Unaccountable emotions, strange desires, and morbid sensual irritations of all kinds, were as prevalent as in the St. Vitus's dance and similar great nervous maladies. So late as the sixteenth century patients were seen armed with glittering swords which, during the attack, they brandished with wild gestures, as if they were going to engage in a fencing match. Even women scorned all female delicacy, and, adopting this impassioned demeanour, did the same; and this phenomenon, as well as the excitement which the tarantula dancers felt at the sight of anything with metallic lustre, was quite common up to the period when, in modern times, the disease disappeared.
The abhorrence of certain colours, and the agreeable sensations produced by others, were much more marked among the excitable Italians than was the case in the St. Vitus's dance with the more phlegmatic Germans. Red colours, which the St. Vitus's dancers detested, they generally liked, so that a patient was seldom seen who did not carry a red handkerchief for his gratification, or greedily feast his eyes on any articles of red clothing worn by the bystanders. Some preferred yellow, others black colours, of which an explanation was sought, according to the prevailing notions of the times, in the difference of temperaments. Others, again, were enraptured with green; and eye-witnesses describe this rage for colours as so extraordinary, that they can scarcely find words with which to express their astonishment. No sooner did the patients obtain a sight of the favourite colour than, new as the impression was, they rushed like infuriated animals towards the object, devoured it with their eager looks, kissed and caressed it in every possible way, and gradually resigning themselves to softer sensations, adopted the languishing expression of enamoured lovers, and embraced the handkerchief, or whatever other article it might be, which was presented to them, with the most intense ardour, while the tears streamed from their eyes as if they were completely overwhelmed by the inebriating impression on their senses.
The dancing fits of a certain Capuchin friar in Tarentum excited so much curiosity, that Cardinal Cajetano proceeded to the monastery, that he might see with his own eyes what was going on. As soon as the monk, who was in the midst of his dance, perceived the spiritual prince clothed in his red garments, he no longer listened to the tarantella of the musicians, but with strange gestures endeavoured to approach the Cardinal, as if he wished to count the very threads of his scarlet robe, and to allay his intense longing by its odour. The interference of the spectators, and his own respect, prevented his touching it, and thus the irritation of his senses not being appeased, he fell into a state of such anguish and disquietude, that he presently sank down in a swoon, from which he did not recover until the Cardinal compassionately gave him his cape. This he immediately seized in the greatest ecstasy, and pressed now to his breast, now to his forehead and cheeks, and then again commenced his dance as if in the frenzy of a love fit.
At the sight of colours which they disliked, patients flew into the most violent rage, and, like the St. Vitus's dancers when they saw red objects, could scarcely be restrained from tearing the clothes of those spectators who raised in them such disagreeable sensations.
Another no less extraordinary symptom was the ardent longing for the sea which the patients evinced. As the St. John's dancers of the fourteenth century saw, in the spirit, the heavens open and display all the splendour of the saints, so did those who were suffering under the bite of the tarantula feel themselves attracted to the boundless expanse of the blue ocean, and lost themselves in its contemplation. Some songs, which are still preserved, marked this peculiar longing, which was moreover expressed by significant music, and was excited even by the bare mention of the sea. Some, in whom this susceptibility was carried to the greatest pitch, cast themselves with blind fury into the blue waves, as the St. Vitus's dancers occasionally did into rapid rivers. This condition, so opposite to the frightful state of hydrophobia, betrayed itself in others only in the pleasure afforded them by the sight of clear water in glasses. These they bore in their hands while dancing, exhibiting at the same time strange movements, and giving way to the most extravagant expressions of their feeling. They were delighted also when, in the midst of the space allotted for this exercise, more ample vessels, filled with water, and surrounded by rushes and water plants, were placed, in which they bathed their heads and arms with evident pleasure. Others there were who rolled about on the ground, and were, by their own desire, buried up to the neck in the earth, in order to alleviate the misery of their condition; not to mention an endless variety of other symptoms which showed the perverted action of the nerves.
