A Civil Action in 19th century Italy

>David Kertzer, current Provost of Brown University and professor of Anthropology and Italian studies, has written a book about a peasant woman in nineteenth-century Italy named Amalia Bagnacavalli who contracted syphilis from a baby she nursed (for pay) from the Bologna foundling home, and was subsequently persuaded to sue the institution by a young lawyer looking to make his reputation.

Amalia’s Tale is a work of “microhistory,” a genre used with varied success by social historians to focus on one place, event, or (often obscure) person in order to illustrate a larger story or theme. Kertzer uses Amalia’s case and its impact to portray the social and economic issues surrounding child abandonment and public health in Italy in the 1890s. By the late nineteenth century, foundling homes, begun in twelfth-century Italy, were common throughout Europe. Bologna’s was formed in the sixteenth century out of a Benedictine convent.

This book could as easily be titled “Augusto’s Tale,” as we see more into the life and motivations of Amalia’s lawyer, Augusto Barbieri, than that of his client (mostly due to the extant records which survive surrounding the case). It is Barbieri who drives the story of this ten-year struggle, which (unfortunately) is not as dramatic as the jacket blurbs promise.

Kertzer’s style is clear and direct, and he manages to tell Amalia’s tale without the standard passive and self-referential voice of the academic. In that sense, the book works very well. Kertzer himself anticipates criticism in his “Postscript,” admitting that his two goals—to write a history, and to recount a dramatic story for a wider audience—often work at cross purposes. His training and orientation comes through clearly in the writing, making this a solid and interesting work of history, but a relatively flat work of drama.

Although we are asked to sympathize with Amalia’s plight, she is so powerless and voiceless that she rather falls below our radar. We certainly feel for her and the thousands of women who contracted syphilis from foundlings, and subsequently infected their husbands and later children. However, it is Barbieri, the lawyer, who is more accessible to the general reader.

As Barbieri’s story unfolds—as he borrows more and more money, as he works to convince Amalia and her husband to let him appeal decisions and to have faith in eventual success—we become more involved in the case as a legal contest of wit and will, rather than a simple “fight for justice.” The message we end up with is a fine mix of irony and pain, which so often characterizes the drama of history.

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