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Defining the ‘Strano’: Madness in Renaissance Italy

Defining the ‘Strano’: Madness in Renaissance Italy

Defining the ‘Strano’: Madness in Renaissance Italy

Nicole Cama

University of Sydney: B.A. (Hons) in History, October (2009)

Abstract

This thesis explores the different ways madness was defined and treated in Italian texts from the early fifteenth century through to the late sixteenth century. Although this thesis investigates how and why people were categorised as mad, various sources have shown that the treatment of these individuals varied according to different social, cultural and political contexts. In some cases madness was seen as an undesirable expression of social deviance and in other cases, a venerated symbol of wisdom. In light of these discrepancies, social structures stigmatised and often alienated those considered ‘strano’ (‘strange’) acted as powerful punitive and organisational mechanisms.

It is easy to recognise madness, but how does one define it? This thesis explores the different ways madness was defined and portrayed in Italian texts from the early fifteenth century through to the late sixteenth century. Although this thesis investigates how and why people were categorised as mad, various sources have shown that the treatment of these individuals varied according to different social, cultural and political contexts. In some cases madness was seen as an undesirable expression of social deviance and in other cases, a venerated symbol of wisdom. In light of these discrepancies, social structures stigmatised and often alienated those considered deviant and acted as powerful punitive and organisational mechanisms. The power of language juxtaposed deviant behaviour against acceptable behaviour and re-established a sense of order and control over the definition and, consequently, the treatment of madness. By madness I refer to a psychological condition that contributed to the display of behaviour, speech and appearances deemed culturally and socially unacceptable. In addition to this definition, texts from a range of literary genres including novelle, medical treatises, biographies, poems, letters, chronicles, and advice books, elude fixed definitions and reveal a colourful array of multi-dimensional perceptions of the nature of madness. The key questions that arise are what constituted madness, and what do these defining characteristics reveal about the society in question? The main problem this project poses is the act of historicising madness and its social and cultural context; the challenge, to borrow John Jeffries Martin’s phrase, is to reconstruct Renaissance Italian ideas and beliefs ‘on their own terms’.

 University of Sydney



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