The Theme of the Plague in Italian Letters 1433151529, 9781433151521

Several poetic and prose compositions in early Italian literature contain references to the bubonic plague and other ill

469 8 3MB

English Pages 426 Year 2018

Report DMCA / Copyright


Polecaj historie

The Theme of the Plague in Italian Letters
 1433151529, 9781433151521

Table of contents :
Table of Contents
Prefatory Note: Yersinia pestis
The Plague of Athens
The Plague of Justinian
Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year; or Memorials of the Great Pestilence in London in 1665
1 The Italian Language
2 The Texts
3 The Dawning of a New Age
4 Milan 1630
5 Giuseppe Ripamonti (1573–1643)
6 Ludovico Settala and Alessandro Tadino
7 Father Felice Casati
8 Pietro Verri, Cesare Beccaria, and “Il Caffè”
9 Cesare Beccaria
10 Alessandro Manzoni: I promessi sposi
11 Alessandro Manzoni: Storia della Colonna Infame
12 Il Timor di Dio (The Fear of God)
Selected Bibliography

Citation preview

Peter Lang

Vincenzo Traversa

The theme of the plague in

The theme of the plague in Italian letters

Vincenzo Traversa, a United States citizen, was born and educated in Italy. He has taught Italian language and literature at UCLA, Stanford University, and the University of Kansas. He holds a doctorate in English language and literature from the University of Naples and a Ph.D. in Romance languages and literatures from UCLA. He is Professor Emeritus of Italian and Humanities at California State University, East Bay, where he served as chairman of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures for thirteen years. His works include Parola e Pensiero; Idioma in Prospettiva; Frequency Dictionary of Italian Words (coauthor); Racconti di Alberto Moravia; Luigi Capuana: Critic and Novelist; The Laude in the Middle Ages (Peter Lang, 1994); Giovanni Boccaccio, Theseid of the Nuptials of Emilia (Teseida delle nozze di Emilia) (Peter Lang, 2002); Three Italian Epistolary Novels: Foscolo, De Meis, Piovene—Translations, Introductions, and Backgrounds (Peter Lang, 2005); and the complete translation into English of Natalino Sapegno’s Storia Letteraria del Trecento (A Literary History of the Fourteenth Century) (Peter Lang, 2016). The Italian government awarded him the Cross of Knight in the Order of Merit, and he was honored in the 2000 edition of Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers.

253 Vincenzo Traversa

Several poetic and prose compositions in early Italian literature contain references to the bubonic plague and other illnesses that were used in the language both literally and metaphorically. The first detailed description of a plague epidemic, however, was written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the introduction to The Decameron. It is a precise and dramatic view of the physical, social, and medical conditions of Florence during the epidemic of 1348. The Theme of the Plague in Italian Letters follows the subsequent developments, both in poetic and prose works, until the time of the plague of Milan of 1630. With the report of Giuseppe Ripamonti and other writers, the plague became not only a medical issue but also a topic involving the laws of the time as they appear in the trials of the presumed untori (spreaders of the disease). A combination of faith, fear, and superstition led the legal officials and the populace to imagine that the plague was a divine punishment and was deliberately spread by individuals of criminal nature. Arrests and trials involving interrogations and the use of merciless physical tortures (a legitimate procedure in Europe at that time) brought about a formidable reaction led by early humanitarians, such as Cesare Beccaria and Pietro Verri, who determined the eventual changes in the laws and legal procedures. The Plague of Milan of 1630 by Giuseppe Ripamonti, the treatise by L. A. Muratori Del Governo della Peste, 1720, and several interventions contributed to a series of radical changes that appeared in the works of Alessandro Manzoni, such as The Betrothed and The History of the Pillar of Infamy that are discussed in part or in full in this study.

Italian letters

Currents in Comparative Romance Languages and Literatures

The Theme of the Plague in Italian Letters

Currents in Comparative Romance Languages and Literatures Tamara Alvarez-Detrell and Michael G. Paulson General Editors Vol. 253

The Currents in Comparative Romance Languages and Literatures series is part of the Peter Lang Humanities list. Every volume is peer reviewed and meets the highest quality standards for content and production.


New York  Bern  Berlin Brussels  Vienna  Oxford  Warsaw

Vincenzo Traversa

The Theme of the Plague in Italian Letters


New York  Bern  Berlin Brussels  Vienna  Oxford  Warsaw

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Traversa, Vincenzo, author. Title: The theme of the plague in Italian letters / Vincenzo Traversa. Description: New York: Peter Lang, 2018. Series: Currents in comparative Romance languages and literatures; vol. 253 | ISSN 0893-5963 Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2018015018 | ISBN 978-1-4331-5152-1 (hardback: alk. paper) ISBN 978-1-4331-5153-8 (ebook pdf) | ISBN 978-1-4331-5154-5 (epub) ISBN 978-1-4331-5155-2 (mobi) Subjects: LCSH: Plague in literature. Diseases in literature. | Italian literature—History and criticism. Classification: LCC PQ4053.P53 T73 2018 | DDC 850.9/3561—dc23 LC record available at DOI 10.3726/b14047

Bibliographic information published by Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek. Die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the “Deutsche Nationalbibliografie”; detailed bibliographic data are available on the Internet at

© 2018 Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., New York 29 Broadway, 18th floor, New York, NY 10006 All rights reserved. Reprint or reproduction, even partially, in all forms such as microfilm, xerography, microfiche, microcard, and offset strictly prohibited.

To the fond memory of my parents, Francesco and Caterina Traversa

Table of Contents

Acknowledgementsix Prefatory Note: Yersinia pestisxi The Plague of Athens xv The Plague of Justinian xxi Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year; or Memorials of the Great Pestilence in London in 1665xxv Introduction1 Chapter One: The Italian Language 4 Chapter Two: The Texts 6 Chapter Three: The Dawning of a New Age 126 Chapter Four: Milan 1630 130 Chapter Five: Giuseppe Ripamonti (1573–1643) 137 Chapter Six: Ludovico Settala and Alessandro Tadino 169 Chapter Seven: Father Felice Casati 172 Chapter Eight: Pietro Verri, Cesare Beccaria, and “Il Caffè”195 Chapter Nine: Cesare Beccaria 226 Chapter Ten: Alessandro Manzoni: I promessi sposi249



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

Chapter Eleven: Alessandro Manzoni: Storia della Colonna Infame  Chapter Twelve: Il Timor di Dio (The Fear of God)

296 358

Selected Bibliography 365 Index369


I should like to express my gratitude to my wife, Gina, whose dedication to the present project made its completion possible. As always, the kind staff at Peter Lang Publishing deserve my sincere thanks for their assistance and diligence through the preparation and production of the present book.

Prefatory Note Yersinia pestis

In the issue of October 22, 2015 of the research journal Cell Press, a group of researchers, Simon Rasmussen, Morten Erik Allentoft, Kasper Nielsen, … Rasmus Nielsen, Kristian Kristiansen, and Eske Willerslev, announced an important result, namely that early divergent strains of Yersinia pestis [existed] in Eurasia 5,000 years ago. They indicated, in brief, that the plague causing bacteria Yersinia pestis1 infected humans in Bronze Age Eurasia, three millennia earlier than any historical records of plague, but only acquired the genetic changes making it a highly virulent, flee-borne bubonic strain 3,000 years ago. The highlights of the document read as follows: Yersinia pestis was common across Eurasia in the Bronze Age; the most recent common ancestor of all Yersinia pestis was 5,783 years ago; the ymt gene was acquired before 951 cal BC, giving rise to transmission via fleas and Bronze Age Yersinia pestis was not capable of causing bubonic plague.

It may be helpful, at this time, to cast a glance at some facts that could shed light on the topic that the present study will develop, that is, the times, the ways and the characteristics assumed by the description of the plague and other related topics in some works of Italian literature through a considerably long period of time ending with the major work of Alessandro Manzoni, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed).



the theme of the plague in italian le t ters

The plague causing bacteria, Yersinia pestis, as one can imagine, has a long history. In 1894, however, the Swiss doctor Alexandre John-Emile Yersin, during the Hong Kong epidemic, isolated the bacillus that had caused so many deaths through the ages in various parts of the world, and called it Pasteurella pestis to honor Louis Pasteur, the person who had initiated the study of infections in the modern sense. In the same year also the Japanese doctor Shibasaburo Kitasato, who had isolated the tetanus bacillus in 1889, obtained the same result as the Swiss doctor, but history remembers Yersin, also because the plague bacillus, rather than being called Pasteurella, was soon called Yersinia pestis as it is known today. Numerous sources of information concerning this subject are publicly available now and they indicate, among several other details, that there are two main forms of plague whose difference may be determined by analyzing the infected parts. In the case of the bubonic2 plague, human infection may occur through the bite of rats’ fleas, or the bites of the rats as well as other rodents. The type of fleas that may affect humans, as well as lice, less commonly, however, are conducive to transmission of the infection among humans. The disease emerges violently, after a period of incubation of two to twelve days. It causes high fever, severe headache, general weakness, nausea, sensitivity to light, sleep difficulties, vomit and delirium. Pustules, appear in the areas of the skin bitten by the insect, and the lymph nodes, especially in the area of the groins and armpits, become inflamed and swollen. (These are the bubboni, singular bubbone mentioned in some works of the Italian literature that are considered in this study.) In the most serious cases, the infection attacks the entire system, causing necrosis (localized death of living tissue) of the fingers and toes, as well as kidney complications and internal hemorrhages. These symptoms may precede death, otherwise, in the less serious cases, the fever disappears after about two weeks and the bubboni release pus and eventually disappear leaving a scar. The pulmonary3 plague, a much more serious kind of disease, attacks the lungs and may even be a complication from the bubonic type. It shows a considerable lowering of the body temperature, breathing difficulties, cough, a bluish coloring (circulatory and breathing difficulties) and extreme weakness. It may lead to death because of acute pulmonary edema. Particularly notable in this type of disease is the occurrence of serious neurological disorders. The pulmonary plague is transmissible even without the action of the fleas, namely by air by way of the coughing and sneezing of infectious individuals that may easily infect other persons. As we shall see further on, the people who lived in the past centuries had to struggle against this disease without really knowing what it was, what caused it, and which remedies could be used in order to control the seemingly unstoppable progress of the epidemic that caused such an enormous number of victims.

p r efatory n ot e  | xiii

As if an almost complete ignorance of the nature of the disease were not a sufficient drawback, other aspects and consequences of it occupied the minds of political and religious leaders and educated persons as well. Ignorance, superstition and fear played a large role in the suffering of the affected populations and contributed to the worsening of an already critical time. On the other hand, the epidemic brought out in some the best and noblest qualities known to mankind, as the documents that will be considered in this study will prove.

Notes 1. The Italian term indicating pestis is la peste. It is a feminine, singular noun. Consequently all grammatical references are feminine and singular, namely articles (definite and indefinite, la peste, una peste) and adjectives, la peste bubbonica. 2. bubbone (il bubbone, un bubbone. m.s.) An inflammatory swelling of a lymph gland especially in the groins (bubo). 3. polmone (il polmone, un polmone, m.s.) lung.

Bibliography Cipolla, C. M. Fighting the Plague in Seventeenth-Century Italy. Madison, 1981. Ewald, P. W. Evolution of Infectious Diseases. Oxford, 1996. ——. Plague Time: The New Germ Theory of Disease. New York, 2002. Gottfried, R. The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe. New York, 1983. Kohn, G. C. Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence from Ancient Times to the Present. New York, 2002. Langland, W. Piers the Ploughman. New York, 1986. Markel, H. When Germs Travel. New York, 2005. Moore, P. Pandemics: 50 of the World’s Worst Plagues and Infectious Diseases, New Holland, 2009. Orent, W. Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World’s Most Dangerous Disease. New York, London, 2004. Rasmussen, S., Allentoft, M. E., Nielsen, K., …, Nielsen, R., Kristiansen, K., and Willerslev, E. Early Divergent Strains of Yersinia pestis in Eurasia 5,000 Years Ago. Cell, 2015. Shah, S. Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond. New York, 2016. Slack, P. The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England. Oxford, 1985. Ziegler, P. The Black Death. London, 1997.

The Plague of Athens

History indicates that the earliest description of the epidemic generally known as the Plague of Athens was written by Thucydides in his Peloponnesian Wars. He was born probably about 460 b.c. and died about the year 400 b.c. Perhaps he participated in some events of the war. He contracted the plague but recovered. The plague epidemic is referred to as the Plague of Athens because it developed primarily in that city, but not only there, in the years 429–426 b.c. In Book II the historian wrote, They had not been many days in Attica before the plague first broke out among the Athenians. At the beginning the doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance … In the following summer the Peloponnesians and their allies … invaded Attica, again under the command of the Spartan king Anchidamus. … Taking up their positions, they set about the devastation of the country.

The author gives the later statement a primary importance because he was able to see what consequences followed the state of surprise even of those who should have manifested a sense of control of the situation. In addition, it should be remembered, that several later writers indicated repeatedly that pestilence often followed the devastation of the land that, in turn caused shortness or total disappearance of the necessary provisions and the ensuing famines, with population displacement and lack of crops. “They had not been many days in Attica before the plague first broke out among the Athenians.”1



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

Previously attacks of the plague had been reported from several other places in the vicinity of Lemnos and other localities, “but there was no agreement about the disease being so virulent anywhere else or causing so many deaths as it did in Athens.” The writer, at this point, makes a remark on the action of the doctors who, in his opinion, were “quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance in the treating methods.” But at that time in history, no effective method to cure the disease had yet been found and even the “mortality among the doctors was the highest of all, since they came more frequently in contact with the sick.” Thus, being all human intervention useless in a rather confused and disoriented situation, the minds of the people addressed themselves to the divine. But the author says: “Equally useless were prayers made in the temples, consultation of oracles and so forth, indeed in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things.” One witnesses this form of disenchantment, skepticism and sense of distress in other, later epidemics, among different people and different countries. Probably hypothesizing on popular beliefs, the narrator indicates the plague originated in Ethiopia, in Upper Egypt and spread from there into the rest of Egypt, Libya and much of the territory of Persia. In the city of Athens it appeared all of a sudden and the early cases were among the population of Piraeus, where there were no wells at that time so that it was supposed by the citizens that the Peloponnesians had poisoned the main reservoirs. Later, however, it appeared also in the upper city, and by this time the mortality rate was greatly increasing in size. Should the information about Ethiopia, upper Egypt as well as Libya be correct, one might suspect that the infection could have been brought to Piraeus, the port of Athens, by rats infesting the numerous ships that crossed the Mediterranean Sea from northern Africa to Greece. That year, as is generally admitted, was particularly free from all other kinds of plague in the end. In other cases, however, there seemed to be no reason for the attacks. People in perfect health suddenly began to have burning feelings in the head; their eyes became red and inflamed; inside their mouths there was bleeding from the throat and tongue and the breath became unnatural and unpleasant. The next symptoms were sneezing and hoarseness of voice, and before long the pain settled on the chest and was accompanied by coughing. Next the stomach was affected with ache and vomiting of every kind of bile that has been given a name by the medical profession, all this being accompanied by great pain and difficulty. In most cases there were attacks of ineffectual retching, producing violent spasms; this sometimes ended with this stage of the disease, but sometimes continued long afterwards. … The skin was rather reddish and livid, breaking out into small postules and ulcers. But inside there was a feeling of burning so that people could not bear the touch even of the lightest linen clothing, but wanted to be completely naked, and indeed most of all would have liked to plunge into cold water. …

t h e p l ag ue o f at h e n s  | xvii

In the period when the disease was at its height, the body showed surprising power of resistance to all the agony so that there was still some strength left in the seventh or eighth day which was the time when in most cases death came from the internal fever. But if people survived this critical period, then the disease descended to the bowels, producing violent ulcerations and uncontrollable diarrhea so that most of them died later as a result of the weakness caused by this. … It affected the genitals, the fingers and the toes, and many of those who recovered lost the use of these members; some too, went blind. There were some also who, when they first began to get better, suffered from a total loss of memory, not knowing who they were themselves and being unable to recognize their friends. … Words indeed fail one when one tries to give a general picture of this disease; and as far as the sufferings of individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure. Here in particular is a point where the plague showed itself to be something quite different from ordinary diseases: though there were many dead bodies lying about unburied, the birds and animals that eat human flesh either did not come near them or, if they did taste the flesh, died of it afterwards. Evidence for this may be found in the fact that there was a complete disappearance of all birds of prey: they were not to be seen either round the bodies or anywhere else. But dogs, being domestic animals, provided the best opportunity of observing this effect of the plague.

