Past Events

Our Program scholars and partners are well-represented at major international conferences in the field and have hosted several international conferences, from representations of disease in medieval Italy to the history of water in early modern Tuscany. Read on for a selection of our past conferences and conference sessions, as well as seminars delivered in the CMRS and History Department seminar series.


Bill Kent Memorial Lecture 2017

6:30pm Thursday, 5 October 2017 
Monash University, Level 7, 271 Collins Street Melbourne

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. A physician wearing a seventeenth century plague preventive costume.

John Henderson

Coping with Plague: Public Health and Epidemics in Renaissance Italy

Each age faces the challenge of a new epidemic, whether it is cholera, tuberculosis, AIDS, SARS, Bird Flu or Ebola. Plague, however, has remained a paradigm against which reactions to other epidemics have been judged. In the 2017 Bill Kent Memorial Lecture, John Henderson will reveal that early modern Italy, though best known for the birth of the Renaissance, is also renowned for the precocious development of its public health policies to cope with epidemic disease.

Focusing mainly on 17th-century Tuscany, John Henderson will argue that it is time to re-assess early modern Italian policies dealing with plague within a wider context of measures adopted by other European cities and states and more generally during the Third Plague Pandemic, especially as early modern Italy has often been seen as providing the model for 19th– and 20th-century public health strategies. These include isolation and quarantine. Henderson’s approach is to look behind the optimistic gloss of official printed accounts to examine the often moving and tragic stories of the individuals who ran hospitals, the doctors who treated plague victims, and above all of the ordinary men and women left bereft and confused by the sickness and death of family members. These vivid accounts reflect one of the main themes of Bill Kent’s work, the strength of neighbourhood and family ties. The way in which governments and individuals dealt with plague are as relevant today, as we struggle to deal at the national, local and personal level with emergencies occasioned by natural disasters and outbreaks of epidemic disease.

JOHN HENDERSON is one of the leading social historians of renaissance and early modern Italy. He is Professor of Italian Renaissance History in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck, University of London; Research Professor at Monash University, Melbourne; and Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge.

John has published a wide range of books and articles on the social, religious and medical history of medieval and renaissance Tuscany. Major monographs include: Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence (Oxford University Press, 1994; Chicago University Press, 1997); The Great Pox. The French Disease in Renaissance Europe, with J. Arrizabalaga and R. French (Yale University Press, 1997), and most recently The Renaissance Hospital. Healing the Body and Healing the Soul (Yale University Press, 2006). He is at present completing a book on plague in early modern Florence for Yale University Press. He has also edited a number of important collections, including: (with T.V. Verdon), Christianity and the Renaissance, Syracuse, 1990; (with R. Wall), Poor Women and Children in the European Past, London, 1994; (with P. Horden and A. Pastore), The Impact of Hospitals in Europe 1000–2000: People, Landscapes, Symbols, Frankfurt am Main, 2006; and (with L. Engleman and C. Lynteris), Plague and the City, London, 2018.

The lecture will be followed by networking, drinks and canapes. 

More information about the lecture can be found here.

Read more about the Bill Kent Foundation Fund here

Nexus: Monash Social Science, Humanities and Medicine Network

Pandemic narratives: Plague, condoms and immunopolitics

1pm – 4pm, Thursday 28 September 2017

Elizabeth Burchill Room E561, 20 Chancellors Walk, Monash University, Clayton Campus


Registration is free. Afternoon tea will be provided.

RSVP: by Monday 25 September 2017. Book here.

John Henderson

Death in Florence: Narrating plague in early modern Tuscany

The aim of this paper is to examine and compare a series of narratives of the experience of plague during the last outbreak in Florence, the capital of the Grand-duchy of Tuscany in the years 1630-1. These will include official narratives through public histories; medical narratives though plague tracts and correspondence of contemporary doctors; administrative narratives from those who organised the campaign against plague and the quarantine of the sick in isolation hospitals; and finally popular narratives, through the numerous judicial cases against those accused of breaking the sanitary legislation designed to control of the movement of people and goods.

Patrick Spedding

Profilaxis and Poetry: Tracing the history and use of condoms in satiric poetry of the early eighteenth century

The aim of this paper is to trace the history and use of condoms by examining their literary representations in a collection of erotic poems, composed between 1706 and 1728 and published in The Potent Ally (1741). The appeal of the poems to contemporary readers was in decoding the literary and scholarly puzzles, and the barrage of classical, topical and sexual allusions and “gentlemanly badinage.” The value of the collection to scholars today is in the information these poems contain concerning the way in which condoms were used, and the extent to which they were (mistakenly) celebrated for their ability to protect users from disease, rather than from unwanted pregnancies.

Mark Davis

Immunopolitics in pandemic narratives

If immunity places you beyond the law, it is always a matter of the law (Cohen, 2009, A body worth defending, p. 45).

Pandemic narratives travel across the media technologies of science and popular culture and into lived experience. Today, these narratives often take the form of stories on ‘emerging and remerging infectious diseases,’ biosecurity threats and the rise of antibiotic resistant infections. With reference to scholarship on biocommunicability, I explore how these stories circulate and rework the metaphors of contagion and immunity as forms of biopolitical action on threats to life.

For further information contact Ella:

Scontri e incontri: The Dynamics of Italian Transcultural Exchanges
9th Biennial ACIS Conference

4-7 July 2017
Monash University Prato Campus

Keynote Presentation: ‘Religious Refugees in the Early Modern Period: Faith, Identity, and Purification in the Italian Context’ 

Nicholas Terpstra, University of Toronto

Conference session: ‘Images and words of violence in the Italian Renaissance.’

Chair: Peter Howard, Monash University

‘Images and words of violence in the Venetian Ottoman encounter.’

Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby, Ben Gurion University of the Negev

‘Words of violence and Renaissance preaching.’

Peter Howard, Monash University

‘Insults in early modern Italy’

Jonathan Davies, University of Warwick

See here for abstracts.

Water in Early Modern Tuscany, 1500-1750

9-10 June 2017
The Medici Archive Project Headquarters, Palazzo Alberti Via de’ Benci 10, Florence

This conference, organised by Alessio Assonitis (The Medici Archive Project) and John Henderson (Birkbeck, University of London and Monash University), seeks to examine the history of water in early modern Tuscany from as many perspectives as possible, by adopting a multi-disciplinary approach. This topic emerges out of collaboration between the Medici Archive Project and the ‘Body in the City’ Focus Program based in the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Monash University.

While architectural historians have examined the construction of fountains, aqueducts, and baths; environmental historians have looked at the draining of swamps and the maintenance of river banks; historians of science have looked at water from the point of view of physics, hydraulics, and atmospheric studies; economic historians have underlined the importance of rivers for food supply and the coastline for commerce; and demographic historians have examined the mortality and disease in Tuscany, rarely has there been an attempt to talk across these disciplines to develop a more exhaustive picture of the positive and negative characteristics of water.

The aim of this conference is to encourage collaboration between scholars from various disciplines – including, but not limited to, architecture, urban studies, public health, medicine and science, environmental studies, law, and economics – in order to explore new research trajectories in relation to the role of water in early modern Tuscany. The themes that the organizers wish to address include: (1) The Administration of Water; (2) Water and Tuscan Economy; (3) Water, Society, and the Individual; (4) The Architectures of Water; and (5) Water and Disease.

View the full conference program here.

‘Violence in Early Modern Italy’

Jonathan Davies, University of Warwick

5 May 2017, 11am-12pm
Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies Seminar, Monash University Clayton Campus

Over the last thirty years violence has become the focus of growing research by historians. Using case studies from early modern Italy, this paper will discuss definitions and forms of violence as well as responses to it. The paper will also consider sources for the history of violence, their problems and advantages, and what violence can tell us about early modern societies.

‘Insults in Early Modern Italy’

Jonathan Davies, University of Warwick 

5 May 2017, 12-1pm
History Department Seminar, Matheson Library, Monash University Clayton Campus

Did you miss Jonathan’s excellent lecture? The recording and slides are available at the Monash University Library website.

