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

Of Giuseppe's eight children, five died before reaching their first birthday. So much infant death was in line with the norms of country life, even among the wealthy, and Giuseppe would have accepted it. He would, however, have been surprised when, in about 1827, his teenaged son Costante became ill. At first the boy's fever would have come and gone, but within a few months he would have begun hallucinating and maybe claiming he was possessed. The local witch, an old spinster who lived on the edge of town, would have been brought in. Her solution would have been to shine light in every corner of Costante's sleeping quarters, in order to repel the massari -- l, the malicious elf who liked to surprise sleepers in the middle of the night by sitting on their chests, making them gasp for air. Or she might have taken Costante into the countryside and swung him three times under a chestnut tree, a cure-all. When Costante didn't get better, Giuseppe would have tried a local priest -- there were priests in the Veneto reputed to be able to return the mad to their senses. At the altar of the town church, beneath swirling frescoes of the baptism of Christ executed by one of Tiepolo's sons, the priest would have sprinkled holy water on Costante and had him touch the cross. When that didn't work, he would have locked the boy in the church with him and performed an exorcism. Exorcism was back-breaking labor, but no matter how much the priest sweated to remove this devil, Costante would have sweated more.

The boy died in 1828. The parish priest recorded his cause of death as pellagra, although the assertion makes no sense -- pellagra was a disease of the poor, and Giuseppe's family was rich. But Giuseppe would not have had long to think about the priest's error. Soon, he fell sick too. He might not have associated his disease with his son's, though, because FFI manifests itself differently depending on the age of the victim: in younger sufferers it causes mental disorders, while in older ones its primary symptom is insomnia. Giuseppe's disease would have resembled those of his forebear, the Venetian doctor -- the sweating, the fevers, most of all, the sleeplessness. "Tempo, siori, dotori i fa chelo che i voli lori " -- "Time, gentlemen, and doctors do what they want" went a local saying. Still, in his mid-fifties, a capofamiglia, a sir himself, Giuseppe would have called on il medico. He would not have found relief there, though. The doctor would have diagnosed malaria. He might have prescribed quinine -- Giuseppe could have afforded the very expensive drug -- but it would not have helped.

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