The physicians of ancient Greece were aware that muscular exercise was a source of health and strength, as well as achieving corporal beauty through a balanced relationship between different parts of the body. Ancient statues, such as those of Polykleitos (460 to 420 BC), attest to how such beauty and harmony could be attained in the form of stone sculptures. Like the rest of nature, the human body was believed to be governed by a certain harmony of proportion and symmetry, also corresponding to a health-based ideal of longevity.1
As health was believed to depend on both physical activity and diet, these were prescribed in combination as the ideal way of maintaining good health and of restoring it to sick patients.2 The importance of maintaining health through physical exercise ebbed with the decline of the Greek and Roman civilizations, and gymnastics was no longer a way of life. During the Middle Ages, beauty was perceived as pure vanity and temptation. People had to show modesty and humility, concealing beauty to avoid vindictiveness from the God-fearing masses.
During the Renaissance of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Italian artists brought the Greek and Roman heritage back into the spotlight. They analyzed human and intellectual values by studying ruins and artifacts, and by reading the translations of ancient texts.
Figure 2. De arte gymnastica, 1573, p. 89. Public Domain, Source: gallica.bnf.fr/Bibliothèque nationale de France.
The liberal arts, revered in antiquity and then largely neglected, were salvaged and reinvented during the Renaissance. Art was rigorously based on geometry and optics, on relative size based on viewpoint and body proportions, and on knowledge of anatomy and body movements. Beauty was now codified in art through precise mathematical proportions. Ideal measurements for the body and the face were updated and established. Humans became the measure of all things, and artists represented them more willingly; naked when it came to mythological characters. The resurgence of humanism in sixteenth-century Europe also inspired physicians to recognize the place of man and human values above all others, and this philosophy spawned an intellectual movement inspired by the study of ancient texts. The rediscovery of Greco-Roman literature then became inseparable from a certain ideology of progress. Referring to Hippocrates of Cos (460-c. 370 BC) and Claudius Galen (c. 131. 201), erudite minds rediscovered forgotten concepts of hygiene and health.
Figure 3. De arte gymnastica, 1573, p. 127. Public Domain, Source: gallica.bnf.fr/Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Girolamo Mercuriale (1530-1606)
As a consequence of these changes, gymnastics was now no longer seen as art but as science, establishing the supremacy and hegemony of doctors over coaches and athletes. It became, in a way, the science of physical exercise, allowing people to evaluate its effects on the body and its performance. This heightened Galenism was reflected in several treatises, notably by Antoine Gazi (1449-1528), Symphorien Champier (1471-1539), and Léonhart Fuchs (1501-1566), who regarded bodily exercises as a way to stay healthy. Particularly important and comprehensive was the work of Hieronymus Mercurialis. His goal was to give gymnastics its former importance and ground it in medicine by connecting specific conditions and exercises. This plan implied a return to Galen, who believed gymnastics had a purely medical function. Mercurialis also valued gymnastics as a way to maintain and improve health rather than for the pleasure of popular games or war, seeking to determine the line between exercises and medical aims.
Girolamo Mercuriale is best known by his Latinized name, Hieronymus Mercurialis.2 This erudite and illustrious man was born in Forli (Romagna) on September 30, 1530. After attending medical school in Bologna, he became a doctor in Padua and then returned to Forli. It was then that his wide knowledge earned him the esteem of Cardinal Alexander Farnese (1520-1589), who persuaded him to settle in Rome. This greatly benefitted his research, particularly through access to the Vatican library and the richest private libraries. He spent seven years there, devoting himself to teaching medicine and studying the gymnastics of antiquity.
De Arte Gymnastica (1569)
Mercurialis became known throughout Europe as an authority in medicine. According to a letter to the Italian cardinal Guglielmo Sirleto (1514-1585), the publication date of the original edition of De Arte Gymnastica was July 28, 1569,4 making it the first Western book on gymnastics. Its first edition, in Latin, was dedicated to Cardinal Alexander Farnese and the second, in 1573, to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (1527-1576). Publication continued for many decades, in 1587, 1601, and 1672, with an Italian translation appearing in 1856.
Figure 4. De arte gymnastica, 1573, p. 148. Public Domain, Source: gallica.bnf.fr/Bibliothèque nationale de France.
De Arte Gymnastica is a scholarly work composed by studying the monuments of antiquity and the books in the rich libraries of Rome. It contains curious pieces of research on the gymnasiums of antiquity, on the kinds of exercises and games they engaged in, and on their effects on illness and health. It divides exercise into three groups: regular exercise, which includes medical use; military exercise; and athletic exercise. It describes dancing, ball games, walking, running, jumping, discus, dumbbell, throwing, singing, horseback riding, swimming, wrestling, boxing, and even fishing and hunting. Each form is described with its advantages.
In his compendium, Mercurialis largely borrows from the works of Galen, in particular his six books entitled De Sanitate Tuenda. In his books, Galen discusses the contribution of exercise to health. Mercurialis classifies activities and exercises according to their effects on the body,5 with many references scattered throughout his writing and quotations from more than one hundred authors, listed at the beginning of the work.
The work is original mainly in its recommending physical exercise as general debility as well as for kidney stones and varicose veins. Its title clearly indicated that it was addressed to everyone, not only to doctors. It confirmed how humanist educators felt about the therapeutic value of physical education. Renaissance Italy set in motion this resurgence of physical exercise as a requirement for health.
In conclusion, the revival of knowledge during the Renaissance stimulated a new interest in original Greek and Roman sources about the theory and practice of medicine. The gymnastics of Hellenic culture were brought back into the limelight by doctors versed in ancient texts and ideals. The spirit of the Renaissance gradually led to a revaluation of therapeutic physical practice by distancing it from the vagueness in which it was immersed during the Middle Ages.
Yet in the midst of the great ruins of Italy’s arenas, amphitheaters, baths, and gymnasiums, these writers paid scarce attention to any form of exercise other than that which made bodies agile, vigorous, and healthy. Mercurialis, however, rekindled interest in physical practice and framed it as both a preventive and curative measure.
- Tobin, Richard. “The Canon of Polykleitos,” American Journal of Archaeology 79, no. 4 (1975): 307-321.
- Thurston, Alan. “Art of preserving health: studies on the medical supervision of physical exercise,” ANZ journal of surgery 79, no. 12 (2009): 941-945.
- Mercurialis, Hieronymi. De Arte Gymnastica. Venezia: Apud Iuntas, 1573.
- Mercuriale, Girolamo. L’art de la gymnastique. Translated by Jean-Michel Agasse. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2006.
- Peltier Leonard F. “Geronimo Mercuriali (1530-1606) and the first illustrated book on sports medicine,” Clin Orthop Relat Res 198, (1985): 21-24.
PHILIPPE CAMPILLO received a PhD at Montpellier on the biomechanical analysis of specific sport movements. His perspectives and research interests include the analysis and optimization of motor performance and the history and epistemology of science and biomechanics of locomotion. University of Lille, EA 7369 – URePSSS, Pluridisciplinary Research Unit, “Sport, Health and Society”, F-59000, Lille, France.
DANIEL CABALLERO has a PhD in Science and Technology of Physical and Sports Activities (STAPS). His research topics focus on two axes: 1) the development of scientific analysis methods (Biplot, multivariate analysis, statistical analysis of textual data, qualitative survey), and 2) the sociological analysis of physical and sports activities from a gendered perspective (body socializations, institutionalization process, and careers of practitioners). University of Lille, EA 7369 – URePSSS, Pluridisciplinary Research Unit, “Sport, Health and Society”, F-59000, Lille, France.