It used to be argued that there was little change in insults over time. However, recent studies suggest that in fact insults are often culturally specific. For example, in early modern European societies insults were shaped by gender with women attacked on the basis of their sexuality and men decried for lacking honesty, courage and worth. Insults against men have been portrayed by scholars as being more varied in form and socially transgressive than those against women. In addition, Peter Burke has suggested that in early modern Italy there was a syntax of insults with three main stages: challenge; statement of triumph; and threat. This research has been based largely on cases drawn from criminal records. In contrast, this paper will consider theories of insult in the context of two exceptional contemporary treatises by the leading Bolognese philosopher Camillo Baldi (1550-1637): Delle mentite e offese di parole (Bologna, 1623) and Delle considerationi e dubitationi sopra la materia delle mentite e offese di parole, Libre due (Venice, 1633). These works are systematic analyses of lies and insults, both verbal and physical, with Baldi discussing over 100 different cases of possible compromises of honour.

Renaissance Society of America Chicago 2017

30 March–1 April 2017

Organisers: Peter Howard (Monash University) and John Henderson (Birkbeck, University of London)

Sponsor:  Prato Consortium for Medieval and Renaissance Studies 

Body in the City I: “Sperimentato”: Testing Medical Recipes in Early Modern Italy

Chair: John Henderson, Birkbeck, University of London

Dyeing to be Cured: Paint Colors, Dyes, and Varnishes as Medicine at the Medici Court 

Ashley Buchanan, University of South Florida

A Doctor in the Kitchen: The Power of Nutrition in the Renaissance Recipe Collection

Danielle Callegari, University of California, Berkeley

Secrets on Trial: Testing Wondrous Remedies in Late Renaissance Italy 

Sharon Strocchia, Emory University

Body in the City II: Public Health and Space in Early Modern Italy

Chair: Peter Howard, Monash University

Respondent: Paula Findlen, Stanford University

“More Feared than Death itself?” The Form and Function of the Lazaretto in Early Modern Italy

John Henderson, Birkbeck, University of London

Housing the Mad in Granducal Tuscany

Elizabeth Walker Mellyn, University of New Hampshire

The Visual and the Viewer in the Sistine Chapel

Chair: William E. Wallace, Washington University in St. Louis

Respondent: Lynette M. F. Bosch, SUNY Geneseo

Beholding the Sistine Ceiling

Kim Butler Wingfield, American University

The Viewer/Participant in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment

Bernadine A. Barnes, Wake Forest University

Confraternal Roots of the Sacred Rhetoric of the Painters of the Sistine Chapel?

Peter F. Howard, Monash University


Representing Disease in Italy (ca. 1350-ca. 1650) 

14 December 2016
Bill Kent Library, Monash University Prato Campus.

The representation of disease in visual culture is an important and, we believe, an understudied topic that could benefit from interdisciplinary investigation. With this in mind, we invite you to participate in the workshop “Representing Disease in Italy (ca. 1350- ca.1650),” an event being organized by John Henderson, Fredrika (Freddie) Jacobs, and Jonathan Nelson. In addition to an historian of medicine and two art historians, the advisory board for this research project includes Peter Howard, Director of the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Monash Prato. The proposed project begins with this workshop, in which a small group of scholars from different fields will convene for a day of informal exchanges.

‘Plague, Religion and Medicine in Early Modern Tuscany,’ Religion and Medicine: Healing the Body and the Soul from the Middle Ages to the Modern Day

John Henderson, Birkbeck, University of London

15-16 July 2016 
Birkbeck, University of London

View the final conference program here

‘The Body in the City,’ International Medieval Congress Leeds 2016

5 July 2016

‘The Body in the City’ is a long term Prato Consortium project involving researchers from three continents. It aims to develop histories of the body by examining real and metaphorical bodies in the urban context. The papers presented at the IMC focus on the issue of food: feeding the body in the context of rural-urban issues in Renaissance Tuscany, the issues surrounding the habits of secular clergy in the urban space in relation to spaces of public sociability such as the tavern, and the meaning of food, feast and fasting as metaphor in preaching in Renaissance Florence.

Chair: Anne Holloway (Monash University)

‘Missing Men and the Body Social in Tuscan Mountain Communities.’

Cecilia Hewlett, Prato Centre, Monash University

‘A Priest Walks into a Bar: The Clergy in Taverns in Late Medieval Italy.’

Roisin Cossar, Department of History, University of Manitoba

‘Feeding the Body, Nourishing the Soul: Preaching and Food in Renaissance Florence.’

