Amalia Bagnacavalli, an illiterate young peasant from the mountains near Bologna, is forced by poverty to take in a child from the city’s foundling home to wet-nurse. When Amalia contracts syphilis from the sickly and malformed baby given to her, the city fathers callously dismiss her pleas for treatment and restitution.
Bewildered and frightened, she seeks out Augusto Barbieri, an ambitious attorney looking to make a name for himself. He takes up Amalia’s cause, fighting the case for years through the Italian courts before winning an unprecedented and stunning victory for his by now broken client. The unforgettable story of a landmark struggle for basic human rights, Amalia’s Tale is the moving drama of a rural woman whose life was ruined and the man from the city who would not stop -- or so it seemed -- until he had seen justice done.
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Augusto Barbieri couldn’t imagine what would have brought in the woman who sat across the desk from him. He had opened his office in Bologna only a few years earlier, in 1886, and at twenty-eight had little experience with clients of any kind. Yet he knew that a visitor like this one was unusual. If he felt a bit taken aback by the roughly dressed woman, she must have viewed him with even greater discomfort. Although he was not wealthy, the young lawyer took pride in the way he looked and in having his office reflect the importance of his social position. He wore a dark, three- piece woolen suit. Ponderous law books stood neatly in glass-paned wooden cabinets behind his heavy antique desk. Yet, although the woman came from another world, it was a world he knew something about. From her dress and the way she walked, anyone could tell that she was a peasant. And because he himself had come from the mountains outside Bologna and moved to the city as a child, he had no trouble identifying her distinctive dialect. Should he ask her to sign her name, he knew, she would simply blush and shake her head. That is, she would have blushed if she were not already so red, for her face was covered by a rash. And though he expected her to feel ill at ease in the unfamiliar surroundings, she seemed exceptionally uncomfortable in the open-backed wood chair. While having an illiterate peasant woman in his office came as a surprise to him, it was not unwelcome. The young lawyer had built his reputation, at least among his small circle of colleagues, as part of a band of an enlightened elite whose mission was to transform Italy into a modern country. For too long, they thought, the Italian peninsula had been in the control of reactionary forces — the church most of all, but also an assortment of retrograde aristocrats. Ever since Napoleon’s troops had brought the ideas of the Enlightenment to Italy at the turn of the nineteenth century, there were those who dreamed of a day when the old regimes would be swept away and Italy unified under secular rule. This movement — the Risorgimento — culminated in the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, when the old order crumbled and the power of the church was dealt a severe blow. By the time Amalia entered Barbieri’s office, the offspring of Italy’s Risorgimento had divided into two broad political camps: the right and the left. Both were considered anathema by the church, which refused to recognize the legitimacy of the new state and called on good Catholics to boycott it. That portion of the old aristocracy who saw change as desirable, or at least inevitable, naturally congregated on the right, along with other large landowners. The left, to which Barbieri belonged, brought together a wide range of groups, from those who rejected the Savoyard monarchy and demanded a republic to those who had made peace with the monarchy but believed not in the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, but in a new god, the god of science. It was to this moderate camp that Barbieri belonged. Life could be improved for everyone, he and his colleagues believed, and they saw it as their mission to better the lot of society’s unfortunates. The educated elite had a duty, they thought, to do away with the vestiges of medieval society and with the power of those who had profited from it: the church and the aristocracy. Two years earlier, Barbieri had published a weighty tome on the proper use of government: to improve the public good. He devoted much of it to problems of public education, public health, and protecting the working class, railing against the evils of class privilege and calling for a society where people gained rewards based only on their merits. The new science of social statistics would help reveal society’s ills, he believed, and the application of scientific methods would show them what needed to be done. Old institutions would have to embrace these new principles or be replaced. The woman who faced him certainly seemed to embody the social ills he had written about, an impression that only grew when he heard the story she was about to tell. Barbieri wondered how she had chosen him from all of the city’s lawyers. There were likely no attorneys where she came from, and, he could safely assume, of the world of the law and the courts she knew nothing. But, as he was to learn on that day in early August 1890, she had recently experienced such a traumatic turn of events that it seemed to her that she was scarcely the same person she had been just a few months earlier. It took her a long time to tell her story, but Barbieri could be a good listener and was more than willing to put off the little work he had to hear whhat she had to say.
