The Wise Fools of the Mediterranean

Asked Julian of Maddalo[1]:

“How come the mad to be wise,

Or the wise to go mad?

Which was Tiresias[2]?

Is what they say madness,
All the dark backside of understanding?

Is what they say wisdom,
all illuminated by such understanding?

Does madness make what’s imagined seem brilliantly illuminated?

Does wisdom make what’s sensible seem darkly obscure?

When we peer into San Servolo[3],
Do we see the sun set over Venice?”


“Such debate is vanity,”
Answered Maddalo to Julian.

July 2011


Note: While attending a lecture on “Julian and Maddalo” given by John Gilroy at Cambridge University, I was struck by the number of times, in film and fiction, I had observed characters, frequently, descending into an asylum to consult, or at least visit and inmate, often having been hidden away there, and always suffering some form of madness. Yet what these mad men and women contribute to their narrative home is often crucial to the understanding of in important character, and sometimes to life itself. Furthermore, the asylum, and indeed the whole narrative, seems always to be set in Greece or Italy or Spain or some other Mediterranean land. Now why is that?

Just a jolly folly poem.


[1] “Julian and Maddalo” is a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, sub-titled a conversation," it reflects discussions between Shelley (Julian) and Byron (Maddalo) at Venice in August and September 1818.

[2] In Greek mythology, Tiresias was a blind prophet of Thebes, famous for clairvoyance and for being transformed into a woman for seven years.

[3] By the beginning of the eighteenth century, or soon thereafter the Senate of the Republic of Venice designated San Servolo as the site of a new military hospital, needed due to the continuing war against the Turks. Later the hospital was used to care for the mentally ill.

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