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  • Mad Tuscans and Their Families: A History of Mental Disorder in Early Modern Italy by Elizabeth W. Mellyn
  • Thomas Kuehn
Mad Tuscans and Their Families: A History of Mental Disorder in Early Modern Italy. By Elizabeth W. Mellyn. ( Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2014. Pp. xiii, 290. $55.00. ISBN 978-0-8122-4612-4.)

The Italian jurist Filippo Decio (1454–1535) defended a father’s bequest to an illegitimate son, disadvantaging the legitimate heir, with the argument that a father equally could deprive his heir by throwing all his belongings into the sea. According to Elizabeth Mellyn’s fine study of madness in Tuscany, the heir would have had recourse to the courts to have such a profligate father declared mentally incompetent. Ironically, Mellyn points to a similar case faced by Decio that did not allude to waterlogged belongings.

Mellyn mined Florentine judicial records of the magistrates over guardians and wards (Pupilli) and criminal courts. The result is a database of 300 cases (most from 1540–1609). These cases came from families trying to protect themselves from the folly of insane kin, but also from magistrates concerned with public order and from persons seeking to demonstrate their sanity. Mellyn exploits her material skillfully to derive a sense of what Florentines saw as insane behavior, the rich vocabulary they employed, and the largely ad-hoc arrangements that applied to those deemed mentally incapacitated.

Chief among mad behaviors was undue prodigality. Increasingly, what she terms patrimonial rationality was the standard of behavior. Or, as Mellyn succinctly puts it, “in the fourteenth century, the spendthrift was a sinful man. By the sixteenth century, he was a patrimonial saboteur” (p. 10). Given the far greater access to and control of resources by men, it is not surprising then that men figured in more than 80 percent of civil and criminal cases of insanity.

The first chapter deals with civil cases and guardianship. The second chapter hinges on criminal records and the concerns of families to safeguard their honor from the socially disruptive acts of individuals, often becoming the effective jailers of their mentally incompetent members. The centralization of criminal justice with the Medici dukes led to increased confinement in the city’s jail or ducal galleys.

Chapter 3 explores the patrimonial context. Ability to manage a patrimony was taken as a fundamental capacity by legal professionals. Mentally handicapped were incapable of such behavior, but also of concern were mere spendthrifts (prodighi) who just would not act correctly. It took well into the sixteenth century before the pupilli conflated mental incapacity and prodigality, although Florence’s statutes had long allowed families to seek judicial help against misbehaving children. [End Page 654]

Chapter 4 takes a more conventional turn to the conceptual treatment of madness, to trace its increasing medicalization, as revealed in the court records. Here one encounters humoral theory of disease, diet, hygiene, and more, mainly through the lens of Faustina Galeotti’s case in 1598 concerning her son’s “melancholy.” The entry of medical constructs into court is the subject of the fifth chapter. Here Mellyn reveals a fine understanding of law and legal processes. She finds that medical explanations for mental incapacity were accepted and discussed in Florentine courts two generations before Paolo Zacchia (1584–1659) issued his treatise on medico-legal questions. The case of Maria de’ Placidi, whom the courts had a hard time seeing as mad, despite her gift of all she had to an unrelated male, is illustrative of protracted squabbling over transfers of property. In the end Mellyn cannot decide if de’ Placidi was mad or ruthlessly avoiding claims on her property.

Santa Dorotea dei Pazzerelli was founded in 1643 solely for the care of mentally ill. Its establishment furnishes Mellyn with a fitting end point. An institution other than family was now on hand to deal with madness. Mellyn has given us a highly readable account of the centuries before that. Some may wish that she had grappled at length with Michel Foucault and other metahistorical visions of madness and rationality, but Mellyn’s interest is resolutely historical. Her feel for often difficult legal sources is informed and refined. Mad Tuscans is a...


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