Her name, she said, was Amalia Bagnacavalli. She lived in a little hamlet called Oreglia, part of the larger mooooountain town of Vergato, whose hamlets lay scattered across a vast area. With her lived her husband, Luigi, their one- year-old daughter, and Luigi’s family. Amalia’s marriage had meant a step down for her: while her parents owned the land they farmed, her husband’s family had no land of their own. These distinctions meant something to the people of the mountains, even though life was difficult for them all, for the soil was rocky, the growing season short, the parcels the peasants owned small. Winters were the hardest time. Supplies put in storage the previous fall dwindled, and the new crops were still far off. That winter, just as their stocks sank to their lowest point of the year, Luigi’s parents urged Amalia to help out in a way that she had never been able to before. All the families they knew looked to the foundling home in Bologna in times of need. In exchange for taking in foundlings, they received monthly payments that for many provided the only cash they had. Most generous of all were the payments made to the women who could nurse the newly abandoned babies. The foundling home would not allow a woman with a child under age one — and so nursing her own child — to take a foundling to nurse. But Amalia’s baby, Adele, had just passed her first birthday. Amalia had never traveled outside the Oreglia area and had never seen a town of more than a few hundred people. To get a foundling meant going to Bologna, twenty miles away and separated by a road that this time of year was often impassable. Blocked by snow in the coldest months, the road snaked along the Reno River, whose swollen waters regularly flooded it in the spring. Fortunately, three years before Amalia’s birth, the train line running south from Bologna to Tuscany opened to great fanfare. She had often seen trains pass but had never been on one herself, or for that matter ever traveled anywhere except by foot or, on rare occasions, in a wagon or on a mule. That March morning she walked to the tiny station a few kilometers from her home and gave the stationmaster five lire for a ticket to Bologna. Handling the coins was itself a new experience, and, as Barbieri knew, the money seemed like a sizable sum to her. Even if she had been lucky enough to be hired for a week to do farm labor, she would barely have been paid that much. Her mother-in-law had given Amalia the money for the one-way fare, telling her that the foundling home would pay for her return. That Amalia would travel by herself, without her husband, was not surprising, for her trip to the foundling home was firmly part of a world of women’s affairs that had existed for centuries. Although peasant life in northern Italy was in some ways patriarchal, there was a sharp separation between the spheres of men and women. In the women’s sphere, women ruled. For a young woman like Amalia, it was Luigi’s mother, her own mother- in-law, who controlled her daily life. Luigi himself would keep his distance from any affairs involving infants — although, as it would turn out, he would soon be involved in dealings with the foundling home that he could never have anticipated. When Amalia got off the train in Bologna, she could only have gawked at the massive city wall in front of her. Built in the 1300s to defend Bologna from its medieval enemies, it was a towering sign of the boundary separating the world of the peasants from the world of civilization. Amalia spotted the towering gate that would allow her to pass into the city. As she approached it, she encountered the two officials who always stood watch there, one who wore a normal suit and hat and the other a police uniform, a sheathed sword hanging from his waist. The men stood guard, eyeing peasants such as Amalia with particular care, looking for signs of a telltale bulge in their clothes. They knew all the tricks that the peasant women used to sneak in goods for the market in their billowing blouses. Had they suspected something, they would have ushered Amalia into a nearby booth, where a female guard would have had her disrobe. The wall no longer served any purpose militarily, but it still proved valuable to the city fathers. No one could bring goods in without paying a tax, a medieval practice that had somehow survived in the modern Italian state and which even then provided the city with the bulk of its annual budget. For the peasants outside, seeking to sell their fruits and vegetables in the city, nighttime offered a chance to try to scale the wall in those vulnerable spots where an athletic young man might have a chance. Other peasants built secret compartments in their donkey-drawn carts, hoping to avoid the duty on at least some of their goods. Amalia, carrying no basket, her clothes showing no evidence of forbidden fruits, would not have been stopped. Having no clear idea of where to go, she must have asked a woman nearby for directions. At that time of year, Bologna’s popolane — women from the poorer classes that dominated the city’s population — typically wore heavy dark coats over smocks that went all the way down to their sturdy shoes. These women covered their heads with a simple kerchief (if they covered them at all), for hats were for women of greater means. A poor woman wearing a hat