'The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery'

Or maybe he got up and went out, frustrated by the noise -- the hawkers and prostitutes and gondoliers singing to one another filled the nighttime air of a city in which, as the fussy Goethe noted, "the people . . . appreciate volume more than anything else." If it was Lent, the doctor could have gone to one of the huge Carnevale masked balls in the palaces on the Grand Canal, where, as a man of noble birth, he was always welcome. There, dressed as the medico della peste, he could have kept his vigil. It was the sort of wit Venetians admired -- a doctor in the black cape, the long white nose, and the face mask of the plague. Dressed this way, the only evidence of his problem would have been the twin pinpricks of his eyes, peering from behind his mask. He'd have come home to the sound of the Marangona, the great bell in Piazza San Marco, tolling the beginning of the work day, sleep still well beyond his grasp. The doctor would have asked himself whether he had caught something. Infection was on the mind of mid-eighteenth-century Venice. The city had a public health department well versed in the subject. They burned the bedding of disease victims and left their clothes out in the sun and air for a week to help neutralize the contagion. But what were they neutralizing? Here there was less agreement. The predominant view was that infection was an invisible substance carried in the air as smell. Thus the plague doctor costume of Carnevale had a sponge at the tip of the long white nose, and workers who disinfected clothing for the Venetian authorities were also required to perfume the room and the personal effects of the deceased.

But in the lexicon of disease there was no infection that corresponded to what the doctor was feeling. He was not just hot but extraordinarily anxious, like a horse at full gallop, sweaty and prone to a shaking that seemed to come from deep within. He was exhausted, falling in and out of a light, dream-wracked sleep. His servants might have heard him knocking on his own window, thinking it was a door, or spied him preparing the leeches for use, swishing around imaginary water in the dark glass jar where he kept them. The servants would have gone into his room to waken him, followed by his distraught wife. He would not remember sleeping, nor would he feel at all rested. "I'm tired" -- "Mi so straco," he would say in Venetian. And when the servants had left the room, to his wife alone he would express his deepest horror: "Mi divento mato." Was he indeed going crazy? Was he destined for the ships of fools, those boats in the farthest parts of the lagoon where the Serenissima housed the poor souls from whom God had taken the power of reason?

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...