Exhibition on insanity epidemic

A Leicester historian has curated a major exhibition to be held in Venice and Ferrara focusing on the impact of an epidemic that was regarded as ‘insanity’.

David Gentilcore, Professor of Early Modern History, has spearheaded the exhibitions to be held at San Servolo, Venice, Italy (June and July, 2016); Museo del Risorgimento, Ferrara, Italy (August 2016).

Entitled Rough Skin: Maize, Pellagra and Insanity in the Veneto, Italy, 1850-1900, the exhibition explores the impact of epidemic pellagra on the people of Italy during the late nineteenth century.

The three-year project is reconstructing and analysing the effects of the introduction of maize cultivation in northern Italy, in particular the 150-year-long pellagra epidemic. It investigates: How did the medical community respond to this tragic wasting disease, which culminated in insanity and death – and how were individual sufferers and their families affected?

From the 1760s, pellagra was understood to be related to a maize subsistence diet, but the exact link between polenta and pellagra remained the source of much dispute, until this aetiological puzzle was finally resolved in the 1930s. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of poor Italians were struck down by the disease, many so severely that the ended up in insane asylums.

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