Naples in the time of cholera, 1884–1911

Abstract

During September 1884, Naples was afflicted by its worst outbreak of cholera since 1837. "The immediate impression" Frank Snowden remarks, "was that all of Naples was dying" (p. 106). The sheer number of cases and the speed with which the epidemic struck spread fear and hysteria among those inhabitants, mostly the poorest, who were unable to flee the city. This experience of cholera set Naples apart. It was the only major European city to be so affected-by 1884, efforts to combat the spread of the disease in Berlin, Paris and London were proving largely successful-and it was the only one to be gripped by a "cholera phobia". Fear of untori (poisoners) led to acts of violence and to collective protest against the prophylactic measures introduced by the authorities. The Neapolitan cholera of 1884 was thus a striking indicator of the popular ignorance still prevailing in Italy's largest city and of its "hygienic neglect" by a regime "that claimed to be a Liberal modem state" (p. 178). After the tragedy of 1884, the municipal government was determined to prevent any recurrence of the disease. Influenced by Pettenkofer's miasmo-contagionist theory, it drew up an elaborate project to demolish the labyrinths andfondaci of Naples' Lower City and to construct a central boulevard with intersecting avenues. These would act as a "great urban lung", dispersing the "foul miasmas" which caused cholera (p. 186). Unfortunately, Pettenkofer's theory of cholera was discredited shortly afterwards. The project itself was exposed to a different kind of southern disease, that of corruption. Funds were given to a single monopolistic contractor, interested only in maximizing profits. The building work was shoddy, little attempt was made to rehouse the tenants of demolished buildings, and a rise in rents led to new problems of overcrowding. The logic of speculation overshadowed that of public health and, in the end, the worst slums of Naples, with the highest mortality rates in 1884, were excluded from the process of risanamento. Much of Naples in the time of cholera is given over to a meticulous reconstruction of the 1884 epidemic in the city and of the appalling sanitary conditions which facilitated its spread. However, Snowden also argues that the case of Naples adds weight to Asa Briggs's claims about the wider social, political and medical significance of cholera ('Cholera and society in the nineteenth century', Past and Present, 1961, 19: 76-96). Snowden argues that cholera in Naples defined the conduct and aims of municipal policy after 1884 and profoundly influenced the social geography of the city. He maintains, in fact, that cholera in Naples reflected Italy's "Southern Question" and the institutionalized corruption of Italian political life. Cholera became, in Snowden's words, "a metaphor for all of the discontents of southerners under a political order dominated by Piedmont" (p. 361). The recurrence of cholera became so identified with the failure of government policy that when another outbreak threatened Naples, in 1910, it brought down the Italian government. Snowden has uncovered a mass of evidence to suggest that a conspiracy was then organized by the new prime minister, Giovanni Giolitti, to conceal the 1911 epidemic from the public. Even in the twentieth century, Snowden concludes, when the causes and treatment of the disease were relatively well-established, cholera had lost none of its power to disturb. What was referred to in parliament as "the disease we aren't allowed to mention" (p. 358) still retained "its capacity to sharpen social and political tensions, disrupt public order and undermine trade and commerce" (p. 296). Snowden's analysis of the relationship between cholera, national politics and the

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Cite this paper

@article{Riall1997NaplesIT, title={Naples in the time of cholera, 1884–1911}, author={Lucy Riall}, journal={Medical History}, year={1997}, volume={41}, pages={98 - 99} }