This description brings to mind the episode of the pigs in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. These, then were the general features of the disease, though I have omitted all kinds of peculiarities which occurred in various individual cases … Some died in neglect, some in spite of every possible care being taken of them. As for a recognized method of treatment it would be true to say that no such thing existed: what did good in some cases did harm in others.

As for the psychological conditions of the citizens affected by the epidemic, the description focuses on the despair into which people fell when they realized they had caught the plague: For they would immediately adopt an attitude of utter hopelessness, and, by giving in this way, would lose their power of resistance. Terrible too was the sight of people dying like sheep through having caught the disease as a result of nursing others. This indeed caused more deaths than anything else. For when people were afraid to visit the sick, then they died without anyone to look after them; indeed, there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of any attention. When, on the other hand, they did visit the sick, they lost their own lives and this was particularly true of those who made it a point of honor to act properly.

Those who had had the plague were the persons who could understand and console the sick and their despair. They knew what the victims were going through



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

and, at the same time, were aware of being immune and of running no risk since a second infection never ended in death. Despair and neglect brought about also a desire to cast off social restraints because people, not knowing what would happen to them next, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law. The city of Athens, as a consequence, saw the beginning of a state of unprecedented lawlessness: people indulged in inappropriate acts, spent money immoderately, forgot any restraint. This then was the calamity that fell upon Athens and the times were hard indeed, with men dying inside the city and the land outside being laid waste. At this time of distress people naturally recalled old oracles, and among them was a verse that the old men claimed had been delivered in the past and which said: War with the Dorian comes, and a death will come at the same time.

What was actually happening seemed to fit in well with the words of this oracle; certainly the plague broke out directly after the Peloponnesian invasion, and never affected the Peloponnese at all; or not seriously; its full force was felt at Athens, and, after Athens, in the most densely populated of the other towns. In A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great, by B. Bury and Russell L. Meiggs, we read that the same historian who has given of this pestilence a vivid description unequalled by the narrators of similar scourges, Procopius, Boccaccio, Defoe declares that the plague originated in Ethiopia, spread through Egypt over the Persian empire, and then reached the Aegean. But it is remarkable that a plague raged at the same time in the still obscure city of central Italy which was afterwards to become the mistress of Greece. It has been pressed with some plausibility that the infection that reached both Athens and Rome had travelled along the trade route from Carthage. The Peloponnese almost entirely escaped. In Athens the havoc of the pestilence permanently reduced the population. The total number of Athenian citizens (of both sexes and ages) was about 140,000 in the first quarter of the fifth century. Prosperity had raised it to 172,000 by the beginning of the war, but the plague brought it down below the old level which it never reached again.

Note 1. A situation that will be recurring in other plague epidemics as well as in the case of the pestilence of Milan of 1630.

t h e p l ag ue o f at h e n s  | xix

Bibliography Bury, J. B., Meiggs, R. L. A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great. St. Martin’s Press, 1975. Drury, J. V. History of the Greeks. Napoli, 1859. Lioy, D. History of the Greeks (Tr.). Napoli, 1859, Milano, 1967. Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Penguin, 1954.

The Plague of Justinian

The Plague of Justinian was described by the historian Procopius: it occurred in a.d. 541–542. Born in Caesarea, Procopius studied rhetoric, philosophy and law at Gaza. Later he went to Constantinople (Byzantium). In 527, when general Belisarius became the commander of the troops in Dara against the Persians, Procopius became the adviser of the renowned general. In that capacity he took part in the Iberic campaign, 526–532 against the Visigoths and in 533–534 against the Vandals. Procopius was again with Belisarius during the latter’s campaign against the Goths, 535–540. Returning to Constantinople with the general he was an eyewitness of the plague epidemic that struck the capital in a.d. 542. In 551 he wrote History of the Wars, in seven books where he dealt with the wars that he witnessed. Upon the Emperor’s request, he wrote also On the Edifices, a glorification of the Emperor’s monumental public works. He wrote also a Secret History, a rather critical document on Emperor Justinian and Theodora that became known several centuries after the author’s death. In Book II, xxii of the History of the Wars, the author begins the description of the epidemic indicating the power of the disease and the enormous number of victims, “a pestilence … by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.” This remark is followed by a rather sharp criticism about the official statements emanating from the authorities:



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

Now in the cases of all other scourges sent from heaven some explanation of a cause might be given by daring men, such as the many theories propounded by those who are clever in these matters: for they love to conjure up causes which are absolutely incomprehensible to men and to fabricate outlandish theories of natural philosophy, knowing well that they are saying nothing sound, but considering it sufficient for them, if they completely deceive by their argument some of those whom they meet and persuade them to their view.

However, for this particular epidemic, the author remarks that “it is quite impossible either to express in words or to conceive in thought any explanation, except indeed to refer it to God.” The reasons for the peculiarity of this case were multiple and the historian declares them point by point. It did not come in a part of the world nor upon certain men, nor did it confine itself to any season of the year, but it did embrace the entire world and blighted the lives of all men, nor did it confine itself to any season of the year, but it did embrace the entire world and slighted the lives of all men though differing from one another in the most marked degree respecting neither sex nor age.

Usually differences in age, social standing, attitude and character were determining factors in several occurrences, but in this case “the differences availed naught. Now let each one express his own judgement … both sophist and astrologer, but as for me, I shall proceed to tell where this disease originated and the manner in which it destroyed men.” The places that the epidemic affected were Egypt, Palestine, and from there “it spread over the whole world, always moving forward and travelling at times favorable to it.” It invested places here and there “fearing lest some corner of the earth might escape it.” “It affected men in different fashions, came and went as it pleased, it disappeared and then returned in every possible location and manner sparing no one.” Eventually it reached Byzantium “in the middle of spring” where it happened that I was staying at that time. At this point people believed to see supernatural beings in human guise of every description … and those who encountered them thought that they were struck by the man they had met in this or that part … and immediately … they were seized … by the disease. At first those who met these creatures tried to turn them aside by uttering the holiest of names and exorcising them in other ways as well as each could, but they accomplished absolutely nothing, for even in the sanctuaries where the most of them fled for refuge they were dying instantly. But later on they were unwilling even to give heed to their friends when they called to them, and they shut themselves up in their rooms and pretended that they did not hear, although their doors were being beaten down, fearing obviously that he who was calling was one of those demons.

th e p l ag ue o f j u s t i n ia n  | xxiii

Other persons saw a vision in a dream and seemed to suffer the very same thing at the hand of the creature who stood over them or else to hear a voice foretelling to them that they were written down in the number of those who were to die.

As in the case of other descriptions, “the symptoms were generally the same: bubonic swelling developed, not only in the area of the groins (boubon) but also inside the armpits and in some cases also behind the ears and at different points on the thighs.” But symptoms presented also some differences that could not be explained and this “diversity” perplexed the writer who could not explain them for “they might have followed the wish of Him who brought the disease into the world.” Death came in some cases immediately. In others after many days, and with some the body broke out with black pustules about as large as a lentil and these did not survive even one day but all succumbed immediately … However, I am able to declare this, that the most illustrious physicians predicted that many would die, who unexpectedly escaped entirely from suffering shortly afterwards, and that they declared that many would be saved, who were destined to be carried off almost immediately. So it was that in this disease there was no cause, which came within the province of human reasoning, for in all cases the issue tended to be something unaccountable. For example, while some were helped by bathing others were harmed in no less degree. And of those who received no care many died but others, contrary to reason, were saved … suffering came without warning and recovery was due to no external cause.

The disease ran a course of four months of which three showed the greatest virulence. They counted at first five thousand victims each day growing later to ten thousand or even more. Confronted with this situation confusion and disorder everywhere became complete. Slaves were abandoned and men who in former times were very prosperous were deprived of the service of their domestics … For this reason it came about that some of the notable men of the city because of the universal destitution remained unburied for many days.

In spite of the emperor’s provisions, there came about a lack of space for common burial and when all the available tombs were filled they dug up all the places about the city one after the other; but later on those who were making those trenches, no longer able to keep up with the number of the dying, mounted the towers of the fortifications in Sycae (Galata) and tearing off the roofs threw the bodies in there in complete disorder and they piled them up just as each one



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

happened to fall, and filled practically all the towers with corpses and then covered them again with their roofs. As a result of this an evil stench pervaded the city and distressed the inhabitants still more, and especially whenever the wind blew fresh from the quarter.

The fear of death and the general state of disorientation led those who in times past used to take delight in devoting themselves to pursuits both shameful and base, shook off the unrighteousness of their daily lives and practiced the duties of religion with diligence, not so much because they had learned wisdom … or because they had become all of a sudden lovers of virtue … but then all, as was natural, learned respectability, for a season, for sheer necessity. But as soon as they recovered and felt safe, they turned sharply about and reverted once more to their baseness of heart, and now, more than before. … For one could insist emphatically, without falsehood, that this disease, whether by chance or by some providence, chose out with exactitude the worst men and let them go free. But these things were displayed to the world in later times.

Procopius remarks also that during that time it was unusual to encounter a man in the streets of Byzantium because those who had overcome their illness were sitting in their houses, either attending the sick or mourning the dead. And if one did succeed in meeting a man going out, he was carrying one of the dead. Work of every description ceased and all the trades were abandoned by the artisans, and all other work as well, such as each had in hand. Indeed, in a city which was simply abounding in all good things starvation almost absolute was running riot.

The historian concludes the description of that dismal event by remarking that to put all in a word, it was not possible to see a single man in Byzantium clad in the chlamis (official dress) and especially when the emperor became ill (for he too had a swelling of the groin), but in a city which had dominion over the whole Roman Empire every man was wearing clothes befitting private station and remaining quietly at home. Such was the course of the pestilence in the Roman Empire at large as well as in Byzantium. And it fell also upon the land of the Persians and visited all the other barbarians besides.

Bibliography Procopius. History of the Wars. London, 1914. ——. Secret History. Cambridge, London, 1935. Rosen, W. Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe.Viking, New York, 2007.

Daniel Defoe A Journal of the Plague Year; or Memorials of the Great Pestilence in London in 1665

Born in London in 1660, of lower middle class, he received a simple education, travelled in Europe, took up commerce, became bankrupt and was a prolific writer in several subjects. His various activities put him in the pillory in 1703 and in prison on several occasions. He died in 1731 leaving behind several hundred writings and many whose authorship is doubtful. He composed The True-Born Englishman; in journalism The Review and many general writings: A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal; A Journal of the Plague Year; in travels: A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain; The Complete English Tradesman; The Complete English Gentleman. In the field of the novel: Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Captain Singleton, Moll Flanders and Lady Roxana. The A Journal of the Plague Year; or Memorials of the Great Pestilence in London, in 1665, was probably completed in 1722 “to take advantage of the strong excitement which the Plague of Marseilles had raised in the public mind and which was mingled with fearful apprehensions lest the infection should again be introduced into Great Britain,” wrote E. W. Briley in 1835. He states also that in almost every age, and among even the most idolatrous nations, Pestilence has been regarded as an especial instrument of Divine anger; and it is probably with reference to the deep interest which this belief excites in the generality of mankind, that both historians and poets have so often vied with each other in their gloomy details of its ravages.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Neither war with all its pomp, nor the earthquake, nor the tempest in its overwhelming fury, has been more distinctly personified that the Pestilence that walketh in darkness. It is with the description of a Plague that Homer begins his sublime poem, and the noblest of Grecian tragedies (Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles) is commenced in a similar manner; and in both cases, contagion is the immediate messenger of Heavenly wrath.

The main printed sources of Defoe’s Memoirs was the collection of all the Bills of Mortality for 1665 published under the title London’s Dreadful Visitation; the Loimologia of Dr. Hodges, and God’s Terrible Voice in the City, by the Rev. Thomas Vincent, which appeared in 1667. In the months of August and September, the contagion changed its former slow and languid pace, and having as it were, got master of all, made a most terrible slaughter so that three, four or five thousand died in a week and once eight thousand: who can express the calamities of such times? The whole British nation wept for the miseries of her metropolis. In some houses carcasses lay waiting for burial, and in others persons in their last agonies in one room might be heard dying groans, in another the ravings of a delirium, and not far off, relations and friends bewailing both their loss, and the dismal prospect of their own sudden departure; death was the sure midwife to all children and infants passed immediately from the womb to the grave; who would not burst with grief to see the stock for a future generation hang upon the breasts of a dead mother? Or the marriage bed changed the first night into a sepulchre, and the unhappy pair meet with death in their first embraces?

Such are the impressions made on a reader by the author’s narration, which is a remarkable example of directness and precision. Defoe, in fact, begins his Memoirs as follows: It was about the beginning of September 1664, that I, among the rest of my Neighbours heard in ordinary Discourse, that the Plague was return’d again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam, in the year 1663, whither they said it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant among some Goods which were brought home by their Turkey Fleet; others said it was brought from Candia, others from Cyprus. It matter’d not from whence it come; but all agreed it was come into Holland again.

After a review of the initial Bill of Mortality, of some of London’s parishes indicating an increase in the number of deaths, Defoe recounts the early mass departure of the citizens of the upper class going to the countryside in order to avoid the contagion.

da n i e l d e f o e  | xxvii

This was a very terrible and melancholy thing to see, and as it was a Sight I cou’d not but look on from Morning to Night, for indeed there was nothing else of Moment to be seen, it filled me with very serious Thoughts of the Misery that was coming upon the City, and the unhappy Condition of those who would be left in it.

When the time comes for him to decide whether to stay in London or go to the country, he decides to stay and tend after his affairs, trusting that heaven would protect him from the infection. Yet, it was a very ill Time to be sick in, for if any one complain’d, it was immediately said he had the Plague; and tho’ I had indeed no Symptoms of that Distemper, yet being very ill both in my Head and in my Stomach, I was not without Apprehension, that I really was infected; but in about three days I grew better, the third Night I rested well, sweated a little, and was much refresh’d; the Apprehension of its being the Infection went also quite away with my illness and I went about my Business as usual.

The aspect of the city was dismal, London might be said to be all in Tears; the Mourners did not go about the Streets indeed, for no Body put on black or made a formal Dress of Mourning for their dearest Friends, but the voice of Mourning was truly heard in the Streets; the Shrieks of Women and Children at the Windows, and Doors of their Houses where their dearest Relations were, perhaps dying, or just dead where so frequent to be heard as we passed the Streets that it was enough to pierce the stoutest Heart in the World, to hear them.

Also during this epidemic, fear made people imagine or “see” mysterious things that could not be explained. The Fears of the People were young, they were increas’d strangely by several odd Accidents, which put altogether it was really a wonder the whole Body of the People did not rise as one Man, and abandon their Dwellings, leaving the Place as a Space of Ground designed by Heaven of an Akeldama doom’d to be destroy’d from the Face of the Earth; and that all that could be found in it would perish with it.

In the first place a blazing star, or comet appeared for many months before the plague; it was bright and sparkling, swift and furious, terrible and frightful as was the Plague. Some people even “heard it,” for it made a “rushing, mighty Noise, fiery and terrible.” The writer admits of having seen it and he was “apt to look upon it” as the Forerunner and Warning of God’s judgement. More than in normal times people were more addicted to Prophesies and Astrological Conjunctions, Dreams and Old Wives Tales, than ever they were before or since. Books of Predictions and



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Prognostications were circulated in large numbers by people who got money by selling them. One Mischief always introduces another: these Terrors and Apprehensions of the People, led them into a Thousand weak, foolish and wicked Things, which they wanted not a Sort of People really wicked, to encourage them to; and this was running about to Fortune tellers, Cunning-men, and Astrologers to have their Fortunes told them, their Nativities calculated, and the like;

and this nonsense made London swarm with a “wicked Generation of Pretenders to Magick, to the Black Arts as they called it … to a Thousand worse Dealings with the Devil.” The city government issued its Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, concerning the infection of the Plague, 1665. The act was made for the charitable relief and ordering of Persons infected with the Plague, whereby Authority was given to Justices of the Peace, Mayors, Bayliffs and other head Officers to appoint within their several limits, Examiners, Searchers, Watchmen, Keepers and Buriers for the Persons and Places infected, and to minister unto them Oaths for the Performance of their Offices. And the same statute did also authorize the giving of other Directions, as unto them for the present Necessity should seem good in their Discretions. It is now upon special Consideration, thought very expedient for preventing and avoiding of Infection of Sickness (if it shall so please Almighty God) that these Officers following be appointed and these Orders hereafter duly observed. The Orders listed the following: Examiners to be appointed in every Parish. The Examiners Office, Watchmen, Searchers (That these be a special care to appoint Women-Searchers in every Parish, such as are of honest Reputation and of the best Sort as can be got in this kind). Chirurgeons, Nurse-keepers. There were also orders concerning infected Houses and Persons sick of the Plague. There was going to be Notice to be given of the Sickness, Sequestration of the Sick, Airing the Stuff, Shutting up of the House. None to be removed out of infected Houses, … Every visited House to be marked. Every visited House to be watched. Inmates. Hackney Coaches. As for the maintenance of the Places and care of the persons the orders prescribed The Streets to be kept clean, That Rakers take it from out the Houses, Laystalls to be made far off from the City, care to be had of unwholesome Fish or Flesh, and of musty Corn, as well as other concerning loose Persons and idle Assembly (Beggers, Plays, Feasting Prohibited, Tipling-Houses).

