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Book review
Gender, Sexuality, and Syphilis in Early Modern Venice: The Disease that Came to Stay
  1. Michael Anthony Waugh
  1. Correspondence to Dr Michael Anthony Waugh, 151 Roker Lane, Leeds LS28 9ND, UK; mike{at}

Statistics from

Laura J McGough. Published by Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2010, pp 202. figs. 3. tables 4. charts 2. ISBN 978-0-333-711941-1 (hardback), 978-0-333-80320-2(paperback).

Accounts of aspects of Italian history written in English must be among some of the most frequently published from all the European countries. After all, given the circumstances, which scholar would not wish to study for some time in a land of ancient beautiful cities? Thus, I started to review this book with a fair amount of hard-bitten cynicism, but I was more than pleasantly surprised to find it was extremely well researched and it has added much to my corpus of knowledge.

The author has done her research for this work thoroughly and taken expert advice not only from literary scholars and art historians but also from a whole group of internationally distinguished American scientists, physicians and epidemiologists in the field of sexually transmitted infections. Thus, from a medical reader's point of view the science is accurate. She weaves for the reader an understanding of the relationship of the major venereal disease of those times into the complex ongoing societal development of Venice over the best part of three centuries.

In the introduction, Laura McGough sets the pattern by an excellent explanation of the ever-changing fashions of medicine, its concept over many years of syphilis, the complex society of Venice, its authority to harbour wealth and the place of women in that society. These varied patterns are then minutely analysed and more fully described in subsequent chapters.

After the Introduction at the start of the first chapter, there is a quote on the lineage of syphilis from Voltaire's Candide. I would suggest every STD doctor should know that piece. Then the local circumstances that allowed for the spread of the ‘French disease’ are described. Venice was a wealthy city, which attracted and could only survive with a young workforce drawn from artisans from not only Northern Italy but also regions to the north and east of it. Most were unmarried. There was a shortage of even beds; sexual relationships were ever changing and often casual. The aristocracy of the city had rights that no one else had, a perfect breeding ground for an epidemic. Then there is a discussion on the ‘beautiful prostitute’ that linked women to masculine vulnerability. This is a theme exemplified in contemporary art and literature ‘Noli me tangere’. The term meretrici, meaning women of suspect morals, not just prostitutes, was used over and over again, certainly a one-sided term as though men were the wounded party. There are good descriptions of what Italian physicians of those times conjectured and described about syphilis, the facilities offered not only treatment but also forms of aftercare, Incurabili, Zitelle, Convertite and Penitenti. The figures and occupations of those suffering from the French disease show how important is the keeping of archives, which do not destruct.

Lastly, there is a chapter on how historical examples of what went on in the past may be of some use in comparing the HIV/AIDS epidemic today.

The only minor criticism I have is the overuse of ‘early modern’ which seems to be used to describe anything past.

There are in such a work of scholarship excellent and full notes and a long bibliography. The author has written a beautiful and helpful book, which will help all interested in knowing more about how a history of our subject based on what happened in a rich and powerful city state, has much that is still apposite in present times.

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  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

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