Italian anthropologist, pathologist, and author Paolo Mantegazza (1831–1910) published scholarly works in which he shared insights regarding enlightening concepts based on his travels in South America and other faraway lands. In an 1859 article, he described the seemingly miraculous properties of the coca plant, prompting scientists to identify the substance that would later generate the drug cocaine.
A native of the northern Italian state of Lombardy, Mantegazza was born on October 31, 1831, in Monza, near Milan. His father, Giovan Battista Mantegazza, was the son of the city's podestà, or chief magistrate. His mother, Laura Solera Mantegazza, was 18 years old when Paolo, the eldest of her three children, was born. Her family tree included an uncle, Francesco Solera, who was a key figure in an uprising that took place in Venice in 1848–49. Solera belonged to a faction of Venetian business leaders and civic officials who fomented an armed revolt against Austrian rule in the city-state, then served as minister of war for the provisional Republic of San Marco.
The first six years of Mantegazza's life were spent in Monza. His parents produced two younger brothers, Costanza and Emilio, but in 1837 Laura returned to her hometown, Milan, with her sons. There she became a noted philanthropist, establishing one of the first stringently regulated pediatric care facilities available to working women in Italy; she would later co-found a vocational training school for young women that was also one of the first of its kind in Italy.
At age 16, Mantegazza's life was bisected by the revolutionary movements of 1848, which occurred not only in Venice but across Italy and elsewhere in Europe. In March of that year, the Milanese joined Vienna in rejecting Austrian control over Lombardy and fomented their own uprising. Mantegazza participated in the five-day street battle that proved successful in forcing local Austrian military regiments into retreat. His mother also participated and was honored for her role as part of a brigade of female volunteers who cared for the injured during the epic clash to attain Lombard independence. The clashes in Vienna and Milan were echoed elsewhere, fueling the First Italian War of Independence that ultimately led to the unification of the city-states and kingdoms of the Italian peninsula.
Mantegazza began his university studies in Pisa and graduated from the University of Pavia with a medical degree in 1854. His first research papers, on bacteria and calcium deposits, were published in scientific journals while he was still a student at Pavia. After graduation, he embarked upon an epic trek that ultimately brought him to Salta, Argentina, where he married Jacobina Tejada Montemajor in 1856. The couple would have five children, the first of which was born when they were still living in Argentina. Mantegazza had by now roamed across parts of Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, and Bolivia, and he chronicled his discoveries in On South America: Medical Letters, published in 1858.
Mantegazza's experiences in the Peruvian Andes included an investigation into the use of coca (Erythroxylum coca), a leafy shrub that grows to over seven feet and is indigenous to the high-altitude region. Used for centuries as an appetite suppressant and stimulant, coca was particularly useful to the Incan emperors of the pre-Columbian era, who relied on it to maintain social control in times of famine and to reward armies and manual laborers alike. The curious effect produced by chewing coca leaves had been described by earlier European scientists, first by the Spanish physician Nicolás Monardes, whose multivolume opus on the indigenous plants of the newly discovered Americas was widely read in Europe after its publication in the 1570s. It was given its scientific name in 1786, and coca's remarkable properties roused the interest of Europeans spending extended periods of time in western South America.
Among the most oft-cited quotes from Mantegazza's 1859 treatise was his contention that “I prefer a life of ten years with Coca to one of a hundred thousand without it.” He extolled the virtues of the coca leaf as a cure for neurasthenia, a catchall term used in the 19th century to describe an array of physical and mental symptoms that included fatigue, high blood pressure, and a generalized sense of anxiety. His belief that it could also help the elderly, the socially timid person, or even athletes engaged in endurance contests was not considered invalid or ill-advised. Because access to the coca leaf was so stringently restricted in the parts of South America he had visited, there was scant evidence that it was potentially damaging or habit-forming.
