Cornaro's autobiography is certainly the earliest and most influential text of dieting literature that still has a readership today. His elegantly written Italian text, Dis-corsi della vita sobria, translated as the Discourses on a Sober Life, the Art of Living Long and also the Temperate Life, first appeared in 1558. He began the book in i550 when he was eighty-three and the final installment appeared when he was ninety-five.
Cornaro's books became instant bestsellers and remain in print today. As Joseph Addison and Richard Steele writing in i7ii note in The Spectator his texts "are written with such a spirit of cheerfulness, religion, and good sense, as are the natural concomitants of temperance and sobriety" (Addison and Steele 1711: 4). Nearly two hundred years later, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in the section on "four great errors" in his Twilight of the Idols (finished in 1888) doubted the efficacy of Cornaro's diet, having tried it (and many other interventions including electrotherapy) to cure his own ailments. He accused Cornaro of underestimating the fixity of predisposition to illness, believing that his long life was due to his diet rather than to his very nature:
Cornaro mistakes the effect for the cause. The worthy Italian thought his diet was the cause of his long life, whereas the precondition for a long life, the extraordinary slowness of his metabolism, was the cause of his slender diet A scholar in our time, with his rapid consumption of nervous energy, would simply destroy himself on Cornaro's diet. Crede experto—believe me, I've tried.
(Nietzsche 2003: 58)
This debate about inheritance, health, and weight loss continues to be waged and Cornaro's texts continue to be read as first-hand accounts of what works and what does not work to lose weight and thus prolong life.
Cornaro confesses to the reader that at middle age, he was dissipated by forty years of gluttony and overindulgence in sensual pleasures. He was at death's door. For him, gluttony was a killer, not merely a sin, for it "kills every year . . . as great a number as would perish during the time of a most dreadful pestilence, or by the sword or fire of many bloody wars" (Cornaro 1903: 41). In the depths of his illness, he turned to physicians. They advised him to be temperate. He thus cured his obese body through a strict limitation of his diet. While the cure is for him proof of the beneficence of God, it is equally proof that living longer allows one to develop those "splendid gifts of intellect and noble qualities of heart" (Cornaro 1903: 42). In a sense, the evidence for God's grace and the best use of his gifts comes at the end of life. It is a "natural death," at the time when one's vital powers have diminished and one dies well—peacefully and without struggle.
Cornaro's text is a handbook for a good life (and death). Its power lies in its autobiographical, indeed, confessional mode, which echoes Augustine. He observes, and carefully chronicles, his symptoms as a younger man from his perspective as an old, healthy, thin man. He was certainly ill with many of the diseases attributed to obesity in the Galenic tradition: "I had pains in the stomach, frequent pains in the side, symptoms of gout, and, still worse, a low fever that was almost continuous; but I suffered especially from disorder of the stomach, and from an unquenchable thirst" (Cornaro 1903: 43-4). But he also lost his ability to reject temptation, having become addicted to eating and drinking. He turned to the physicians whose advice was quite clear; they "declared there was but one remedy left for my ills—a remedy which would surely conquer them, provided I would make up my mind to apply it and persevere in its use. That remedy was the temperate and orderly life" (Cornaro 1903: 44). This is what the physicians admonished and what the patient followed to success.
Sobriety after a life of indulgence is a cure for the physical effects of obesity, not obesity itself. Cornaro sees himself as typical of the men of his age. The riches of their lives have led to the brink of death as a result of what he identified as the three evil customs or sins widespread in sixteenth-century Italy: "adulation and ceremony . . . heresy and . . . intemperance" (Cornaro 1903: 40). Only through the good counsel of the doctors does he find a cure for all three. For gluttony is understood as the cause of the list of infirmities found in the fat man. The overindulgence of the man in his best years is the cause of his fat, and his fat is the sign of his sick body. There is a strong moral tradition that owes its form to Paul and the Christian abnegation of the body. The society in which he lives, however, does not understand this simple rule:
These false notions are due entirely to the force of habit, bred by men's senses and uncontrolled appetites. It is this craving to gratify the appetites which has allured and inebriated men to such a degree that, abandoning the path of virtue, they have taken to following the one of vice—a road which leads them, though they see it not, to strange and fatal chronic infirmities through which they grow prematurely old. Before they reach the age of forty their health has been completely worn out—just the reverse of what the temperate life once did for them. For this, before it was banished by the deadly habit of intemperance, invariably kept all its followers strong and healthy, even to the age of fourscore and upward.
(Cornaro 1903: 41)
It is not knowledge of the world that cures, but simplicity and temperance. Cornaro bemoans the fact that friends and associates, men endowed with splendid gifts of intellect and noble qualities of heart, who fall, in the prime of life, victims of this dread tyrant; men who, were they yet living, would be ornaments to the world, while their friendship and company would add to my enjoyment in the same proportion as I was caused sorrow by their loss.
(Cornaro 1903: 42)
He is now cured of his illnesses and fat by his strict regime. The world of simplicity may have its roots in the advice of physicians, but when Cornaro, at the age of seventy, was in a carriage accident and dislocated an arm and a leg, he rejected his physician's suggestion that he be bled. He was convinced that his now healthy body would heal itself and, according to his account, it did. As a result of his own diet, he believes to know his body so well, that he is aware of what it needs to evince a cure.
