Renaissance Book of Secrets

Medievalists. net article lists the top stories of 2012. What was your top find last year? For me, it was information on a Book of Secrets 🙂

I first stumbled upon the “Book of Secrets” (Secreti della Signora Isabella Cortese) by Isabella Cortese when my fascination with the Italian Renaissance drew me away from Florence and her socio-political intrigue in the 1400s to Venice and the women writers of the 1500s. I learned that the printing press became a catalyst for the renaissance because a myriad of ideas were able to be circulated quickly and over great distance due to the novel invention. For the first time women’s voices were also heard more loudly than ever before in Venetian and indeed, European History. Isabella Cortese appears to be one of these voices. Isabella’s “Book of Secrets” structure and contents gives us insight into alchemy in renaissance Italy and provides useful herbal recipes for beauty.

In a few days I’ll post my translation and redaction of one of the beauty recipes 🙂



secreti cover

Twelve editions of the “Secreti” were printed between 1561 and 1677 and then the book fades into obscurity. What remains is an original treatise of about two hundred pages, divided into three books, explaining science, alchemy, astrology, cosmetics and medicine. Like many works published in Italy in the second half of the 500 and throughout the seventeenth century, the book is a collection of recipes and remedies for an immense variety of therapeutic and cosmetic uses. The first book (1561) is comprised of medical remedies for the plague, poisoning, and syphilis. The second book contains processes for the preparation of ink to dye fabrics and leathers. The third book is dedicated to beauty, detailing recipes for creams, water, perfumes, and tooth cleanser.

Isabella wasn’t the only writer of a “book of secrets” at that time in Italian history. Several other similar books were printed, albeit from different parts of the peninsula. In 1555 Alessio Piemontese (thought to be Girolamo Ruscelli of Viterbo) published  a book titled “The Secrets of the Reverend Maister Alexis of Piedmont (Secreti del reverend donno Alessio Piemontese): Containing Excellent Remedies Against Diverse Diseases, Wounds, and Other Accidents, with the Maner to Make Distillations, Parfumes, Confitures, Dyings, Colours, Fusions, and Meltings. A Worke Well Approved, Verie Necessarie for Everie Man”. A third of this book (about 108) were medicinal recipes, although they call for ingredients that may not have appeared in respectable pharmacies, such as boar’s teeth, dog skin, and dung of black donkey. Another third of the book contained recipes for lotions, body powders, perfumes, and scented soaps. This was the most popular of the books of secrets and by the end of the 1500s more than 70 editions of this book had been published in Latin, German, Spanish, and Polish.

2 thoughts on “Renaissance Book of Secrets

    1. I know lots about “her” book but there is not much written on Isabella herself. Some historians believe that the name Isabella Cortese was invented by the true author (who was likely male). There are a few modern books that cover the Italian Books of Secrets, like a few written by William Eamon. Do a search for him, and also search for any thesis work on Isabella. I’ve read a few theses done in Europe on her and her book… and they, too suspect that the true author was a man. Buona suerte!

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