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  • The Man Who Crucified Himself: Readings of a Medical Case in Nineteenth-Century Europe by Maria Böhmer
  • Maria Conforti

European medicine, universities, surgery, nineteenth century, suicide, professionalization

Maria Böhmer. The Man Who Crucified Himself: Readings of a Medical Case in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Leiden-Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2018. 316 pp.

Maria Böhmer's The Man Who Crucified Himself is an important contribution to many convergent fields: the history of medicine, and especially surgery; nineteenth-century Italian history; the history of medical communication; and, last but not least, the history of one crucial textual genre in medicine, the case, as defined by Gianna Pomata for the early modern period. Few scholars have addressed the period when universities and other institutions might have been in decline, but practitioners were still doing a great deal of work and also participating in the wider European scientific space. And despite seminal studies such as Thomas Broman's 1996 The Transformation of German Academic Medicine, and the recent historiographical focus on translations, periodicals, dictionaries and encyclopedias in the dissemination of medical and scientific knowledge, still relatively unexplored is the nineteenth-century predominance of medical practitioners in the market of learned journalism.

Böhmer's book begins to fill this void. It centers on the readings and interpretative metamorphoses of one very famous case: in 1805, Mattio Lovat, a Venetian artisan, crucified himself in public. Previously, he had castrated himself for religious reasons. While it is not entirely clear if Lovat attempted suicide - he died after some months, after being confined in Venice's lunatic asylum, San Servólo - he was certainly suffering from an unidentified condition. His case, first related by the surgeon Cesare Ruggieri, "travelled," as Bohmer says, throughout Europe for many decades; it finally became a novel by the Italian writer Sebastiano Vassalli {Marco e Mattio, Einaudi, 1992). As in a prism, Lovat's story enables a reconstruction of diverse layers of meanings and uses by the scientific and literary public. In the first three chapters, Bohmer addresses the local context and implications of Mattio's "passion," from the possibility he suffered from pellagra, to the few witnesses of writings in his own hand, to the development of scientific surgery in Venice in the period, to the history of the translations of Ruggieri's reports in other languages, first in French. Ruggieri emerges from Bohmer's intricate archival research as an extremely interesting figure, a Venetian protagonist of the ongoing revolution in the scientific and professional status of surgery and surgeons. He was well connected to the city's printing market and scientific [End Page 346] institutions, and to important medics active in the area, such as the now almost forgotten Francesco Aglietti. The Lovat case was subsequently appropriated and transformed beyond Venice and Italy, by means of German and English translations, and found its place in learned journals and periodical collections, thus reaching a wide public. As Bohmer underlines, the process of re-writing Mattio's story was a complex one, also involving the illustrations accompanying the original report by Ruggieri.

The following chapters address the learned communities of readers that appropriated and helped re-shape and transform the case. Bohmer here convincingly uses interpretative categories developed by Stanley Fish and Roger Chartier to unpack the diverse professional readings of the same story (in its different textual forms). The first community she identifies is the story of a case of misplaced, and ultimately pathological, religious enthusiasm, what the Germans called, disparagingly, Schwärmerei. It comes as no surprise that religious readings were especially frequent in the Germanophone area, where the need to refuse the disturbance to public and intellectual order caused by self-appointed enthusiasts and "prophets" was seemingly higher. As Böhmer shows, the critique of Schwärmerei came from medics as well as from theologians. The second group of readers consisted of physicians interested in madness - the founders of nineteenth-century psychiatry. The alienists were mainly French, and a lively discussion, initiated by Ruggieri himself, on Lovat's case took place in the Société Médicale d'Émulation, the leading institution for proto-psychiatry in Paris at the time. The aliénistes, some of...


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pp. 346-347
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