Peasants and Pellagra in 19th-century Italy

David Gentilcore describes responses to a hideous epidemic that affected the rural poor of northern Italy, from the mid-18th century until the First World War, the cause of which is attributed to a diet dependent on maize.

Peasants toiling over a maize crop in 'September Sun' by Giovanni Muzzioli, c.1886. Getty/Da AgostiniIn March 1814 a London-based periodical called the Pamphleteer published the ‘Narrative of the Cruxifixion of Mattio Lovat, Executed by his Own Hands at Venice’. It took the form of a startling medical case-history of religious mania, as written by a Venetian surgeon, Cesar Ruggieri. The protagonist, Lovat, was a pious young shoemaker from a small village in the Dolomite mountains around Belluno. Lovat’s ambition to become a priest had been thwarted because of his family’s wretched condition. He became ill ‘subject in the spring to giddiness in his head, and eruptions of a leprous appearance showed themselves on his face and hands’.

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