David Gentilcore

David Gentilcore

dates de séjour

11/09/2017 - 13/07/2018






Centre for Medical Humanities and School of History, University of Leicester

pays d'origine


projet de recherche

The Best of All Things: Drinking Water in the Mediterranean, 1400-1900

‘Water is the best of all things’, according to Pindar’s First Olympian Ode (476 BC): on it all human life depends. It is a resource, but on a wide range of levels: economic, social, cultural and political. Water has a significance that is both local and transnational. It thus constitutes a privileged base from which to reconstruct the identity and self-representational forms of any population and culture.
The focus of the project will be on drinking water, placing it within the context of the much wider ‘water culture’ of the Mediterranean during the early- and late-modern period. By ‘water culture’, I mean both material aspects (such as hydraulic engineering or water legislation) and nonmaterial features (such as beliefs and practices).


Drinking water, both as substance and as cultural and social practice, is the least studied aspect of water culture. The subject is notable by its absence in histories of the early modern period; and yet for the Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau access to drinking water was the starting point of language and communication.

The difficulty for the historian is water’s very banality and ambiguity, meaning we have to look harder (and in different places) for references to it and interpret wisely. If people in past times drank plenty of wine and beer, the assumption goes, this was because the water was dangerous, a potential source of illness, even death. But this is only part of the story. The prejudice against water as a beverage was due not so much to concerns about its poor quality as to biases inherited from classical culture; if we look at actual practices, water returns to the fore. Communities went to great lengths to procure clean water, from elaborate public works to the construction of public and domestic rainwater cisterns, to the everyday presence of water-sellers in towns. Water resources were everywhere carefully managed and distributed (and fought over).

The historian can reconstruct and analyse all of this. The Renaissance witnessed the first attempts to understand and apply the ‘virtues’ of drinking water. In the 17th century, medical doctors like the Tuscan Francesco Redi began prescribing specific mineral waters as part of treatments for their patients. In the next century, Enlightenment doctors made use of the nascent chemical science to investigate their properties in order to make more efficient use of them, such as the survey carried out by the French Société royale de médecine. This would lead to the beginnings of the mineral water industry in the 19th century.

Mineral water is just a starting point in the ‘Best of All Things’ project. It will focus on the period beginning with the great resurgence in
hydraulic engineering projects and medical interest in water consumption, ushered in by the Renaissance, to the pandemics of the 19th century and the resulting urban waterworks of the late nineteenth century. The approach will be interdisciplinary, bringing together anthropology, geography, archaeology and various branches of history (history of medicine, food history, architectural history).
In terms of the project’s geographical reach, the cultural unity of the Mediterranean has been most eloquently expressed by the French
historian Fernand Braudel, for whom the relationship of man to his environment was the defining constant of human history. Water has a deep cultural and religious importance for all the countries that border the Mediterranean (paradoxically, today, they are all facing a water crisis which few seem willing to confront or admit). Although all societies are in some sense hydraulic, dependent as they on water management and distribution; nowhere is this more important than the Mediterranean, where fresh water has always been unpredictable—short spells of overabundance alternating with longer periods of scarcity.


I joined the Department of History at the Leicester in 1994 as Wellcome Trust Lecturer in the History of Medicine, following a research fellowship at the Cambridge Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, and a stint as director of the Canadian Academic Centre in Italy (Rome).

I am the author of seven books and was awarded the Royal Society of Canada’s ‘Jason A. Hannah’ medal for Medical charlatanism in early modern Italy (Oxford 2006) and, in 2012, the ‘Salvatore De Renzi International Prize’ by the Università degli Studi di Salerno for my work in the history of medicine. I am book reviews editor for the peer-reviewed journal Food & History (published by the European Institute for the History and Cultures of Food & Brepols).

My interests lie in the medical, dietary, social and cultural history of early- and late-modern Italy, and have ranged from studies on popular religion during the Counter-Reformation, healers and healing in the Kingdom of Naples, the licensing and operations of medical charlatans in early modern Italy, through to food and health in early- and late-modern Europe as a whole. My current project builds on a study of the reception and assimilation of New World plants, like the tomato and the potato, to look at the impact of maize on Italian society, in particular the pellagra epidemic that ravaged north-eastern Italy from 1750 to 1930.

During 2003-8, I was a core member of the Wellcome Trust Strategic Award in ‘Cultures and Practices of health’, held jointly at the Universities of Warwick and Leicester. I have been visiting fellow at the School of Advanced Study, University of London; Hannah Visiting Professor at McMaster University, Canada (2001-2); visiting professor at Villa I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies (Florence, 2006). I held a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship (2007-10) to pursue my project on the reception and assimilation of New World plants in Italy. I am currently Principal Investigator on the ‘Rough Skin’ project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (2013-16), which investigates the effects of the pellagra epidemic.