Anne's Blog

Italy’s Mystique of Wine: Ancient Roots

Date: October 12, 2020 - categories: - 2 Comments

The mystique of wine originates in pre-historic times as the fruit of the vitis vinifera – the Euro-asiatic grapevine cultivated in all continents except the Antarctic – was first turned into wine in about 8500 BC. Probably accidentally. wine is endowed with strong significances, threading through the history of ancient peoples – even prior to the Greeks, Etruscans, Romans and various Italic tribes. Wine imagery and symbolism are fortified with the birth of Christianity, and wine symbolism reigns on into the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance and Baroque periods to today.

–Wine has captured the imagination and creative thinking of philosophers, artists, poets as well as those centering their knowledges on the healing professions….and throughout the world. Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings of earlier than 000 BC are the earliest representation and here in Italy, frescoed Etruscan tombs depict the cult of wine and the celebration of wine as in these 5th B.C.frescoes of a tomb of Tarquinia (Latium): 

Why was wine ever made in the first place? For medicinal use, perhaps; in fact, wine is our oldest documented medicine as prescriptions for wine-based medicine have been found written on clay tablets of  Sumeria (present-day Iraq) ], dated between 2200 to 2100 B.C. Egyptian papyri of roughly the same period bear wine-based remedies for eradicating asthma, expelling epilepsy,  as a remedy for dejection…. and for “releasing a baby from the belly,” too.

The Greek physician Hippocrates (470–370 BC), the father of modern medicine, recognized the antiseptic qualities of wine and recommended it as a wound dressing (“no wound should be moistened with anything except wine”).

Hippocrates touted many other medical applications as did another Greek, Galen, who was imperial physician for Marcus Aurelius and family even saving them from a bubonic plague outbreak in the 2nd c A.D.  Galen used wine as disinfectant when taking care of the wounds of gladiators, using it to disinfect wounds, lacerations, and amputations.

As imperial physician to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, his duties progressed to that of sommelier, tasting the emperor’s wine to select the best and most healthful. On this basis, he recommended drier and lighter wines instead of the thick, sweet concoctions that had been popular.

In the stunning  13th-c fresco in the crypt of the Anagni cathedral, Hippocrates, on the right, plays the role of teacher (note his gesture), explaining his medicinal knowledge  to Galen, seated on the left, listening with attention.  Bottles of their herbs, spices and medicinal concoctions, as well as mortars and pestles are lined up behind Hippocrates

In 2019 in the Roman forum, under the Basilica di Massenzio, archaeologists unearthed the workshop where Galen stored the spices from all over the Roman empire which he used in the concoctions of his medicines. His vast library was here, too and here he held conferences and conducted lessons on animal dissection for scientific study. The excavation will be open to the public in 2020.

Not far from Perugia in the medieval hill town of Torgiano,  the Museo del Vino (Wine Museum) offers a fascinating look into the  art, culture and history of wine – including its medicinal uses.  Opened in 1974, the Museum displays over three-thousand objects in twenty rooms associated with the art, history and the culture of wine since 3200 B.C.

Two rooms are dedicated to wine in medicine, shelves filled with centuries-old exquisitely-painted elegant maiolica albarelli (medicine jars):

…and in the room displaying ancient medical texts, look for the 16th-c volume of Galen’s medical lore:


Wine is linked to  medicine throughout the centuries.  And not only that  – as my October 17th ZOOM talk, “Italy’s Wine Mystique in History and Art” will show you.

Let Peppa tell you about wine as rural medicine

Read about a “Sagrantino quest” – from Montefalco to Assisi



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