There began to be, as it may be expected, several escapes from infected houses, watchmen’s mistreating the victims, as well as other abuses of which Defoe says could have given “great many Stories,” diverting enough, which in the long course of that dismal year I met with, that is heard of, and which are very certain to be true, or very near the Truth; that is to say, true in the General, for no Man could at such a time, learn all

da n i e l d e f o e  | xxix

the Particulars: there was likewise Violence used with the Watchmen, as was reported in abundance of Places; and I believe that from the Beginning of the Visitation to the End, there was not less than eighteen or twenty of them killed or wounded as to be taken up for Dead, which was suppos’d to be done by the People in the infected Houses which were shut up, and where they attempted to come out, and were oppos’d.

Reactions of the population were often violent. Not far from the same Place, they blowed up a Watchman with Gun-powder, and burnt the poor Fellow dreadfully, and while he made hidious Crys and no Body would venture to come near to help him; the whole Family that were able to stir, got out of the Windows one Story high; two that were left sick calling out for Help; Care was taken to give them nurses to look after them, but the Persons fled were never found till after the Plague was abated they turn’d but as nothing cou’d be prov’d, so nothing would be done to them. Some ill persons escaping with swords and pistols in their hands threatened the Guards while they were running away. They mingled with other People and spread the disease even more. … Others did thus break out, spread the infection farther by their wandring about with the Distemper upon them, in their desperate Circumstances, than they would otherwise have done; for whoever considers all the Particulars in such Cases must acknowledge; and we cannot doubt but the severity of those Confinements, made many People desperate; and made them run out of their Houses at all Hazards and with the Plague visibly upon them, not knowing either whither to go, or what to do, or indeed what they did; and many that did so were driven to Exigencies and Extremities, and perish’d in the Street or Fields for meer Want, or drop’d down by the raging violence of the Fever upon them: Others wondred into the Country and went forward any way as their Desperation guided them not knowing whether they went or would go, till faint and tir’d, and not getting any Relief; the Houses and Villages on the Road, refusing to admit them to lodge, whether infected or no; they have perish’d by the Road Side, or gotten into Barns and dy’d there, none daring to come to them, or relieve them, tho’ perhaps not infected, for no Body would believe them.

When the number of dead bodies grew very large, it became necessary to bury them in common pits. These were dug up in several places of the city. One in particular was described by Defoe as follows: I say they had dug several Pits in another Ground, when the Distemper began to spread in our Parish, and especially when the Dead-Carts began to go about, which, was not in our Parish, till the beginning of August. Into these Pits they had put perhaps 50 or 60 Bodies each, then they made larger Holes wherein they buried all the Cart brought in a Week which by the middle to the end of August came to, from 200 to 400 a Week; and they could not well dig them larger, because of the Order of the Magistrates, confining them to leave no Bodies within six Foot of the surface and the



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

Water coming on, at about 17 to 18 Foot, they could not well, I say, put more in one Pit; but now at the Beginning of September the plague raging in a dreadful Manner and the Number of Burials in our Parish increasing to more than was ever buried in any Parish about London of no larger Extent, they ordered this dreadful Gulph to be dug; for such it was rather than a Pit. They had supposed this Pit would have supply’d them for a Month or more, when they dug it, and some blam’d the Church-Wardens for suffering such a frightful Thing, telling them they were making Preparations to bury the whole Parish and the like; but Time made it appear, the Church Wardens knew the condition of the Parish better than they did; for the Pit being finished the 4th of September, I think they began to bury in it the 6th, and by the 20th, which was just two Weeks they had thrown into it in 1114 bodies, when they were obliged to fill it up, the Bodies being then come to lie within six Foot of the Surface; I doubt not but there may be some antient Person alive in the Parish, who can justify the Fact of this, and are able to shew even in what Part of the Church-Yard the Pit lay, better than I can; the Mark of it also was many Years be seen in the Church-Yard on the Surface lying in Length, Parallel with the Passage which goes by the West Wall of the Church-Yard, out of Houndsditch, and turns East again into White-Chapel, coming out the three Nuns Inn.

It was not unusual, for some victims of the disease, to abandon themselves to desperate suicidal violence. Some, in fact, would wrap themselves in blankets or rugs and throw themselves in the burial pits and die on the piles of bodies already there. This may serve a little to describe the dreadful Condition of that Day, tho’ it is impossible to say any Thing that is able to give a true Idea of it to those who did not see it, other than this; that it was indeed very, very, very dreadful, and such that no tongue can express.

One of the main casualties of the epidemic was the social order and the behavior of the people, both healthy and infected. It is indeed to be observed that the Women were in all this Calamity, the most rash, fearless and desperate Creatures; and as there were vast Numbers that went about as Nurses, to tend those who were sick, they committed a great many Thieveries in the Houses where they were employed; and some of them were publicly whipt for it, when perhaps, they ought rather to have been hanged for Examples; for Numbers of Houses were robbed on these Occasions, till at length, the Parish Officers were sent to recommend Nurses to the Sick and always took an Account who it was they sent so as that they might call them to account, if the House had been abused where they were placed.

da n i e l d e f o e  | xxxi

The disposal of the dead bodies by carts had become so very odious and dangerous, that it was complain’d of, that the Bearers did not take Care to clear such Houses, where all the Inhabitants were dead; but that sometimes the Bodies lay several Days unburied, till the neighbouring Families were offended with the Stench, and consequently infect’d; and this neglect of the Officers was such, that the Church Wardens and Constables were summon’d to look after it; and even the Justices of the Hamlets, were oblig’d to venture their Lives among them, to quicken and encourage them; for innumerable of the Bearers dy’d of the Distemper, infected by the Bodies they were oblig’d to come so near; and had it not been that the Number of poor People who wanted Employment, and wanted Bread was so great, that Necessity drove them to undertake any Thing, and venture any Thing they would never have found People to be employ’d; and then the Bodies of the dead would have lain above Ground, and have perished and rotted in a dreadful manner.

About ten thousand persons or more tried to remain isolated and avoid the contagion, by living on board the ships anchored away from the city on purpose. As the illness spread, more and more persons, entire families in fact, were able to be accommodated on several ships that then sailed towards the northern ports of the coast. This measure, however, was not absolutely safe, several of the persons that had boarded the ships died of the plague and their bodies, at times, were thrown in the water. Among the several measures taken to prevent the spreading of the disease, people were ordered to kill all cats and dogs that might have carried infected parasites. It was an extensive enterprise considering the large number of animals living with the families in London. They destroyed about forty thousand dogs and five times as many cats since few houses had no domestic animals. All possible measures were also taken to destroy mice and rats, especially the latter. A “prodigious” number of them was also eliminated. Of the numerous persons that sought to escape the danger, quite a number went to the countryside and, unable to obtain any lodgings because of the fear of the local inhabitants, decided to build little shacks or even tents for their cover, or tried to settle “like Hermits” in holes or caves or any place they could find. On several occasions, those little huts were found empty and the people of the country imagined the citizens had died of the plague in them and would not go near them even to inspect. It was noticed that several of those persons who lived on board the ships would often go ashore and visit neighbouring towns to collect provisions and it was noticeable that very few of them, if at all, contracted the disease. The inhabitants of the towns adjacent to London were much blamed for cruelty to the poor people that ran from the contagion, but “I cannot but say also that



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

where there was no opportunity for charitable deeds and assistance to the unfortunate people, the country persons were willing to help and relieve them in spite of all dangers,” says the writer. It is true that had some houses not been closed because of the contagion, innumerable scenes of despair and fear would have been seen in the streets. Defoe heard of one infected person who running out of his Bed in his Shirt in the anguish and agony of his swellings of which he had three upon him, ran downstairs and into the street directly to the Thames and as he was a good swimmer plunged into the river, crossed it and then swam back, went upstairs in his house and to bed again. The result of this action was that he appeared cured of the plague because the swellings that were under his armpits and in his groins broke up and the cold of the water abated the fever in his blood and the violent motion of his arms and legs stretched the parts where his swellings were causing them to burst.

The acute crisis that affected such a large number of persons and their belief that probably there was no decision they could take to be safe from danger, drove several individuals to relax their attention and behavior so that a large number of them crowded in public places, especially in the churches, and did not inquire any longer why there were bad odors in the air and other observations. They went around without the least caution as if their lives were “of no consequence,” they showed an unusual zeal for the performing of their religious duties, and it seemed as if they were convinced that “only a few more days were left for them to exist.” The Earnestness and Affection they showed in their Attention to what they heard in Church, made it manifest what a Value People would all put upon the Worship of God, if they thought every day they attended at the Church that it would be their Last.

An appropriate observation of the memorialist considers the presence of persons who have already the disease but do not yet show its symptoms. They are unaware of being infected and this causes others to become victims in turn … they would go about till they had the very tokens come out upon them, and yet not know it, and would die instantly; other times they would go about till they had the very tokens come out upon them and would die in an hour or two after they came Home, but be well as long as they were Abroad: these were the dangerous people, these were the People of whom the well People ought to have been afraid, but then, on the other side it was impossible to know them. And this is the Reason why it is impossible in a Visitation to prevent the spreading of the Plague by the utmost human vigilance, that it is impossible to know the

da n i e l d e f o e  | xxxiii

infected People. Contact with clothes, the body of a victim or the vicinity of the breath were certain ways to run that risk.

Also the manner the plague reached London from Holland proves what was said above, noted Defoe. It happened after the arrival of some goods from the Levant (the eastern part of the Mediterranean). Once they reached a House in Long Acre, where those goods were unloaded and then moved to another House, the infection began to spread also from person to person until four individuals suddenly died. Coincidentally, a woman living in the first House visited some neighbours and that was sufficient to spread the illness to more persons. It then became a general belief that had anyone simply spoken to an infected person, he would be infected of the plague in a “fatal Manner.” It became certain, for some Doctors, that the plague may “lye” dormant in the “Spirits in the Blood Vessels” a very considerable time. But there was uncertainty about this theory and the diarist concludes by saying that the best Physick against the Plague is to run away from it. The Plague, like a great Fire, if a few Houses only are contiguous where it happens can only burn a few Houses; or if it begins in a single, or as we call it loan House can only burn that loan House where it begins; but if it begins in a close built Town or City, and gets a Head, there its Fury increases, it rages over the whole Place, and consumes all it can reach.

The Journal offers a rather detailed view of the consequences of the infection on the State of Trade both with respect to Foreign as well as House Trade. As for the Foreign Trade, the presence of the epidemic in England caused a state of alert in France, Holland, Spain and Italy that prohibited British ships to dock in their ports. Our merchants accordingly were at a full Stop, their Ships would go no where, that is to say to no place abroad; their Manufactures and Merchandise, that is to say, of our Growth, would not be touch’d abroad; they were as much afraid of our Goods as they were of our People; and indeed they had reason, … for Ships which were in the River loading for Italy, that is for Leghorn and Naples, being denied Products, as they call it, went on to Turkey and were freely admitted to unload their Cargo.

There were inconveniences also with Spain and Portugal. Rumor and fear going from person to person and from country to country tended to magnify the details of the epidemic of England. These “extravagant Reports,” says Defoe, were very prejudicial to our Trade as well as unjust and injurious in themselves for it was a long time after the Plague was quite over, before our Trade could recover it self in those parts of the World, and the Flemings and Dutch, but especially the last made



the theme of the plague in italian le t t e r s

very great Advantages of it having all the Market to themselves and even buying our Manufactures in the several parts of England where the plague was not, and carrying them to Holland and Flanders and from thence transporting them to Spain and Italy as if they had been of their own making.

As if the plague epidemic had not brought sufficient grief and loss to the city of London, an “infinite Quantity of Household Stuff … besides whole Warehouses filled with Merchandize and Manufacturies, such as come from all Parts of England, were consumed in the Fire of London the next year after this terrible Visitation.” When the people knew that the death rate had begun to diminish, a sudden wave of optimism spread around the city. The strict measures of disease control were relaxed, several individuals believed that the worst of the contagion had passed as well as the sources of the epidemic and many who had left the city in a hurry to save their lives returned in large numbers. The consequence of this was that the Bills increased again during the first week in November and it was rumored that thousands fell sick within a few days. When the winter weather began to set in, however, with cold and clear air and some sharp frost the health of the city began to return. And wonderful it was to see how populous it was again all of a sudden, so that a stranger could not miss the Numbers that were lost; few or no empty Houses were to be seen, or if there were some, there was not want of Tenants for them.

Some individuals, however, believed that the morals of the population had declined and people who had been able to escape from death were “more wicked and more stupid, more bold and hardened in their vices and immoralities than they were before.” But the writer prefers to leave that part to our imagination because it would take up a History of no small Length, to give a Particular of all the Gradations, by which the Course of Things in this City came to be restor’d again and to run in their own Channel as they did before.

Thus, one may consider the following as a conclusion of this Journal, revealing in brief much of what went on in the minds of the best persons who were lucky to have survived: Nor was this by any new Medicine found out, or new Method of Cure discovered, or by any Experience in the Operation, while the Physicians or Surgeons had attain’d to; but it was evidently from the secret invisible Hand of him, that had at first sent this Disease as a Judgement upon us; and let the Atheistic part of Mankind call my Saying this what they please, it is no Enthusiasm; it was acknowledg’d at that time by all

da n i e l d e f o e  | xxxv

Mankind; the Disease was enervated and its Malignity spent, and let it proceed from whencesoever, it will, let the Philosophers search for reason in Nature to account for it, and labour as much as they will to lessen the Debt they owe to their Maker; these Physicians who had the least share of Religion in them, were oblig’d to acknowledge that it was all supernatural, that it was extraordinary and that no account could be given of it!1

Note 1. The idea of a supernatural influence remained in people’s minds in several European countries long after the times described in this study.

Bibliography Defoe, D. A Journal of the Plague Year or Memorials of the Great Pestilence in London in 1665. London. MDCCCXXXV. ——. A Journal of the Plague Year. London, 2003.