would be ridiculed for her pretensions. Along the side of the medieval canal that ran through the city, a sickening smell wafting from its dark, sewage-laced waters, dozens of women lined up shoulder to shoulder. Oblivious to the rest of the world, they dunked their bed linens and underwear in the murky water and then beat them on the brick shelf that lined the canal. All along the canal crude wooden stakes were sunk into the ground, a rope running between them. The white sheets that the women hung to dry from the ropes stood out against the dark buildings behind them. When she returned to the city a few months later to meet Barbieri for the first time, Amalia would see these same women in a slightly different position. Beneath the spot where they had stood before was a second, submerged shelf, which made their work easier in the warmer months — although, as Barbieri knew, it put them at increased risk of infection from the many diseases carried by the putrid waters. Men passed by in small donkey-pulled carriages, sitting on the wooden slat-backed bench that stretched between the two large wooden wheels, most wearing dark capes draped over their shoulders and round black hats with wide, flat brims. Even the poor took pride in how they looked. A man would rather appear every day in his one good, clean suit, although it had been patched dozens of times, than wear one marked by a single stain. Beneath the porticoes over the city’s sidewalks gathered people who were clearly of another class altogether. Some men wore suits with vests and high- collared white shirts, their dapper look completed with bowler hats. The women of the more comfortable classes paid even more attention to their appearance, dressing in elaborate, light-colored suits and huge hats, often with a smartly tied silk kerchief around their neck and an umbrella hooked on arm. Their formfitting clothes, hugging their bodies from their chests all the way down their legs, stood in sharp contrast to the loose dress of the poor. Those who could do so tried to leave their homes during the day, for the great majority of Bologna’s hundred thousand residents lived in dark, dank apartments. Filled with smoke from the charcoal braziers that warmed them, they were rank from the stench of the sewage and night water. It was March, and the popolani had made their way once again through the winter, which they called “the onion months,” in rueful reference to the cheap, easily preserved ingredient that flavored the polenta that was all they had to fill their stomachs. They were damp months, the fog often so thick that it was impossible to see across the street, months when work was short, the nights were long, and those families that had enough charcoal to heat their homes were considered lucky. But what must have struck Amalia was not this poverty but the magnificence of what she saw around her. She had never seen buildings as splendid as the massive, ornate stone structures that lined the road and never seen porticoes like the ones she walked under. She could not have passed through the city gate without seeing something she had never encountered before, a steam trolley, which had begun service in Bologna seven years earlier, its route circling the walls. Inside the city, an endless procession of horsedrawn carriages rumbled down the streets, each with an umbrella fixed to the front seat to protect its driver from Bologna’s frequent rain. Running down the middle of the cobblestone street that led from the city gate toward the main piazza, open-sided trolleys raced by, each pulled along its steel track by two horses. At nearly every corner, a woman would sit on a stoop before a blackened brazier, the heat visible as waves and smoke, with a pile of thick chestnut pancakes to sell to hungry passersby. Men and women carrying large wicker baskets sold an assortment of other treats. One such man, a well-known figure in Bologna, wearing a tall top hat and carrying an outsized basket, attracted more attention than the rest, not only because his sugared focacce were a powerful lure for the hungry, but because he was famous for regaling all who would listen with stories of his friendship with the queen. If Amalia noticed a special excitement in the air, it was not just people’s relief at making it through another winter. Something stupendous was coming to Bologna, and people could talk of nothing else. Every wall, it seemed, was plastered with large, colorful posters announcing the imminent arrival of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which would play for eight days to standing-room crowds. Europe had been abuzz with reports of Buffalo Bill’s extravaganza ever since his first visit to England, three years earlier. It was hard to forget the image of the show’s command performance for Jubilee Day, when the kings of Denmark, Greece, and Belgium crowded into a small stagecoach next to the Prince of Wales — and future king of England — with Buffalo Bill at the reins, fending off a mock attack from a threatening band of whooping, feathered Indians. Buffalo Bill had returned to Europe in 1889, bound first for the Paris Universal Exposition, where over ten thousand people, including the French president, crowded into the show’s opening performance. From there the show made its way to southern France and Spain before heading for