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Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri (Source: Wikipedia)

Italy has great names still – Canova, Monti, Ugo Foscolo, Pindemonti, Visconti, Morelli, Cicognara, Albrizzi, Mezzophanti, Mai, Mustoxidi, Aglietti, and Vacca, will secure to the present generation an honourable place in most of the departments of Art, Science, and Belles Lettres; and in some the very highest – Europe – the World – has but one Canova.
Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV

The Vaccà Berlinghieri Family

The “Vacca” that Byron listed among other famous Italians of the time in the dedication to the fourth Canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri. This peculiar character, friend of Byron, the Shelleys, Polidori and other English people who lived in Pisa in the first decades of the nineteenth century, was born in Montefoscoli in 1772, from an ancient, though not noble, family. The fame of his father, Francesco, a physician who taught at the university of Pisa, went beyond the boundaries of Italy, having received many honours in Europe. He had three sons: Leopoldo, a natural philosopher and mathematician, Andrea, a surgeon, and Giuseppe, a lawyer. Leopoldo and Andrea studied in Paris and once back in their homeland they became professors at the University of Pisa.


The Vaccà Berlinghieri House in Montefoscoli, Pisa (Source: http://www.casavaccaberlinghieri.it/index_eng.html)

The Vaccàs During the Napoleonic Invasion of Italy

Before the French invasion, Andrea studied in Paris and also travelled in England with his brother Leopoldo, where he attended the lectures of the famous physician William Cullen. He graduated in Pisa in 1793 and at the end of the century backed the revolts in favour of Napoleon. When the Corsican invaded Italy, introducing the ideas of the French Revolution to the country, the Vaccàs, like other illustrious Italians of the time, for example Ugo Foscolo, embraced the new ideas and enlisted in the French army. Giuseppe died after the Siege of Genoa in 1803, during the Napoleonic campaigns; Leopoldo wrote on military matters and married a French woman. He had been a friend of Napoleon at military college and died in Spain while serving in the French army. Andrea was in Paris again in 1799, where he continued his studies and became a renowned surgeon. Back in Pisa in 1800, he was appointed Professor of Surgery at the University, where a large number of students and patients gathered around him. Many famous physicians considered him a great reformer of surgery, but he was also interested in fine arts and cultivated an interest in literature.


The Vaccà Berlinghieri House in Montefoscoli, Pisa (Source: http://www.casavaccaberlinghieri.it/index_eng.html)

The Pisan Salon

Andrea rarely participated in meetings at circles and salons, not wanting to spend the time on them, but he was among those who frequented Madame de Stael’s salon in Pisa between the autumn of 1815 and the spring of 1816. From what we know, his talks covered different subjects, often with frivolity, lightness and irony, probably derived from his readings of Molière, Cervantes and Swift. His conversations with Madame de Stael often ended up in differences of opinion, because she liked contradiction and Andrea wanted to be second to nobody. Even though he had a busy life that did not allow him to attend those events regularly, Andrea was the promoter of the most important social exchanges of his town, being the real entertainer at those meetings.

The Encounter with the Shelleys

Between November and December 1819, an exceptionally cold winter in Florence, Shelley’s health deteriorated, but this was not the case with Mary, who on November 12th gave birth to Percy Florence after a two-hour labour. At the end of January 1820 they decided to move to Pisa, because of the waters and also because Shelley could consult a famous Italian physician: Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri.

The Shelleys were introduced to Andrea by Mrs. Mason (Lady Margaret Mountcashell), at a time when the physician was at the height of his fame. He considered Shelley’s sufferings to be mainly of a nervous origin, and as a treatment he ordered him to discontinue the drugs he was taking and pursue a healthier life. The relationship between the Shelleys and Vaccà was not confined to medical consultations, though they played an important part in their acquaintance. His illuminist education, republicanism and atheism were qualities that the young couple certainly appreciated in Vaccà, and that helped to strengthen their friendship. Though it is not apparent from the letters and journals, Byron seems to have met Vaccà more often than is usually thought. In a letter that probably got lost, it seems that Byron was among the people that Vaccà invited for the inauguration of the temple of Minerva Medica (see below), some time before Byron embarked for Greece in July 1823. Another proof that Byron knew Vaccà is that the English poet asked the famed surgeon to provide him with the name of a pupil who would be willing to follow him to Greece as a personal physician.


