The June 2019 rare book of the month is Girolamo Mercurio’s La commare oriccoglitrice, printed in Venice in 1601.
Girolamo Mercurio has been described as a somewhat eccentric figure: he described himself as an independent person who operated on his own terms. His given name at birth was Scipione. He studied medicine in Bologna and Padua and was a student of Giulio Cesare Aranzio, who was trained by Vesalius,. He practised medicine for a short period in Milan, but in the 1590s went on a long journey through Italy and Europe, eventually coming to practice medicine in the south of France for a period of time. He eventually returned to Italy, dying in Venice circa 1615.
Originally published in Venice in 1596, according to James Vincent Ricci, this work contains the “first reference to a contracted long pelvis and the necessity for caesarean.” It remained, until the 18th century, one of the few obstetrical works in a vernacular language. The 1601 copy discussed here is the revised second edition.
The book is divided into three sections which discuss a woman’s pregnancy and the health care required for her and her newborn baby; abnormal presentations during pregnancy; and complications that can be experienced during and after pregnancy by the mother and baby. The book is heavily illustrated with woodcuts depicting various positions of how the foetus presents in the womb, and of women giving birth in different positions. Some of the latter depict some very odd suggestions for birthing positions, such as showing a woman bent completely backwards, with their head and shoulders supported on a cushion on the floor! The somewhat blasé depiction of anatomy, with a woman happily displaying her dissected abdomen, as displayed here is typical of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century medical illustrations.
The book is notable for having one of the earliest depictions of a Caesarean section delivery. In 1578 Mercurio assisted his professor Aranzio with a Caesarean delivery, but unfortunately the mother died in childbirth; he does not indicate if the baby survived however. Mercurio was an early advocate for Caesarean sections at a time when the church and fellow practitioners such as Ambroise Paré argued against it. The Library has one other book on Caesarean sections, Francois Rousset’s Foetus vivi ex matre viva sine alterutrius vitae periculo caesura, printed in Basel in 1591, and seven other books on obstetrics, ranging in publication date from 1490 to 1632.