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In his new book the renowned historian Carlo Cipolla explores the themes of health, medicine and the origins of infectious disease in pre-industrial Italy. Using the papers of the Magistrato alla Sanita, the Florence Health Magistracy, covering the first thirty years of the seventeenth century, he recreates the ecological and medical environment of the Florentine countryside. As few historians can, he lets the drama unfold, and allows the participants to speak for themselves in their own vivid language.
The book opens with an analysis of the Sanitation Office in Florence, the Uffia de Sanita, of its regional inspectors and their grasp of epidemiological principles. It reveals the transformation of the Office from a temporary administrative body into a permanent institution with preventative aims. And it documents, through their own verbatim accounts, the endeavours of intelligent and motivated doctors and medical inspectors to combat disease within a superstitious culture and an environment of dirt.
The book shows how tantalisingly close was contemporary medical practice, focussed on the physical elements, humours and pungent exhalations, to the real sources of infection--dirt, rubbish and sanitary effluents. Cipolla neither patronises nor romanticises the past and its inhabitants. He shows how, despite limitations in knowledge, the painful process of seventeenth-century discovery provided the basis of modern medical insight.