Joseph Severn, Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound, 1845 (Source: Wikipedia. Keats-Shelley Memorial House, Rome, Italy)

Shelley in Pisa

Even though in a previous visit Shelley said he didn’t like Pisa, during his second stay in 1820 he found that the city was perfect for him. There he spent some of the best moments of his life, and he remained there until near the date of his death. There were other Englishmen in town at the time, one of them being Walter Savage Landor, who had already lived there for a year when Shelley arrived. As Claire Clairmont wrote in her journal, Landor didn’t want to meet a single English person. The two poets never met, and lived in the same little town without exchanging a word.

During the first year and a half in which he lived in Pisa, before the arrival of Byron, Shelley spent his time studying and leading a solitary life. Nonetheless, the Shelleys had some friends whom they used to meet regularly, and one of them was Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri. Some time before leaving for England, the Gisbornes (who became acquainted with the Shelleys through the Godwins), visited the Shelleys in Pisa and renewed their acquaintance with Vaccà, whom Henry Gisborne had met when he was a student at the University of Pisa. Claire Clairmont recalls in her journal a conversation on the subject of atheism between Vaccà, Shelley, Mary Shelley and John Gisborne (Henry’s father).


Amelia Curran, Portrait of Claire Clairmont, 1819 (Source: Wikipedia)

John William Polidori, Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri and the Source for Frankenstein

Apart from his fame as a surgeon, Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri’s theories about the necessity of scientific experiments on the human body were discussed both in Italy and abroad, not only among the scientists but also among those intellectuals who were more interested in philosophy, literature and occultism. The link between the literary and scientific worlds, or between the Shelleys, Byron and the science represented by Vaccà, was John William Polidori, the young author of The Vampire. This young Englishman, who was Shelley’s personal physician, was born in 1795 in England. His father, Gaetano, had had to leave Italy for political reasons and was in Paris with Vittorio Alfieri during the turmoil of 1789.

It was in the French capital that Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri met Gaetano Polidori. Later, in 1816, Gaetano asked Andrea to recommend his younger son, John William, who had graduated in Edinburgh (where he distinguished himself as a grave robber, as he used to steal corpses from cemeteries to study the human body). John William accompanied Byron during his travels in Italy, probably staying with him in Ravenna too. Among the Pisan Circle, Polidori was the man who knew most about the advancements of the Italian surgical schools and who could discuss the scientific background regarding the experiments on the dead bodies. It is probable that during the conversations in the summer of 1816 at Villa Diodati on Lake Leman in Switzerland John Polidori talked about the importance of Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri as a surgeon and his surgical innovations.


Frontispiece to the Revised Edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831 (Source: Wikipedia)

The “Ghost” of Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri During the Discussions at Villa Diodati

The story behind the genesis of Frankenstein is well known. During their stay at Villa Diodati, the weather was horrible and storms in the summer of 1816 had been violent and recurrent. As a pastime, Byron suggested the Shelleys, Claire Clairmont and John Polidori might amuse themselves by reading some German fantasy tales in French. This is what Shelley wrote in the 1818 preface to Frankenstein:

It is a subject also of additional interest to the author that this story was begun in the majestic region where the scene is principally laid, and in society which cannot cease to be regretted. I passed the summer of 1816 in the environs of Geneva. The season was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends (a tale from the pen of one of whom would be far more acceptable to the public than anything I can ever hope to produce) and myself agreed to write each a story founded on some supernatural occurrence.


Villa Diodati, Geneva (Source: Wikipedia)

It was common at the time for those who had a materialist view to consider life as a kind of fluid that could be instilled into a dead body in order to make it come back to life. There are numerous examples of physicians who experimented with electricity on dead bodies to stimulate the contraction of muscles. That practice was started at the end of the 18th century by an Italian scientist, Luigi Galvani, who experimented on dead animals. The effect of applying electricity to a dead body is therefore known as galvanism.

Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri was also interested in this practice, but Mary Shelley may have known about galvanism from other sources too. Her biographers tell us that when Mary was only six she could have heard a story told by Anthony Carlisle, a strong advocate of scientific research, who reported how he witnessed an experiment by Giovanni Aldini with a dead corpse, as it was customary to hand over the dead bodies of murderers to doctors for dissection. Aldini had already demonstrated how to make a decapitated dog kick his legs, but now he was going to show how the same principle could be applied to a human body:

On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion, and it appeared to all the bystanders that the wretched man was on the point of being restored to life.

Leopoldo, Andrea’s brother, was also interested in galvanism, as it appears from his contribution to the Bulletin de la Société philomatique in 1792–93, and in 1795 Francesco, Andrea’s father, wrote that there is a “nervous fluid” that flows from the nerves to the muscles, the real cause of the movement of the muscles. Andrea didn’t write anything on the subject, but carried out experiments on dead bodies, and, according to some biographers, his studio was under the temple devoted to Minerva Medica, built to honour his father’s memory.


