Medical Humanities in the Italosphere

Marta Arnaldi considers the development of medical humanities in the Italosphere, reflecting on its deep roots and radical visions of the future.

Looking from the outside in

In his introduction to Per le Medical Humanities: Sondaggi di letteratura e linguistica (On the Side of Medical Humanities: Literary and Linguistic Surveys), Gian Mario Anselmi (2021, 7) describes the relationship between medical humanities and care as one of “irreplaceable necessity.” This definition is all the more compelling if we consider that it was developed in the Italian linguistic and cultural context, where medical humanities is perceived as “an untranslatable and often misconstrued term,” one which, linked to the “contemporary crisis of medicine,” originated in the United States and remained a somewhat “foreign” import (Pegoraro et al. 2022, V). It is, indeed, surprising, and yet not altogether unexpected, that there is no Italian equivalent for “medical humanities” (the expression is used ubiquitously in its English form), a clear sign of Italy’s paradoxical reception of this term, as well as of the research vision attached to it.

As I sit down to write this piece on Italian medical humanities, preparing myself to report on the country where I was born and that now I look at from afar, I am immediately confronted with a history of reception that is also a chronicle of needs, incommunicable ideas, emergency situations, and changes. Yet, instead of a hindrance, this extraterritorial standpoint offers an opportunity to reconsider the languages, geographies, histories and perhaps even expectations of a field that – currently in its second-wave, or critical turn (Whitehead and Woods 2016) – has only recently opened up to its non-anglophone dimensions (Wilson 2023).

As the Italian case shows, the reception and translation of foreign word-ideas is not a passive encounter. Rather, it is a bold, metamorphic process that tests, and sometimes subverts, our assumptions about the nature and scope of the original. Sometimes, as proved by the living field of Italian medical humanities, the receiving culture can contribute to the transmitting one by foreseeing future developments in ways that are as paradoxical as unpredictable. It is from this space of recrafting and unmolding that I write this piece.

Italian medical humanities from literature to AI

The term “Italosphere” used in the title serves as a first site of disruption. It is an invitation to challenge the idea that Italy is a uniform country with well-defined spatial, temporal, and linguistic borders. If medical humanities is, itself, a fluctuant field (Viney et al. 2015), so is the country that we are discussing. A place of migration and emigration, imitation and innovation, political fragmentation and polyglossia, Italy and its cultures have formed tentatively and heterogeneously through continuous exposition to external inputs (Arnaldi 2022a). Medical humanities is no exception, given that the medical humanities culture that Italians came into contact with in the late 1980s and early 1990s is that which corresponds to the interdisciplinary field born in the United States in the 1960s and translated by poets, writers, and scholars of literature, rather than by historians, sociologists, bioethicists, and clinicians.

Italian medical humanities is first and foremost literary. Even though the discipline’s clinical and bioethical branches are present and flourishing (see, for example, Maria Giulia Marini’s (2018) take on narrative medicine and Roberto Esposito’s (2002; 2004) biopolitical thought), the field was seeded by, and continues to go back to, literature. This is partly due to Italy’s cultural heritage, one that is built upon a strong humanistic component, rooted in the classical and Christian traditions. This explains why Italian writers have continuously engaged with medicine and science, from Boccaccio to Galileo, and from Leopardi to Rosselli and Svevo; it also accounts for the role that poets and novelists still have in the shaping of the field (e.g., Gardini 2022; Arminio 2020). Such literary foundations are reinforced by the fact that humanistic education used to be compulsory for those intending to study medicine; up until 1923 only students who attended the “liceo classico” were admitted to medical school (in the UK educational system, “liceo classico” corresponds to the completion of A-level exams in ancient Greek and Latin).

In addition to literature, philosophy, namely phenomenology, and theology played a key, visionary role. For instance, theologian Sandro Spinsanti (2009) anticipated the core idea of the discipline’s critical refashioning when he firmly asserted the non-ancillary role of the humanities in biomedicine, and vice versa. Still unknown outside Italy’s national borders, Spinsanti could be seen to have had an influence on shaping the critical turn; alternatively, it could be said that he offered a critical medical humanities vision ante litteram, thus demonstrating, once more, the complex dynamics of foresight, setbacks and postponements that characterises the Italian reception of medical humanities.

Credit: “Holding my Heart” project, University of Bristol

The author of 36 books, Spinsanti is the founder and director of the Giano Institute for Medical Humanities in Riano, not far from Rome. The Institute has several research outputs, including a number of active journals, such as L’Arco di Giano, whose first issue, emblematically titled “Medical humanities: Da dove, verso dove” (“Medical Humanities: Where From, Where To”), dates back to 1993. The double gaze evidenced by this publication’s title, one that is at once traditional and forward-looking, captures the essence of Italian medical humanities, while offering a further proof of its paradoxical evolution.

An interest in defining, and protecting, the discipline’s boundaries, accompanied by the capacity to transform, and respond to, the contemporary, is another trait of medical humanities in the Italosphere. The courage to rethink human health and disease in the age of AI and the posthuman is one of the major concerns for the field’s Italian voices; for example, bioengineer Giovanni Biglino and human geographer Maria Fannin, both based at Bristol, use 3D medical technologies to explore one’s identity through the lens of congenital heart disease (“Holding my Heart”). Outside academia, information designer Giorgia Lupi advocates for Data Humanism in ways that resonate with medical humanities research, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic (see the Medical Futures
project, led by Kirsten Ostherr at Rice  University).

