The Puzzlement of Potency

There were many cures for impotency in the pharmacopoeia of the Italian Peninsula during the Renaissance. All manner of elixirs and compounds could be made to restore or enhance the vigor of an aging or infirm nobleman or prince like Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua.

Using the Galenic theory of signatures, foods that resembled the sexual organ could be used stimulate the pleasures of Venus so a cure could be as close as the eggplants, broad beans, or similarly shaped vegetables in your garden. Animals known for their lasciviousness, such as pigs, rabbits, and pigeons were also promoted as cures. Seafood such as shrimp or oysters were prescribed for libido due to their pleasure boosting side effects. Talismen of mandrake root were also carried for an extra bit of help in fostering or prolonging drive and pleasure. Likewise, if a man desired to reduce his ardor he would be advised to imitate hermits and ascetics and eat lettuce, a limp vegetable.

Peddlers of Potency

To improve changes of a successful congress an older groom might have a pre-nuptial dinner of pigeon, fava beans, onions, and eggplant cooked with robust spices like myrrh, cinnamon, and pepper. Poultices could also be used and ones made using the fat of geese or donkeys blended with pepper, honey, and basil were thought to increase semen production (pepper), lubricare the organ (honey), and cause irritation/inflammation (basil).

None of these remedies could match the imported exotic offerings sold by Venetian and Genoese merchants like ginger, aloe, vanilla, and ambergris. The island of Cyprus provided reputable products because, after all, it was known as the Island of Venus.

The Renaissance fascination with classical philosophy meant that some may have followed Pliny the Elder’s suggestion to insert the canine tooth of a crocodile into the anus in order to produce a speedier finish. I do hope no one took the advice of antiquity and put the skin of a vulture over their member in order to render it more lively.

The modern medicine of the 15th and 16th centuries brought practitioners such as herbalists, distillers, midwives, and doctors to charge fees for oils, powders, syrups, broths, unguents, creams, elixirs, infusions, pomades, and lozenges to assist their patients in lovemaking.

The Experts

Caterina Sforza (1463-1509)ruled the Italian cities of Imola and Forli and was famous for her battles with the Cesare Borgia, was also very interested in scientific matters, and compiled a stillroom book called The Experiments which contained over 300 recipes and formulas of alchemical, medical and cosmetic secrets. By combining various foods, herbs, plants, minerals and precious stones, she found remedies that could deliver all kinds of cures and marvels, from getting rid of lice to making hair appear more golden. She boasted that her beauty recipes would allow a 70-year-old look 50 years younger.

Sforza, of course, also had recipes to assist with the secrets of love. She recommended the dried penis of donkey be used to “magnify” the sexual organs. She espoused that by using items such as satyrion root, wild boar fat, pepper or a skink (a small type of lizard), a man could make his member larger or have stay aroused longer. In one recipe, which promises that a man stay erect all night long, Caterina writes, “you will be able to go to bed with a woman and you will see that you will stay erect and be able to do anything you want and enjoy yourself.”

Caterina Sforza also offered a way to tell if a woman is still a virgin. She writes:

How to tell if a woman is a virgin, or rather corrupt. Take sal ammoniac and dissolve in water and give it to drink to whoever you wish. If she is a virgin, it will have no effect; if she has been corrupted, she will urinate immediately.

Sforza includes several recipes for women that all her to become “the most natural and perfect virgin”. In one “true and marvellous recipe”, all you need is to distill sage and water in an alembic, and then over time applying the mixture to the vagina. Other recipes are more complex, including one that involves 10 ingredients and takes two weeks to complete.

Giambattista della Porta advised consuming slices of roasted wolf penis for sexual strength.

IsaBella Cortese, in her book of secrets, recommended the following to ‘far drizzar il membro’: amber, moss, large winged ants, and quail testicle.

Giovani Martinelli recommended that the powdered testicles of a rooster be mixed with wine and imbibed directly before entering the bedchamber.

Pier Andrea Mattioli, the famous herbalist and author of the famous Herbal was taken by a “most marvelous herb” from an “Indian” that simply by touching would incite to copulation and increase potency.

For women, I found that roses were supposedly the answer to dwindling drive. Its connotations are obvious – be they pure and romantic and analogous to true beauty. Rose water was also often used to flavour of perfume less palatable medicines. Arguably as a perfume it could be considered a love potion too, and in one extreme example recorded in an English translation of the 12th century De Ornatu Mulierum – part of a series of remarkable early texts on female hygiene – a powder of rose petals is recommended for freshening up lady parts while rose water sweetens, cleans, and scents the hands and face.


Finucci, Valeria. 2015. The Prince’s Body. Harvard University Press.

Green, Monica. 2002. The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. UPenn Press.

Ray, Meredith. 2015. Daughters of Alchemy. Harvard University Press.

Review of The Prince’s Body by Valeria Finucci:

Defining the proper female body, seeking elective surgery for beauty, enjoying lavish spa treatments, and combating impotence might seem like today’s celebrity infatuations. However, these preoccupations were very much alive in the early modern period. Valeria Finucci recounts the story of a well-known patron of arts and music in Renaissance Italy, Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua (1562–1612), to examine the culture, fears, and captivations of his times. Using four notorious moments in Vincenzo’s life, Finucci explores changing concepts of sexuality, reproduction, beauty, and aging.

The first was Vincenzo’s inability to consummate his earliest marriage and subsequent medical inquiry, which elucidates new concepts of female anatomy. Second, Vincenzo’s interactions with Bolognese doctor Gaspare Tagliacozzi, the “father of plastic surgery,” illuminate contemporary fascinations with elective procedures. Vincenzo’s use of thermal spas explores the proliferation of holistic, noninvasive therapies to manage pain, detoxify, and rehabilitate what the medicine of the time could not address. And finally, Vincenzo’s search for a cure for impotence later in life analyzes masculinity and aging.

By examining letters, doctors’ advice, reports, receipts, and travelogues, together with (and against) medical, herbal, theological, even legal publications of the period, Finucci describes an early modern cultural history of the pathology of human reproduction, the physiology of aging, and the science of rejuvenation as they affected a prince with a large ego and an even larger purse. In doing so, she deftly marries salacious tales with historical analysis to tell a broader story of Italian Renaissance cultural adjustments and obsessions.

From Full Review at


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