Compleat Malleability

Giovanni Georgi, Frontispiece Syntagma Anatomicum by Joannes Veslingius (Detail), 1647, Engraving, 202 x 147 mm, London, British Museum

The term virtuoso was first used in Henry Peacham’s Compleat Gentleman in 1634, In his guide book, first published in 1622 and substantially reworked and augmented in the 1634 edition, Peacham mediates between the heredity of nobility and the dire need for education and training in order to truly become a part of noble society:

„And indeed, to whom of right should rather appertaine these my instructions, (in regard of their subject, which is the fashioning of Nobilitie after the best presidents) then to your selfe, every way so nobly descended. Besides, it is affirmed, that there are certaine sparkes and secret seeds of vertue innate in Princes, and the Children of of Noble personnages; which (if cherished, and carefully attended in the blossome) will yeeld the fruit of Industry and glorious Action; and that onely above the strength of the vulgar, but even in the Cion, and before the time which Natue hath appointed […| Aristotle saith of the Vine, by how much it is laden with Clusters, by so much it hath need of props, so say I of Greatnesse and Nobilitie […] it hath hourely need of support and helpe, by all timely advice and instruction, to guide and uphold it from lying along.“

Henry Peacham The Compleat Gentleman 1634, s.p. (The Epistle Dedicatory)

Peacham presents a thorough education as the ultimate antidote to the precarious position of nobility between birth and royal favour, between “sparkes and secret seeds” and “the fashioning of nobility.” True nobility, for Peacham, is characterized by the comprehensive education of the “upstart courtier”. Peacham’s affirmative contribution to the question of nobility and the legitimacy of noble privileges can be read both as a guide for ambitious jumped-up commoners and as a touchstone for the noble elite. Numerous publications address the embarrassing fact that nobility always has been primarily based on wealth and thus exploitation, and that imitating courtly behaviour was a means of social advancement (Ronald G. Asch, Nobilities in Transition 1550–1700, 2003 and Gerrit Walther, Adel und Antike: Zur politischen Bedeutung gelehrter Kultur für die Führungselite der Frühen Neuzeit 1998).

Henry Peacham, The Compleat Gentleman (Frontispiece), 1622

As early as 1598, Robert Greene offered a critical discussion of the problem of virtus as a justification for primacy and nobility:

„Doth true virtue consist in riches, or humanity in wealth? Is ancient honour tied to outward bravery? Or not rather true nobility, a mind excellently qualified with rare virtues? (…) When Adam delved, and Eve span, who was then a gentleman? (…) Noah inferred, that gentility grew not only by propagation of nature, but by perfection of quality.“

Robert Greene, A Quip for an Upstart Courtier 1592, p. 13.

In Peacham’s treatise, virtus is treated specifically in terms of art and knowledge production. Peacham’s discussion of the virtuoso is found in the chapter on the collection of ancient statues. Here he emphasizes the need to derive knowledge from the statues. Clearly directed against the anti-image movements that had been flaring up again and again since the 16th century, Peacham presents engaging in the advancement of art and knowledge as a forward-looking courtly ideal:

„For by reason of the barbarous religion of the Turks, which alloweth not the likenesse or representation of any living thing, they have been for the most part buryed in ruines or broken to peeces […] And here I cannot but with much reverence mention the every way Right honourable Thomas Howard high Marshall of England, as great for his noble Patronage of Arts and ancient learning, as for his birth and place. To whose liberall charges and magnificence, this angle of the world oweth the first sight of Greeke and Romane Statues[…] and hath ever since continued to transplant old Greece into England.“

Henry Peacham The Compleat Gentleman 1634, p. 107.

For Peacham, virtus means “dignity of essence,” an inherent dignity, a transcendent preeminence in the world. Just as among the planets there are more important ones, among the elements purer ones, and the animal kingdom is ranked, there is also an order among humans in which the true nobility rules lawfully, but independently, indiscriminate of offices and titles:

Nobility being inherent and Naturall, can have […] the lustre but onely from it selfe: Honours and Titles externally conferred, are but attendant upon desert, and are but as apparell, and the Drapery to a beautifull body.“

Henry Peacham The Compleat Gentleman 1634, p. 3.

These remarks on virtus refer to universal connections in nature as well as to the noble body in need of being shaped and controlled. To the female virtuosa, similar criteria applied as to the male virtuoso. In both, the ability to appreciate, analyze, imitate as well as to perfect nature was particularly valued. There was, however, the issue of the specifically female association with matter as opposed to male form. As Fredrika Jacobs has shown, the understanding of women as the passive material subject to the inherently male act of creation, derived from ancient concepts of the act of procreation, made it much more difficult for women to be perceived as ingenious (Defining the Renaissance Virtuosa 1997).

Claudio de Domenico Celentano de Vallis Nove, Liber Vitae et Certus Thesaurus Mundi (Se Absconditur), in Collection of Chymical Allegories, 1606, Watercolour, Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute

As detrimental to crediting female authorship as it was, in the corporeal art of medicine this identification of women with physicality conferred distinct advantages. Their intimate familiarity with bodily processes promised immediate, unadulterated access to hidden knowledge, as Alisha Rankin has pointed out (Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers 2013). In addition, popular alchemical concepts broke with traditional dichotomous divisions between male and female and focused on a fluidity of gender and the interdependence of the two Aristotelian principles of matter and form.

Salomon Trismosin, Alchemical Hermaphrodite (Rebis), in La Toyson d’Or, 1612, Graphit on Vellum, Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute

The research on this fascinating topic is diverse and inspiring: Ursula Szulakowska (Gender Transformation in Alchemical Imagery 2008) and Allison Kavey (Mercury Falling: Gender Malleability and Sexual Fluidity in Early Modern Alchemy 2007) as well as ME Warlick (Fluctuating Identities: Gender Reversals in Alchemical Imagery 2006) were able to show the subversion of gender roles in chemical theory and practice.

Salomon Trismosin, Women’s Work (Operation diverse), in La Toyson d’Or, 1612, Graphit on Vellum, Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute

As Warlick furthermore demonstrates, the role of the housewife and her knowledge of chemical processes had been fundamentally re-appreciated in alchemical emblems (The Domestic Alchemist: Women as Housewives in Alchemical Emblems 1998). The focus on the malleability of bodies through the art of medicine made of the early modern housewife an ideal iatrochemical innovator.

Cite this blog post
Jennifer Rabe (2022, April 30). Compleat Malleability. Lady Arundel 1654–2054. Retrieved May 23, 2024, from

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search