From the belly to the soul

The Anatomy of the Senses
August 11, 1995

Marguerite Marie Alacoque, on entering the convent, had to pass an ultimate spiritual test. She wrote, ". . . it seemed easier to give up my life than submit myself to such a trial . . . (but) the Lord Almighty desired it of me as a sacrifice of myself" . Flagellation? Fasting? No, cheese. Although she "never experienced greater horror" than when eating it, by God's grace she swallowed pride, revulsion, and a bit of curdled milk.

Piero Camporesi is at his best when he lifts such passages out of obscurity. Combing through hagiographies, medical texts, and gardening guides, Camporesi constructs an image of late Renaissance popular beliefs regarding food, the body, and the spirit. A translation of his 1985 Le officine dei sensi, the book features essays that work their way through the digestive tract and into the soul, implicitly tracing the degeneration of spirituality through its reactions to food. The early chapters deal with apples, gardens and plants. These were fertile, fruitful, and restorative, both literally and figuratively. The tone becomes ambivalent with cheese. While seeming to hold the promise of alimentary renewal, it was malevolent and iniquitous in its inherent decay. Enter the Counter Reformation. Believing that abstinence made the heart grow stronger, Counter-Reformation saints made a fetish of fasting. The only food worth eating was that rejected by lesser mortals, so the preferred diet veered between consecrated hosts and the pestilence-stricken's pus.

The growth of anatomy made the spiritual rejection of the body more scientifically precise; once derided in the whole, it could now be abandoned part by part with Christ the Anatomist directing the operation.

These are essays in the fullest sense. Camporesi eschews the footnotes which rise in sedimentary layers from the bottom of many an Italian scholarly page, and threaten at times to overwhelm text, argument, and sense with the sheer volume of historical scholarship. He reaches for the opposite: a personal response to subjects shaped by wide reading, inspired insights, and reflexive prejudices. It is a style largely impervious to considerations of context, attribution, and interpretation that define more traditional scholarship, and is by turns illuminating and maddening. The passive voice dominates and non sequiturs abound. While clear on the fact that early moderns were sending the body to hell in a handbasket, Camporesi often declines to spell out who is doing - or writing - what to whom, or why, or when. He is at his most disconnectedly epigrammatic when rhapsodising on apples and gardens; most doggedly didactic when satirising Counter-Reformation saints by use of extended quotations from contemporary hagiographies that drew their ascetic exercises so piously as to render them burlesque. The parts of this decidedly post-modern collection are seldom connected thematically or chronologically, but there is a faintly familiar air. It is not just the Po-Mo manipulation of obscure texts and obscurer terms that gives unintended irony to the party line about the meaning of literary works being socially constructed and arbitrary. Lest the message be lost in the bravura performance, the strains of anti-clericalism play softly in the background. The medievals are moderate, sensible, and appreciative of nature; the Counter-Reformation types unrelievedly bizarre. There is little doubt that some were, but one cannot help wishing that this was demonstrated with a little more attention to rules of evidence and argument. As it is, Anatomy of the Senses is entertaining and frustrating, slim and overblown, learned and illegitimate: pure Camporesi.

Nicholas Terpstra is a fellow, Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Florence.

The Anatomy of the Senses: Natural Symbols in Medieval and Early Modern Italy

Author - Piero Camporesi
ISBN - 0 7456 0506 0
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 209

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