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

The small towns that dotted the countryside of the Veneto, like the one Giuseppe lived in, were hit especially hard. The early Venetians had never cared about terra firma. Only in the fifteenth century did the Republic change its mind and, to protect itself, acquire possessions in territorial Italy. Not surprisingly, over time they learned to make quite a bit of money off their holdings. Not only did the towns serve the defense of the Republic, but they also functioned as an economic colony for the rich in their fantasy city across the lagoon. The peasants in the Veneto grew corn and ground it at mills along the rivers to ship to the capital, and raised silk worms whose cocoons the artisans in Venice could weave into the beautiful clothes of the Venetian rich. When those clothes were dirty, they were sent by boat back to the Veneto, where the locals washed and ironed them. A patrician could sit on the balcony of his country house in the Veneto and watch his clean laundry, his food, and his firewood go past on their way to his palazzo in the city.

When the fortunes of the aristocratic class fell, so did those of their support industries in the Veneto. The Veneto suffered further when, in an effort to satisfy their need for transportation across the countryside, the Venetians and then the Austrians began rerouting the shallow, winding network of rivers that carried water from the nearby mountains into the lagoon. This bit of hubris turned the Veneto into a swamp for much of the year. The swamp brought mosquitoes and the mosquitoes brought malaria; an 1849 Austrian military report stated that one quarter of the residents of Giuseppe's town had the debilitating, occasionally fatal disease. Malaria prevented peasants from farming, which in turn led to outbreaks of pellagra, a disease of malnutrition. One of the prime symptoms of pellagra was insanity and one of the prime symptoms of malaria is delirium and intermittent fever. As a result, the Veneto in the mid-nineteenth century was full of people who had symptoms that resembled fatal familial insomnia.

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