Honors Projects


In the aftermath of several plagues that decimated the population of the Italian peninsula since 1348, men and women from all socioeconomic backgrounds safeguarded their individual corporeal health and collective societal well-being through a variety of routines and rituals, which were prescribed but at the same time extremely personalized. This increased attention in personal and civic health promoted new trends in both literal and material consumption during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Purgative drugs and medicines were a common facet of medicine during the Italian Renaissance and were ingested regularly to alleviate commonplace bodily discomforts in addition to more serious ailments. Apothecary shops throughout fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian urban centers ensured that purgative drugs were readily accessible and affordable to male and female consumers of any economic class. The increased prevalence and variety of purgative medicines demanded specific material innovations. Maiolica drug jars, or albarelli, were ubiquitous in public and domestic settings during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The ceramic surface of an albarello offered endless possibilities for decoration, which often corresponded with the medicine or substance contained therein.

Domestic and private interiors were adorned with maiolica wares valued for their apotropaic and utilitarian functions, such as stackable dishware sets used during childbirth and in confinement after delivery. For Renaissance societies, procreation was perhaps the most impactful and sacred action against dwindling populations. The most important function for a woman, especially one of the upper echelons, during the Italian Renaissance was to conceive and continue the family lineage, ideally by giving birth to healthy sons. Scholars, such as Jacquelyn Marie Musacchio and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, have recovered the rich visual and material culture surrounding childbirth in post-Black Death Italy. Objects created for new and expectant mothers aided the health of mother and child by provoking maternal imagination, or the appropriate intellectual activity that resulted in the conception of moral and healthy male children, through their decoration and tactical application. In this way, the maiolica objects associated with birth have been explored in their generative and performative functions.

Yet, art historians have yet to examine another set of objects that seemingly contradict this reproductive mindset. That is, albarelli that contained purgative drugs for abortions. As the archival evidence recently published by John Christopolous has revealed, numerous women procured abortions during the Renaissance and had to negotiate unwanted attention from religious and secular authorities. Furthermore, extant records also reveal that men often requested abortive intervention from a physician or an apothecary, on behalf of a woman with whom they have had illicit or secret relations. Yet, abortion was, for the most part, prohibited by secular and religious authorities in Italy during the Quattrocento and Cinquecento, and causing or being complicit in an abortion was a serious offense. Despite any legislative, moral, or spiritual obligations, pregnancies were terminated, intentionally and accidentally, by procedures or abortive medicines administered by professional apothecaries and physicians. Furthermore, Italian city states regularly responded to individual and public cases of infanticide.

My research will examine the medium of maiolica in the context of prescribed personal health and societal well-being during the Italian Renaissance. Specifically, my aim is to highlight the reproductive politics of maiolica in Renaissance Italy and draw attention to not only procreation, as has been examined with scodelle da impagliata, or stackable dishware sets, created for new mothers to use during her confinement following childbirth, but to consider how maiolica also served as a vital medium for abortion by investigating the albarelli that contained purgative drugs.


Honors Program


Art – BA in Art History

Second Major


First Advisor

Dr. Allie Terry Fritsch

First Advisor Department

School of Art

Second Advisor

Dr. Kara Barr

Second Advisor Department


Publication Date

Spring 4-22-2024