AMALIA’S TALE by David I. Kertzer


A Poor Peasant, an Ambitious Attorney, and a Fight for Justice
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History of a medical-malpractice lawsuit in Italy during the last decade of the 19th century.

The foundling home of Bologna, as was common practice in those days, contracted with poor country women to nurse the city’s orphan bastardini. Amalia Bagnacavalli, an illiterate young mother from the hills of Vergato, was new to the trade of baby-farming in 1890, when she was given a sickly girl to suckle. The infant soon died, and Amalia promptly developed syphilis. Then her own child died, and her husband contracted the disease. This was not the first time, we learn, that an unwitting wet nurse had contracted syphilis from a foundling, many of whom were the abandoned offspring of diseased prostitutes. But this was also the time when modern Italy was being formed, writes Kertzer (Anthropology and Italian Studies/Brown Univ.; Prisoner of the Vatican: The Popes’ Secret Plot to Capture Rome from the New Italian State, 2004, etc). A new generation intended to seize power from the aristocratic old guard that had mismanaged places like the foundling home with little sense of accountability. Augusto Barbieri, an energetic lawyer from this reforming younger generation, was recommended to Amalia by an indignant doctor aware of the foundling home’s careless treatment of its wet nurses. They sued the home, its allied hospital and the medical staff. It was to be one of those signal cases that transform society. Repeatedly for a decade, the lawsuit was argued in local, appellate and supreme courts. Kertzer tracks the briefs and related documents, reconstructing the written and oral arguments in wearying proceedings about a dead baby and a woman who was grievously harmed, perhaps unwittingly, by the medical malpractice of her employer. The foundling home finally settled: Barbieri became rich and famous; Amalia remained in poverty all her life.

Microhistorian Kertzer extracts every known fact to illuminate this sad case as a footnote to Italy’s wider social history.

Pub Date: March 6th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-618-55106-4
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2007


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