The Art of Living Long
(1917 translation of La Vita Sobria in Four Discourses)
By Luigi Cornaro
Arno Press reprint, 1979
“Now, Sir, to begin my discourse, I shall tell you that I have, within the past few days, been visited by a number of excellent professors who lecture in our University—doctors of medicine as well as philosophy. These gentlemen are all acquainted with my age, and with my manner and habits of living, and know how full I am of cheerfulness and health. They know, too, that all my senses are in perfect condition—as also are my memory, my heart, and my mind—and that this is equally true of even my voice and my teeth. Nor are they ignorant of the fact that I constantly write, and with my own hand, eight hours a day, and always on subjects profitable to the world; and, in addition to this, that I walk and sing for many other hours.”
With pardonable pride, the ninety-one-year old Luigi Cornaro thus introduces the theme of the third Discourse of his La Vita Sobria (The Temperate Life), to one of its intended recipients, his friend, the Patriarch of Aquileia, in 1555. By now affectionately known and venerated as the Apostle of Senescence, and thereafter as the Venetian Centenarian, Luigi Cornaro had already led a long life of health and vigor unusual in his time or ours. He had written the famous first and second Discourses of La Vita Sobria at the ages of eighty-three and eighty-six respectively, and would go on to write a fourth Discourse further expatiating the virtues of a temperate life at the age of ninety-five. He died peacefully in his sleep at the age of one hundred two.
Luigi Cornaro was born in Venice in 1464 into the noble, well known and powerful Cornaro family. Scheming family members defrauded Luigi of honors and privileges (although not the financial support) attached to his noble status, which thereby prevented him from serving in public employment to the state. Humiliated by these indignities he left his ancestral city while still a young man and made Padua his home for the remainder of his life. His apparent early misfortune, however, became the catalyst for a remarkable personal transformation and subsequent achievements quite apart from those he might have inherited from his illustrious name alone.
Born with a delicate, “cold” constitution unfortunately paired with a fiery, choleric temperament, Luigi left his university studies behind and threw himself into the wild, dissipated life of Padua’s café society. After years of indulging in excesses of every sort, his health began to crumble, and soon after the age of thirty-five his physical state was in serious danger. “The excesses of my past life, together with my bad constitution—my stomach being very cold and moist—had caused me to fall prey to various ailments, such as pains in the stomach, frequent pains in the side, the symptoms of gout, and, still worse, a low fever that was almost continuous; but I suffered especially from disorder of the stomach, and from an unquenchable thirst.”
For a few years more Luigi submitted to “every known means of cure” that his doctors offered with no relief but rather had an increase in suffering. Finally arriving on death’s door near the age of forty, Luigi resolved to accept the last advice his physicians had left to offer: to immediately embark upon a temperate and orderly life. “My physicians warned me that if I neglected to apply this remedy, in a short time it would be too late to derive any benefit from it; for in a few months I should certainly die.”
A man of firm resolve and tenacity, as well as possessing a fervent desire to live, Luigi found that strict moderation in food and drink soon provided relief and in fact suited his constitution. He drastically reduced the quantity of food he ate to the barest minimum, taking only twelve ounces of food and fourteen ounces of new wine divided among four meals per day. On such an extremely abstemious diet he was completely cured of all his ailments in less than a year. Enjoying a level of vitality entirely new to him, he continued his strict regime in constant good health, strength, and with full capacity of all his senses.
After more than forty years he felt compelled to urge others to share his good fortune by writing his first Discourse on temperance. He had reached an age when so many of his beloved family members and friends had died prematurely, leaving him bereft of satisfying companionship. Proponents of a restricted calorie diet might find vindication in Luigi’s example since he certainly enjoyed enhanced immunity, resistance to stress, and longevity. However, Luigi makes it clear that merely attaining old age is not a means unto itself, but rather preserving one’s health and capacities in order to share with others the fruits of long experience, learning, and accomplishment is both a deep personal satisfaction and an enrichment to society that should be everyone’s ambition in life.
