Columbus Discovers the Clitoris

It wasn't America, but it's noteworthy in its own right.

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Renaissance men could barely keep up with all the exciting discoveries of their era, not least in the field of anatomy. Sixty years after Christopher set off for the New World, another Italian by the named of Renaldus Columbus (no relation) announced to his spellbound colleagues that he had finally discovered “the seat of a woman’s delight.” A lecturer in surgery at Padua University, this Columbus was part of a new wave of scholars that was exploring the inner-workings of the human body, mostly by dissecting cadavers. Obviously Columbus was also doing some field work: In 1559, he announced in his textbook De Re Anatomica that he had identified a female appendage that would “throb with brief contractions” during sexual intercourse, causing a woman’s “semen” to flow “swifter than air.” Columbus named his discovery amor Veneris, vul dulcedo, “the love or the sweetness of Venus;” the word clitoris first appears in English in 1615, taken from the ancient Greek kleitor — “little hill,” — according to some philologists.

Soon scholars were falling over one another claiming the discovery: A certain Gabriello Fallopio, who was the first to identify fallopian tubes, insisted that he had found the clitoris first. (This is probably true, but Fallopio did not publish his findings until two years later, in 1561, so the laurels officially go to Columbus). Unseemly squabbling amongst anatomists continued for a century, until a Dutch physician showed that the clitoris had actually been known to science since the Greeks and was written about in great detail by the second-century A.D. doctor Galen.

Fallopio may have missed out on the clitoris, but history does honor him as the inventor of the condom: In 1564, he reported that he had constructed a fine linen sheath that could be tied around the head of the penis. Its purpose was not as a birth control device but rather to protect against the scourge of syphilis, which was cutting a swathe across Europe in the 1500s, probably brought to Europe by explorers from the Americas. Fallopio claimed to have tested his device on exactly 1,100 men, apparently with local prostitutes, and proudly reported that not a single one had become infected.

Recently, Columbus was acknowledged by the Argentine novelist Federico Andahazi in The Anatomist, which imagines his practical experiments on the clitoris with a beautiful Spanish widow, Inés de Torremolinos; the novel’s hero is finally being burned at the stake by an outraged Inquisition. Other more sober texts admit that we know few details about Columbus’ life, and that his actual research methods are still, well, fantasy. • 24 March 2008

SOURCES/FURTHER READING: Connell S.M., “Aristotle and Galen on sex difference and reproduction,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 2000 (Sept), 31 (3), 405-27; Laqueur, Thomas W., Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, (Harvard, 1990); Park, Katherine, “The Rediscovery of the Clitoris: French Medicine and the Tribade, 1570-1620,” in Hillman, David and Mazzio, Carla (eds.) The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe, (New York, 1997).

 

Tony Perrottet’s book, Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.

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