Item #6107 I secreti della Signora Isabella Cortese, ne’ quali si contengono cose minerali, medecinali, profumi, belletti, artifitii, & alchimia; con altre belle curiosità aggiunte. Isabella CORTESE.
I secreti della Signora Isabella Cortese, ne’ quali si contengono cose minerali, medecinali, profumi, belletti, artifitii, & alchimia; con altre belle curiosità aggiunte
I secreti della Signora Isabella Cortese, ne’ quali si contengono cose minerali, medecinali, profumi, belletti, artifitii, & alchimia; con altre belle curiosità aggiunte
I secreti della Signora Isabella Cortese, ne’ quali si contengono cose minerali, medecinali, profumi, belletti, artifitii, & alchimia; con altre belle curiosità aggiunte
I secreti della Signora Isabella Cortese, ne’ quali si contengono cose minerali, medecinali, profumi, belletti, artifitii, & alchimia; con altre belle curiosità aggiunte
“Secrets” of Alchemy, Cosmetics, and Medicine
Written by a Woman for Women
Venice, Lucio Spineda, 1625.

I secreti della Signora Isabella Cortese, ne’ quali si contengono cose minerali, medecinali, profumi, belletti, artifitii, & alchimia; con altre belle curiosità aggiunte.

In carta rustica, with a white paper spine label. Title partially inked on the spine. Manuscript signature on front pastedown (“C[omp]te Juane? Pelig[…]”). With a woodcut vignette on the title page and in-text woodcut illustrations of alchemical instruments on pp. 50, 57, 186; with intricate animalistic and anthropomorphic woodcut initials throughout. 8vo (15 x 10.5 cm), pp. (1-16) 1-206. Binding detached from the text block. Soiling on the covers, water stains and foxing throughout the text; upper right corners dogeared on the last two leaves, without loss of text. Without flyleaves. Overall, good.

A later edition of the Secrets of Signora Isabella Cortese, an important publication on practical alchemy, written by a female author and addressed to female readers. “Cortese’s recipes for beauty waters, soaps, and perfumes, along with others for calcinated mercury and potable gold, are deemed useful to ‘every noble lady’ and meant to reflect the range of uses that Renaissance women made of scientific experiment” (Ray, p. 11). With its audience comprising mostly bourgeois women, the book reflects “the increased accessibility of scientific culture to a broader public” at the time (Ray, p. 47).

The recipes are divided into four books, with those addressed primarily to women concentrating in the last book. The first book, dedicated to medical recipes, includes treatments for plague and syphilis (the ubiquitous and dangerous “mal francese” or the French disease), ointments for healing wounds, antidotes to poison, as well as a recipe meant to help women heal after childbirth (I, 11). The second book focuses on alchemical experiments, such as practical recipes aimed at producing gold, elixir, and the philosopher’s stone. Book 3 comprises explanations for how to create substances for a variety of uses, including gold lettering for books, dye leather, hair color, soaps, and many others. There is also an ointment for impotence—a mixture of quail testicles, ants, musk, elderberry oil, and amber (III, 63). The final book—the lengthiest in the book—comprises 221 recipes for beauty products, including teeth whitening powders, creams, hair dyes, lip and cheek colors, and perfumes.

Books of secrets became widespread in the mid-sixteenth century. Comprising miscellaneous information on medicine, cosmetics, as well as alchemical recipes, they were aimed at a non-scientific yet curious audience. “Secret” in the context of these publications, Ray argues, should be seen as synonymous with “experiment,” or something that was proven (Ray, p. 46).  

 Very little is known of Isabella Cortese. She was an alchemist and cosmetologist active in the mid 16th century Northern Italy and a shrewd marketer. It is said that she encouraged her readers to keep her “secrets” secret  and to destroy their copy once they had memorized all the content. Thus, the book enjoyed great popularity, with at least eleven editions appearing between 1561 and 1677.

*Ray, Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (2015).

Price: $2,850.00

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