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  2. Dr Silvia De Renzi

Dr Silvia De Renzi

Profile summary

  • Lecturer in History of Medicine
  • Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
  • School of Hist, Rel St, Soc, SP&C
  • History

Professional biography

I was educated at the University of Bologna (Italy), worked as a research fellow at the University of Cambridge and joined the OU in 2000 as a lecturer in the history of medicine. In 2003-2009 I held a Wellcome University Award on the project ‘The contest for medical authority in Baroque Rome’. I am an affiliated research scholar in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.

Research interests

I work primarily on the history of medical knowledge and practice in the early modern period. Many aspects of our life are defined medically and doctors’ expertise is very prominent today. This was not always the case: in the past medical knowledge had to compete with other notions and practices of health, for example religious perceptions of the body and soul. I am interested in the making of, and challenges to, physicians’ authority, and in the social and political uses of their knowledge; my focus is on seventeenth-century Rome, a thriving courtly and urban society which was permeated by Catholic culture. Within this project I have also researched hospitals as sites of medical teaching, the history of post-mortem and anatomical investigations, and the beginning of legal medicine. Especially on the Continent, physicians and other medical practitioners often acted as expert witnesses and my aim is to make sense of when and why medical expertise was sought after in the courtroom: not quite CSI, but still fascinating!

I am member of an international research network (partners in Italy and Switzerland) working on the history of pathological dissections. The volume I have co-edited Pathology in Practice: Diseases and Dissections in Early Modern Europe, is published by Routledge and will be out in December 2017; I contributed a chapter on how physicians generalised the knowlegde they gained from dissections on single and multiple bodies.

I chair the Open University History of medicine research group and am a member of the Early Modern Britain and Europe research group

I welcome students interested in any area of the history of medicine (1500-1800), both British and Continental European, and also in the broader area of early modern natural investigations. I would be happy to help identify good research topics.

Selected publications


Instruments in Print. Books from the Whipple Collection, Cambridge, Whipple Museum for the History of Science, 2000

Articles and chapters in books

Seats and series: dissecting diseases in the seventeenth century. In: De Renzi, Silvia; Bresadola, Marco and Conforti, Maria eds. Pathology in Practice: Diseases and Dissections in Early Modern Europe.The History of Medicine in Context. London: Routledge, pp. 96–115.

‘Tales from Cardinals’ Deathbeds: Medical Hierarchy, Court Etiquette and Authority in the Counter Reformation’, in E. Andretta and M. Nicoud (eds). Etre médecin à la cour (Italie, France et Espagne, XIII-XVIII s.), Florence, Sismel, 2013, pp. 235-258.

‘A Career in Manuscripts: Genres and Purposes of a Physician’s Writing in Rome, 1600-1630’, Italian Studies, 66 (2011) pp. 234-48

‘The Risks of Childbirth: Physicians, Finance, and Women’s Deaths in the Law Courts of Seventeenth-Century Rome’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 84 (Winter 2010), pp. 549-577.

‘Sapere anatomico negli ospedali romani: formazione dei chirurghi e pratiche sperimentali (1620-1720)’, in A. Romano (ed.), Rome et la science moderne entre Renaissance et Lumières, Rome, École Française de Rome, 2008, pp. 432-472 (with Maria Conforti). 

‘Per una biografia di Paolo Zacchia: nuovi documenti e ipotesi di ricerca’, in A. Pastore and G. Rossi (eds.), Paolo Zacchia, 1584-1659. Alle origini della medicina legale, Milan, FrancoAngeli, 2008, pp. 50-73.

‘Medical competence, anatomy and the polity in seventeenth-century Rome’, Renaissance studies, special issue on ‘Spaces, Objects and Identities in Early Modern Italian Medicine’, edited by David Gentilcore and Sandra Cavallo, 21 (2007), pp. 551-567
free at:

‘Medical Expertise, Bodies, and the Law in Early Modern Courts’, paper commissioned for the section ‘Focus’, ISIS, 98 (2007), pp. 315-322

‘Resemblance, Paternity and Imagination in Early Modern Courts’, in Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (eds.), Heredity Produced: At the Crossroads of Biology and Politics, 1500-1870, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2007, pp. 61-83

‘Un linceo alla Sapienza: la natura del fuoco e dei metalli in un’orazione di Johannes Faber’, in Andrea Battistini, Gilberto De Angelis, Giuseppe Olmi, (eds.), All’origine della scienza moderna: Federico Cesi e l’Accademia dei Lincei, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2007, pp. 271-316

‘The Sick and Their Healers’; ‘Policies of Health: Diseases, Poverty and Hospitals’; ‘Old and New Models of the Body’; ‘Women and Medicine’, in Peter Elmer (ed.), The Healing Arts. Health, Disease and Society in Europe 1500-1800, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2004

‘Witnesses of the body. Medico-legal cases in seventeenth-century Rome’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 33A (2002), pp. 219-242

Recent Seminar and Conference Papers

13 October 2013, University of California, Rome, ‘Early Modern Rome 2, 1341-1667’: ‘Poison in Rome: Practices and Knowledge in the Early Seventeenth Century’ (with Tessa Storey)

5 March 2013, History of Pre-Modern Medicine Seminar Series, Wellcome Library, London: ‘Hippocrates on the Tiber: Airs and Diseases in the Making of Baroque Rome’.

23 November 2012, Institut d’Histoire de la Médecine et de la Santè, University of Geneva, Workshop on Questions pathologiques. Cliniques et autopsies avant Morgagni: ‘Autopsie e pluralita’ del patologico nel lungo Seicento: 1600-1720’.

4 July 2012, The OU History of Medicine Workshop Patients’ control or practitioners’ authority? Revisiting early modern medical encounters: ‘The politics of the sickroom in seventeenth-century Rome: authority, hierarchy, etiquette’.

15 March 2012, University of Bologna, International Conference Anatome: sezione, scomposizione, raffigurazione del corpo fra Medioevo e Età moderna: ‘Malattie e dissezioni in ospedale nel lungo ‘600: il caso romano in prospettiva comparata’.

29 June 2011, Anglo-American Conference of Historians, London, ‘Eggs and fish make him sick: negotiating fasting in Counter-Reformation Rome’.

Teaching interests

Module teams and production:

AA100 The Arts: Past and Present
A218 Medicine and Society in Europe, 1500-1930
A327  Europe 1914-1989: war, peace, modernity
I will contribute to the production of a new module on the social and cultural history of early modern Europe which will start shortly.

Research Activity

Research groups

NameTypeParent Unit
History of Medicine Research GroupGroupFaculty of Arts

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