Peter Howard, Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies, Monash University

‘The Body and the City,’ Renaissance Society of America Boston 2016

31 March–2 April 2016

The Prato Consortium for Medieval and Renaissance Studies sponsored three sessions at the Renaissance Society of America conference in 2016 under ‘the Body in the City.’

Session I

Chair: Nicholas Terpstra (University of Toronto).

‘Vendetta in the Piazza: Masculinity, Urban Space, and a Miracle of San Bernardino.’

Diana Bullen Presciutti, University of Essex

One of the miracles of San Bernardino da Siena depicted in the so-called Nicchia di San Bernardino (1473, Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, Perugia) is the violent assault and subsequent miraculous healing of one Giovanni Antonio Tornano. In the panel, both the assailants and the victim, with their brightly hued doublets and calze, are presented as idealized aristocratic youths. This pictorial emphasis on male beauty, courtly dress, and elevated social status makes clear that the conflict takes place among elites, signaling to a Perugian viewer familiar with internecine strife that he or she was witnessing the consequences of vendetta. Using the Nicchia panel as a point of departure, this paper considers the role of images in shaping public perceptions of the social problem of vendetta, paying particular attention to gender, class, and the relationship between group violence, elite male bodies, and urban space.

‘The Body, Gesture, and Ritual: The Kiss of Peace in the Italian Communes.’

Katherine L. Jansen, Catholic University of America

The practice of peace-making as a counter-weight to the violence endemic in late medieval Italian cities has begun to receive attention in the scholarly literature.  Specifically, scholars have begun to look at the role notarial contracts and religious movements played in shaping the form dispute resolution took in the medieval commune.   But the role of the body—specifically as it moved to exchange of the kiss of peace—in that process has received notably less attention to date.  Through texts and visual evidence, analyzed through the lens of ritual studies theory, this paper will highlight the important role of the body, ritual, and gesture in enacting the settlement of peace in the cities of late medieval Italy.

‘Furta Profana: Pilgrims’ Bodies in Late Medieval Rome.’

James A. Palmer, Florida State University

At the end of the fourteenth century Rome witnessed the return of the papacy from Avignon and the beginning of efforts to return the long-suffering city and its churches to a state suitable for the spiritual capital of Christendom. This effort required substantial outlays of cash and efforts to raise those funds resulted in conflicts between the Roman laity, the city’s clergy, and the popes themselves. One source of such funds was pilgrimage to the city, both during Jubilee years and at other times. But when pilgrims died in the city their bodies were quickly swept up in legal squabbles that were ostensibly over the right to bury such bodies but were really concerned with the cash and property they bore. This paper examines surviving records of such legal fights in the archive of the chapter of St. Peter’s itself, setting them in the context of late fourteenth-century Rome.

Session II

Chair: John S. Henderson (Birkbeck, University of London)

‘Uses of the Dead Body in Medieval and Early Modern Pisa.’

Luigi Lazzerini, Independent Scholar

This paper gives an account of different aspects of behaviour in front of the dead body in medieval and early modern Pisa, with specific attention to relics, urban riots, rituals of execution, plagues, burials, confraternities, processions, scientific uses of the body in the ceremony of public anatomy during carnevale. The starting point is fourteenth-century Pisa during a dramatic period of political, sanitary and social crisis with a succession of governments of many Signori. The dramatic experience of the contact with the dead body is very frequent. Later in early modern Pisa, on the other hand, the Medici are able to secure peace and social order: the dead body is now used in rituals, such as public anatomy, in which the power of the Dukes is celebrated.

‘Surgeons in the City: The Case of Early Modern Bologna.’

Paolo Savoia, Harvard University

This paper asks what it meant to be a surgeon within the urban space of one of the most famous medical centers of early modern Europe. It starts from the analysis of a record of the incoming patients of the Hospital of Santa Maria della Morte, compiled by the “assistant” in the year 1560. The paper then follows the traces left by a group of surgeons as they were moving around in the city: what kind of injuries they treated? how the relationships between learned surgeons and barber surgeons were conceived? what was their level of engagement with public health? what kinds of military and religious institutions they worked for? By looking at this professional category, this paper also maps the distribution of injured bodies, street violence, and bodies at risk in a late sixteenth century city.

