Women and the Baths
Ancient Medicine, Pleasure, and The Female Body in Renaissance Italy

Bagni di Lucca, one of the most famous Italian spa towns during the Renaissance. Photo by Giacomo Savani.


During the Renaissance, famous Italian spas like Bagni di Lucca in Tuscany and Acqui Terme in Piedmont were more than prominent healing spaces. They were buzzing social and cultural hubs visited by people with different social and cultural backgrounds from across Italy and Europe. Members of the elite met regularly there during the summer months, prompting the development of infrastructures for their entertainment and significantly impacting the local economy. Physicians and apothecaries with various degrees of professionalism flourished near these sites, and the medical literature focusing on specific mineral springs grew incessantly from the 13th century onwards. Following the lead of classical authors like Hippocrates and Galen, in these texts bathing was prescribed for all sorts of conditions, and doctors based at specific spas strived to demonstrate the superiority of ‘their’ springs in a highly competitive medical scene.

Women spent as much time as men at the spas, yet so far, they played a surprisingly marginal role in the works of scholars interested in the social history of these establishments. “Women and the Baths”, in collaboration with "The Water Cultures of Italy, 1500-1900" project, aims to put women’s agency centre stage, reconstructing their experiences as spa users but also highlighting their roles as consumers and patrons of medical treatises. To piece together a picture as comprehensive as possible of the female presence within the spas’ complex ecosystem, I combine a range of different sources, including letters, printed texts, images, architecture, and material culture.

This multifaceted approach allows me to answer some of the many questions that specific sources often leave open. For instance, on 10 September 1568, Ginetta Doria, a prominent noblewoman from Genoa, wrote a letter to the Duke of Mantua from Bagni di Lucca about a favour the Duke had granted. The letter gives us the context but does not explain what condition Ginetta is hoping to cure at Bagni. However, we can link this letter to the treatise that the physician Giorgio Franciotti from Lucca had published only sixteen years earlier ("De Balneo Villensi", 1552), where we find a complete description of the bathing practices and the diseases treated at Bagni di Lucca. Moreover, we have the visual evidence of two 1553 drawings depicting the two major bathing establishments at Bagni (Bagno di Corsena and Bagnio alla Villa) and the description of the female section of the Bagni alla Villa by Michel de Montaigne ("Travel Journal", 1581), possibly the one used by Ginetta in 1568.

The Bagni alla Villa, Bagni di Lucca. Michel de Montaigne described the female sections of these baths in his "Travel Journal" (1581). Photo by Giacomo Savani.


This scattered body of primary sources will be made accessible for the first time via an online database that will allow me to reconstruct:

  • how women's experiences of bathing were shaped by their readings (Greco-Roman, medieval, and contemporary texts)
  • the establishments they chose (spas, but also private and public baths)
  • and contemporary moral and religious bias.

This investigation will not only shed light on the nature and extent of physician-patient networks in Renaissance Italy but also on the significant role of women in disseminating medical knowledge.
In particular, I want to reconstruct how women influenced physicians, prompting them to extract gender-specific medical knowledge from ancient texts. This was an exceptional innovation, especially considering the widespread gender bias still affecting medical curricula today.


Giacomo Savani

Principal Investigator