The Italian term for plague is a feminine singular noun: la peste. The Dizionario Etimologico Italiano by Carlo Battisti and Giovanni Alessio (Firenze, G. Barbera Editore, 1968) has the following entry: peste f. (fourteenth century resumed in the fifteenth century) -ella (Sassetti), -icciuola (Magalotti); pestilenza; figur. (fifteenth century, Poliziano;) year 1618, (Buonarroti,) fetore (stench); sifilide, lue (syphilis); Latin pestis, (destruction or manner of destruction, death, scourge, epidemic). It indicates also peste gialla (yellow plague), med. infectious disease of the oriental countries. The purpose of the present study is to indicate the ways that this term and related concepts followed in becoming an integral part of the Italian linguistic world from some early documents to the nineteenth century, when the plague became, in a certain sense, a character in one of the best known novels of Italian literature, the masterpiece written by Alessandro Manzoni by the title of I promessi sposi. As it often happens in offering a selection, also in the present case a certain amount of arbitrariness may have occurred, in the opinion of some readers. It would have been a gigantic effort to attempt to include all or almost all the examples of the usage of the term in question available in the documents from the Middle Ages to Manzoni’s times. The authors and their works that are included in the present document, however, do offer a broad view of the usage in its variants,



the theme of the plague in italian le t ters

literal and metaphorical as well as the evolution of the term through various kinds of literary works and trends. World literature deals extensively with the central topic of this work since catastrophic epidemics have affected so many countries at all social levels that the word plague is by now a high-frequency term not only in medical documents but in the geographical, social and technical areas as well. It is relevant also to follow the development of the concept and origins of such a widespread phenomenon and the opinions and reactions that writers and historians had of its origins in different parts of the world at different times. For some civilizations it represented an inexplicable occurrence, a circumstance that had no clear, logical characteristics. For other cultures, it had a moral origin, it was the manifestation of the wrath of some deity that had been offended or challenged by the malevolent behavior of the human race, often prone to disobey and disrespect the divine. As a consequence, religious organizations castigated vehemently in several ways the presumed culprits not only with public scoldings but with condemnation that inflamed the minds and drove the members of the religious and legal classes to initiate punishing investigations that often culminated with the torturing and death of countless innocent people. The suspicions, the charges, the trials and the sentencing of a large number of presumed perpetrators of criminal spreading of the disease had to represent, of necessity, a considerable part of this study. It offers a realistic and unfortunately painful portrayal of ignorance, fear, superstition and cruelty as well as the unimaginable sufferings inflicted upon a large number of innocent individuals at the hands of the various authorities in whose hands rested the faith and the law. The plague epidemics, in addition, brought about a widespread disorder and confusion in the social structure. Immorality, criminality and the undoing of social groups took place on several occasions and caused, in turn, turmoil and anger. Extensive depopulation of the country ensued as well as the disappearance of ancient families that had constituted the support of the regions for generations. In the small towns and in the country fields remained untilled and uncultivated while domestic animals were uncared or abandoned; and it was not unusual to see even the decline of those bonds that normally keep the members of an individual family together. Indifference, terror and despair prevailed. Thucydides, Boccaccio, Defoe, Manzoni as well as several others dealt with this phenomenon extensively as it will be seen, and portrayed the powerlessness of the authorities when confronted by the dire situation of entire peoples. While foreign invasions, military occupations and pillage kept occurring in entire regions, cities and towns declined and infections became more frequent

i n t r o d u c t i o n  | 3

also because of an almost complete lack of any practice of hygiene. This critical situation was taking place at a time of a widespread ignorance of the illness and superstition that drove people to commit desperate actions which did not help in confronting the emergency. As it can be well understood, many thought of a “castigo di Dio,” and believed they were witnessing the death of the human race.

chapter one

The Italian Language

How did an extraordinarily harmonious, precise and rich language like Italian come to life? The Italian language, as the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Rumanian and Ladin languages, derives from Latin. Already in some documents of the seventh and eighth centuries there appear names and syntactical forms that show transformed constructions typically vulgar (vernacular). From the next century, for example, we have a riddle referring to the art of writing: Se pareba boves, alba pratalia araba, albo versorio teneba, negro semen seminaba meaning as follows:

Se pareba boves alba pratalia araba albo versorio teneba negro semen seminaba

He drove ahead the oxen (the fingers) He ploughed white fields (the papers) He had a white plough (the quill) He sowed black seed (the ink)

As Natalino Sapegno suggests, one should not believe that the vernacular language came into being in the period of time of the early examples that are available at present, because the negative reaction toward the use of the new forms in the written documents must have initiated and lasted quite a long time earlier, hence, the term volgare itself that indicates, both “of the people” as well as “lowly” and not fit for the written form. Indeed, languages do not change in a few years but take

t h e i ta l i a n l a n g uag e  | 5

long periods of time to evolve into new forms. It is more realistic to believe that a language goes constantly through transformations as do institutions and customs as well as tendencies and ideals. Thus the evolution of literary Latin is amply documented in the works of writers from the time of Caesar to those of the Middle Ages who in spite of the inaccuracies and the neologisms that appear in their writings when compared with those of Cicero, Livy or Virgil and Horace, still remain within the area of that tradition as long as the time of the Italian humanists of the Renaissance. Much scarcer are instead the documents of the “spoken” Latin. Yet several indications supplied by inscriptions and ancient glossaries as well as the careful deductions of the philologists allow us to reconstruct, at least in part, the fundamental lines and subsequent transformations in the areas of phonetics, morphology and lexicon. One should also note that as the use of the “vulgar” Latin spread with the Roman civilization over all the area of Western Europe, while it “silenced” the original languages of the conquered peoples, it had certainly to accept the inclusion of peculiar forms of their pronunciation and absorb terms and uses of the local languages thus including some external elements in its structure. Around a.d. 400, St. Jerome could observe that “the very Latin language changes every day with the passing of time and according to different places.” These “transformations” were slow, rare and almost imperceptible as long as the empire functioned effectively and the constant use of the official Latin language remained a common factor. But from the early breaking up of the empire in the fifth century its structure weakened along with the weakening of the relationship with the various parts of the empire itself. The Neo-Latin or Romance languages are numerous and they vary not only from nation to nation but even within individual regions of a given nation. There may be variants even among the districts of a single city. All vernacular languages, at first, have the characteristics of the spoken forms, but, later on, they slowly enter into the written tradition as counterparts of Latin that remains the instrument of the educated people, and eventually also the vernacular languages become parts of the cultured world. With time it may happen that one of these vernaculars becomes officially refined to constitute a national literary instrument, as in the case of the Tuscan (Florentine) language in Italy.

chapter two

The Texts

The relevant, selected words are given in the following order: a. English translation b. Original Italian form c. Current Italian form

Guido Faba: Parlamenti ed Epistole—De Quadragesima ad Carnisprivium Guido Faba from Bologna, thirteenth century. “We Lent, mother of honesty and moderation do not greet you, Carnival, ravenous wolf, because you do not deserve it but instead of health may you (suffer) tears and grief.” Response: “… from you descend (come) wrath, discord, sadness, illness, pallor. …”

Lent–Quaresema–Quaresima; mother–matre–madre; we greet–salutemo–salutiamo; carnival–carnelvare–carnevale; ravenous wolf–lopo rapace–lupo rapace; deserving–digno–degno; crying and grief–planto e dolore–pianto e dolore;

t h e t e x ts  | 7

wrath, discord, sadness–ira, divisione, mellenconia–ira, discordia, tristezza/ malinconia. *

Proverbia que dicuntur super natura feminarum Attributed to Master Girardo Patecchio from Cremona, thirteenth century. “It is impossible to find a medicine that could raise one from the dead, or such a flower that could cleanse the lepers. …” It is impossible–enposibel–è impossibile; medicine–tonsengo–medicina; dead– morti–morti; raise–susitase–risuscitasse. *

Panfilo in Antico Veneziano De amore or De arte amandi by Panfilo was a textbook for the medieval schools. It was believed that its origins went back to the tenth century and later the fifteenth, but it probably originated in the twelfth century. Albertano da Brescia who wrote during the first half of the thirteenth century mentions it frequently. I, Panfilo, am wounded and have a spear, that is love, in my chest. My sore and my pain, that is love, grow day by day. Besides this, I do not dare utter or reveal the name of the woman who hurt me. The sore, that is love, does not allow me to look at her face. For this reason I hope and fear that the danger that I will face will be worse than my harm. Thus, I hope for the help of good health.

I am wounded–son emplagà–sono ferito; spear–lanzon–lancia; love–amore–amore; my sore and my pain–la plaga e lo dolore–la ferita e il dolore; I do not dare utter or reveal the name of the woman who hurt me–no auso dir ni manifestar lo nome de quela ke me fiere–non oso dire nè rivelare il nome di colei che mi ferisce. Thus I hope for the help of good health–con ço sea caosa k’eu speiro aotorio de sanità–per cui spero nel soccorso della salute. *

Guidotto da Bologna There are no precise indications concerning Fra Guidotto whose family may have been from Bologna. In a list of grammarians from 1133 to 1260 an entry reads



the theme of the plague in italian le t ters

“Guidotto da Bologna.” From a compendium of Rhetorics ad Herennium, a translation into vernacular language. On the contrary, in the absence of the mentioned things, and according to what the wise men say, that person is like a very great pestilence for his country and his commune because his speech is like a sharp cutting knife in the hand of a mad man; but if the man has the good sense of how to put order in things and is honest, with a firm will, namely a deliberate intention to deal with things properly and judge rightfully, he needs to know how to speak so that he may be able to demonstrate and explain. Pestilence–pestilentia–pestilenza. *

Poems Found in the Memoirs of Bologna’s Notaries The Memoirs contain several poems inserted by the notaries who entered in them the deeds that they drew up. Ernesto Monaci wrote that the well known poet Giosuè Carducci (1835–1907) published a group of them in the Atti e memorie della R. Deputazione di storia patria per le provinvie di Romagna, that were found in the Memoriali dell’Archivio Notarile di Bologna 1876. The compositions may have been written in the early thirteenth century. May God send them pestilence and prison; may the God who created the earth undo them, let everyone die and be carried in a coffin to the grave for their malevolence towards the lovers was so awful. Amen. Pestilence–pestilentia–pestilenza *

Will of Beatrice da Capraia (1278) It is kept in the State Archive of Florence. It is not the original document drawn up by the Countess but its version in public form written by the notary Renaldus Iacobi de Signa. Item. To the hospital of Trespiano, for the purchase of beds and linen. …

t h e t e x ts  | 9

To the hospital–a lo spedale–all’ospedale *

Ristoro d’Arezzo: La composizione del mondo He was born in Arezzo and was a monk. He was also a painter, a miniaturist and an astronomer. Born in the second half of the fourteenth century, his treatise on the making of the world is considered one of the most significant scientific works of his time. All the wise men agree that the bodies (things) that are here below are governed and controlled by those (which are above). According to this principle we may reasonably say that all the animals in heaven must signify as well as keep the elements of the earth and all things in their places as well as their order and nature. According to this principle it seems that the animals in the heavens must guard and save by means of all their power the animals of the earth as a father watches over and keeps his son safe. In this manner epidemics may occur in the world, as well as the corrupting of the air and other things. Thus we find that one year there is an epidemic of the cattle that affects almost all of them (causing) many deaths while goats and other animals will remain free (of illness) and will not get sick. Another year we find that an epidemic affects the goats. All will become ill and almost all will die while the cattle and the other animals will remain healthy and will not get ill. We find epidemics also among the plants and their fruits, according to their nature, in an almost identical way. It seems, therefore, that the animals in the sky that must keep and defend the animals that resemble those on earth, suffer in that year from some impediment that prevents them from defending it. Thus, if the animal in the sky is ill, the animal that it represents here on earth will also be ill. But if the former is well also this one (on earth) will be well. Consequently, we may say that when heaven is not well disposed so will be the earth. We may reasonably say that everything that is generated by the elements has a “virtue” in heaven above it that governs, maintains and watches over it, somewhat more or less, according to what it must do and the nobility (value) and power of its virtue. Epidemics–epidemie–epidemie; epidemia–epidemia–epidemia; will be sick/ill–avarano male–saranno malati/avranno male; will be well–staranno bene–staranno bene; value–valore/nobiltà; virtue–vertude–virtù *



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

The Sydrac of Otranto The Book of Sydrac the Philosopher was also known as the Livre de la Fontaine de toutes sciences, an anonymous philosophical work written between 1270 and 1300 in Old French. It was vastly popular through the sixteenth century and was translated into several languages among which was the late medieval English version called Sidrak and Bokkus. The text below was written in the vernacular language of Terra d’Otranto. What is the shape of the angels and do they know anything? In a way, angels have the form of God because this was the resemblance of God in them as they are resplendent, do not have a body and possess great beauty. In the nature of things there is nothing that they do not know and see entirely in God and over all those things that they do if they have the power without any difficulty; therefore, in order that the number of the good angels were complete, man was created and was made of a corporeal and spiritual substance. The corporeal substance is composed of the following elements: man will receive his flesh from the earth and his blood from the water, the soul from the air, warmth from the fire; his head is round like the vault of heaven. Furthermore, he has two eyes as the sky has two lights, namely the sun and the moon; and as the sky has in itself seven planets, so man, in his head, has seven openings; as the air has the wind in itself and the thunders, similarly man has in his chest strong breathing. How long did Adam live? Adam lived nine hundred years and when he came to his death he sent Seth, his son, to the cherubim angels that would give him recovery for what was ailing him. Seth went to the gates of paradise and wanted to enter. The angel saw him at the gates and Seth asked him to give him health for his father. The angel gave him three grains and said: Take these to your father and put them in his mouth; anyone of these grains will free him from serious illness and the order of God will be five days and a half. Seth went back to Adam, put the grains in his mouth and told him what the angel had said. He said: “Father, do not be discouraged, the angel told me that in five and a half days you will recover.” Adam sighed and said: “God’s day lasts one thousand years.” Then Adam died and the devils caught his soul with great joy and brought it to hell. Which one can speak the body or the soul? The body does not speak. The soul is the one that speaks because the soul is spirit and the body is mortal. As a man rides an animal that takes him where he wants, the same is for the soul, although the body might want to do something it (the soul) can prevent it from doing it because it is a worse fault for the soul than for the body, and the body is made of earth and does not have a strong nature as the soul; hence the soul has more control (power) over the body than the body over the soul; the soul may

t h e t e x ts  | 11

(do) many things … that the body cannot deny to it and you may see this clearly because when the soul leaves the body, the body becomes the foulest thing in the world. Where does the soul reside? The soul resides in its vessel. This must be understood as over the entire body, inside and outside where the blood is. The blood is the vessel, and the vessel of the blood is the body, and where there is no blood the soul does not reside, such as in the teeth, the nails and all the hair on the body. The soul does not reside in these places because they do not have blood; the pain in these things that we mention happens because their roots touch the flesh there where the flesh is. For this reason they ache, but if they were cut or burned without touching the roots, they would not hurt at all. Why is the soul unable to remain in the body when the blood is all spilled? As when a river is full of fish and somebody gradually spills all the water of that river in such a way that all the water is lost and the fish remain on the ground where they must die. Someone comes to roast a certain number of them and fry the other at his own pleasure, and they are good to eat. The same happens to the soul when the body loses its blood; and whatever the condition of the soul may be, good or bad, the soul will weaken and when the blood is entirely spilled from the body, the soul leaps like the fish do when they are on the ground without water. Thus (the soul) must have that place because it cannot remain there any longer since it lost its nourishment, namely the blood, just as the fish lost the water. And so, it must leave. Thus the fishermen (gatherers) of the good and the bad souls … come when the blood has been forced out of the body and take them to the place that they deserve, within the bodies where the souls had been. If it behaved well, the soul will be in the company of the son of God, and if it behaved badly, it will join those who are in hell. What does blood become when the body is dead? God made the blood of our body out of the water and the body out of the earth. Its water goes to the earth and sustains it. The soul sustains the body and through its heat it warms the blood and causes it to flow through the body. When that soul separates from the body, it takes along its warmth that moves and causes the blood to live. By losing the warmth of the soul, the blood returns to its nature (source), namely water. The body drinks (absorbs) the water that originates from the earth, just as the earth absorbs water. When the body absorbs it, it melts into nothing, just as dew becomes nothing when the sun shines on it and its heat “drinks” it. Thus you should believe that the soul cannot remain in the body without blood nor can it exist without the soul. body–corpo–corpo; blood–sangue–sangue; corporeal–corporale–corporale; spiritual– spirituale–spirituale; substance–sustancia–sostanza; element–alimento–elemento; air–eyro–aria; opening–pertuso–buco, cavità, pertugio; head–testa–testa; man– omu–uomo; chest–pect–petto; breath–alen–alene–respiro; death–morte–morte;



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

recovery–guarimento–guarigione; illness–male–malattia; health–sanitate–salute; mouth–bocca–bocca; devil–diabolo–diavolo; soul–anima–anima; terra–terra– terra; vessel–vassiellu–vasello; root–radecata–radice; river–fiume–fiume; nourishment–notritura–nutrimento; crime–forfacto–misfatto; illness–malatia–malattia; relic–rellicuia–reliquia *

Loyse de Rosa: Praises of Naples Loyse de Rosa was born in Pozzuoli in 1385 and lived almost always in Naples. His writings’ origins are dated approximately between 1452 and 1471. I am suffering from a very difficult illness and there is no better doctor among the most able in the world. How shall I explain it to you? In Naples we have excellent (medical) schools where people go from every part of Italy. I will tell you, furthermore, that at Pozzuoli there are very many warm water baths with a pleasant temperature. These baths are indicated for all the illnesses that might affect us and even better, should a person have some incurable disease … or any other unknown illness, one could go to the Subbiene baths located at the Marina at Pozzuoli where there are also the baths of Fontana and Cantariello. These three are situated in Pozzuoli. The locations called The Three Arbors are: the baths of Arco, Arrugniere if one goes there to treat scabies, the baths of Vetare, of the Sow, of Santa Lucia, and Santa Maria, of Croce and those of Scassabudiello, should one suffer from lack of appetite. The baths of Fierro are good for the teeth as well as those of Tritola. They are plentiful. Furthermore, should you want to impregnate your wife, take her to the baths of Sarviata and do your duty with your wife, because a woman does not get pregnant by using warm water. We have spoken a lot about the comfort of the body; now we will speak about the soul. You will not find any city in the whole world that has at the same time in its vicinity three apostles who send manna to it: Saint Matthew of Salerno, Saint Andrew of Amalfi and Saint Bartholomew of Benevento. I tell you that Naples has the most beautiful relic in the whole world: it has the head of Saint Januarius who was archbishop of Naples, and it has also an ampule containing his blood that is as hard as stone. When it is in the presence of his head it liquefies as if it had issued from the head. It works and worked many miracles. Now what do you think of the wonders of Naples?1,2 doctor–medico–medico; incurable disease–infermetate incorabbele–malattia, infermità incurabile; bath–vangnio–bagno; scabies–rognia–rogna; appetite–appitito–appetito;

t h e t e x ts  | 13

soul–anima–anima; earth–terra–terra; world–mondo–mondo; vessel–vassiellu– vasello/vasetto; root–radecata–radice; river–fiume–fiume; nourishment–notritora– nutrimento; crime–forfacto–misfatto; illness–malatia–malattia *

