Doctor, soldier, writer

Written by  Giuseppina Bock Berti
The life of Corrado Tumiati (1885-1967) between medicine, war and literature
A recent meeting of historical and medical colleagues, organised to coincide with the staging of an adaptation of Louis-Ferdinand Céline's Semmelweis at the Arsenale Theatre, Milan, has caused me to reflect on the curious bond which joins medicine and literature. One name which came to my attention on this occasion was that of the ferrarese Corrado Tumiati: a doctor and psychiatrist, who served as a medical officer in wartime and was also a writer, receiving the Viareggio Prize in 1931.
He interests me since I, too, am from Ferrara, and though I never met Tumiati I am a friend of his children and grandchildren.
The life of Corrado Tumiati has been outlined simply but effectively by his grandson Gaetano in an article published in this magazine in 1998, upon the occasion of the erection of a memorial plaque in his honour by the Comune of Ferrara, recording his place of birth and the achievements of his family.
Corrado was born here in 1885, the son of Gaetano, a lawyer, and Eda Ferraresi, a doctor's daughter. He completed his general education in Florence with the Barnabite order, at the end of which he was had to make a difficult decision over his future studies. Should he choose the faculty of literature and humanities, to which, considering the writings of Gaetano Tumiati, the children's literature of Lucia Tumiati Barbieri and the incisive prose of Roseda Tumiati Ravenna, one might almost say he seemed genetically predestined? Or should he choose to study medicine, which greatly attracted him for its opportunities to explore his social and psycho-physical concerns through a deeper understanding of the human body and its functioning? He chose the latter; and after an initial three years at the Este University of Ferrara, returned to Florence to con tinue his studies. There he presented his research thesis on stomach cancer and obtained an excellent degree, after which he was immediately offered an assistant lectureship.
Corrado was thus forced once again to make a difficult choice, between a promising university career in clinical research, and his humanitarian concerns which ultimately led him to choose the life of a practicing doctor. He became an assistant in the mental hospital of Pesaro, under the direction of Antonio D'Ormea. Though life in Pesaro was hard, his work brought him real human contact, and this was what mattered to Corrado. He followed D'Ormea to Siena in 1910, where along-side his hospital duties he spent three years working at the Brunacci Institute of Physiology researching the anatomy and physiology of the nervous system.
He became heavily involved in neuropsychiatric research, publishing articles on mental health, particularly on clinical treatments and therapies, in specialist journals, for which he also acted as editor. In 1913, he moved to Venice in order to practice at San Servolo, the Venetian island which served solely as a mental hospital for centuries. There he worked towards structural reform of psychiatric hospitals.
Tumiati published over 60 works arguing for a series of reforms to make psychiatry more humane, along with proposals for social medicine, preventative therapies and family education; his far-sighted, innovative ideas and his plans for their implementation and organisation led the way in the subsequent development of psychiatric medicine in Italy.
Then it all came to a halt. Disagreements and political differences with the authorities led him to leave the profession in 1931. He settled in Florence, where he died in 1967; he never returned to Ferrara. Though there is a Tumiati family tomb in the city's splendid Certosa cemetery, Corrado was not buried there, as I have discovered.
During the Great War Tumiati was called up by the army, serving from June 1915 to September 1919 as a medical lieutenant. He was posted first to regional military hospitals, then to the front-line on the Carso and Piave battlefields, and also worked as a supervisor of field hospitals and of the health services of the Customs' Guards corps in Trieste. All doctor-soldiers have their own story to tell. The particular emotions and experiences of each one are of interest, in my opinion, in part due their medical profession, and Tumiati is a fine example. In July 1916 he produced an essay on Using the Lombard [speech-therapy] method to hasten the cure of war mutism, by doctor Corrado Tumiati, medical lieutenant, published by the Special Unit for Nervous Diseases at the Military Hospital of Ferrara, under the direction of Medical Major Prof. Gaetano Boschi.
In addition to this technical evidence of his experience he produced a much more literary work, Zaino di Sanità (1915-1918) ('a doctor's rucksack'), which was published only in 1947 alongside a re-print of I tetti rossi ('the red roofs'). This last-mentioned, perhaps named for the colloquial term in various Italian regions for hospitals for the 'mad', won the Viareggio Prize of 10,000 Lira in 1931. The Red Roofs, a book of great artistic merit, greatly enriched contemporary literature with its humanity and insight. In fluent modern prose, without philosophical or polemical pretensions, the author presents 'the mad' in their own world, in the reality in which they live and suffer. The book consists of recollections and reflections on the most striking aspects of life during the time when he worked - and lived - in a mental asylum. I tetti rossi is divided into short chapters, giving vignettes of hospital life or a brief character sketch of a patient or other individual (doctors, nurses, parents, nuns), whilst others consist of Tumiati's comments and reflections on his experiences. Each short chapter stands alone, a distinct set of observations. Though it may initially seem fragmentary, the book in fact forms a harmonious whole, as ideas develop gradually and spontaneously rather than through any predetermined structure or plan. Subtlety and emotion bind the work together as a whole.
There is much else that might be said upon Tumiati's literary activities, as a journalist, a translator, a poet. In this short article it is only possible to outline a few aspects of his extraordinary personality, and here I will limit myself to mentioning the highly significant developments in his life in Florence in the years immediately before the Second World War and thereafter. He wrote for the famous 'third page' of the Corriere della Sera, a forum for all kinds of cultural discussion; and prestigious literary journals like Pan and Pegaso invited his contributions. Tumiati also became part of a circle of intellectuals, writers (Vittore Branca), cirtics (Pietro Pancrazi), musicians (Luigi Dallapiccola), painters (Giovanni Colacicchi), politicians and jurists (Piero Calamandrei).
It was this last who brought about his appointment as vice-director and editor of the politico-literary review Il Ponte (The Bridge), which first appeared in 1945.
Its objectives were encapsulated in its title: to enable people to begin to move on towards new horizons, to assist in the moral reconstruction of a more free and responsible humankind, through culture and literature.
And lastly, Tumiati was also a poet, who I shall present in his own, devastating, words: How heavy it is, my past, how heavy / My slender foot leaves a print / deep and precise, on the damp sand /One footprint follows another, and behind / there lies traced out the path I've travelled./ Reaching the breakwater, my goal, / I sit, tired./ I look back over my path / but I can no longer see the trace of my steps.