Luigi had discovered early on that in order to preserve his health, it would be up to him alone to learn which foods harmed him and which were beneficial, and, maybe more importantly, in what quantities he could healthfully partake of them. One can only be a perfect physician for oneself alone, he insists—it is not possible for anyone else to know you as well as you know yourself, or to advise you precisely as to the details of your health. This means a good deal of experimentation and keen observation will be each person’s responsibility. In Luigi’s case he learned that foods he had enjoyed, such as cold, dry wines, melons and other fruit, raw vegetable salads, fish, pork, tarts, vegetable soups, and pastries all harmed him. On the other hand, egg yolks, veal, kid, mutton and all sorts of fowl were beneficial, as were new wine (very light wine less than a year old), meat broths, and bread. These foods in proper quantity were easy to digest and healthful for his individual constitution. “I accustomed myself to the habit of never fully satisfying my appetite, either with eating or drinking—always leaving the table well able to take more. In this I acted according to the proverb: ‘Not to satiate one’s self with food is the science of health.’”
As for his choleric temperament (“. . . it was impossible for any person to deal with me. . . a wrathful man is no less than insane at times.”), here was yet another important terrain to be tamed by moderation. “I have also preserved myself, as far as I have been able, from those other disorders from which it is more difficult to be exempt; I mean melancholy, hatred, and the other passions of the soul, which all appear greatly to affect the body.” These wise insights protected Luigi from despairing, for example, over the outcome of a protracted lawsuit brought against him which might otherwise have ruined not only his fortune, but his health. (In fact, he ultimately prevailed.) Those who knew him testified of his sweet disposition, equanimity of mind, and generosity of spirit.
Luigi also recommended avoidance of extreme cold or heat, excessive wind or poorly ventilated rooms, too strenuous exercise, and especially that nothing should be allowed to interfere with one’s sleep and rest. “There is no doubt that if one so advised were to act accordingly, he would avoid all sickness in the future; because a well-regulated life removes the cause of disease. Thus, for the remainder of his days, he would have no need of either doctors or of medicines.”
Soon after his health recovery, Luigi married and built the beautiful palazzo in Padua where he would spend the rest of his life, except for summer trips to his country estates where over the course of years he designed and constructed several extensive gardens and villas. He and his wife had one child, a daughter, who, in time, married and filled the palazzo with eleven grandchildren. Luigi designed and built a theatre on the compound with an octagonal central room for the chamber music performances that he and his musically talented grandchildren would organize. (The theatre still exists and is in public use today.) A prolific and well-educated writer on the subjects of architecture, agriculture and waterways, Luigi was also a dedicated patron to artists and architects, essentially “discovering” the later-to-become-famous architect Falconetto, and encouraging the young Palladio. His patronage helped establish these two influential architects and introduce into northern Italy the Roman Renaissance style of architecture that would soon change the entire course of Western European architecture.
A long and satisfying lifetime devoted to useful and constructive accomplishments is the real goal of Luigi’s temperate dietary regime. When in perfect health, one may “forget” about the body, and devote oneself to study, artistic expression, serving others, and, as Luigi proclaims, “making the world more beautiful.” A long life full of infirmity and suffering is useless; the object of health is to permit us to fulfill our human potentials for learning, developing our talents and skills, and contributing to our social family. In his four short Treatises, Luigi labored to persuade his readers that this fulfillment was possible for anyone, regardless of his station in life, who would, at least by the age of forty or fifty, adopt a temperate lifestyle by following two simple rules: eat only those foods that agree with your digestion (quality); and eat the minimum necessary to digest those foods well (quantity). His advice echoes the tenets of natural wisdom professed by Hippocrates and Galen, as well as by the great ancient Eastern medical systems. He strongly advised each person to determine the details of these guidelines for himself—his own example of extreme abstinence, he stressed, was suitable for him alone. It was the spirit rather than the letter of his example that he wished would inspire others to live to the full span of their fruitful years—one hundred or even more—that he was convinced both Nature and God had granted all of us.
For three hundred years Luigi’s Treatises remained a classic in his own country, and were translated into several languages. The inspiring message of this charming Renaissance man still has the power to appeal to the reason, intellect and heart of modern readers.
At age ninety-five, Cornaro gratefully rejoiced, “O, how glorious is this life of mine, replete with all the felicities which man can enjoy on this side of the grave! I am not troubled with passions, and my mind is calm and free from all perturbations and doubtful apprehensions. Nor can the thought of death find room in my mind, at least, not in any way to disturb me. And all this has been brought about through my careful habit of living. How different from the lives of most old men, full of aches and pains and foreboding, whilst mine is a life of real pleasure, and I seem to spend my days in a perpetual round of amusements. . . I never knew the world was beautiful until I became old.”
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2011.