Isabella Cortese

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The Secrets of Lady Isabella Cortese (1561)

Isabella Cortese (fl. 1561), was an Italian alchemist and writer of the Renaissance. All that is known of her life and work is from her book on alchemy: The Secrets of Lady Isabella Cortese.


Cortese claimed to have studied alchemy for thirty years, including the works of established alchemists such as Geber, Ramon Llull, and Arnold of Villanova.[1] She however was widely dismissive of their work calling it "complete gibberish, filled with fables and crazy recipes that only make you lose time and money".[2] She believed she had gained nothing by studying their work but an "increase in the likelihood of an early death".[1] Only by her own processes did she believe she had uncovered alchemical secrets.

Controversy Over Gender[edit]

Because nothing is known about Cortese outside of her own novel, it has been speculated that perhaps the author of The Secrets of Lady Isabella Cortese was in fact a man, posing as a woman in the belief that female authorship would increase sales among the anti-elite.[2] It is impossible to know whether this speculation is true or not.

The Secrets of Lady Isabella Cortese[edit]

In 1561, her book I secreti della signora Isabella Cortese or The Secrets of Lady Isabella Cortese first appeared in print in Venice, introducing alchemy to a wider readership. In it were medical and cosmetic remedies, advice for how to run a household, and discussion of how to turn metal into gold.[3] These included instruction on how to make many practical items such as toothpaste, glue, polish, soap, and cosmetics.[1] One treatment calls for a combination of fixed camphor, quicksilver, and sulfur to make a "universal medicine" through a metaphorical joining of mind, body, and soul.[1] Another calls for a mixture of quail testicles, large winged ants, oriental amber, musk, and an oil made from elder and storax.[1] This mixture was a supposed treatment for erectile dysfunction. As long as all instructions are followed exactly, the book claims all of its secrets will be known to the reader.[2]


In its time, The Secrets of Lady Isabella Cortese was quite popular. It was published in eleven editions between 1561 and 1677, as well as two editions of a German translation.[1] Part of this success can be attributed to Cortese's insistence on her readers keeping her book's secrets to themselves.[1] She asked her readers to keep people away from their alchemical workplace and to burn her book once they had learned all of its secrets.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Moran, Bruce (June 30, 2009). Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution. Harvard University Press. pp. 60–62. ISBN 0674014952. 
  2. ^ a b c Bell, Rudolph (September 2000). How to Do It: Guides to Good Living For Renaissance Italians. University of Chicago Press. pp. 44–45. ISBN 0226042006. 
  3. ^ Gilleir, Anke, Montoya, Alicia and Dijk, Suzan van (2010). Women Writing Back / Writing Women Back: Transnational Perspectives from the late Middle Ages to the dawn of the modern era. Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden. p. 142.