People always ask, “What’s your dissertation about?”
It is a seemingly simple question. The problem is that dissertations are never simple and they are often incredibly esoteric. Figuring out how to make it interesting and comprehensible to someone who knows nothing about the period and region you study can be incredibly difficult. But it is a skill you have to master because, in reality, there are only a handful of people who will know anything in-depth about your topic. In an effort to master this skill, I thought I should write a blog post summarizing my dissertation. Are you ready? Here goes…
My dissertation is about the social, cultural, and political importance of science and medicine, particularly pharmacy and botany, at the late Medici Court (1650 – 1750). Basically I ask, why did the late Medici Court devote a ton of time, money, and resources to collecting exotic plants and materials in addition to producing costly pharmaceutical remedies?
At the center of my study, and what prompted my research, is a collection of alchemical and medicinal recipes collected by the last Medici Princess, Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici. Now, you are probably thinking, “the Medici, aren’t they a show on Netflix?” Yes, yes they are. Italy’s most famous family, the Medici, have come to embody the ideals and values associated with the “Renaissance.” Side note – I place the tern “Renaissance” in quotations because this is a problematic term and reflects more the ideals of American and British scholars who created this term rather than early modern Florence/Italy. Anna Maria Luisa (1667 – 1743) was the last descendant of the famous Medici family.
But back to Anna Maria Luisa’s recipes – Her recipes originally sparked my interest because they were so interesting and in many cases odd. Don’t even ask how her recipe prescribed taking a St. Ignatius Bean! Hint, it doesn’t go in your mouth.
As a collection, her recipes cover everything from chemical formulas for rare paint colors, dyes, and styptic waters, to perfume, fever waters, concoctions to control epilepsy and lung inflammation, and even forms of lapidary medicine (i.e. the use of natural or man-made stones in medicine). What I did not expect when I first started my project was that this collection of recipes–collected by a women who is seen as inconsequential to the larger political and cultural milieu of the 18th century–would allow me to trace the global circulation of early modern medicinal ingredients and “drugs.”
Through Anna Maria Luisa’s collection of recipes and records of the Medici Court’s pharmaceutical expenses, I traced how Anna Maria Luisa and her father collected exotics, such as Goa Stones, various roots and barks from East Africa, St. Ignatius Beans, Cannanor Stones, and numerous exotic plants like bananas and pineapples, through commercial agents, religious missions, and political allies.
So why does all of this matter? Well, it mattered for Anna Maria Luisa because recipes allowed her to participate in the patronage and practice of medicine. Through recipe and pharmaceutical patronage she found a way to stay relevant in the politics of eighteenth century Europe. Not an easy feat for a childless widow who was the last of her family!
Anna Maria Luisa specifically focused her medical authority and knowledge on the health of women and children. She became widely known in circles of correspondence for her the infant convulsion powder that was produced at her personal pharmaceutical laboratory (infant fevers and the convulsions they caused were very deadly in the 18th century). This powder became her most precious commodity for saving the lives of the children of the European nobility. By gifting precious medical knowledge, Anna Maria Luisa was able to ingratiate herself to some of the most powerful courts of Europe. With the good will she established through recipe exchange and medicinal gifts, Anna Maria Luisa maintained a network of communication with the very courts that would decide the fate of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. With no Medici heir to succeed Anna Maria Luisa’s brother, larger European powers vied to take possession of Tuscany and all of its vast cultural and material riches (remember, the Medici art collection included almost every famous Renaissance and Baroque artist).
Anna Maria Luisa was worried that her family’s legacy and precious collections would be destroyed with the end of their line. Thus, she focused much of her medical gifting on the court of Vienna. By the eighteenth century, the Viennese court was of particular importance as it was both the headquarters of the Hapsburg dynasty and the center of imperial politics. By the last two decades of Anna Maria Luisa’s life, it was clear that Tuscany would become a satellite state of the Hapsburg empire. Francis of Lorraine, the future Holy Roman Emperor and founder of the Hapsburg-Lorraine dynasty, became the Tuscan Grand Duke and ruled Florence from the imperial court in Vienna – a court and nobility that was much indebted to Anna Maria Luisa and her infant convulsion powder.
Are you still with me? Just checking. I am almost finished, I promise. Here is why all of this matters beyond Anna Maria Luisa:
Anna Maria Luisa’s collection of alchemical and medicinal recipes in addition to her father’s, Cosimo III, pharmaceutical patronage reveals the cultural, social, and political importance of recipes and medicine at the late Medici court. Recipes and medicine were objects that not only displayed wealth and knowledge, but also could be gifted and exchanged as meaningful and lucrative forms of social currency in court politics. Thus, an examination of the scientific and medicinal pursuits of the late Medici court, through the lens of recipes, reassesses the previously disregarded scientific culture of the late Medici court, re-centers one woman’s role in the shaping of a scientific and medical court culture, and demonstrates how women negotiated social capital through recipes.
And there you have it. A very condensed version of my dissertation. I would love to hear your feedback. What this interesting? What would you like to know more about?