David Gentilcore

senior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2017/2018
discipline History
Professor of Early Modern History, Centre for Medical Humanities and School of History, University of Leicester

Research project

The Best of All Things: Drinking Water in the Mediterranean, 1400-1900

 

‘Water is the best of all things’, according to Pindar’s First Olympian Ode (476 BC): on it all human life depends. It is a resource, but on a wide range of levels: economic, social, cultural and political. Water has a significance that is both local and transnational. It thus constitutes a privileged base from which to reconstruct the identity and self-representational forms of any population and culture.


The focus of the project will be on drinking water, placing it within the context of the much wider ‘water culture’ of the Mediterranean during the early- and late-modern period. By ‘water culture’, I mean both material aspects (such as hydraulic engineering or water legislation) and non-material features (such as beliefs and practices).

 

Drinking water, both as substance and as cultural and social practice, is the least studied aspect of water culture. The subject is notable by its absence in histories of the early modern period; and yet for the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau access to drinking water was the starting point of language and communication.


The difficulty for the historian is water’s very banality and ambiguity, meaning we have to look harder (and in different places) for references to it and interpret wisely. If people in past times drank plenty of wine and beer, the assumption goes, this was because the water was dangerous, a potential source of illness, even death. But this is only part of the story. The prejudice against water as a beverage was due not so much to concerns about its poor quality as to biases inherited from classical culture; if we look at actual practices, water returns to the fore. Communities went to great lengths to procure clean water, from elaborate public works to the construction of public and domestic rainwater cisterns, to the everyday presence of water-sellers in towns. Water resources were everywhere carefully managed and distributed (and fought over).


The historian can reconstruct and analyse all of this. The Renaissance witnessed the first attempts to understand and apply the ‘virtues’ of drinking water. In the 17th century, medical doctors like the Tuscan Francesco Redi began prescribing specific mineral waters as part of treatments for their patients. In the next century, Enlightenment doctors made use of the nascent chemical science to investigate their properties in order to make more efficient use of them, such as the survey carried out by the French Société royale de médecine. This would lead to the beginnings of the mineral water industry in the 19th century.


Mineral water is just a starting point in the ‘Best of All Things’ project. It will focus on the period beginning with the great resurgence in hydraulic engineering projects and medical interest in water consumption, ushered in by the Renaissance, to the pandemics of the 19th century and the resulting urban waterworks of the late nineteenth century. The approach will be interdisciplinary, bringing together anthropology, geography, archaeology and various branches of history (history of medicine, food history, architectural history).


In terms of the project’s geographical reach, the cultural unity of the Mediterranean has been most eloquently expressed by the French historian Fernand Braudel, for whom the relationship of man to his environment was the defining constant of human history. Water has a deep cultural and religious importance for all the countries that border the Mediterranean (paradoxically, today, they are all facing a water crisis which few seem willing to confront or admit). Although all societies are in some sense hydraulic, dependent as they on water management and distribution; nowhere is this more important than the Mediterranean, where fresh water has always been unpredictable—short spells of overabundance alternating with longer periods of scarcity.

 

Biography

 

David Gentilcore is professor of Italian and European history at the University of Leicester, with particular interests in the history of popular religion, the history of medicine and health, and the history of food and diet. He has held visiting professorships at McMaster University (Canada) and Villa I Tatti (The Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies), Florence, and a visiting fellowship at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and has been the recipient of research grants from the Economic and Social Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, the Leverhulme Trust, and the Arts and Humanities Research Board (now AHRC). He is the son of historical geographer Rocco Louis Gentilcore.

 

Selected publications


Food and Health in Early Modern Europe (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

 

Italy and the Potato: A History, 1550-2000 (London: Continuum, 2012). Italian translation: Italiani
mangiapatate. Fortuna e sfortuna della patata nel Belpaese, Bologna: il Mulino, 2013.

 

Louis Sambon and the clash of pellagra etiologies in Italy and the United States, 1904-15’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 71:1 (2015), pp. 19-42.


‘Mais, miseria e “mania pellagrosa”: i pazienti del Polesine e Veneti nei manicomi di San Servolo e San Clemente a Venezia (1840-1910)’ (co-authored with Egidio Priani), in D. Gasparini, ed. Il mais nella storia agricola italiana, iniziando dal Polesine (Rovigo: Minelliana, 2015), pp. 119-33.


‘“Con trattenimenti e buffoniane”. Ciarlatani, protomedici e le origini di un gruppo professionale’, in
Interpretare e curare. Medicina nel Rinascimento, M. Conforti, A. Carlino, A. Clericuzio, eds.
(Rome: Carocci, 2013), pp. 189-209 & 369-73.

institut

senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2015/2016
IMéRA, Aix-Marseille Institute for Advanced Study
discipline History
2015
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2017/2018
IMéRA, Aix-Marseille Institute for Advanced Study
discipline Public Health
2017
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2014/2015
IMéRA, Aix-Marseille Institute for Advanced Study
discipline Philosophy
2014
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2015/2016
IMéRA, Aix-Marseille Institute for Advanced Study
discipline History
2015