All these modes of relief, however, were as nothing in comparison with the irresistible charms of musical sound. Attempts had indeed been made in ancient times to mitigate the pain of sciatica, or the paroxysms of mania, by the soft melody of the flute, and, what is still more applicable to the present purpose, to remove the danger arising from the bite of vipers by the same means. This, however, was tried only to a very small extent. But after being bitten by the tarantula, there was, according to popular opinion, no way of saving life except by music; and it was hardly considered as an exception to the general rule, that every now and then the bad effects of a wound were prevented by placing a ligature on the bitten limb, or by internal medicine, or that strong persons occasionally withstood the effects of the poison, without the employment of any remedies at all. It was much more common, and is quite in accordance with the nature of so exquisite a nervous disease, to hear accounts of many who, when bitten by the tarantula, perished miserably because the tarantella, which would have afforded them deliverance, was not played to them. It was customary, therefore, so early as the commencement of the seventeenth century, for whole bands of musicians to traverse Italy during the summer months, and, what is quite unexampled either in ancient or modern times, the cure of the Tarantati in the different towns and villages was undertaken on a grand scale. This season of dancing and music was called "the women's little carnival," for it was women more especially who conducted the arrangements; so that throughout the whole country they saved up their spare money, for the purpose of rewarding the welcome musicians, and many of them neglected their household employments to participate in this festival of the sick. Mention is even made of one benevolent lady (Mita Lupa) who had expended her whole fortune on this object.
The music itself was of a kind perfectly adapted to the nature of the malady, and it made so deep an impression on the Italians, that even to the present time, long since the extinction of the disorder, they have retained the tarantella, as a particular species of music employed for quick, lively dancing. The different kinds of tarantella were distinguished, very significantly, by particular names, which had reference to the moods observed in the patients. Whence it appears that they aimed at representing by these tunes even the idiosyncrasies of the mind as expressed in the countenance. Thus there was one kind of tarantella which was called "Panno rosso," a very lively, impassioned style of music, to which wild dithyrambic songs were adapted; another, called "Panno verde," which was suited to the milder excitement of the senses caused by green colours, and set to Idyllian songs of verdant fields and shady groves. A third was named "Cinque tempi:" a fourth "Moresca," which was played to a Moorish dance; a fifth, "Catena;" and a sixth, with a very appropriate designation, "Spallata," as if it were only fit to be played to dancers who were lame in the shoulder. This was the slowest and least in vogue of all. For those who loved water they took care to select love songs, which were sung to corresponding music, and such persons delighted in hearing of gushing springs and rushing cascades and streams. It is to be regretted that on this subject we are unable to give any further information, for only small fragments of songs, and a very few tarantellas, have been preserved which belong to a period so remote as the beginning of the seventeenth, or at furthest the end of the sixteenth century.
The music was almost wholly in the Turkish style (aria Turchesca), and the ancient songs of the peasantry of Apulia, which increased in number annually, were well suited to the abrupt and lively notes of the Turkish drum and the shepherd's pipe. These two instruments were the favourites in the country, but others of all kinds were played in towns and villages, as an accompaniment to the dances of the patients and the songs of the spectators. If any particular melody was disliked by those affected, they indicated their displeasure by violent gestures expressive of aversion. They could not endure false notes, and it is remarkable that uneducated boors, who had never in their lives manifested any perception of the enchanting power of harmony, acquired, in this respect, an extremely refined sense of hearing, as if they had been initiated into the profoundest secrets of the musical art. It was a matter of every day's experience, that patients showed a predilection for certain tarantellas, in preference to others, which gave rise to the composition of a great variety of these dances. They were likewise very capricious in their partialities for particular instruments; so that some longed for the shrill notes of the trumpet, others for the softest music produced by the vibration of strings.
Tarantism was at its greatest height in Italy in the seventeenth century, long after the St. Vitus's Dance of Germany had disappeared. It was not the natives of the country only who were attacked by this complaint. Foreigners of every colour and of every race, negroes, gipsies, Spaniards, Albanians, were in like manner affected by it. Against the effects produced by the tarantula's bite, or by the sight of the sufferers, neither youth nor age afforded any protection; so that even old men of ninety threw aside their crutches at the sound of the tarantella, and, as if some magic potion, restorative of youth and vigour, were flowing through their veins, joined the most extravagant dancers. Ferdinando saw a boy five years old seized with the dancing mania, in consequence of the bite of a tarantula, and, what is almost past belief, were it not supported by the testimony of so credible an eye-witness, even deaf people were not exempt from this disorder, so potent in its effect was the very sight of those affected, even without the exhilarating emotions caused by music.