Rome, where the cowboy entrepreneur was received by the elderly Pope Leo XIII. Buffalo Bill Cody, an iconic figure in his buckskin suit on his white horse, was now coming to Bologna with scores of Indians; well over a hundred horses on which they performed their savage, bare-chested acts of derring-do; a dozen buffalo; a handful of elk and Texas steer; and the famed twenty-nine-year-old sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Those lucky enough to see the show were in for another special treat. They would be the first Italians to eat popcorn; polenta, it soon became clear, would not be the only item in the Bolognese diet to owe its origin to the New World’s corn. But not everyone in Bologna that day was in such a fine mood. In front of the cathedral, groups of families clutched their belongings, the women dressed much like Amalia and speaking a dialect similar to her own. Coming from mountain towns like hers, they too sought a way out of their misery. Their neighbors had told them of the opportunities in the New World open to those who had the courage to seize them. Having many hours to wait for the long, overnight train ride to Genoa, where they would set sail, they went to the cathedral, hoping that the archbishop might himself bless their children before their departure. Ever since the agricultural crisis had engulfed Italy, along with much of Europe, a few years earlier, the number of people leaving the country had increased dramatically. Around the turn of the century, the United States became the Italians’ favored destination. Indeed, in the first decade of the new century, Italy, with a population of 33 million, would see a staggering 2.4 million of its people set sail for the United States and Canada. For now, however, South America beckoned, and Brazil, which had abolished slavery two years earlier, was just then surpassing Argentina as the destination of choice. The huge headquarters of Bologna’s city government, the palazzo comunale, loomed in the city’s center. Built in the thirteenth century to be impregnable to attack, it remained an awe-inspiring sight. Its massive front portal looked out on the vast central piazza, recently renamed Piazza Victor Emmanuel to honor Italy’s royal founder. On the side of the piazza nearest the train station was a fountain topped by the giant naked figure of a muscled Neptune, his trident in hand, crafted by Giambologna three centuries earlier. The concrete nymphs circling the base of the statue could not have failed to attract Amalia’s attention — nor been more appropriate to her mission — for their fingers squeezed streams of water from their breasts. The piazza was always filled with people, some striding purposefully, others tarrying to listen to the knots of gesticulating men, whose endless debates provided amusement from morning to night. Amalia would have been struck by another odd sight, as men wearing dark suits, ties, and hats rode by on bicycles, a recent invention that had yet to reach the mountains. On the far side of the piazza loomed a church so large that all of the churches Amalia had ever seen in her life could have been comfortably placed in one of its smaller corners. Construction had begun on San Petronio in 1390, its mammoth size and splendid art designed to impress the rest of the world with Bologna’s grandeur. But its marble façade was never finished because, at least according to the story believed by all bolognesi, the pope had put a stop to it, angry that Bologna was trying to build a church more impressive than his own. Its elaborate pink and white marble façade barely extended above its three beautifully sculpted portals. The upper two-thirds had been left unfinished, the simple brown tiles punctuated by regularly spaced holes intended to hold a façade that never came. Throughout the piazza scruffy boys, like none Amalia had ever seen, scurried about, scattering the ever-present pigeons and begging cigarettes from men who angrily shooed them away. Others, smaller children dressed practically in rags, ran through the piazza shoeless, although the weather was far from warm. Mendicants of every sort surrounded the church entrance, some missing limbs, some with a crutch or two, some blind, all hoping to find a good Christian in a charitable mood. It was but a short walk now to Amalia’s destination, an institution known as the Bastardini, the home of the “little bastards.” Within its walls Amalia’s life was about to take a fateful turn.
Copyright (c) 2008 by David Kertzer. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Table of ContentsPrologue ix 1. An Unexpected Visitor 1 2. The Fateful Day 11 3. The First Signs 19 4. Suing the Count 31 5. The Mercury Treatment 42 6. The Trial Begins 48 7. Disputing the Doctor 55 8. The Parade of the Syphilitic Peasants 66 9. The Psychiatrist’s Attack 74 10. The Miserly Syphilologist 81 11. A New Champion 89 12. Conflicting Opinions 98 13. The Tribunal Decides 106 14. Amalia’s Appeal 116 15. The Loan 125 16. The Counteroffensive 132 17. Mixed News from the Supreme Court 138 18. A Split Decision 151 19. A Staggering Sum 157 20. Amalia’s Lawyer Submits His Bill 164 21. Lives Lost and Lives Saved 173 22. Aristocrats, Lawyers, Doctors, and Peasants: Amalia Looks Back 182
Postscript: Recovering Buried History 190 Acknowledgments 199 Notes 201 Sources 204 Index 228