Girolamo Mercuriale’s De Arte Gymnastica Libri Sex (Venetiis : Apud Juntas 1573), first published in 1569, was one of the earliest works on the therapeutic value of gymnastics and exercise, and a major history of the practices of the Greeks and Romans in exercise, diet, hygiene, and bathing, based on study of classical literature. The second edition of 1573 was the first illustrated book on gymnastics, adding drawings by Pirro Ligorio (1513-1583), Ducal Antiquarian to Duke Alfonso II d’Este of Ferrara and former Architect at the Vatican. The drawings are generally believed to have been rendered in wood blocks by German engraver Cristoforo Coriolano (born 1540)
Girolamo Mercuriale (1530-1606) was an Italian physician and philologist, the son of a physician from the city of Forlì. After studying medicine in Bologna, Padua, and Venice, he went to Rome as part of a diplomatic mission to Pope Pius IV in 1562. He spent several years in Rome in the household of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, a prominent collector of antiquities and patron of the arts. Mercuriale’s connection with the Cardinal provided him with access to extensive libraries and antiquarian scholars in Rome, including antiquarian and architect Pirro Ligorio, who was also in Rome in service at various times to Pope Pius IV, Pope Pius V, and Cardinal Ippolito d’Este.
Mercuriale’s reputation as an historian and antiquarian enhanced his medical career. The publication of De arte gymnastica in 1569 helped him obtain appointment to a chair of medicine at Padua in 1570. He later moved to distinguished and well-paid professorships at the universities of Bologna and Pisa. Members of the highest ranks of society were his patrons and patients, including the Emperor Maximilian II and Grand Duke Ferdinand of Tuscany, and he maintained correspondence with leading intellectuals of the day, including Aldrovandi and Galileo.
De arte gymnastica is divided into six books to sketch the history, settings, and equipment, and the varieties of exercise practiced in antiquity, and to examine the effect of such exercises on health. It begins with the origins of gymnastica and its relation to the origins of medicine, followed by description of Roman athletics, with some reference to Greek as well, with some references to modern cultural conditions which had caused health to deteriorate since the days of Hippocrates. Expanding on the work of Galen, Mercuriale deemed exercise a medical necessity for preventing disease, maintaining health, and building up sickly individuals. He pointed out that there was abundant contemporary literature on the other parts of preservative medicine, but not exercise.
While Mercuriale viewed exercise as basically positive, his detailed advice included limitations and warnings. He followed Galen’s assumption that changed in humoral balance, and therefore only those of cold and dry temperament should exercise vigorously, and others should limit themselves to gentler forms of movement. Convalescents and the elderly should avoid vigorous exercise altogether. The lifestyle of athletes was basically unhealthy: too much meat, too much sleep, too much sun exposure, too much physical activity, and unbalanced emotions. The right time to stop was as soon as breathing changed or the face reddened. He also lists the dangers of many specific forms of exercise, including hunting and playing pell mell (an ancestor of croquet), and pointed out that some forms of exercise, such as gymnastics and wrestling were no longer socially respectable.
Most of the illustrations of Roman athletes in action were drawn for the second edition in 1573 by artist, architect, and antiquary Pirro Ligorio, whom Mercuriale had met in Rome. Both left Rome In 1569-70, Ligorio to Ferrara and Mercuriale to Padua, but they continued to correspond and cooperate. The illustrations are carefully placed in relation to the text, and the text refers to them. Ligorio was renowned for investigating, describing, and drawing Roman antiquities, but he was also criticized by his contemporaries and by later scholars for representing his subjects with more imagination than historical accuracy. In the text, Mercuriale identified illustrations by Ligorio, often complimenting his antiquarian expertise. In addition to the illustrations by Ligorio, Mercuriale commissioned some drawings of actual sculptures for his new illustrated edition.
The Health Sciences Library’s copy of the second edition of De Arte Gymnastica is bound in white vellum over pasteboard with raised bands and a gilt-tooled red morocco spine label. It was given to the Health Sciences Library by the Denver Medical Society in 1982. It was at one time owned by Docteur Flandrin, whose bookplate, dated 1902, is inside the front cover.
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[Emily Epstein, Cataloging Librarian]