Rough Skin: Maize, Pellagra and Society in Italy, 1750-1930

  • Map pellagra victims 1881
  • Alpago Novello title page
  • Caterina C 1907
  • Chiarugi chest
  • Peasants preparing polenta
  • Corte tranquilli San Servolo
  • Francesca C
  • Giovanni Z
  • masthead Il Pellagroso
  • Raccolta granoturco Glisenti 1883
  • Lombroso title page
  • Maria Luigia
  • Paolo M
  • Sala bagni San Servolo
  • View San Clemente


Rough Skin is a three-year project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), which is reconstructing and analysing the effects of the introduction of maize cultivation in northern Italy, in particular the 150-year-long pellagra epidemic. How did the medical community respond to this tragic wasting disease, which culminated in insanity and death? How were individual sufferers and their families affected? From the 1760s, pellagra was understood to be related to a maize subsistence diet, but the exact link between polenta and pellagra remained the source of much dispute, until this aetiological puzzle was finally resolved in the 1930s. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of poor Italians were struck down by the disease, many so severely that the ended up in insane asylums. Their story has yet to be told.

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