‘Charity and the Regulation of Rural Bodies in Siena’s Countryside at the Turn of the Sixteenth Century.’

Sarah Loose, St. Jerome’s University, University of Waterloo

Renaissance Italian hospitals had a considerable impact on the lives and bodies of both the men and women who laboured in them, as well as on the poor who depended on their various charitable acts for relief. Most often examined in the context of urban environments, this paper instead focuses on the influence of Renaissance hospitals beyond the confines of city walls. With a patrimony that encompassed approximately one-third of the land in the Sienese state, Santa Maria della Scala owned and directed a number of farms and small rural hospitals. An analysis of administrative, financial, and other records offers insight into the relationship between the central hospital and its rural counterparts and suggests the importance of considering the role played by charitable institutions in urban efforts to regulate rural bodies.

‘Preaching the Body in Fifteenth-Century Florence.’

Peter F. Howard, Monash University

For sermons in fifteenth-century Florence, the ‘body’ provided rich ‘symbolic capitol’ for preachers. This paper explores the variety of ways in which preachers utilized the power of the image, from its signification for church and  society, to the visceral nature of the individual body and issues of health and contagion. As a fundamental metaphor ‘the body’ lent itself to the expression of the meaning and values of communal existence amid changing circumstances. The incarnated body and its meaning was also the site of contestation between Dominicans and Franciscans.  This paper draws on the preaching of Antonino Pierozzi, Simone de Bertis, and others, as well as lay reportationes to explore the multiple yet convergent meanings of ‘the body’ as preached from the pulpit in Florence, 1420-1489.

Session III

Chair: Peter F Howard (Monash University)

‘For the conservation of health.’

Danijela Zutic, McGill University, Montreal

The focus of this paper is the Tacuinum Sanitatis (14th century), a manuscript that elaborates on health and wellbeing. It is a book that collates information about curing diseases and maintaining a healthy life through diet, regimen and lifestyle. These “alternative” ways of obtaining health include among others cooking, agriculture, fresh air, sex and dance and are communicated through images rather than the text, thus soliciting multivalent engagement of its audience. They impose something one may hear, smell, feel, or, taste. Since Plato, the eye has claim to objectivity, allowing audiences to be voyeurs at a safe distance. However, sound and smell require closer involvement both at a distance and close proximity. With sensorial and corporeal as themes, the aim of this paper is to ruminate on the somatic acceptance and resistance of clean and tidy health and healing.

‘Opening The Body in the Streets of Paris.’

Jack Hartnell, Columbia University, New York

This paper complements Italianate experiences of bodies and cities by considering medical practices in Paris (c.1300-1500), exploring moments in the everyday life of the capital where the opened body bled, metaphorically and literally, into the space of the street. Parisian writing at the time constantly drew analogies between body and city, lending architectural thoroughfares to the human form, and simultaneously clothing city society in medical metaphors of dismemberment and healing. This paper extends these ideas even further by presenting a number of actual instances when the body was opened, presented, and represented in Paris. From the peripatetic operations of Parisian surgeons (including new evidence of surgery on the steps of Notre-Dame), to public executions, hospitals, butcheries, and artworks, it brings together diverse material to reveal a highly medicalised daily life, rethinking Parisian knowledge of bodies at the heart of the city.

‘La “Salient-issma”: Mortality Salience and the Vulnerable Body Politic of Late Renaissance Venice.’

Michelle A. Laughran, Saint Joseph’s College of Maine

The body is an oft utilized conceptual model in organizational discourse.  According to Mary Douglas, metaphors like that of a “body politic” exist because the human body is humanity’s most accessible image for a social system.  Even the Republic of Venice, though lacking a hereditary monarch which could invoke the Kantorowiczian “king’s two bodies,” managed nevertheless to develop its own embodied ideology of political legitimacy through the careful maintenance of its uniquely serenissima constitutional “complexion.”

But the body is – by definition – fragile and mortal.  Terror Management Theory argues that references to the body inherently also connote mortality salience, engendering existential fears demanding some form of remediation.   Throughout the sixteenth century, when mortality salience hovered around the Venetian body politic like a pall and there was no “kingly body” to serve as an antidote, the Republic  grappled with existential anxieties particularly through its newly-established public health magistracy, the Provveditori alla Sanità.