In anticipation of Performa Institute's Paradiso: Performing the Renaissance, our two-day symposium taking place at NYU on Friday, April 24 and Saturday, April 25, scholar Paolo Savoia shares the history of plastic surgery, begun during the Renaissance. More information about Paradiso: Performing the Renaissance is available here.
Plastic surgery during the Renaissance was a man’s business. In the late sixteenth century, a group of surgeons from Bologna, Italy, began practicing surgical procedures on the face, especially on the nose, directed toward men. They made a clear distinction between the use of cosmetics—the province of women—and the art of reconstructive surgery—part of “serious" medical practice. Indeed, most of their patients were upper-class men who staked their honor on duels and often suffered disfiguring injuries.
Reconstructive surgery, which had its remote origins in ancient medicine and its recent roots in the practice of a family of southern Italian self-taught surgeons, was based on a form of skin grafting modeled after farming and horticulture. It consisted of cutting and preparing a skin flap on the upper region of the arm, making it adhere to the defective nose by keeping the two parts bound together for about three weeks, after which point the flap was severed from the arm and the new parts of the nose shaped with special molds. A set of surgical tools and a special vest with a hood and bandages were designed to keep the arm fixed to the face.
Why would these surgeons and patients engage in such a delicate and painful procedure? Unlike medieval times, during which period clothes, coats of arms, and emblems of all sorts represented the individuality of men and women, in the Renaissance, the human face increasingly became identified with personal identity, the difference between men and women, and the seat of dignity and beauty. In the age of portraiture and the blooming of new techniques of anatomical dissections, Italian Renaissance surgeons fought against the living incarnation of the grotesque, represented by disfigured faces, and toward the image of a classical face based on symmetry and the rules of mathematical proportions. However, they did so working within a sensibility that had little to do with classical ideals of harmony. Renaissance culture was dangerously attracted to natural-artificial hybrids: the surgeons were immersed in a culture in which human forms were conceived as part of a unified cosmology that included all natural beings. Just like trees, humans could be grafted too by wisely manipulating vital juices.