The Renaissance Snake Handler

One of my previous posts, “The Disease of Curiosity,” generated a lot of comment in the blogosphere [Daily Dig; Morbid Anatomy]; so I’ve decided to follow that post with a piece about what was surely one of the strangest curiosities of the Renaissance: The appearance in the town square of the snake handler.

Here is one of them in an engraving from Giuseppe Maria Mitelli’s Le arte per via (Bologna 1660). They were called sanpaolari (also pauliani), because they claimed descent from St. Paul. The sanpaolari sold a remedy against poisonous snake bites called St. Paul’s Grace, supposedly composed of earth of Malta, in reference to the apostle’s visit to the island, whose earth protected him from the venom of a serpent that leaped out of a fire and bit him in the hand.  Mitelli’s print, titled Il Ciarlatano (The Charlatan), from a portfolio of drawings on the humble trades, depicts one of them performing on a portable stage in a Bologna Piazza. Mitelli’s stout, bearded figure wears thick eyeglasses and points to a serpent that he daringly holds aloft.  The table beside him displays neatly arranged jars containing his remedies.  Another snake menacingly slithers out of a basket onto the stage floor as a fascinated audience looks on.  The caption at the bottom of the etching reads:

This man, with his biting serpents and vipers,

Wants to be the eloquent anatomist, 

He shows off his real patents, 

His license to fool the world.

Tomaso Garzoni, in his compendious Piazza universale di tutte le professioni del mondo (Venice, 1585), gave this description of one of the more famous of the sanpaolari, Paolo of Arezzo performing on the piazza:

Master Paolo of Arezzo appears in the square with his great banner, where on one side you see St Paul, sword in his hand, and on the other a bed of snakes which, hissing, almost bite everyone who looks at them, even though they are only painted. Now he starts to recount the false origin of his house, his fictitious descent from St Paul. He tells of the story of when [Paul] was bitten on the island of Malta, he untruthfully declaims how that gift of healing is present in all those of his family, he describes the trials made, the competition experienced, the victories received, the banners conquered, which are unfolded to show to the people. He picks up his boxes and takes out a charcoal-black serpent, two yards long and thick as a pole, and then a viper, and he frightens the people with the horrible appearance of these beasts. . . . The vulgar curl in fear, the peasant trembles at the news, which is told with such ability that no one feels safe putting a foot out of the city if they have not first drunk a glass of powder given them by Master Paolo.

Although a staple of tourism, itinerant healers like Paolo of Arezzo were seen as a danger. As vagabonds who drifted from city to city, they were relatively free of the normal constraints imposed by society. They had no clear legal status. Like the charlatans whom they often accompanied, they were accompanied by women of dubious reputation, told vulgar jokes, and mocked the physicians in ridiculous burlesques. No wonder the authorities regarded the ciarlatani as dangerous to the moral fabric of the community. 

The growing criticism of itinerant healers in part mirrored the attitudes of the orthodox physicians, who saw the sanpaolari and other itinerant healers as competitors and wanted to monopolize the business of healing from above. Yet, as historian Katharine Park has suggested, these interests merely echo a broader and more important concern about the city as a moral and economic environment. The real issue, Park contends, was fraud: whether you could trust those with whom you dealt on the piazza every day.  The cut-throat competition in the medical marketplace reflected the competitiveness of the money economy as a whole.  In this sense, concerns about the trustworthiness of itinerant healers reflected more general anxieties about a market in which trading in unfamiliar goods from distant places became a daily occurrence.

Similar concerns arise today over various forms of alternative medicine, or about almost any medical practice not endorsed by the mainstream.  Are alternative healers reliable or are they frauds? Do their methods really work or are they only so much hype? Whom do we trust to provide our medical care?  There is much distrust of “regular” doctors these days; but would you entrust your care to a Renaissance snake handler?

Readers interested in learning more about the Renaissance charlatans and snake handlers can read about them in my book, The Professor of Secrets: Mystery, Medicine and Alchemy in Renaissance Italy, and in the following studies:

David Gentilcore, Healers and Healing in Early Modern Italy (Manchester, 1998),

Katharine Park, “Country Medicine in the City Marketplace: Snakehandlers as Itinerant Healers,” Renaissance Studies 15 (2001): 104-20.

1 Comment to The Renaissance Snake Handler

  1. March 3, 2016 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Cool story and history lesson as historian Katharine Park has suggested, these interests merely echo a broader and more important concern about the city as a moral and economic environment.

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