their efforts may appear different, I argue that the condotti expressed a brand of antiquarianism that needs to be studied on its own terms. The roots of this shared approach originate in the condotta medica itself, whose demands, constraints and advantages defined these physicians’ intellectual experience of the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant and what they could accomplish there.

To make my case, I will focus on two sixteenth-century condotti: Onorio Belli stationed in Candia between 1583 to 1599, and Prospero Alpino stationed in Cairo between 1582 and 1585. I will try to show that the condotti’s antiquarianism was marked by the locality to which their appointment bound them as much as by their medical profession. It was thus often functional and presentist, intended to mine the past for actionable information and usable objects, whether a surgical technology or a recipe that may serve them in their practice going forward; and it frequently intersected other fields of inquiry cognate to medicine, notably the study of medical botany and natural history.


OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Haude Morvan (7 mai 2024). Unexpected antiquarians: Venetian diplomatic doctors in search of the past in the eastern Mediterranean and Levant. Dans l'œil des antiquaires. Consulté le 22 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/11nht


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