On a sultry day in July, 1550, soldiers in the army of the Holy Roman Empire were encamped outside the city of Mahdiya, near Tunis, nervously awaiting orders to launch a final assault on the town, a stronghold of the Turkish pirate Dragut. A Spanish officer and his companion, a surgeon in the emperor’s army, were strolling through the camp when they came upon two soldiers engaged in a heated quarrel. The men drew their swords and squared off.
The Spanish officer tried to stop the brawl, only to receive a backhand blow that neatly sliced off his nose, which fell to the ground. As the astonished officer stood with his mouth agape, bleeding profusely from the face, the surgeon calmly picked up the severed nose from the dirt. “Holding it in my hand,” he later recounted, “I pissed on it, and having washed it off with urine, I attached it to him and sewed it on firmly, medicated it with balsam, and bandaged it.” When he untied the wound, the surgeon later recalled, “I found it was very well attached again, and everyone marveled at it.”
The quick-witted surgeon, Leonardo Fioravanti, would go on to become one of the most controversial figures of the Italian Renaissance. The rise of print culture enabled him to become a celebrity doctor and the focus of an alternative medical movement.
A prolific writer, he used his books to advertise his “new way of healing” and to dramatize daring surgical interventions such as reattaching the Spanish officer’s nose. He created the first mail order medical business and published glowing testimonials from patients, as patent medicine vendors would do ever after. To an age in which TV doctors push newfangled drugs and fad diets, the life and adventures of Leonardo Fioravanti seem as relevant as ever.