Mackenzie Cooley on the grounds of I Tatti

Assistant Professor of History MacKenzie Cooley has received one of the most prestigious fellowships in the field of Renaissance studies, a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard University’s Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, I Tatti, for the 2021-22 academic year. Her project, Treasury of Knowledge: Medicine in Renaissance Empire, traces how ideas, practices, and objects “circulated and syncretized between Iberian overseas empire and Renaissance medical and natural historical communities.”

Fifteen fellowships are awarded each year for post-doctoral research in any aspect of the Italian Renaissance (14th to the 17th century) and geographically to include dialogues between Italy and other cultures (e.g., Latin American, Mediterranean, African, Asian, etc.).

Cooley will be conducting research for her second book, Treasury of Knowledge: Medicine in Renaissance Empire. “This project weaves together the histories of European physicians and local medical experts, the medical commodities they used, and ideas of health to reveal a polycentric Iberian empire that rested on the interconnected medical expertise of its colonial subjects,” Cooley explained.

Conquistadors and the Iberian empire that supported them were not only obsessed with gold, glory, and God, but were desperately searching for good health. “Rumors of the Fountain of Youth, that mythic source of everlasting health, proved so tempting to Spanish conquistadors like Ponce de León because their potential curative power fit into the most fundamental motivations for Iberian expansion — access to networks of trade that featured not only flavorful spices but also medicines of fabled curative power,” Cooley said.

Document from National Library of Venice
Document from National Library of Venice

According to Cooley, new territories brought new local expertise and medicines, which, in turn, had the best potential to foster a healthy population needed to acquire yet more lands in a cycle of conquest and cures. Spanish, Portuguese, and Italians, connected through a network of letters, worked to develop the first global pharmacopeia to confront the catastrophic health consequences of early globalization.

Cooley, who joined the Hamilton faculty in 2018, says her sabbatical research will continue work she has completed with students throughout the last few years. Once back on campus, she plans to develop a course on the history of medicine. “Collaborations with students have really laid the foundations for this research plan. … Most important to that was exploratory research in the Canary Islands, Mexico, Spain, the Philippines, and Italy, some of which was conducted with student researchers working remotely and some of which was conducted with student researchers on site.”

Kate Biedermann '22 at I Tatti
Kate Biedermann ’22 at I Tatti.

This winter, the Levitt Center funded the New World Nature group’s collaborative research on Medicine and Empire in the Early Modern Atlantic World with Elizabeth Atherton ’22, Philip Chivily ’22, Isabelle Crownhart ’23, and Emma Tomlins ’23, who helped Cooley think through the Iberian medical trade during this period. Other students who have participated in her research include Antton de Arbeloa ’21, Thomas Anderson ’20, Kate Biedermann ’22, Liam Garcia-Quish ’23, Erica Ivins ’21, Ben Kaplan ’21, Kayla Self ’21, Ali Zildjian ’19, Edsel Llaurador ’19, and Christine Walsh ’21.

I Tatti is a research institution in Florence founded by the art historian Bernard Berenson, who left his villa, extensive library, and art collection to Harvard University.

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