Following the publication of his treatise, Mantegazza's career would grow to encompass several fields of scientific inquiry. He taught pathology in Pavia in the 1860s and then moved to Florence where he established the department of anthropology at the Istituto di Studii and became its first chair. The anthropology faculty was the first of its kind in all of Europe, as was the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology, which Mantegazzi founded in Florence in 1869. Together with his colleague Felice Finzi, he founded the Italian Society of Anthropology and co-edited its journal Archivio per l'Antropologia e l'Etnologia.
It was as an author that Mantegazza left his most enduring legacy to the social sciences. In 1871 he completed a 1,200-page tract titled Pictures of Human Nature. Feasts and Inebriations, which encompassed his writings on the psychoactive properties of certain plants used in religious or community rituals around the world. He also wrote Elements of Hygiene, a basic primer on human sexuality, and in the 1880s produced a related series of volumes on essential human states or traits, among them love, animosity, and pain. “Nothing that has been written elsewhere upon expression can approach it,” remarked Frederick Starr in a review of the Italian anthropologist's work published in an 1893 issue of Popular Science. “Every great emotion of mankind is taken up, and the form of expression by which it makes itself known is exhaustively analyzed. The subject itself is so attractive and the treatment so interesting that the book—unlike most scientific books—will bear reading and re-reading for pleasure. No one but an Italian could have written it.”
Other notable works by Mantegazza include The Sexual Relations of Mankind, Human Ecstasies, and Physiology of Love, all which were translated and read throughout Europe, enjoying particularly strong sales in both Germany and France. Physiology of Love, which first appeared in 1878, went through several reprintings and new editions. At the time of its publication, Mantegazza was serving as a senator for life in the government of Italy's King Victor Emmanuel II. During appearances in that country's parliament, he frequently clashed with conservative-minded colleagues, one of whom derided him publicly as the Erotic Senator, unduly fascinated by once-taboo subjects. Meanwhile, Mantegazza expanded his research into customs and cultures by making an epic trek to Lapland in Scandinavia, and in the early 1880s he visited India, a trip he would reference in his contributions to Archivio per l'Antropologia e l'Etnologia.
In 1897, Mantegazza produced an uncannily prescient science-fiction novel. Titled The Year 3000: A Dream, his story forecasted what life might be like for humans in the 31st century. Fictional couple Paolo and Maria live in Rome, which has become the capital of the United States of Europe. They must now undertake a space journey to the United Planetary States capital, there to apply for permission to have children. Within this futuristic scenario, “even nervous illnesses can be treated thanks to the ‘psychoscope,’ an instrument that scans human thought,” explained Nicoletta Pireddu in the introduction to a 2007 edition of Physiology of Love and Other Writings. Mantegazza's futuristic “novel delineates a world ruled by an efficient government, with no bureaucratic absurdities or interference from the Church.”
Jacobina Mantegazza died in 1889, two years after the publication of The Year 3000, and in 1892, he married Countess Maria Fantoni, a wealthy Florentine, with whom he had one daughter. Mantegazza died on August 28, 1910, in San Terenzo, a city in Italy's Ligurian province. His works remain a source of fascination for cultural historians and anthropologists, in particular because the culture of Italy was deeply conservative at the time he reached the peak of his career.
Pireddu cited the pioneering edicts Mantegazza promoted in his writings, many of which were listed on the Roman Catholic Church's Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of prohibited books. In his most widely read book, Physiology of Love, he sounded a surprisingly prescient note, describing modern marriage as “a consolidation of capital or a reproductive mechanism that thwarts women's free choice and often leads them to unfaithfulness born of despair,” according to Pireddu. “In one of his last aphorisms he even predicts that women will have ‘the sweet possibility of living single and happy.’”
Mantegazza, Paolo, Physiology of Love and Other Writings, translated by David Jacobson, introduction and notes by Nicoletta Pireddu, University of Toronto Press, 2007.
Popular Science, August 1893, Frederick Starr, “Sketch of Paolo Mantegazza,” pp. 549–551.
Rolling Stone, August 17, 1972, Charles Perry, “Cocaine: The Star-Spangled Powder.”□