Landolfo Seniore: Historia Mediolanensis Landolfo Seniore and Landolfo Juniore were historiographers and municipal chroniclers, in particular. The former’s writings reach events that occurred up to the year 1085, while Landolfo Juniore’s writings cover events from 1097 to 1137. … Arialdo, noticing that the city was enraged against him, owing to the grief caused by those deaths and the constant rekindling of those discussions, recollecting all the previous excitement and disturbances caused by his actions, got ready to escape secretly, but while he was running away at night, he was stopped and apprehended near Legnano by some men at the service of Lady Olivia, the niece of Archbishop Guido. He was brought to Olivia’s presence in the fortress of Arona that was under her control and she, recollecting the grudge that her uncle had against him, had him taken to an island of Lake Maggiore in great secrecy where he was asked if he recognized Guido as the legitimate archbishop whom the Roman church had confirmed with the pallium and the cardinals’ vote. He answered: —As long as I have my tongue in my mouth and my soul is clean and my mind quiet, I shall not consider nor recognize him as the archbishop. At these words, Olivia’s thugs pounced savagely on him and having torn his tongue away from his throat, abandoned him almost dead on the island. The following day, by order of Olivia, who wanted to avoid his being found dead or alive by her people and caught in a hard siege by Erlembaldus, his body was secretly buried with great precautions in the basement of St. Ambrose in the Travallio fortress. But, after a few days, the stench of the dead body spread through the castle so that everyone, nauseated by it, ran away. These (the culprits) becoming aware of the crime that they had committed, and terrified at the idea that the stench should cause the discovery of the body, laboriously filled the basement with water up to the vault in order to cover the stench. tongue–lingua–lingua; mouth–bocca–bocca; stench–fetore–fetore; dead body–cadavere– cadavere *



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

Romualdo di Salerno: Chronicon Romualdo di Salerno’s Chronicon covers the period ending in 1179. In this work one notices Romualdo’s historical reconstruction of Italian events from the tenth to the twelfth century and a section, almost autobiographical in nature, concerning the negotiations when the author participated in 1177, in Venice, between Barbarossa and the Comuni (E Cecchi). In the year 47 of Augustus’ empire, Herod, struck by a skin illness that covered his body with sores, met the miserable death that he deserved. By order of Augustus, he was succeeded by his son Anchaelaus who reigned for nine years, namely until Augustus’ death when the Judaeans, unable to bear his ferocity, denounced him to the emperor and was relegated in the city of Vienne, in Gaul. skin illness–morbo intercutaneis–malattia della pelle; sores–vulneribus–piaghe *

Donizone: The Life of Mathilda Donizone, a monk in the Benedictine convent of St. Antonio di Canossa, was a chaplain of Mathilda of Canossa (Contessa Matilde di Canossa), the Great Countess, 1046–1115. On this side of the sea for four years, the Guibertin leprosy had become malignant and unfavorable and one would say that there was not any place free from such leprosy. Immune from it, the great house of Mathilda that, for the Catholics, was truly a safe harbor, because all those who were persecuted, banished, robbed, pontiffs, monks, clerics, both Italian and Gauls, all without exception, ran to the generous spring, namely to the house of the lady who was mentioned, for her generous heart. leprosy–lebbra–lebbra; malignant–maligna–maligna; immune–immune–immune *

Gesta Friderici At the end, overwhelmed by thirst, the war and the epidemic, the youth of Tortona decide to send some negotiators to the king asking for peace and forgiveness,

t h e t e x ts  | 15

should they ever succeed to placate him with their pleas. (Frederick Barbarossa, 1123–1190) epidemic–epidemia–epidemia *

Mosè del Brolo From Bergamo Mosè del Brolo from Bergamo was a specialist of Greek studies who lived in Constantinople during the years 1128–1136. He wrote the Liber Pergaminus honoring the history of his city of origin. After his defeat put out in him all warlike passion and the entire booty was recovered thanks to Camillus, the Gallic plague moved out of the Italian territory and Rome expressed its jubilation with endless celebrations. But in order to avoid that the barbarians should come once again to bring war and destruction and the Gallic plague should ravage the Italian regions, the senate imposed promptly a garrison in all the cities that Brennus had held previously in his power, thus Fabius is sent to Bergamo that had been Brenno’s favorite headquarters. Gallic plague–gallica peste–peste gallica *

Arrigo da Settimello: Against Fortune’s Adversity Arrigo da Settimello, twelfth century. His reference to “the doctors of Salerno” reflects the fame of the medieval school of that city. The first organized medical school in Europe, that became the outstanding medical institution of its time to be followed by the schools of Montpellier and Paris in France and Bologna and Padua in Italy. Frederick II decreed in 1221 that no one should practice medicine until he had been publicly approved by the masters of Salerno. Remarkably liberal in some of its views, Salerno drew scholars from various places and admitted women as medical students and teachers as well.

Oh, how sick you are! But I complain about your mind, because your judgement is wandering at this time! If Hippocrates were here, as well as all the doctors



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

of Salerno, your mind, sick or not, or just a little, would be sound because medicine cannot chase old sickness away. sick–infermo–infermo, ammalato; mind–mente–mente; judgement–senno–senno; medicina–medicina–medicina *

Boncompagno da Signa: On the Imperial Statutes Boncompagno is considered one of the most prominent rhetoricians of Bologna of the thirteenth century. He taught at Bologna (1215) and later in Padua. His main works appeared in 1226. Statute Against the Lepers Should it occur, as the consequence of the frailty of the human condition, that some persons contract leprosy, we decree that they must live outside the cities, castles and suburbs and choose their residences in rarely frequented places, because their breath contaminates the air and sometimes also healthy persons are contaminated by this infection. Statute against the prostitute who knowingly has copulated with a leper. The prostitute or concubine who knowingly went with a leper must be burned immediately that she may not infect the imprudent with the disease she has contracted. leprosy–lebbra–lebbra; breath–fiato–fiato, respiro; contaminate–contaminare–contaminare; contamination–contagio–contagio; healthy–sano–sano *

Accursio: Glossa ad Institutiones Accursio, 1182–1254, prepared what was to become the fundamental commentary of the Corpus Iuris. He was teaching in 1221, and in 1252 he became a councillor of the podestà of Bologna. As all bodies are made of four elements, namely earth, water, fire and air, and the whole world is governed by the force of these four elements, thus this book comprises the whole law. Note, furthermore, that the earth is cold and dry, the water is cold and humid, the fire is hot and dry, the air is warm and humid. The

t h e t e x ts  | 17

first element has the nature of melancholy, the second, namely the water, of the body humors, the fire of choler and the blood corresponds to the air. earth–terra–terra; water–acqua–acqua; ignis–fuoco–fuoco; air–aria–aria; melancholy– melanconia–malinconia; choler–collera–collera; blood–sanguis–sangue *

San Francesco d’Assisi: Laudes creaturarum San Francesco was born in 1181 and died in 1226. The son of a merchant, he was uninterested in his father’s trade and in his youth he enjoyed the life of a wealthy person associating with the young people of his city. Some events, both personal and public, led him from a life of ease to social and religious experiences that influenced his life and led him to embrace poverty as a companion and selflessness as a rule. He established, with the assistance of a few followers at first, a monastic order. He is the founder of the order named by him of the Friars Minor out of humility. Under his guidance the friars visited and preached in several European countries as well as in Africa. In 1223 his order was confirmed by a bull of Honorius III and he was canonized in 1228 by Gregory IX. The Lives of St. Francis began to be written within a few years of his death; one of the best known is that by Bonaventura who, as an infant, had been miraculously healed by him. This work and the one by Tommaso da Celano were the chief sources of Dante’s knowledge of some details of the saint’s life as indicated in Paradise, eleventh century. Praise to thee, my Lord, for those who forgive for love of thee and endure sickness and tribulation. sickness–infirmitate–infermità; tribulation–tribulatione–tribolazione *

Meo Abbracciavacca: A Dispute With Guittone d’Arezzo Meo Abbracciavacca was a member of the Ranghiatici, a family from Pistoia, in Tuscany. He died before 1313. He is considered to be one of the most faithful disciples of Guittone d’Arezzo. Meo—If the philosopher says: It is certainly necessary to eat, drink and lust. It seems to me that a chaste body may be very rare, unless it is in a desert.



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

Guittone—It is clear that to eat and to drink are necessary, but not lust, one may say wisely, because if it is a necessity, how may I and they escape from it and gain some merit? body–corpo–corpo *

Mare amoroso A most peculiar song of love wrongfully attributed to Brunetto Latini. … and if you do not consider me with mercy, all the best doctors in medicine of Salerno would not save me from a bad death. medicine–midicina–medicina; death–morte–morte *

Proverbia quae dicuntur super natura feminarum Proverbs that are said about the nature of women. An early misogynic text in vernacular. It was composed in the late twelfth century. One cannot find a poison (medicine?) that might revive the dead, / nor a flower of such kind that it might cleanse the lepers. medicine–tonsego–medicina; lepers–lebbrosi–lebbrosi *

Girardo Patecchio: Splanamento de li proverbi de Salomone The Splanamento is a collection of moral teachings structured on biblical texts of similar nature. Early decades of the twelfth century? He who visits the ill in their malady / is serving God and will gain salvation. malady–enfermitad–malattia; salvation–sanitad–salute *

t h e t e x ts  | 19

Uguccione da Lodi Uguccione da Lodi is not easily identified due to the numerous persons having that name. Little is known of his life or if he was a member of a religious order. His work is believed to belong to the early thirteenth century. The creator of heaven has shown two ways / the way of the good deeds and of great nobility / and mercy as well as of true goodness, / of peace and concord and good will / to clothe the poor and indigent / to visit often the infirm and the ailing. infirm–infermi–infermi; ailing–malati–ammalati *

Della caducità della vita umana: On the Transience of Human Life This is a given title, not the original, which is unknown. It seems that if it depended on you there would die one hundred a day, who do not yet suffer from that illness. You, wretched man, are left alone in the grave; worms eat your flesh voraciously. … *

Bonvesin da la Riva: Disputatio rosae cum viola Bonvesin da la Riva, was born almost certainly in Milan in the late thirteenth century. He wrote a treatise in praise of his native city, De magnalibus urbis, 1288, and De quinquaginta curialitatibus in the Milanese vernacular. The probable date of his death is 1315. If you want to say also that you have the power / to cure the sick of their ailments, / I am also a good doctor and have great dignity: / I make potions of great usefulness. / I am good to fight diseases not only when in bloom: / my entire plant is thus of great value; / my leafstalks and the leaves fight against pain; / in winter my plant does not lose its green hue. / But you help the sick person only when you are in bloom; / your plant and your leaves do not have any power / but only to prick hands, thus you are much worse; / if you are a good doctor, / I am a better one.



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

to cure–resanar–risanare; pain–dolor–dolore

the sick–infirmi–infermi;



Ruggieri Apugliese Ruggieri Apugliese, whose poetic tradition is central Italian, was from Siena and lived in the second half of the thirteenth century. Rug[g]ieri, I truly like him / who is prudent; / I strongly dislike war / for it causes a pestilence. pestilence–pestilentia–pestilenza *

Laude di Cortona The laude represent a particularly significant and unique aspect of Italian medieval devotional literature. Tracing their origin from St. Francis of Assisi’s Laudes creaturarum, the laude developed into a popular poetic form among several religious groups. Odor that exceeds any fragrance / Jesus, those who do not love thee / do a great wrong; / those who do not adore thee / are either fool or dead; / o living river of delight, / who cleanses all stench and gives consolation / and make the dead regain their vigor! fragrance–aulimento–fragranza; stench–fetore–fetore; vigor–vigore–vigore The man who wants to spurn the world / should have his death in mind. *

Jacopone da Todi Iacopone da Todi, Iacopo de’ Benedetti, was born in Todi from a noble family between 1236 and 1240. He was a notary. In 1267 he married Vanna di Bernardino di Guidone, a member of the family of the Counts of Coldimezzo. His

t h e t e x ts  | 21

wife died a year after their wedding. In 1278 he requested admission to the Order of the Frati Minori. He is renowned for his laude and his difficult relationship with some clerical authorities. Jacopone died in 1306. It seems to me wise and courteous / to lose one’s mind for the fair Messiah. / It seems to me a sign of great knowledge, / to want to lose one’s mind for God, / one never saw such great philosophy even in Paris. / He who loses his mind for Christ / seems sad and in distress. / But (in fact) he is a teacher and a doctor in natural philosophy and theology. / If somebody lost his mind for Christ / he seems insane to the eyes of people: / He who did not learn this fact, / seems to have lost his way. / He who wants to be in this school, / will learn a new doctrine: he who does not experience madness / cannot learn what good is. / He who wants to join this dance, / will discover endless love; / one hundred days of indulgence / to the one who will speak rudely. / He who is looking for honors / is not worthy of his love, / for Jesus was on the cross / between the two thieves. / He who is looking for honors / seems to me to be achieving his goal: / let him not go to Bologna / in order to acquire more knowledge. Like a stinking leper, / I am chased away by the healthy people / neither at prayers nor at the refectory / can I eat with healthy people. / I ask that your voice affirm and tell me with loving will: May your bad leprous disease be cleansed. O Lord, please, / send me bad health. / May I have quartan fever. / The continual and the tertian / and the double one as well / with smelling dropsy. / May I have toothache / headache and belly ache, and sharp stomach pains / as well as angina in my throat. / Eye disease, pain in my side / and an abscess on my left side; / also consumption may come to me, / at all time delirium too. / May I have liver inflammation / a swollen spleen, an inflated stomach, / sore ridden lungs / with a bad cough and paralysis. / May I have fistulae / with thousands of buboes. / May I be covered all over with cancerous wounds. … You graduated from Paris / with solemn honors and great expense; / now you have reached your goal / and are entombed in the ground. The fact is this: There is no longer religion. / We had the misfortune of witnessing (Paris) destroying Assisi; by means of this learning they directed it toward a bad way. You turn defects into assets / you bring about such clarity / and blunt all contradictions. / Your values are perfect, / all the others are faulty, / from you the dead receive life / you have the sick recover / because in poisons you can find medicines / steadiness in great ruin / and brightness in the dark. bad health–malsania–cattiva salute; quartan fever, continual, tertian–febbre quartana, continua, terzana–febbre quartana, continua, terzana; double–doppia–doppia;



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

swelling dropsy–granne etropesia–grande idropisia; toothache–mal de denti–mal di denti; headache–mal de capo–mal di capo/testa; belly–ventre–ventre; sharp stomac pains–a lo stomaco dolor pognanti–forte mal di stomaco; angina in my throat–’n canna la squinanzia–angina in gola; eye disease–mal degli occhi–male degli occhi; pain in my side–doglia de fianco–dolore al fianco; an abscess on my left side–l’apostema dal canto manco–ascesso al fianco sinistro; consumption–tisi–tubercolosi, tisi; delirium–fernosia–delirio, frenesia; liver inflammation–fecato rescaldato–infiammazione al fegato; swollen spleen–milza grossa–milza gonfia; sore ridden lungs– polmoni piagati–piaghe ai polmoni; cough and paralysis–tosse e parlasia–tosse e paralisi; fistulae–fistelle–fistole; buboes–carvoncigli, carbonelli–bubboni *

Brunetto Latini: Tesoretto Brunetto Latini was born in Florence in 1220. He was the son of a notary and became one himself in 1254. He was sent as an ambassador to Alfonso X to ask for his assistance. After the battle of Montaperti he went to France and returned only after the Battle of Benevento, February 22, 1266. He wrote the Tesoro and Tesoretto. Dante describes their moving encounter in Inferno, Canto XV. I clearly say / that omnipotent God / made seven planets / each one in its position / and twelve signs. / I’ll tell you precisely which ones; / and it was his will to give them power / in all created things, / according to their nature. / But without fail / under my rule / resides all this virtue, / so that no one escapes / from the course that I gave it, / fitting to each one. The Commentator: Wherefore Vittorino says as the quality of wine lessens according to the characteristics of the container in which it is put, similarly the soul changes its strength according to the nature of the body with which it is united. Thus, if that body is ill disposed and afflicted by bad humors, the soul, because of the body’s weight, loses its knowledge of things, so that it can barely distinguish good from evil. soul–anima–anima; humor–humore–umore *

Andrea da Grosseto Andrea da Grosseto was born in the first half of the thirteenth century. He moved to Paris where he taught literature. In 1268 he translated from Latin into Italian

t h e t e x ts  | 23

Albertano da Brescia’s moral treatises. He is considered by some the first person to adopt the Italian language in a literary work. A translation into the vernacular of the Liber consolationis et Consilii originally written by Albertano da Brescia. O foolish man, why do you want to be considered insane? Why do you undo yourself for such a little thing? Have in your grief courage and good sense, dry the tears on your face and consider what you are doing. For it does not become a wise man to grieve so deeply, because crying does not help the one who cries. Your daughter, God willing, will heal well and perfectly. Should she die you should not despair and tear yourself apart for her. Whence Seneca said: “The wise man does not grieve either because he loses his son or because he loses his friend. He suffers their death as he faces his own.” *

Bono Giamboni: Della Miseria dell’uomo Bono Giambonis name is mentioned in several documents from 1261 to 1292. A large number of his volgarizzamenti is still extant, such as The Book of the Vices and the Virtues. The scripture says that things are arranged only in three ways; and this is the first where are the tormented souls, and they suffer punishments according to the committed sins; whereby God speaking in the Gospel against the sinners says: “Your pains will be measured with the same measure that you used to size evil because the amount you measure out is the amount that you will be given back.” pains–pene–pene *

Egidio Colonna: De Regimine Principum Egidio Colonna was a disciple of Thomas Aquinas. His main work appeared in 1277–1279. De Regimine Principum was composed upon the suggestion of Filippo d’Ardito and was destined to be used in the instruction of Philip the Fair (1268–1314). … therefore it is very useful and a great good that many cities and towns are under the rule of a king or prince so that human life may be ruled better and have



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

those things that are necessary, just as several members are in a body and have various functions, so that the body should live better and comfortably. … as the physician directs his mind mainly toward the health of the body, similarly the prince must direct his mind mainly toward people’s rights and benefits. members–membri–membri; body–corpo–corpo; life–vita–vita *

A Translation From Brunetto Latini’s Tresor Since phlegm is cold and damp, watery by nature and (common) in winter, a person (affected by it) is slow, flabby, heavy, lethargic and unable to remember things of the past. This is the condition that affects mostly the old people. It resides in the lungs and is ejected through the mouth. It is more frequent in winter because it is its characteristic; that is why in that season aged people become ill with phlegm while the cholerics and the young remain healthier. The illnesses that are caused by phlegm are fierce in winter as daily fever, but those that are caused by wrath are less serious, such as the tertian fever, therefore it is better if the phlegm affected persons use warm and dry items (clothing) in winter. phlegm–flemma–flemma; slow–lento–lento; flabby–molle–molle, flaccido; heavy– pesante–pesante; lung–polmone–polmone; mouth–bocca–bocca; choleric–collerico– collerico; wrath–collera–collera; illness–malizia–malattia *

Marco Polo: Milione Marco Polo went to the Far East from 1271 to 1295, dictated his descriptions in French to Rustichello da Pisa in 1298 while both were “prisoners of war” in Genoa. His book enjoyed an enormous success and was translated into Latin and vernacular Italian. In all three provinces there are no doctors. When one of them gets ill, they call their sorcerers and devil enchanters. When they go to the ailing person and he tells them about his illness, they play their instruments, sing and dance. After dancing a little, and one of these sorcerers falls on the ground, with foam on his mouth, stunned and with the devil in his body, he remains in that condition for a long time and seems

t h e t e x ts  | 25

dead, the other sorcerers ask questions of the stunned one about the problem of the sick man and why he is ill. The sorcerer answers that he has that illness because he gave displeasure to some spirit, and the sorcerers say: “We beg you to forgive him and take some of his blood that you may take what you like.” If the sick person must die, the stunned man says: “He gave such a great displeasure to such and such spirit that it does not want to forgive him for anything in the world.” If the sick person must recover, the spirit that is in the sorcerer’s body says: “Take so many black headed rams and some very expensive drinks and offer up a sacrifice to such a spirit.” After the relatives of the sick man hear this, they do everything the spirit said, kill the rams and pour the blood where he said as a sacrifice; then they have one or more rams cooked in the sick man’s house where are as many of these sorcerers and women as the spirit demanded. When the ram is cooked and the drinks are ready and everybody has gathered to have a meal, they begin to sing and play, throw some broth here and there around the house, burn incense and myrrh and fill the illuminated house with smoke. After doing this for some time, they take a bow and ask the spirit if it forgave the sick man yet. It answered: “He has not been forgiven yet, do also this thing, and he will be excused.” After what he ordered has been performed, he says: “He will recover immediately.” Then they say: “The spirit is on our side!” They rejoice a lot and eat the meat of the ram and drink. Then everyone goes home and the sick man recovers immediately. They have also this custom: males and females wash every day their entire bodies twice, in the morning and evening and would never eat or drink without doing so before. And the one who would not do this would be considered as a heretic is considered among us. And he who is a wine user is not accepted as a witness because of his drunkenness. sorcerer–mago–mago; charmer–incantatore di diavoli–incantatore; foam–ischiuma– schiuma; devil–diavolo–diavolo; spirit–ispirito–spirito; blood–sangue–sangue; ram– montone–montone; incense–incenso–incenso; myrrh–mirra–mirra; carne–carne–carne *

Fiori e vita di Filosofi ed altri Savi ed Imperadori A partial Tuscan translation of Speculum Historiale by Vincent de Beauvais, 1190–1264. Plato, being a great philosopher, was very wealthy. So, another philosopher by the name of Diogenes visited him and found large beds in his bedroom. He did not say anything but with his muddy feet knocked down the bed, trampling



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

upon purple blankets; when he had wiped his feet (on them) he would go out and muddy them again and went back to trample on the bed once more. He then left and told Plato: “Thus one knocks down your pride with another pride.” Then Plato left and went with his disciples to Accademia in a villa far from the city (that was) not only uninhabited but pestiferous so that the harshness of the place overcame the desire of carnal lust. pride–superbia–superbia; pestiferous–pestilente–pestifero; lust–lussuria–lussuria *

Translation From the Tristan Tradition, Thirteenth Century It is also recalled how the two of them were tried, and the manner they were led near the sea, and the great grief he suffered when Lady Isolde was separated from him and was led to the lepers’ hospital. leper’s hospital–lo luogo de li malatti–lebbrosario *

La Tavola Ritonda, Thirteenth Century From the Tristano Riccardiano, after the name of the Florentine Library Riccardiana where the manuscript is kept. But Gedin, who loved fair Isolde, did not sleep or rest, drank little and ate even less. Sir Tristram, not knowing the cause of this illness, was very grieved and would constantly take to him the best physicians that could be found but no one was able to treat his ailment. Not knowing its origin, it was not surprising because love-sickness is found in a vein that goes through the heart, namely it starts from the top of the heart and it goes through all the “circumstances” of the body; thus being located in the heart of the lover, all other members are sad, doleful and depressed. And since lovesickness is stronger and more dangerous than all the others, it is more secret and hidden. lovesickness–la infermità dello amore–mal d’amore; vein–vena–vena; heart–cuore– cuore; sad–triste–triste; doleful–dolente–dolente; depressed–malinconico–malinconico, depresso *

t h e t e x ts  | 27

Bono Giamboni: Il Libro de’ vizi e delle virtudi Bono Giamboni was a Florentine judge. Several archival documents dating from 1261 to 1292 mention his name. He translated De miseria humane conditionis by Lotario Diacono, Historia adversum paganos by Paolo Orosio and Epitome rei militaris by Flavio Vegezio as well as Introduzione alle virtù. On the Council held by Satan with the Infernal Furies At last Mammon stood up, the demon who presides over wealth and the administering of the worldly glory and, in an advising way said: Beginning from omnipotent God, I do not believe that war is convenient because we began it another time and it went bad for us, we were expelled from a good place, namely paradise, and the most holy seats where we were placed. I do not think that to impede the course of the planets, to take away from Nature its function on earth and bring down on earth pestilence and pain is not right because no matter which evil deed we may carry out there is nothing so little or base that we may do, unless it is allowed by God first.

pestilence–pestilenzia–pestilenza; sore–piaga–piaga *

Cronica Fiorentina MLV In those days, a noble and powerful man, sitting among knights at an elegant banquet, was attacked by those mice that were called “rats”; for this reason, having the rats gathered in a large number, and touching only him for that reason he was brought to the sea, put in a boat and pushed away in the water. In spite of this, all the rats of the town went to it swimming in the sea and gnawed into the entire boat. Finally, having been brought back on earth by the rats, he was completely eaten. And you must know that you should not be surprised because one finds out that in some lands where a man may be bitten by a leopard, mice immediately become abundant in that area where the man was bitten by the leopard, and all piss on him and almost form a lake whereby out of this filth that man meets his death. Also, it was learned that some prince could not find any medicine that might cure him from being eaten up by “mignatti” that in our vernacular are called lice. And there are some people who call them seeds of a non-functioning tree, namely human seed. *



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

In that day they began the destruction of Florence. At first they used a new denomination—Guelph party and Ghibelline party. Then the Guelphs said: Let’s call ourselves Party of the Church, and the Ghibellines called themselves Party of the Empire, although the Ghibellines were well known Paterines (Heretics). They introduced an Inquisitor of Heresies. (From this decision) the disease (Inquisition) spread to the Christians.

medicine–medicina–medicina; louse–mignatto–pidocchio; disease–malattia–malattia * The fourteenth century is memorable also for the tragic events that accompanied the plague of 1348 that took the lives of thousands of people among whom some literary figures of renown. Mention will be made of: Ventura Monachi: who was an imitator of the stil nuovo poetic form. He was a chancellor of the Republic from 1340 and died in the plague of 1348. Matteo Frescobaldi: who died in the epidemic of 1348 at the age of 40. Perhaps the son of Dino, a poet himself, he wrote compositions of political and gnomic nature. Franceschino degli Albrizzi from Florence, a relative and friend of Petrarch; he died of the plague in Savona in the month of April, 1348. *

Braccio Bracci He lived at the court of the Visconti and in 1378 he composed a canzone on the occasion of Galeazzo II’s death. Certainly your mind perceives little in this matter / for it’s filled with gloomy clouds / that do not let you do any good thing. / Therefore, do like Naaman and cleanse yourself / that you may wash your leprosy away. leprosy–lebbra–lebbra *

Cino Rinuccini Born in Florence around 1350. The member of a noble and wealthy family, he became a member of the Arte della Lana in 1381. He probably died of the plague

t h e t e x ts  | 29

in 1417. He composed an “invective” in Latin against the humanists who scorned the works of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. *

Antonio Pucci A Florentine born probably in 1310 was a bronze smith (bell foundryman). His literary activity concentrated on the life of the city, the flood of 1333, the famine of 1346, the plague of 1348 as well as the war victories of the city. *

Francesco da Barberino He was born in Tuscany in 1264. He was a notary in Florence. In 1304 he was in exile. He attended the university in Padua and then lived in Venice. He spent the last years of his life in Florence where he died of the plague in 1348. *

St. John Chrysostom St. John Chrysostom was born in Antiochia in 344 and died in 407. His work was written during the years of his exile, 405–406. He became a bishop and a patriarch of Constantinople on February 26, 398. The original text is in Greek and its translations into Latin and into Italian cannot be dated precisely. From the translation into Italian of his Trattatello … as it is impossible to count the waves of the sea, so one cannot understand the number of those who are afflicted and suffer abuses, who are not assisted by any laws; neither the fear of the judges nor any force is able to restrain this deadly pestilence, on the contrary, it seems to grow stronger and the crying and lamentations of the afflicted seem to grow every day; and those judges, furthermore, who are empowered to repress these things, cause worse turmoil and deadlier pestilence while the stench of this evil grows so much that many unfortunate simpletons become so insane that they blame divine providence as they see people living good and honest lives being dragged to trials and sentences and suffer many strange things. …



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

… But I should like to repeat and say once again the contents of my promise. Do tell me, please, the disease of the body and the lack and poverty of all things, the days that bothered his sores in what would they offend the knight of Christ Lazarus? Or, in which of these things did he fail, defeated or affected in his spiritual virtue? In none, in conclusion. pestilence–pestilenza–pestilenza; pestilences–pestilenze–pestilenze; disease of the body–morbo del corpo–malattia del corpo; sores–piaghe–piaghe *

I Fioretti di San Francesco As Father Giuseppe de Luca indicates, “fioretti” means a bunch of flowers, namely a collection of chosen episodes of the life of St. Francis. They originate from an early version in Latin, written between the Marche and the Umbria regions between the thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries. Suddenly the news was known throughout the land so that all people, adults and children, male and female, young and old, go to the square to see the wolf with Saint Francis. Having the entire population gathered there, Saint Francis stood up and preached to them, saying among other things, how God allows similar pestilences to occur owing to their sins; and that the flames of hell are much more dangerous, that they will last forever for the damned, which is not the case of the wolf ’s fury that can kill only the body, and how much more one should fear the mouth of hell rather than being scared and terrorized by the mouth of a little animal! * The aforesaid brother Bentivoglia, while he was living one time at Trave Bonanti; all by himself, in order to mind and help a leper, having been ordered by the prelate to leave from there and go to another place fourteen miles away, unwilling to abandon that leper, in his great fervor of charity, picked him up and carried him on his shoulders from dawn until sunrise for the distance of fifteen miles, as far as the place where he had been sent, that was called Mount Saint Vicino. Had he been an eagle, he would not have been able to fly that far in such a short time; and there was great amazement and admiration in all that land. *

t h e t e x ts  | 31

How Saint Francis Healed a Leper’s Soul and Body The true disciple of Christ, Master Saint Francis, as he was living this wretched life, endeavored with all his efforts to follow Christ, the perfect teacher; whereby it occurred oftentimes by divine action that, to the person whose body was healed by him, God saved his soul at the same time, as we may read about Christ. (Cf. Matt. IX, 1–8; Luke XIII, 19, 17; 35–43, and for a leper Luke XVII, 12–19) And since he did not only serve willingly the lepers, but, besides this, he had given orders that the friars of his Order, going to or being in the world, should assist the lepers by the love of Christ, who wanted to be considered a leper for our own sake, it happened one time that in a place (monastery) near the one where Saint Francis lived, the friars were assisting in a hospital some lepers and sick people, where there was a leper so impatient and unbearable and insolent that everybody believed, and it was really true, that he was possessed by the devil since he spoke abusively and beat most disgracefully anyone who helped him and, even worse, he disgracefully would swear at Christ and his most holy Mother, and that it was in no way possible to find anyone who would or could help him. Although the friars tried to stand patiently insults and incivility in order to increase the merit of their patience, as their conscience could no longer tolerate the insults against Christ and his Mother, they decided to abandon him; but they did not want to do so before explaining properly the fact to Saint Francis, who at that time was staying in a nearby location. After they spoke to him, Saint Francis went to that perverse leper, and, joining him, he greeted him saying: “May God give you peace, my dearest brother.” The leper answered rebuking him: “What peace may I receive from God who took peace and every good thing away from me, and made me all decaying and stinky?” Saint Francis said: “My son, be patient, because the illnesses of our bodies are sent to us by God in this world for the health of our soul because they are of great merit when they are endured patiently.” The sick man answered: How can I endure this endless pain, that grieves me day and night? I am tormented not only by my illness but worse things are done to me by the friars that you assigned to help me, and do not help me as they should.

Then Saint Francis, aware that the leper was possessed by the evil spirit, by divine inspiration retired in prayer and devoutly prayed the Lord for him. After he said his prayer he went back to him and said: “My son, I shall serve you myself, since you are not satisfied by the others.” “I like that,” said the sick man, “but what could you possibly do to me better than the others?” Saint Francis answered:



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

“I shall do what you request.” The sick man said: “I want you to wash me completely because I stink so badly that I cannot stand myself.” Then Saint Francis immediately warmed some water with many fragrant herbs, then undressed the man and began to wash him with his hands while another friar was pouring on the water. And by divine virtue and miraculously, where Saint Francis touched with his saintly hands, the leprosy went away and the flesh was left perfectly healed. As the flesh began to heal so began to heal the soul. And so, as the leper saw that he was beginning to heal, he began to be contrite and repentant of his sins and cried most bitterly so that, while his body was growing clean of the leprosy on the surface owing to the washing of the water, his soul was cleansing inside because of his contrition and his tears for having sinned. When he was completely healed in his body and in his soul, he humbly admitted his faults and cried aloud: “Woe is me, for I deserve hell for the rudeness and insults that I inflicted upon, and told, the friars and for my impatience and for blaspheming God.” And for fifteen days he cried bitter tears because of his sins, praying God for mercy and confessing thoroughly to the priest. And Saint Francis, seeing such a clear miracle that God had made through his hands, thanked God and left that place and went to a distant locality because he wanted to avoid, out of his humility, any mundane glory and in all his actions he sought the honor and glory of God, not his own. Then, as it pleased God, the said leper, healed in his body and soul, after fifteen days of his penance, fell ill of another sickness, and after being given the last rites, he saintly died and his soul went to paradise. As a sign of this it appeared, in the air, to Saint Francis who was praying in a forest and it said to him: “Do you recognize me?” “Who are you?” said Saint Francis. And he answered: I am the leper whom blessed Christ healed owing to your merits, and today I go to eternal life for which I thank God and thank you. Blessed be your soul and your body as well, and blessed be your words and your deeds, because of you any soul will be saved in this world. Know that there is no day in the world that the holy angels and the other saints do not thank God for the holy deeds that you and your Order do in several parts of the world; therefore be comforted, thank God and may you live with His blessings.

Having said these words he went to heaven, and Saint Francis was deeply consoled. Praise be to Christ. Amen.3 leper–leproso–lebbroso; body–corpo–corpo; healed–sanava–risanava; hospital– spedale–ospedale; pain–pena–dolore, pena; illnesses–infermità–infermità, malattie; flesh–carne–carne; soul–anima–anima

t h e t e x ts  | 33


Angelo Clareno: Cronaca delle sette tribolazioni Angelo da Chiarino was born at Chiarino near Ascoli. He became a Franciscan friar around 1270. In 1307 he became the leader of the Spirituals. He died on June 15, 1337 at Marsico Nuovo in the Basilicata region. The following passage is from the Chronicle of the Seven Tribulations. And it is no wonder because according to the opinion of the great doctor Gregory Nazianzen, pestilence is called and is the wicked conversation of the prelate, since nothing is so effective in corrupting the subjects whose ill is as widespread as were those under his rule. … pestilence–pestilenzia–pestilenza *

Elizabeth von Schönau: Revelations on the Life of Our Lady Elizabeth von Schönau, 1129–1162, was a Benedectine. Her life is described in Latin and in Catalan texts. The most blessed Elizabeth, daughter of the King of Hungary, began to serve God and be devout to the Virgin Mary and Saint John Evangelist from the time that she was a little girl of four to five years old. After she was given in marriage to a duke, improving all the time, she became a rescuer of the poor, comforted them and visited the lepers and clothed them to the point that sometimes she had no clothing to put on but for a little, worthless gown belonging to a poor person. After she became a widow and took the habit, she was always eager, till the end of her life, to assist the poor, the sick and the lepers. She would personally serve, dress and wash them, and sometimes it happened that during one night she accompanied a sick person to the restroom six times. During her entire lifetime she served God in great purity and love and while she lived with her husband she wanted to beg for the love of God. She raised seven persons from the dead, gave back the sight to twenty-one blind people and one hundred among lame, cripple, lepers, paralytic and people afflicted by other illnesses. And Saint Elizabeth asked him: “Who are you?” And he answered: “I am He at whose feet Mary Magdalene threw herself in the house of Simon the leper and also gave you my grace.”



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

poor–povero–povero; leper–lebbroso–lebbroso; blind–cieco–cieco; lame/cripple– attratto– storpio; paralytic–paraletico–paralitico *

An Apocryphal Gospel: Secundum Thomam Israelitam From an original text in Greek. The available version goes back to the early fourteenth century. On another occasion, as Joseph went to gather some brushwood, he was stung by a viper and fell down dead because of the venom. And as Jesus had come upon him, he blew on the wound. Suddenly Joseph was healed and the viper died. viper–vipera–vipera; poison–veleno–veleno *

Leggenda di Sant’Alessio End of the eleventh century? All those persons and the people who stood around, hearing these words, sobbed and wept. Whereby the Pontiff and the emperors, with great reverence, put that holy body in an impressive coffin and had it taken to the center of the city and announced to the population how the man of God whom the entire citizenry was looking for had been found. And everybody came out to see that holy body; and any person that that most holy body touched was immediately saved: the blind received eyesight, the possessed were freed, and all the sufferers of any ailment that touched the holy body were cured. body–corpo–corpo; coffin–barra–bara; blind–cieco–cieco; possessed–indemoniato– indemoniato; sufferer–infermo–infermo; ailment–infermità–infermità *

Dante Alighieri Dante Alighieri was born in May 1265 in Florence from a noble family. News concerning his early youth are scanty and some information may be found in his

t h e t e x ts  | 35

Vita nuova. At the age of nine he met Beatrice who almost certainly may be identified with Folco Portinari’s daughter by that name who eventually married Simone de’ Bardi. He saw her again when he was eighteen and loved her as an angelic woman, the stilnovo idealized love. This event was certainly the most important sentimental experience of the young poet. In 1289 Dante fought in the Battle of Campaldino against the army of Arezzo. After Beatrice’s premature death, Dante studied philosophy probably in Florence. He married Gemma Donati with whom he had three children: Iacopo, Pietro and Antonia. In 1295 Dante’s political career began when he became a member of the “arte dei medici e speziali.” In September 1296 he was a member of the Consiglio dei Cento. In May 1300 he was sent to San Gimignano on a political mission, and in the month of June of the same year he was one of the Priori of Florence. As in the case of several other important citizens of Florence, Dante was involved in the antagonistic struggle between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines and, among the former between the White and the Black. In the endless ups and downs of the Florentine political fights, Dante was forced to go into exile. In March 1302 the poet was officially condemned to death (igne comburatur sic quod moriatur) (to be burned until dead) and from this date he lived in exile until his death that occurred in the month of September of 1321 in Ravenna. He was buried in the Franciscans’ church of that city where his body has been kept to this day. In this brief biographical note we list his major and minor works that are universally known, studied, commented and translated all over the world. Divina Commedia (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) Vita Nuova, Rime, Convivio, De vulgari eloquentia, Monarchia, Epistole, Egloghe, Quaestio de aqua et terra. * Inferno: Canto XXIX, 37–72 … Thus we conversed as far as the first place that shows the next valley from the cliff, if there were more light, to the bottom. When we were on the last enclosure of Malebolge, so that its brethren could be perceived by our eyes, terrible lamentations hit my ears which had their arrows armed with pity whereby I covered my ears with my hands.



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

As the pain would be if from the hospitals of Valdichiana, between July and September, and of Maremma and Sardinia all their sick were confined together in one ditch, such was it there, and such a stench came out as it would do from putrefying limbs. We walked down to the last bank of the long cliff always toward our left: and then my view had become clearer down to the bottom, there where the ministrant of the High Lord, infallible Justice punishes the falsifiers whom she records here. I do not believe that it was a greater affliction To see in Aegina the entire people sick when the air was full of germs of corruption, that all the animals, even the little worms, fell dead, and the ancient, as the poets firmly believe, were restored from the seed of ants; than it was to see in that dark valley the spirits suffering in different groups. One would lay on his belly, another on the shoulders of someone else and one moved on all fours in the dreadful way. … Slowly we moved without saying a word, watching and listening to the sick who were unable to raise their bodies.

brethren–conversi–conversi; lamentations–lamenti–lamenti; ears–orecchi–orecchi; hands–mani–mani; pain–dolore–dolore; hospitals–ospedali–ospedali; illnesses– mali–mali; stench–puzzo–puzza; putrefying–marcite–marcite; limbs–membre– membra; belly–ventre–ventre; shoulders–spalle–spalle; bodies–persone–corpo, corpi4 *

t h e t e x ts  | 37

Francesco Petrarca Francesco Petrarca was born in Arezzo, July 20, 1304. He studied at Carpentras under the guidance of Convenevole da Prato. In 1316 he studied law at Montpellier and later (1320–1326) at Bologna with his brother Gherardo. In 1326 he returned to Avignon and lead a life of pleasure in an elegant and refined ambient. He enriched his intellectual education by studying the Latin classics and the Church Fathers. On April 6, 1327, in the Church of Santa Chiara, he saw Laura whom he loved all his life and who inspired much of his poetry. In Avignon he became a friend of Cardinal Giacomo Colonna and, later, also of his brother Giovanni. In 1333 Petrarch travelled to Germany. In 1337 he visited Rome receiving an unforgettable impression. On September 1, 1334 he received from both Rome and Paris the invitation to be crowned poeta laureato. He then went to Naples where he was examined by King Roberto d’Angiò who declared him worthy of the great honor. He was crowned in Rome, April 8, 1341 by the Roman Senator Orso dell’Anguillara. There followed a long period of studying and writing but also of travelling because of various duties. In 1352 the poet left France and went to Milan as a guest of Cardinal Giovanni Visconti for whom he carried out some diplomatic tasks. Honored by popes, princes and cardinals, he was known and admired throughout Europe. He moved to Padova (Padua) and from there to Venice where he remained until 1368 as a guest of the Venetian Republic. In 1368 he left Venice and moved to Padua. He lived the last years of his life in his country house at Arquà from 1370 on. His natural daughter Francesca and her husband Franceschino da Brossano lived with him. Petrarch died in his home July 19, 1374. His major works were written both in Latin and in Italian. Of great importance are De Rebus Familiaribus, the Seniles, Sine nomine and Variae as well as Epistolae metricae. Particularly important are the letters Posteritati that were to conclude the Seniles. Among his main works one should mention Invectiva in medicum and De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia, De vita solitaria, De ocio religiosorum, De remediis utriusque fortunae and the Secretum or De secreto conflictu curarum mearum. In the Italian language he wrote the Canzoniere, a large collection of poetical compositions that represent the various facets of Petrarch’s thoughts, joys, and sufferings brought by love and life.

Secretum. Liber secundus A Giovanni Colonna, Cardinale della Chiesa Romana What do you like about your body? Perhaps its vigor and prosperous health? Yet (there is) nothing more precarious: a weakness that penetrates because of simple



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

reasons, the various attacks of diseases and the bite of a small worm, or a slight exhalation as well as similar causes destroy them. body–corpo–corpo; vigor–vigoria–vigoria, vigore; health–salute–salute; exhalation– esalazione–esalazione * Finally, when there was no more hope since that insane love had closed the ears of the king to all beneficial advice, death carried away the woman unexpectedly (who was) the reason for all evil. Great but hidden was happiness in the royal palace; but there followed a grief deeper that the previous one, when it was noticed that the king was the pray of a disease even more disgusting since his passion, far from abating because of death, was centered in that filthy and bloodless corpse that he, after having it embalmed, covered with jewels and dressed in purple cloth, held day and night with pitiful and passionate embraces. There is no telling how discordant and unfitting is the condition of being a lover and a king, because different things can never be united without causing a clash. What is, in fact, a kingdom but a just and glorious domination? And what is love but a vile unjust slavery? death–morte–morte; evil–male–male; disease–morbo–malattia; disgusting–turpe– turpe; bloodless corpse–cadavere esangue * A Giacomo Colonna, Vescovo di Lombez What do you say? That I invented the beautiful name of Laura so that I might speak of her and many would talk about her; in reality no Laura is in my heart but for that laurel of the poets to which it is evident that I aspire through a long, tireless study. Of this living Laura, of whom I pretend to be a prisoner, everything is artificial: my poems are false, my sighs are simulated. I wish you would make light only of this, and that in me there was really pretence and not frenzy. Believe me, nobody can pretend for long without great efforts; and to strive uselessly to seem insane is the greatest insanity. Consider also that being healthy, we may imitate the sick persons with our demeanor but cannot feign paleness. You know my paleness and my pain, therefore I suspect even more that with your Socratic humor they call irony, in which you are not second even to Socrates, you intend to make fun of my ills. But wait; this wound of mine will heal in time and in me there will come true that saying of Cicero: “Time wounds, time heals”; and against this Laura that you

t h e t e x ts  | 39

consider fictitious Augustine because reading and meditating on many and serious matters, I will be old before aging. frenzy–frenesia–frenesia; insane–pazzo–pazzo; insanity–pazzia–pazzia; healthy– sano–sano; paleness–pallore–pallore; pain–pena–pena, dolore; wound–ferita– ferita * A Giovanni Colonna. Del suo viaggio e delle turpitudini della corte di Napoli Not to keep you back for too long, you must know that after I left Rome I came to Naples, introduced myself to the queens and participated in their council. Alas, what a horror. May the Lord keep away such a plague from Italy’s sky. I thought that Christ was despised only in Memphis, Babylon and Mecca; I feel pity for you, o my noble Parthenope, for you have truly become a city like those: no pity, no truth, no faith. I saw a hideous animal with three feet, barefoot, his head uncovered, proud of his poverty, flabby because of lust; a dwarf, bald and ruddy, with swollen legs, barely covered with a shabby cloak that purposely revealed a large part of his body and in these clothes he sneered most insolently, as if from the top of his holiness, not only at yours but also at the words of the Roman Pontiff. … And so that you may not miss his sacred name, he is called Robert. But in the place of that most serene Robert who reigned till a short time ago and was the greatest dignity of our age, there rose this Robert who will be its greatest disgrace. At this point I will no longer believe it impossible that from the body of a buried man an asp may be born because from the tomb of a king there came to life this sullen snake. … flabby–flaccido–flaccido; dwarf–omuncolo–omuncolo; bald–calvo–calvo * A Giovanni Colonna. Descrizione di Baia To tell you the truth, taken by boredom by a long and useless waiting, I had decided to take a quick trip to Mt. Garganus, the port of Brindisi and all that stretch of the Adriatic Sea, more for a desire to go far from here than to see new things; but I refrained from doing it due to the wishes of the queen mother and the wish of a longer journey was directed to nearer and more beautiful places. And if, after my departure from here, the season will allow me to visit also those places, there will be this consolation for my efforts: that if I do not achieve



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

anything of what I had come for, I will have seen at least many things that I did not expect to see. But I shall talk to you in person of these latter matters, if I have the opportunity, when I return from this long journey, so that it may reach you sooner. I visited Baia in the company of my illustrious friends Giovanni Barrili and Barbato; and no day was for me happier than that one, because of their presence and the great things that I saw and the contrast with the past days which were so sad. I saw that charming bay during the winter months, that the summer sun, instead, spoils; at least this is what I think, but mine is purely an opinion because I never was there in summer. It is by now more than two years that I came here for the first time in the rage of the wind in mid winter, a season when a journey by sea causes great discomfort and so I could not visit any of those places described by Virgil; I saw Lake Avernus and Lake Lucrino and also the stagnant waters of Acheron; Augusta’s pool made unhappy by her son’s cruelty, the road of Gaius Caligula that once was splendid and now is under the waves, and the barrier against the sea, built by Julius Caesar; I saw the country and the dwelling of the Sybil and that horrid cave from which the foolish never return and the wise cannot go in; I saw Mt. Falerno, famous for its vineyards and that arid land that here gives out constantly exhalations beneficial for some illnesses and there spews out bubbling clouds of ash and thermal waters that boil like a cauldron. I saw the rocks that drip salutary water and baths that once, as a gift of nature, our common mother, helped to heal every illness and that now, because of the physicians’ envy, as they say, have been confused with other ones; for which, nevertheless even nowadays large numbers of people of both sexes come from the neighboring towns; I saw also not only the cave named Neapolitan, that was mentioned by Anneus Seneca in his writing to Lucilius, but other mountains perforated and supported by marble vaults that shine of a wonderful whiteness with sculpted images that indicate with a hand to which part of the body those springs will do good. I was strongly astonished not so much by the appearance of the places but by the skill of the artists. And now I am no longer surprised by the walls of Rome, when I see that so far from the fatherland—although for great men any place is a fatherland—the splendor of the Romans pervaded, who, one hundred miles away from the city had placed their almost suburban winter delights. The summer ones were Tivoli and Fucino and the wooded valleys of the Apennines and Lake Cimino together with the mountain, as Virgil says and the sunny, lonely spots of Umbria, the shady hills of Tuscolo, the Algido, truly gelid, more visited than Baia, as the waters of the time and the majestic ruins attest; although I know well that it was rather a place of human voluptuousness than of Roman austerity. Therefore Mario, a man of a rather unrefined

t h e t e x ts  | 41

character, and Pompey and Caesar, men of more noble customs, are praised for building their villas on the mountains; from which, as it behooved true men, not immersed in the softness that weakens souls but far from it, looked from above at the activity of Baia’s sea and its pleasures. And Scipio the African, a peerless man who placed all values in the virtues and did not want to have any rapport with pleasure, behaving in this as in the rest of his life, did not want so much to look from above, as much as not to look at this place at all, so contrary to his way of life, therefore he stood away from it and preferred to live at Literno rather that at Baia; I know that Literno is not too far from here and there is no other place that I would have visited more willingly if I had found somebody to take me to the dwelling made noble by such a great host. discomfort–disagio–disagio; physicians–medici–medici; heal–guarire–guarire; every illness–ogni male–ogni male, malattia *