Moderation is now his model for men to regain again their manhood, a manhood defined by longevity. And Cornaro was long-lived. This indeed was the key to his claim on authenticity in writing his autobiographical text. After the beginning of the sixteenth century, this anxiety about premature death was heightened. Cornaro's rejection of excess in food parallels Augustine's anxiety that gluttony was even worse that sexual license, for one did not have to fornicate (to use Augustine's concept), but one did have to eat. But what is excessive in the intake of nourishment for one man may not be for another. One can eat anything one wants but in moderation.
I began to observe very diligently what kinds of food agreed with me. I determined, in the first place, to experiment with those, which were most agreeable to my palate, in order that I might learn if they were suited to my stomach and constitution. The proverb, "whatever tastes good will nourish and strengthen," is generally regarded as embodying a truth, and is invoked, as a first principle, by those who are sensually inclined . . . In it I had hitherto firmly believed; but now I was resolved to test the matter, and find to what extent, if any, it was true. My experience, however, proved this saying to be false.
(Cornaro 1903: 46)
Since we must eat, as Augustine noted, we cannot suffer only to eat those things that give us pleasure, for that will only make us more gluttonous. Appetite is but a form of desire. Cornaro translates this into the discourse of health and illness. Eat for pleasure, and you will become ill. But it is also clear that the ability to eat exactly those things that he wants is linked with his idea that certain foods are simply healthy.
Those foods, such as meat and fish, clearly evoke the wealth that was part of the temptation of Cornaro's youth. A member of the powerful Cornaro family of Venice, he could earlier afford to be gluttonous and now he can afford to eat fish.
Of meats, I eat veal, kid, and mutton. I eat fowls of all kind; as well as partridges and birds like the thrush. I also partake of such salt-water fish as the goldney and the like; and, among the various fresh-water kinds, the pike and others Old persons, who, on account of poverty, cannot afford to indulge in all of these things, may maintain their lives with bread, bread soup, and eggs—foods that certainly cannot be wanting even to a poor man, unless he be one of the kind commonly known as good-for-nothing. Yet, even though the poor should eat nothing but bread, bread soup, and eggs, they must not take a greater quantity than can be easily digested; for they must, at all times, remember that he who is constantly faithful to the above-mentioned rules in regard to the quantity and quality of his food, cannot die except by simple dissolution and without illness.
(Cornaro 1903: 87-8)
Cornaro resolved to restrict his diet drastically. Initially, it was reduced to a daily intake of twelve ounces of food and fourteen ounces of wine. Eventually, however, it was reduced to a single egg a day. However, he also understood the relationship between the outward manifestation of the body and its spirit. He resolved to control his temper and the "melancholy, hatred, and other passions of the soul, which all appear greatly to affect the body" (Cornaro 1903: 48). Assuming that he was in fact born in 1564 (contesting some accounts that claim his age at death was 103), Cornaro lived to be ninety-eight and, according to his autobiography, it is the accomplishments in old age that reveal the character of man. He muses on what it is to be old and healthy. This is defined by his ability to work and to concentrate on questions of private as well as public health:
My greatest enjoyment, in the course of my journeys going and returning, is the contemplation of the beauty of the country and of the places through which I travel. Some of these are in the plains; others on the hills, near rivers or fountains; and all are made still more beautiful by the presence of many charming dwellings surrounded by delightful gardens. Nor are these my diversions and pleasures rendered less sweet and less precious through the failing of sight or my hearing, or because any one of my senses is not perfect; for they are all—thank God!—most perfect. This is especially true of my sense of taste; for I now find more true relish in the simple food I eat, wheresoever I may chance to be, than I formerly found in the most delicate dishes at the time of my intemperate life . . . With the greatest delight and satisfaction, also, do I behold the success of an undertaking highly important to our State; namely, the fitting for cultivation of its waste tracts of country, numerous as they were. This improvement was commenced at my suggestion; yet I had scarcely ventured to hope that I should live to see it, knowing, as I do, that republics are slow to begin enterprises of great importance. Nevertheless, I have lived to see it. And I myself was present with the members of the committee appointed to superintend the work, for two whole months, at the season of the greatest heat of summer, in those swampy places; nor was I ever disturbed either by fatigue or by any hardship I was obliged to incur. So great is the power of the orderly life which accompanies me wheresoever I may go! Furthermore, I cherish a firm hope that I shall live to witness not only the beginning but also the completion, of another enterprise, the success of which is no less important to our Venice: namely, the protection of our estuary . . . These are the true and important recreations, these comforts and pastimes, of my old age, which is much more to be prized than the old age or even the youth of other men; since it is free, by the grace of God, from all the perturbations of the soul and the infirmities of the body, and is not subject to any of those troubles which woefully torment so many young men and so many languid and utterly worn-out old men.
(Cornaro 1903: 69-70)
Cornaro's autobiography is at its heart a handbook of dietetics to reform the fat boy's body and turn him into a healthy and abstentious man who can in turn create a healthy world.
Building on Cornaro's work, modern science has begun to examine the role of calorie restriction in life expectancy and development of chronic disease (Gerstenblith 2006). Scientists have demonstrated that animals that are fed calorie-restricted diets have longer life expectancies than animals fed higher-calorie diets (Couzin 2005). Although at the time of publication of this book, some doctors and scientists are recommending low-calorie diets, there have not been any studies in humans to confirm the results. Additionally, some in the contemporary press have questioned this notion of calorie restriction that began with Cornaro. Although calorie restriction may increase life expectancy, some argue that indulging in food is a part of leading a full life and would rather not choose a life of temperance (David 2004). Regardless, Cornaro was a pioneer in examining the role of diet and life expectancy in Western culture.
See also Christianity; Medical Use of Dieting
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