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  • Wigs and Ear Wax
  • Evelyn Welch (bio)
Sandra Cavallo, Artisans of the Body in Early Modern Italy, Manchester University Press, 2007, 281 pp. ISBN 978-0-7190-7662-6, £60.00/$84.95.

What do upholsterers have in common with surgeons? Why are goldsmiths affiliated to barbers? At first sight, these questions might suggest something to do with technology. The first pair cut and sew; the latter heat elements for their work and use cutting implements. But the answer, as Sandra Cavallo demonstrates in her remarkable study of barber-surgeons in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Turin, lies not in what these artisans do, but in who they are and how they are related by marriage and through extended family links. It lies above all in their privileged access to the bodies of their clients [End Page 283] and to the private rooms of the elite. Studying barbers means investigating these different occupations and their intersections and in Cavallo’s hands the history of medicine becomes the history of family and inheritance. This is unusual. Most work on barbers and barber-surgeons has tended to focus on their competitive relationships either with medical professionals such as doctors, or with alternative practitioners such as the tooth-drawers who attracted large crowds when pulling teeth in public.1 Here, the ‘medical’ was differentiated from the ‘fashionable’. Blood-letting, caring for wounds and setting fractures were seen as the most important aspect of the barber-surgeon’s work while their other activities such as shaving were marginalized; this means that the growing scholarship produced by literary scholars and cultural historians on cleanliness, hair-care, shaving and male identity rarely refers to the history of medicine and vice versa.2 This is problematic because, consciously or otherwise, it suggests a division between serious history and more frivolous studies. Yet, as Cavallo and others have shown, the early modern body was imagined as a fragile vessel whose humoral balance was under constant threat. Hair growth was a form of bodily purging. According to early modern treatises: ‘so the hair upon the human body likewise expunge and relieve all the organs within and also the head of any unwanted coarseness’.3 The advent of wigs in the eighteenth century did not diminish the demand for hair-care; if anything it created further opportunities, with barbers looking after their clients’ wigs as well as their hair.

Historical work on the fashionable ‘perruque’ has benefited from contemporary attacks on increasingly elaborate wigs that emerged from Paris and London.4 Italian historical scholarship has been wary of engaging with this material. Cavallo therefore is doubly unusual. Not only is she looking at Italy she is focusing on Turin rather than on Venice or Rome. Anglo-Saxon scholarship has shown only a limited interest in Turin and its archival resources. When it became the centre of the court of Savoy in the late sixteenth century, the town underwent considerable growth. By the seventeenth century, the demand for luxury products provided numerous opportunities for the sale of services and goods to the city’s aristocracy. Helpfully, the many seventeenth-century notarial records in the Archivio di Stato in Turin have an alphabetical index. This has made it possible to track the lives of eighty-eight surgeons who appear in the city’s 1695 survey of members of the profession, using wills, dowries, contracts, partnership agreements and emancipation records to map the dense network of social and economic relationships forged by the city’s barber-surgeons.

Unlike scholars such as David Gentilcore and Giovanna Pomata, who had the records of formal magistracies responsible for licensing doctors and surgeons at their disposal, Cavallo has had to use these piecemeal materials (she mentions index cards, and one suspects that there really are physical cards rather than a database) which are woven together to create her story.5 The tale that emerges is a fascinating and challenging one. As suggested [End Page 284] above, most historians of medicine have concentrated on the surgical side of the barber-surgeon, stressing a narrative where the more mundane activities of shaving, hair-care, the removal of ear-wax, and so on disappear from an increasingly noble activity. Cavallo resists...


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pp. 283-286
Launched on MUSE
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