Geel is a Flemish city, isolated for centuries and ignored by history. From the perspective of the history of mental illnesses and their cures, it has a particularly unique history. Right from medieval times, the mentally ill from all over Europe went there to beg for healing. The secular France will begin a process of radical transformation, with the intervention of the institutions and the control of specialist doctors. They tried to show the world that the mentally ill were not dangerous, nor contagious. They could live among the “sane”, go back to work and eventually to their families of origin. Throughout the nineteenth century, when scientific study of the meanders of the subconscious began, alienist, psychologists and anthropologist will look at Geel as a laboratory of modernity.
One of our major scholars of positivism and of the work of Cesare Lombroso, Renzo Villa, after decades of archival research, gifts us with a volume of great scientific importance, but also of deep human sensibility: “Geel, la città dei matti. L’affidamento famigliare dei malati mentali: sette secoli di storia” (Geel, the city of the mad. Seven centuries of history of family custody for the mentally ill) published by Carocci. At the end of the nineteenth century, anti-Semitism and even Judaism ended up under the scrutiny of scientists and anthropologists (Lombroso’s volume dates back to 1894); the scenographic, “theatrical”, representation, of the life inside the ghetto that positivism gave Judaism coasts the shores of madness, of genius, of mental illness. This book, among its many merits, has that of shedding light on the myth of the happy colonies, of the imagined islands, of the concrete utopias, of which the literature of the nineteenth century is full of. They are pages, those of Villa, which are read with passion and “compassion”, as it cannot but be when we fix our gaze on a world of recluses and outcasts, but especially when, as the author does, pietas prevails over logos and the hope of a cure and of healing does not disappear from our hearts.
Translated by Oyebuchi Lucia Leonard and revised by Silvia Bozzo, students at Trieste University and the Advanced school for interpreters and Translators of Trieste University, interns at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities.