Research Interests

Research Themes


I am interested in the social and cultural history of Italy, particularly in the period from 1500 to 1800, although with an increasing tendency to stray into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I have concentrated on the relationships between different levels of society with regard to beliefs and practices, especially in the areas of religion, medicine and healing, and, more recently, dietary habits. In geographical terms, my core research has broadened out from an initial focus on a single region (southern Apulia), then a state (the Kingdom of Naples), and now include the entire Italian peninsula and islands. I am working on what I like to think of as my ‘New World trilogy’. The first volume is a social and cultural study of the tomato’s Italian history, Pomodoro!, the second an agrarian and dietary history of the potato, The potato in Italy, and the third a history of maize and the terrible disease pellagra, from 1750-1930, as part of my ESRC project (see below). I am also writing a book called Food and health in early modern Europe, for Bloomsbury.

Current Research Projects



Rough Skin: Maize, Pellagra and Society in Italy, 1750-1930.
ESRC Research Grant (£537,792). September 2013 – August 2016.
Professor David Gentilcore (Principal Investigator); Mr Egidio Priani (Research Assistant)


Aims and Objectives of the Project
1.  To bring together the different methods and approaches of a range of disciplines in order to reconstruct the history and impact of a single food plant (maize) and a single disease (pellagra) over the longue durée.
2.  To explore relevance of the historical maize-pellagra link to the present-day, when human diet that is energy dense and nutrient poor has led to a (man-made) pandemic of obesity, diabetes and associated chronic diseases.
3.  To trace the impact of maize cultivation and consumption on society and responses to it, from the point of view of those who bore the brunt of the changes brought about, as well as from the point of view social elites, political and medical in particular.
4.  To explore the experience of pellagra from the sufferer’s point of view and its social and economic ramifications for peasant families; and to identify and account for shifting responses and ideologies relative to the disease.
5.  To compare and contrast the experience of maize and pellagra in other regions over the period with that of Italy; and to compare this with the reaction to other deficiency diseases of the time, such as beriberi and goitre.
6.  To prepare a data set based on the clinical files of pellagra-sufferers hospitalised at the San Servolo Psychiatric Hospital, Venice, one of Italy’s main asylums for the treatment of mental illness.


Share this page: