Tuesday, March 06, 2007

when in Rome, or Taranto

An article by Burkhard Bilger in this week's New Yorker magazine, "Spider Woman" (sorry, it's not online!) includes this paragraph:

The most notorious spider in Europe in [Jean-Henri] Fabre's time [(the late 19th century)] was the Italian tarantula, Lycosa tarantula. Named for the town of Taranto, on the southern coast, this was a large, fearsome-looking wolf spider -- no relation to American tarantulas -- whose bite was said to cause madness, melancholy, and death. A victim's only hope was to dance furiously for days on end, often accompanied by fiddles and pipes, until his body gave out and the venom wore off. Liszt, Chopin, and Mendelssohn later wrote music for stylized versions of these dances, which came to be known as tarantellas.

Apparently these creatures are quite rare today, and medical science has some antidotes besides furious dancing. If you're travelling to Italy though, it might be a good idea to keep some fiddlers and pipers nearby, ready to play non-stop tarantellas for a couple of days, just in case.

(BTW, thanks to Lydia Lui, a mean tarantella-playing fiddler in her own right, for elucidating the fair use statute for me in a recent comment. All of my guilty confusion is gone!)

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