Inside the Temple of Minerva Medica, Montefoscoli, Pisa (Source: http://www.napoleonsites.eu/it/default/570/una-famiglia-napoleonica-a-pisa-i-vacc-berlinghieri.html)

John William Polidori and Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri

Polidori met Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri at the Pisa hospital some months after the stay at Villa Diodati, on 2nd December 1816, and on that occasion he was struck by the words of an Austrian colonel who defined Andrea as a “god of medicine”. They often dined together with Sophie Caudeiron, Leopoldo’s wife, whom Polidori remembered as “a pleasing pretty Frenchwoman”. As we know from Polidori’s letters, Andrea became a sort of foster-father to him, and he remembered that the Italian doctor had been a school fellow of his father. Polidori spent his time at the hospital or reading books on medicine and Italian literature, while in the evening he used to accompany Sophie to the theatre, acting as a sort of cavalier servente. Vaccà corrected his medical journal and also suggested him to work at a project in Brazil. As far as we know, Polidori was interested in the project and asked Byron to help him financially and also to intercede for him at the Portuguese court, because he didn’t want to ask his father for money. However, Byron referred him to his editor, Murray:

He has kept a medical journal under the eye of Vacca (the first surgeon on the continent) at Pisa: Vacca has corrected it, and it must contain some valuable hints or information on the practice of this country. If you can aid him in publishing this also, by your influence with your brethren, do; I do not ask you to publish it yourself, because that sort of request is too personal and embarrassing.
Lord Byron to Mr. Murray, 24th January 1817


F.G. Gainsford, Portrait of John William Polidori (ca. 1805-1822)

As a further note, under the supervision of Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri, Polidori had some Italian and three English patients while he was in Pisa. One of them, Lord Guildford, died in 1817 and was embalmed. Polidori assisted at the embalming, as Lord Byron wrote to Mr Moore:

My late physician, Doctor Polidori, is here, on his way to England, with the present Lord G * * and the widow of the late earl. Doctor Polidori has, just now, no more patients, because his patients are no more. He had lately three, who are now all dead – one embalmed. Horner and a child of Thomas Hope’s are interred at Pisa and Rome. Lord G * * died of an inflammation of the bowels; so they took them out, and sent them (on account of their discrepancies), separately from the carcass, to England. Conceive a man going one way, and his intestines another, and his immortal soul a third! – was there ever such a distribution? One certainly has a soul; but how it came to allow itself to be enclosed in a body is more than I can imagine. I only know if once mine gets out, I’ll have a bit of a tustle before I let it get in again to that or any other.
Lord Byron to Mr Murray, Venice, 11th April 1817

A Note on the Temple of Minerva Medica: did Mary Shelley Really Visit it Before Writing Frankenstein?

In a recent documentary on an Italian TV channel, it was stated that under the temple of Minerva Medica in Montefoscoli there is a hidden room that Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri used for his experiments on galvanism. In a book on the subject, the author even supposes that Mary Shelley visited Andrea’s laboratory under the temple and that she used it as a source for Frankenstein.


The Temple of Minerva Medica, Montefoscoli (Source: http://www.tempiodiminerva.com/en_index.html)

The story of the temple began in 1820, when Andrea decided to erect a neoclassical monument inspired by paganism to his father’s memory. This historical building exists to this day on a hill in the town of Montefoscoli, near Pisa, surrounded by a small wood of holm-oaks. The monument was built in 1822 and was devoted to Minerva Medica instead of Aesculapius, the god of medicine, probably because Francesco Vaccà also studied philosophy, and Andrea wanted to celebrate a divinity that better than any other could represent the deep and complex personality of his father.

After the documentary, further explorations were conducted on the area around the temple, and it was found out that there really is an empty room below the monument. We still can’t say for sure if that was Andrea’s laboratory but there are many clues to support this hypothesis. Probably the authors read unpublished documents that made them think so, though I’m not sure if Mary’s visit to the laboratory really happened, as there is no mention of it in her writings. Also, as the temple was erected in 1822, she couldn’t have visited it before writing Frankenstein, which was published in 1818. I will leave to readers and scholars the task of discovery. Mary could however have known about Andrea through Polidori at Villa Diodati, as I said above. Certainly this is a fascinating story, one of the many that surround the presence of those illustrious English people who visited Italy in the Post-Napoleonic era.


The Temple of Minerva Medica, Montefoscoli (Source: http://www.tempiodiminerva.com/en_index.html)

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Letters from the Exile by Massimo Vangelista is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at byronico.com.
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