Subordinate nervous attacks were much more frequent during this century than at any former period, and an extraordinary icy coldness was observed in those who were the subject of them; so that they did not recover their natural heat until they had engaged in violent dancing. Their anguish and sense of oppression forced from them a cold perspiration; the secretion from the kidneys was pale, and they had so great a dislike to everything cold, that when water was offered them they pushed it away with abhorrence. Wine, on the contrary, they all drank willingly, without being heated by it, or in the slightest degree intoxicated. During the whole period of the attack they suffered from spasms in the stomach, and felt a disinclination to take food of any kind. They used to abstain some time before the expected seizures from meat and from snails, which they thought rendered them more severe, and their great thirst for wine may therefore in some measure be attributable to the want of a more nutritious diet; yet the disorder of the nerves was evidently its chief cause, and the loss of appetite, as well as the necessity for support by wine, were its effects. Loss of voice, occasional blindness, vertigo, complete insanity, with sleeplessness, frequent weeping without any ostensible cause, were all usual symptoms. Many patients found relief from being placed in swings or rocked in cradles; others required to be roused from their state of suffering by severe blows on the soles of their feet; others beat themselves, without any intention of making a display, but solely for the purpose of allaying the intense nervous irritation which they felt; and a considerable number were seen with their bellies swollen, like those of the St. John's dancers, while the violence of the intestinal disorder was indicated in others by obstinate constipation or diarrhoea and vomiting. These pitiable objects gradually lost their strength and their colour, and creeping about with injected eyes, jaundiced complexions, and inflated bowels, soon fell into a state of profound melancholy, which found food and solace in the solemn tolling of the funeral bell, and in an abode among the tombs of cemeteries, as is related of the Lycanthropes of former times.
The persuasion of the inevitable consequences of being bitten by the tarantula, exercised a dominion over men's minds which even the healthiest and strongest could not shake off. So late as the middle of the sixteenth century, the celebrated Fracastoro found the robust bailiff of his landed estate groaning, and, with the aspect of a person in the extremity of despair, suffering the very agonies of death from a sting in the neck, inflicted by an insect which was believed to be a tarantula. He kindly administered without delay a potion of vinegar and Armenian bole, the great remedy of those days for the plague of all kinds of animal poisons, and the dying man was, as if by a miracle, restored to life and the power of speech. Now, since it is quite out of the question that the bole could have anything to do with the result in this case, notwithstanding Fracastoro's belief in its virtues, we can only account for the cure by supposing, that a confidence in so great a physician prevailed over this fatal disease of the imagination, which would otherwise have yielded to scarcely any other remedy except the tarantella. Ferdinando was acquainted with women who, for thirty years in succession, had overcome the attacks of this disorder by a renewal of their annual dance--so long did they maintain their belief in the yet undestroyed poison of the tarantula's bite, and so long did that mental affection continue to exist, after it had ceased to depend on any corporeal excitement.
Wherever we turn, we find that this morbid state of mind prevailed, and was so supported by the opinions of the age, that it needed only a stimulus in the bite of the tarantula, and the supposed certainty of its very disastrous consequences, to originate this violent nervous disorder. Even in Ferdinando's time there were many who altogether denied the poisonous effects of the tarantula's bite, whilst they considered the disorder, which annually set Italy in commotion, to be a melancholy depending on the imagination. They dearly expiated this scepticism, however, when they were led, with an inconsiderate hardihood, to test their opinions by experiment; for many of them became the subjects of severe tarantism, and even a distinguished prelate, Jo. Baptist Quinzato, Bishop of Foligno, having allowed himself, by way of a joke, to be bitten by a tarantula, could obtain a cure in no other way than by being, through the influence of the tarantella, compelled to dance. Others among the clergy, who wished to shut their ears against music, because they considered dancing derogatory to their station, fell into a dangerous state of illness by thus delaying the crisis of the malady, and were obliged at last to save themselves from a miserable death by submitting to the unwelcome but sole means of cure. Thus it appears that the age was so little favourable to freedom of thought, that even the most decided sceptics, incapable of guarding themselves against the recollection of what had been presented to the eye, were subdued by a poison, the powers of which they had ridiculed, and which was in itself inert in its effect.
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