The course aims to inquire into the role of cities and of concentration of human activities in determining the global spreading of phenomena, for example epidemics, throughout the history of Western societies, and to reflect on the consequences that the social, cultural and urban structure of the city and its relationship with the territory have had in determining the development and impact of global morbid phenomena.
The course will guide students in an investigation on the social, cultural and political aftermath of events of this type, as well as the influence that they have had in history also on the development of new medical-biological theories, on experimentation related to medical and social practices, or on the resurgence of the religious phenomenon that if, on the one hand, is typical of every age and every culture, on the other hands it presents specific characters in each different urban reality, as the well known investigations by Joseph Rykwert in the 1960s have shown. In a complex environment such as that of cities, man has always faced two types of battles. The one against individual diseases, which he has increasingly managed to know and overcome, especially in an era of global knowledge-sharing; and that against epidemics and pandemics, which instead historically, and even more today in an era of global interrelationships, have revealed the profound fragility of society, marking decisive turning points. The descriptions, and therefore the sources, are numerous, from the origins of western culture onwards: Thucydides and Lucretius for ancient Athens, the story of Oedipus for the plague of Thebes under the gaze of the Sphinx, Daniel Defoe for London in the 1600s, the doctors of the Renaissance, S. Santorio for the plague in Venice in 1630, those narrated, between story and fiction, by Manzoni for Milan or Camus for Algeria are among the best known.
There is like a red line that crosses the entire history of man and his social organization, at all latitudes, which finds its fulfillment in the city and in aggregation. The end of ancient democracy is linked to the epidemic described by Thucydides, the collapse of the Roman Empire was attributed to the plague bacterium, whose consequence was a decisive change in the political balance and relations between states of the future Europe. History shows that global morbid phenomena are not only the best stress tests to which medical science is subjected: they are at the same time, more than a war and in a different way, the way to test cohesion, stability, the resilience of a democracy and its forms of social organization, first of all that of the city, whose role emerges clearly in all the descriptions relating to this type of phenomena ancient and modern. The city with its structure, the contiguity between people, the social dimension: nature seems to challenge it every so often, always finding its most fertile ground in it. Particular reference will be made to the events of cities such as Athens, Rome, London, Paris, Hamburg, Florence, Venice, in the course of history.
During the course not only academic and non-fiction works will be used but also literature, taking direct view, thanks to the unique collections of ancient books of the libraries of Venice, of the illustrations relating to the city, the environment and the consequences of morbid phenomena especially in the printed books of the Renaissance.
At the end of the course, students will have learned to make use of different types of sources, academic, historical, and literary, and will be able to make them interact in order to acquire a knowledge more complete and diverse as compared to the traditional academic approach. They will understand the dynamics of the reaction of society, as it is embodied in the city, to extraordinary and unexpected phenomena, such as morbid phenomena and especially epidemics. They will have dealt with case studies base on historical information, and will be able to compare the situation of cities and metropoleis from different European countries and different ages.
Teaching and evaluation methods
Taught class. Lectures delivered by the Professor will be paired by active discussion with students. Students will also be asked to write short essays and to present them to their colleagues, with open discussion. The course is designed so as to involve students and help develop their independent skills of critical thinking. A visit to Venice libraries (Marciana) and to other cultural establishments in Venice is also envisaged.
Assessment will take into consideration active participation by students in the class (15%), essays and presentations (25%), final written exam (60%).
Thucydides, Histories, Book II chs 37ff. (Description of the Athenian plague)
D. Defoe, A journal of the plague year, repr. Oxford University Press, 1990
Selected chapters from the following works:
J. Rykwert, The idea of a town. The Anthropology of Urban Form in Rome, Italy and the Ancient World, MIT Press, 1963
Carlo M. Cipolla, Cristofano and the Plague. A Study in the History of Public Health in the Age of Galileo, London, Collins, 1973
R.J. Evans, Death in Hamburg. Society and politics in the cholera years 1830-1910, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1987
L. I. Conrad and D. Wujastyk, eds, Contagion. Perspectives from Pre-Modern Societies, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2000
J. L. Stevens Crawshaw, Plague Hospitals for the City in Early Modern Venice, London and New York, Routledge, 2016