An alternative title might have been “A history of the importance of appearance and sexuality in Italy,” given the extent to which the concepts are intertwined. When medicine enters the sphere of private life, it sheds light on the defining traits of a civilization, and Prof. Gelmetti has resurrected historical figures and unearthed astonishing stories that will give the reader pause for thought.
The fact, for example, that syphilis was called “French disease” by the Neapolitans and “Neapolitan disease” by the French – and that nearly every country named it pejoratively after its neighbor – is more telling than many sociology texts.
But prejudice does not begin or end with disease, and skin color, of course, has been used as an illegitimate but powerful weapon in the service of the most disgraceful ideologies. Meanwhile, our fixation with body image turns out to be no contemporary fad, nor is there anything new in the erotic impulses of humankind. Knowing the history of dermatology and venereology in Italy is therefore a useful tool for understanding our origins, and for making today’s reader a bit more tolerant and wise.