WASHINGTON (July 15, 2010)—National Geographic shines a spotlight on one of history’s first medical celebrities in THE PROFESSOR OF SECRETS(National Geographic Books; ISBN: 978-1-4262-0650-4; July 20, 2010; $26 e-book and hardcover), publishing this summer.
Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and historian William Eamon evokes the world of Renaissance medicine to tell the stranger-than-fiction tale of the brilliant yet utterly unconventional 16th-century doctor Leonardo Fioravanti. His marvelous remedies, outsize personality and talent for self-aggrandizement earned him the adoration of the public, the derision of the medical establishment and a reputation as one of his era’s most colorful and combative figures.
To Fioravanti, who trained as a barber-surgeon, the problem with academic medicine was too much theory and too many books. He felt it lacked any foundation in experience. He preferred a more practical approach, a return to the origins of medicine and the old ways of healing. Early in his career Fioravanti hired an alchemist to teach him the art of distillation. He scoured the countryside for medicinal plants and built a laboratory in his house where he conducted tests to discover new drugs and other “secrets of nature.” He catapulted himself out of obscurity to become one of the most famous healers of the Renaissance.
Fioravanti became a zealous experimenter, and his methods were avid, daring and utterly random. His defiance of conventional medical doctrine became legendary. To his detractors he was a ridiculous and dangerous quack. The College of Physicians in Venice accused him of fraud and endangering people’s health with his unorthodox treatments. Yet Fioravanti’s devoted supporters proclaimed him a saint, a savior and a prophet and they lavished praise on his healing prowess. A Venetian poet called him an “angel of paradise, sent by God to earth for the health and preservation of human life,” after Fioravanti cured him “with miraculous success” of a brutal gunshot wound in the head.
Fioravanti’s unconventional methods landed him in a Milan prison in 1573 on a charge of “not medicating in the canonical way.” While there he issued an audacious challenge: “that there be consigned to me alone twenty-five sick people…an equal number with similar infirmities to all the physicians of Milan. If I don’t cure my patients more quickly and better than they do theirs, I’m willing to be banished forever from the city.” The historical record is mute on whether his challenge was accepted, but in any event, he was set free.
A prolific author, Fioravanti marketed his cures with originality and theatricality. In his books he launched a new kind of medical advertising that would survive for centuries, even as his cures faded from memory. His books were reprinted and translated into several languages well into the 18th century.
Almost all that we know about Fioravanti comes from his own writings. An obsessive autobiographer, he continually colored the events of his past to build an image of himself among his admiring public.
“Although I rely on Fioravanti’s memory and use it as a guide, I do not accept it at face value. Instead I have strived to craft it into a more multilayered story than the one-dimensional, biased version we encounter in his writings,” pens Eamon in his prologue. “Because so little is known about marginal figures such as Fioravanti, the effort of reconstructing his memory can bring all of us closer to a world that has otherwise been lost — the remarkable world of late Renaissance Italy.”
THE PROFESSOR OF SECRETS will entice readers into this underworld of intrigue, sorcery and alchemy, at a time when the next devastating plague was just a flea bite away; when barber-surgeons frequently bled their patients along with giving them a shave; when charlatans sold their wares in the streets; and when one could buy a ticket to view a public dissection of a human body.
The little-known story of the controversial Fioravanti will grip and fascinate all who take pleasure in Renaissance intrigue, the milestones of medicine and the best of historical thrillers.
About the Author
William Eamon is a widely published and respected scholar based at the University of New Mexico. His first book, “Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in the Medieval and Early Modern Culture,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in history and won the History Book Award from the Association of American Publishers. He is co-editor of “Beyond the Black Legend: Spain and the Scientific Revolution.”