University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Early-modern investigations on the nature of tarantism from Tommaso Campanella to Antonio Vallisneri

Early-modern investigations on the nature of tarantism from Tommaso Campanella to Antonio Vallisneri

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Early-modern natural philosophers, physicians and churchmen described tarantism as an epidemic disease characteristic of the Italian region Apulia and they attributed the phenomenon to the bite of the tarantula spider. Tarantism was characterised by an irrepressible impulse to dance and was supposed to be cured by music. This paper focuses on the different explanations of tarantism given by Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639), Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) and Antonio Vallisneri (1680-1730). For Campanella tarantism was further evidence that nature as a whole, both animate and inanimate, was governed by perception and that symbolic relationships of likeness and resemblance could be causally effective. Kircher relied more on the physical and material aspects involved in both the etiology and therapy of tarantism (vibrations of air caused by sounds, motion of bodily humours, wrinkling of material spirits, sense perception of colours) and his diagnosis was driven by a peculiar tendency to debunk unfounded beliefs. Vallisneri, finally, interpreted tarantism as a simple case of animal poisoning and attributed the ‘uncivil violence’ and ‘indecent and terrible acts’ of the affected people to their low social status. The choice of these authors provides a nuanced and diversified sample of early-modern explanatory frameworks for a particularly anomalous and recalcitrant phenomenon and to present a comparative analysis of conflicting notions of superstition discussed at the time.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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