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Healthy Living During the Counter-Reformation

Posted On December 15, 2020 | 11:40 am | by mayw | Permalink
Katherine M. Bentz considers the history of Italian villas beyond architecture

Katherine M. Bentz, associate professor of art history at Saint Anselm College, is a 2020–2021 fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies. Her research report, “Prelates, Health, and the Villa in Renaissance Rome,” situated villas within the early modern culture of preventative medicine.


Q&A with Katherine Bentz 

What was the importance of villas in sixteenth-century Italy?

During the second half of the sixteenth century, the church was one of the most powerful entities in Europe, and the papal court functioned similarly to European secular courts. The pope ruled like a king, cardinals were often called princes of the church, and elite churchmen were great patrons of art and architecture, building sumptuous country estates and suburban villas just as secular noblemen of the time. Yet this was happening during the seemingly more austere period of ecclesiastical reform, the Counter-Reformation. Even if the cardinals were religious—some were less pious than others—they lived as princes on these estates in part because villas were important places for displaying one’s wealthy status, social entertaining, and especially for health. Many cardinals and popes were elderly men living sedentary lifestyles. They worried about their health, but particularly about the perception of their health and strength during this politically fraught time. There was also a growing interest in health in Italian society generally, demonstrated by the popularity of self-help-type advice books on healthy living. Many books were dedicated to cardinals and popes as patrons—some were even published at their request. My research looks at how villas functioned as places of health and leisure for ecclesiastics, many of whom were also supporting this growing popular interest in hygienic medicine.


How were villas connected to air and the color green in early modern medicine? 

In humoral theory (the medical paradigm of the Middle Ages and Renaissance), air was one of the most important of the six non-naturals, the external factors that regulated the internal humors and kept people’s health in balance. Disease was thought to spread through the air via smells, so you needed to have air that was healthy: temperate, clean, and odorless. Many believed good air was found in the countryside, because the bad air of Rome—caused by frequent flooding of Tiber River, summer heat, and poor sanitation—caused disease. Many villas were built on verdant hilltops because it was thought the best air and winds were in elevated locations. As a result, escaping to a villa outside the city to stay healthy had been a tradition since antiquity.

Renaissance society also associated green with good health. Physicians, humanists, and religious figures looked to the ancient Greeks and Romans as cultural and intellectual models, and Renaissance theorists echoed authors like Aristotle or Pliny the Elder who talked about green as a healing color. In Aristotelian color theory, black and white are on opposite ends of the color spectrum, and green and blue are in the middle. So the intensity of green hues was thought to balance out bad humors in the eye strained by the extremes of black and white. In libraries, for example, there was green marble or cloth to rest the eyes from reading the black and white of the ink and page. A key resource for Renaissance architecture, the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius’s De architectura also emphasized the dangers of bad winds and air infecting people who sat motionless in the hot sunshine in outdoor theaters. He recommended building walkways with greenery around the theater because he believed that when walking, the body heated up and expelled the extra humors, and the greenery tempered the air and balanced the body’s bad humors.


Why is it important to understand the connection between health and landscape in this period? 

On one level, this study tells us about how prelates could justify vast expenditure and luxurious living in villas, despite the church’s reform efforts during the Counter-Reformation. But more importantly, by using ideas about healthy living as a framework for examining villas, we can think of these buildings as more than examples of architectural history, and instead as sites that played a wide variety of roles in society. I’m studying other healthy living aspects of villas too, like sports and exercise, water use, and banqueting, to consider how Renaissance society thought about the relationships between bodies, health, and the environment. These ideas also resonate with how we think about architecture and healthy living today. We are very invested in how the environment impacts our health, and especially with climate change and the current pandemic, air pollution and the need for healthy air has become something we’re more conscious of every day. 

Though it has been an unusual year, I’m grateful for my Garden and Landscape Studies colleagues. [Resident Program Director] Thaïsa Way is so great at giving insightful feedback and support to the fellows, even if their fields of study are vastly different from her own, and the librarians have been super accommodating and helpful—[Curator of Rare Books] Anatole Tchikine is also a Renaissance scholar, so it’s nice to work with a librarian who specializes in Italian Renaissance gardens.


May Wang is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Richard Tong, postgraduate digital media fellow.