Polycentrism and Diaspora

Given its complex history, it is no surprise that Italian medical humanities is, by nature, polycentric. Developed across a network of universities and cities, they flourish without hierarchies. In addition to Rome (I have mentioned the Giano Institute in Riano), Padua is one of these key areas. In the blurb of their introductory volume on Italian medical humanities, editors Renzo Pegoraro, Luciana Caenazzo and Lucia Mariani (2022) describe Padua – home to, among others, anatomists Gabriele Falloppio and Giovanni Battista Morgagni, as well as to polymath Galileo Galilei – as “the cradle of modern medicine” and of the scientific method. Since artists like Giotto, Donatello and Titan where also based in Padua, they argue that “a combination of medical humanities and Italian artistic heritage is of interest to anyone involved in bioethics and medicine” (Pegoraro et al. 2022).

By emphasising the role of the non-verbal imagination to better comprehend health and disease, the editors align with the principles of critical medical humanities, advocating the significance of the visual medium. For example, Şefik Görkey (2022), from Koç University’s School of Medicine, Turkey, explores, in the volume, the potential of using Italian frescoes to improve anatomical knowledge and medical diagnosis, as well as our understanding of epidemics and disability. His contribution enlarges the Italosphere to embrace views from Western Asia; it also proposes a non-Italian gaze on what is perhaps the most iconic Italian art form.

Another leading university in the landscape of Italian medical humanities is Bologna, in particular the Centro Studi Medical Humanities, led by Marco Veglia. A collaboration between the Department of Classical Philology and Italian Studies and the Department of Specialist, Diagnostic and Experimental Medicine, the centre hosts a series of open access publications aimed at theorising and expanding the medical humanities field. These books have a literary focus (see, for example, the volume on Italian writer and psychiatrist Mario Tobino (Cioni 2022)), as well as a preference for contemporary issues such as COVID-19, the pandemic having hit the country violently at the beginning of 2020 (Scioli 2021).

Forms of Italian medical humanities are also diffused in Italian-speaking Switzerland, as well as within, and across, communities of Italian scholars spread throughout the world. In both cases, the main features of these extraterritorial contributions are a deeper commitment to interdisciplinary research, together with sustained international dialogues. The Fondazione Sasso Corbaro, Bellinzona, is a prominent research and pedagogical hub. Established in 2000, the idea of founding a centre dedicated to medical humanities was seeded in the late 1980s by a group of friends – Mauro de Grazia, Roberto Malacrida, Graziano Martignoni, Fabio Merlini, Gianni Tognoni, and Franco Zambelloni – interested in exploring the clinical and philosophical relationship between “prognosis and destiny” (to use the words appearing on their website).

The contribution of these Swiss-Italian researchers to the spectrum of medical humanities in the Italosphere is also impactful thanks to the newly launched online version of their journal, Sentieri nelle Medical Humanities. Established in 2022, the project “The ‘Civilization of Anatomy: The Genre of Literary Anatomies in Seventeenth-Century Italy”, supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation and led by Linda Bisello, brings together literary scholars, historians, architects and librarians to ask cultural questions about the impact of the anatomical revolution in literature, politics, the environments, and the arts of pre-Modern Italy, and beyond.

In non-Italian-speaking countries, Italian medical humanities is conceptualised and practised by Italians and/or Italianists who shape the discipline’s reception, diaspora, and complex processes of (un)homing in ways that are as profound as they are innovative. For example, disruptive perspectives on health and disability come from Elizabeth Leake (2011), Columbia, Emma Bond (2012), Oxford, and Katrin Wehling Giorgi (2022), Durham, whereas Beatrice Sica (2021), University College London, analysed Dante’s poetry to better understand, and come out of, the COVID-19 crisis.

Translating Illness,” the international project that I founded in 2019 at the University of Oxford, explores medical humanities as a radical field of translational enquiry. The project moves from the intuition that illness is a fundamentally foreignizing experience, one that estranges us from ourselves, others, and the ecosystems we (do not) interact with. I explored this idea in literary texts, especially poetry, and across philosophy, psychiatry, epidemiology and immunology, to ask broader questions about the expressibility, “narrativity”, translation and transmission of health and disease (see Arnaldi 2022b; 2022c; 2022c; Arnaldi et al. 2022). Translation and Medical Humanities, my current book project and the title of a forthcoming conference, which will take place at the University of Oxford (5-6 September 2023), highlights a fundamental moment in the shaping of the burgeoning field of multilingual medical humanities by revealing aspects of Italian medical humanities that are contributing to the field’s radical, diverse, and global agenda.

Other Gazes, Other Stories

This is but a snapshot of Italian medical humanities in Italy and outside of Italy, across time and presently. I have tried to map its genealogies, trends, principles and geographies. But I could have written a totally different story, as many people, and threads, have remained unmentioned. What I hope to have conveyed through this photographic fragment, though, despite its circumscribed focus, is a more nuanced image of the discipline, one that accounts for its “untranslatables”, mismatches, alternative histories, and unlikely geographies. The Italosphere emerging from these hidden maps complicates and compliments anglocentric medical humanities by endorsing its paradoxes; crucially, it also poses new ones. It is in these dissonances, divergences and gaps that we may find new ways of understanding health and disease, their origins, forms, and impact on our lives.

About the author

Marta Arnaldi is Lecturer in Italian at the University of Oxford and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oslo. She is the author of five books, including a monograph and three award-winning poetry collections. A scholar of Italian and comparative literature, Marta has an interdisciplinary background including medical training. She is the founder and leader of Translating Illness, a medical humanities research project and international network. You can follow Marta on Twitter.


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