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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

‘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


A career in manuscripts: genres and purposes of a physician's writing in Rome, 1600-1630 (2011-07)
De Renzi, Silvia
Italian Studies, 66(2) (pp. 234-248)
The risks of childbirth: physicians, finance, and women's deaths in the law courts of seventeenth-century rome (2010-12)
De Renzi, Silvia
Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 84(4) (pp. 549-577)
Medical competence, anatomy and the polity in seventeenth-century Rome (2007-09)
De Renzi, Silvia
Renaissance Studies, 21(4) (pp. 551-567)
Medical Expertise, Bodies, and the Law in Early Modern Courts (2007-06)
De Renzi, Silvia
Isis, 98(2) (pp. 315-322)
Witnesses of the body: medico-legal cases in seventeenth-century Rome (2002-06)
De Renzi, Silvia
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 33(2) (pp. 219-242)
La natura in tribunale: conoscenze e pratiche medico-legali a Roma nel XVII secolo (2001-12)
De Renzi, Silvia
Quaderni Storici, 108(3) (pp. 799-822)
Courts and conversions: Intellectual battles and natural knowledge in counter-reformation Rome (1996-12-04)
De Renzi, Silvia
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 27(4) (pp. 429-449)
Instruments in Print: Books from the Whipple Collection (2000)
De Renzi, Silvia
ISBN : 906271169 | Publisher : Whipple Museum for the History of Science | Published : Cambridge, U.K.
Tales from cardinals' deathbeds: medical hierarchy, courtly etiquette and authority in the Counter Reformation (2013)
De Renzi, Silvia
In: Andretta , Elisa and Nicoud, Marilyn eds. Être médecin à la cour (Italie, France et Espagne, XIIIe-XVIIIe siècle) . Micrologus' Library (52) (pp. 235-258)
ISBN : 9788884504814 | Publisher : Sismel | Published : Florence
"Sapere anatomico negli ospedali romani: formazione dei chirurghi e pratiche sperimentali (1620-1720)" (2008)
De Renzi, Silvia and Conforti, Maria
In: Romano, Antonella ed. Rome et la Science Moderne : entre Renaissance et Lumières. (pp. 433-472)
ISBN : 978-2-7283-0833-0 | Publisher : École Française de Rome | Published : Rome
Per una biografia di Paolo Zacchia: nuovi documenti e ipotesi di ricerca (2008)
De Renzi, Silvia
In: Pastore, Alessandro and Rossi, Giovanni eds. Paolo Zacchia. Alle Origini della Medicina Legale 1584-1659 (pp. 50-73)
ISBN : 9788856800234 | Publisher : FrancoAngeli | Published : Milan
Resemblance, paternity and imagination in early modern courts (2007-03)
De Renzi, Silvia
In: Mueller-Wille, Staffan and Rheinberger, Hans-Jorg eds. Heredity produced: at the crossroads of biology, politics, and culture, 1500-1870. Transformations: Studies in the History of Science and Technology (pp. 61-83)
ISBN : 978-0-262-13476-7 | Publisher : The MIT Press | Published : Cambridge, Ma, USA
Un linceo alla Sapienza: la natura del fuoco e dei metalli in un’orazione di Johannes Faber (2007)
De Renzi, Silvia
In: Battistini, Andrea; De Angelis, Gilberto and Olmi, Giuseppe eds. All'origine della scienza moderna: Federico Cesi e l'Accademia dei Lincei (pp. 271-316)
ISBN : 978 88 15 119865 | Publisher : Il Mulino | Published : Bologna
Mancini, Giulio (2007)
De Renzi, Silvia and Sparti, Donatella Livia
In: Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani (pp. 500-509)
Publisher : Istituto dell'Enciclopedia Italiana | Published : Rome, Italy
Accademia dei Lincei; Academia del Cimento (2000)
De Renzi, Silvia
In: Hessenbruch, Arne ed. Reader's Guide to the History of Science (pp. 2-5)
ISBN : 188496429X | Publisher : Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers | Published : London
Writing and talking of exotic animals (2000)
De Renzi, Silvia
In: Frasca-Spada, Marina and Jardine, Nick eds. Books and the Sciences in History (pp. 151-170)
ISBN : 9780521650632 | Publisher : Cambridge University Press | Published : Cambridge
'A fountain for the thirsty' and a bank for the Pope: charity, conflicts, and medical careers at the Hospital of Santo Spirito in 17th Century (1999)
De Renzi, Silvia
In: Grell, Ole Peter; Cunningham, Andrew and Arrizabalaga, Jon eds. Health Care and Poor Relief in Counter-Reformation Europe (pp. 99-130)
ISBN : 978-0-415-17844-0 | Publisher : Routledge | Published : London
Between the market and the Academy: Robert S Whipple (1871-1953) as a collector of science books (1998-06-20)
De Renzi, Silvia
In: Myers, Robin and Harris, Michael eds. Medicine, Mortality and the Book Trade. Publishing pathways (pp. 87-108)
ISBN : 1884718817 | Publisher : St. Paul Bibliographies | Published : Winchester
Arcanarum Sagacissimi Indagatores Scientiarum; medicine, chemistry and alchemy in the early Accademia dei Lincei (1995-06)
Clericuzio, Antonio and De Renzi, Silvia
In: Chambers, David and Quivigier, Francois eds. Italian Academies of the Sixteenth Century. Warburg Institute Colloquia (1) (pp. 175-194)
ISBN : 854810927 | Publisher : The Warburg Institute | Published : London