Senili Al suo Simonide. Proemio One day, in a letter to my Socrates, I complained that the year of our century 1348 had taken away from me almost all the consolations of this life with the death of many friends: and I recall well how many were, at that time, my laments and tears. Now, what shall I have to do in this sixty-first year, when it took away not only every precious person but also the one I held most valuable and most dear, my Socrates? I do not intend to speak about my other losses, because I do not intend to burst forth in complaints that are inappropriate, at my age and for my studies, nor do I wish the recollection of this year that was pestilential for many places and particularly for this Cisalpine Gaul and that caused, from beginning to end, the depopulation of a rich and populous Milan, not to mention the other towns, that had not yet been reached by the contagion. I allowed myself many things, which I shun now. I hope luck will not be able to cause me to cry again. I resolved to hold fast for, if I cannot do that, I shall fall without tears or complaints. It is worse to cry than to give in. pestilential–pestifero–pestilenziale; depopulation–deserto–spopolato; contagion– contagio–contagio *



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

Senili Al Veneziano Padre Bonaventura Baffo: Notizie gravi per la patria Would you like to have news about me and the fatherland? Here it is. Troubles never end: there is only hope in divine mercy. Do not believe those who, imagining what they long happened, believe in the dreams of hope. Perhaps early violence decreased a little, but the plague still rages violently and slaughters people. You can hear moaning and crying everywhere, and as you look around still warm corpses face you; the streets are cluttered with funeral processions: and struck by implacable death, you can see everywhere victims felled by the devastating contagion. As Virgil said about a city that had fallen in its enemies’ hands, it seems one could say of this one: “Everywhere there is cruel seeping, fright, and a multiform image of death.” I confess to you that concerning these things not fear but loathing keeps me secluded in my domestic walls and it often causes me to feel painfully the wish for your friendly visits. And concerning ourselves, let this suffice. plague–peste–peste; warm corpses–ancora caldi cadaveri–cadaveri ancora caldi; implacable death–implacabile morte–morte implacabile *

Senili A Guido Sette, Arcivescovo di Genova: Come le cose del mondo vadano di male in peggio When I arrived there (Padua), that poor city was so grieved by the recent scourge of the plague and then kept in a state if imperturbable peace by the beneficial care of its eldest son that one can say (about it) that among all it is the only one that rather than fall down it arose again. But comparing it with what it used to be a year before my arrival, namely before the beginning of the plague, it appears, as the others, on the wane and disheartened. Later I became familiar with Milan and Pavia. What would I tell you? There is no city as it used to be once, not many centuries ago, but only a few years past and within our recollection. These things that I am saying were not read or heard but seen with my own eyes. Milan itself, that we read was very flourishing for one thousand five hundred years, and that never, I believe, rose to such splendor as it did in our age, although still great, mighty and steady, cannot be said it is as it used to be. If you speak with its citizens, they will tell you this and worse. What can I tell you about Pisa, where I spent the seventh year of my life? What about Siena?

t h e t e x ts  | 43

About Arezzo, dear to me as the place of my first exile and birth place? What about neighboring Perugia? And a thousand others? The same about all: yesterday they were one thing, today they are another. Incredible, indeed, and extremely rapid change. recent scourge–recente flagello–recente flagello; universal pest–peste universale– peste universale * (From the Same Letter) What could be said of so many other woes? We knew the plague by name and for having read the descriptions in the books. But there never came a universal pest (destined) to destroy the human gender. It was never seen, read about or heard of. And behold, already for the past twenty years we saw it invade all countries, so that in some places it remained stopped and latent but nowhere eliminated; every day we can see it return where we thought it had disappeared; it assails after deceiving us with a short lived happiness, a proof, as I believe, of a constant celestial anger and the stubborn perversity of mankind, because if it would stop committing its crimes and diminish their number, God’s revenge would become more lenient. Canzone CCLXVIII … what must I do, what do you suggest, Love? / It is just time to die / and I delayed more than I should like: / My lady is dead and has my heart with her, / and wishing to follow it / I should put an end to these cruel years.5 Sonnet CCLXVII Alas, the beautiful face, alas the sweet smile, / alas the charming proud bearing! / Alas the words that made harsh and fierce / mind humble and every vile man brave! / And alas the sweet smile whence came the arrow / from which I expect no good thing but death! / Noble soul most worthy of empire / if you had not come to us so late / for you I must burn, and in you breathe / for I was yours and if I am without you, / it hurts me more than any other mischance. / You filled me with hope and with desire / when left from that great pleasure alive, / but the wind carried away the words.6 Sonnet CCLXXXIII Death, you discolored the most beautiful face / that was ever seen / and extinguished the most beautiful eyes.



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

Fragment After you extinguished the light of the beautiful eyes / Death pitiless and fierce / that used to make my life serene, / to what sorrow, to what torment do you destine me!

Ad seipsum Alas! What ruin hangs over me? Where does my inimical destiny drive me back? I see time pass hastily before me amid the ruin of the world, and, around me, crowds of young and old people die, and nowhere I perceive the safe haven of a harbor or a hope of safety appears to me. Wherever I turn my frightened eyes, funeral rites upset me; filled with coffins, churches echo with laments and here and there lie corpses of noble and common people. The terror of death enters my soul and, forced to think of the events of my life, I think of many dear friends who died and their sweet words and faces that I will never see again while the cemeteries are no longer sufficient to receive so many bodies. Italy weeps oppressed by so many deaths. Gaul weeps deprived of men, the people of every land cry, either because this happens by the wrath of God, rightfully angry because of our crimes, or because of a malignant celestial influence, generated by the alternation of natural causes. This year, grievous because of pestilence, looming upon the human race because of the plague, threatens with a terrible end, while a heavy air fosters death. Jupiter, angered, looks from the polluted sky from which it pelts the earth with disease, and death and the heartless Fates prepare to cut together their threads; and I fear that this much was allowed them to do from above as I see the pale faces of the unhappy people so numerous are those who descend to the dark Tartarus. In these thoughts, I confess it, I tremble and feel also near me the insidious dangers of death because neither the sea, the land, the dark caves show me where I may hide, since death wins everything and penetrates impetuously into the unsafe hiding places. Like the seafarer, caught in a great storm, when irate Neptune has already sunk in front of his eyes the other ships, realizes that also the hull of his own ship creaks and the oars are shattered against the rocks and sees the helm floating on the ravaging waves, so I too hesitate undecided on which determination to make but certain about the danger.7 funeral rites–funebri riti–riti funebri; coffins–feretri–feretri; cemeteries–cimiteri–cimiteri; bodies–cadaveri–cadaveri; wrath of God–ira di Dio–ira di Dio; malignant–maligno–maligno; celestial influence–influsso celeste–influsso celeste; pestilence–pestilenza–pestilenza; plague–peste–peste; heavy air–aria pesante–aria

t h e t e x ts  | 45

pesante; polluted sky–cielo corrotto–cielo inquinato; insidious dangers–insidiosi pericoli–pericoli insidiosi *

Ad Italiam Hail, most holy land, dear to God, hail land safe for the righteous, tremendous for the wicked, land nobler than any other, more fertile and more beautiful, surrounded by two seas, famous for your glorious Alps, venerable for war glory and sacred laws, abode of the Muses, rich in treasures and heroes, that art and nature made worthy of every noble favor and guide of the world! Eagerly I return to you after a long time, never to leave you again: you will give my life pleasant rest and at the end you will grant me in your bosom as much ground as my cold body will cover. Oh Italy, full of joy, I behold you from above leafy Monginevro, behind my shoulders remain the clouds and a gentle wind strokes my forehead while the air, rising gently, welcomes me. I recognize my fatherland, and joyously greet it: Hail, my beautiful mother, hail, oh glory of the world! *

Giovanni Boccaccio Giovanni Boccaccio was born in Certaldo, the son of Boccaccino di Chellino, in 1313. At the age of 12 he was sent to Naples to learn commerce and banking from the Neapolitan correspondent of the Bardi, the Tuscan bankers. Having no bent for business, at the age of 18 he studied law and literature. He was accepted with grace and respect at the court of King Roberto d’Angiò where he met, among other important persons, learned scholars such as Andalone del Negro and Paolo Perugino, the king’s librarian. Boccaccio lived the elegant and refined life of the court with immense pleasure, without moral or intellectual complications. His love for “Fiammetta” began at that time and lasted for the rest of his life, as a symbol and a memory of youth and beauty. In Naples, he began his literary activity from which there would come his Filocolo, Filostrato and Teseida delle Nozze di Emilia. After some years, because of the bankruptcy of the Bardi family, he was forced to return to Florence in 1340. In 1350 he was in Florence and the republic requested his talents as an ambassador to the Polentani of Ravenna and the Ordelaffi of Forlì. In 1350 the Florentine republic sent him frequently as its ambassador to Romagna, Brandenburg, and the popes Innocenzo VI and Urbano V. In 1351



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

he travelled to Padua to offer to Francesco Petrarca a position in the “studio” of Florence. That encounter was greatly significant for both writers and it marked the beginning of an influential and profound friendship that ended only with the death of Petrarch in 1374. At the end of 1362 he went to Naples in the hope of finding a suitable employment but he was unsuccessful. Boccaccio lived the last years of his life vexed by financial difficulties. In 1373 the Republic of Florence invited him to read and discuss the Divine Comedy in the church of Santo Stefano di Badia. And Boccaccio, who had always been a keen reader of the poem, began the task with alacrity but was not able to go beyond the 17th canto of the Inferno. He died in Certaldo in 1375. His works, besides the Decameron, are Filocolo, Filostrato, Teseida delle Nozze di Emilia, Amorosa Visione, Ninfale Fiesolano, Corbaccio, Bucolicum Carmen, De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, De Claris Mulieribus, De genealogiis deorum gentilium and De montibus, maris as well as Vita di Dante, Trattatello in Laude di Dante and Commento alla Commedia.

The Decameron Introduction and Description of the Plague of 1348 I say then that the years of the fruitful incarnation of the Son of God had reached number one thousand and three hundred and forty-eight, when in the notable city of Florence, most noble beyond any other city in Italy, there came the deadly pestilence that, either because of the influence of the superior bodies or our iniquitous deeds, was sent upon the mortals by the rightful wrath of God to correct us. It had started several years earlier in the western lands and it had claimed a large number of lives from one place to the next without pausing but it went eventually westward as it dreadfully grew. Since no human wisdom or ingenuity could prevail upon it, the city was cleaned of a lot of filth by men charged with this task; it was forbidden for any sick person to enter the city and several suggestions were offered to keep oneself in good health. Humble prayers were said not one but many times, and supplications were organized in processions and other ways for the Lord by devout people, but almost at the beginning of the spring of the aforementioned year, it horribly began to show its painful signs. It did not develop as it had happened in the Orient, where anyone who had a nose bleeding, received a positive sign of an inevitable death but, at the start of the malady, it appeared both in men and women in their groins and armpits as some swellings of which some grew as large as a common apple, others became as large as an egg, more in some, less in others; the common people called them gavaccioli. And

t h e t e x ts  | 47

from the indicated parts of the body, after a short time, the deadly gavacciolo began to grow in any part and after this the behavior of the illness changed into black and bluish blotches over arms, thighs and other parts of the body of several persons; some were large and scattered, others were small and numerous. And while the gavacciolo at first had been and continued to be a sign of future death, so were these blotches for anyone who had them. Neither doctors’ advice nor power of medicine seemed to or could avail in curing these illnesses: either the nature of the malady prevented it or the ignorance of the doctors whose number had become huge both for men and women and had acquired no knowledge of medicine. They did not know its origin and, consequently, were unable to find a proper remedy. Thus, only a few recovered while almost all died between the appearing of the mentioned signs, sooner or later, without running any fever or other symptoms. This pestilence was even stranger because through close contact it affected the healthy people not differently from the fire near dry or oily objects when they got in touch with it. And there was worse later on because not only speaking and living with the sick persons gave the healthy ones the disease or cause of common demise but also touching clothes or any other thing handled by the sick who were ailing seemed to bring along that malady. It is frightening to hear what I must say which, had it not been seen by my own eyes or other’s would not be believed, and I barely dare believe it and write it having heard it from trustworthy persons. I say that such a kind of pestilence was so contagious going from one person to another, that not only from a human to another, but what is more, the objects belonging to the person who was infected or had died affected an animal, not belonging to the human species, that would die after a very short time. One day, as I indicated before, I had the opportunity to see with my own eyes that the rags belonging to a poor man who had died of the disease, were thrown on the public road, and two pigs that had come upon them following their instinct, first with their snouts and then with their fangs, took them and tossed them with their heads; a short time later, after some convulsions, they fell on the ground as if they had ingested some poison and died on the rags that they had dragged. From these facts and several others, similar or worse, there rose many forms of fear and supposition in those who were alive and all led to one conclusion, that was to leave the sick people and their belongings: by doing this each individual believed to assure good health for himself. There were some who thought that by living in moderation and protecting themselves from any kind of excess would help greatly to resist against such problem: and after gathering in groups, they lived apart from all others. They would gather and they secluded themselves where there was no sick person and to live better they indulged in very choice food, very good wines, lived very modestly rejecting any form of lust, not allowing anyone



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

to speak to them or hearing news from outside about death or diseased people, spending their time with music and those pleasures that they managed to enjoy. Others, drawn by another idea, asserted that drinking immoderately, enjoying and singing around, pleasing themselves and satisfying themselves in any way one could, while laughing and making merry, was the most effective medicine for such a great disaster. And so, as they said, they would put it into practice as much as they could by going day and night to this or the other wine shop, drinking in excess and doing much more in other people’s houses where they could have things that gave them pleasure. They could do that very easily because each one, almost as if he did not have to live any longer, had neglected his affairs, as he had neglected himself, so that most houses had become common dwellings, and so they were used by any stranger if he came upon these, as the legitimate owner would have done. And in spite of this brutish resolution, they always avoided as much as possible the sick people. In such torment and calamity of our city, the noble authority of the laws, both divine and human, for which reason it was licit whatever one wanted to do, several others between the two groups mentioned previously, followed a middle course by not limiting their food like the first either in drinking or indulging in other dissipations like the second, but used things sufficiently as they wished, they went about without locking themselves up carrying in their hands flowers or fragrant herbs or several kinds of spices, smelling them often in the belief that it was a convenient idea to comfort the mind with those odors since the air stank because of the dead bodies of the people and the medicines. Some persons had a more cruel opinion, although perhaps a safer one, and said that no medicine was better against pestilences nor more effective as it was escaping from all of it, and prompted by this thought, caring for nothing else but themselves, several men and women abandoned their city, their houses, their properties as well as their relatives and moved to the neighboring countryside of Florence or other towns as if the wrath of God would not go where they were, in order to punish the sins of the people but could pursue only those who were within the walls of their own city or believing that nobody would remain in it, having the last hours of life come. Although these persons of differing opinions did not all die, still not all survived. On the contrary, since many became ill of that plague in every place, some of the survivors were themselves abandoned, having given the bad example when they were in good health. Let us mention the fact that a citizen would avoid another one and no neighbor would care for the next, and related people would visit each other rarely and from afar. This tribulation had invaded men’s and women’s minds whereby a

t h e t e x ts  | 49

brother could abandon his brother, the uncle his nephew, the sister her brother and often the wife her husband. And much more serious, and almost unbelievable, fathers and mothers would forsake their children and failed to help them as if they were not their own. As a consequence, the persons who became ill, both men and women, and their number was inestimable, were left with no other help but the charity of friends who were also few, or the greed of the servants who demanded highly exaggerated salaries, although even those were somewhat rare. There were individuals of a coarse nature, unfamiliar with these tasks, who were only capable of handling some things upon request by the patients or to watch after them as they were dying. Working in these situations several times, they lost their money as well as their lives. As a consequence of the sick being abandoned by their neighbors, relatives and friends, and having a scarcity of servants, there appeared a custom never heard of before, that no woman, however beautiful or attractive or gentle, having fallen ill, did not mind to be attended by a man, whoever he might be, young or other and reveal to him without any shame every part of her body as she would have been saved. Of these, either because of the lack of proper services that the sick could not receive or the strength of the pestilence that was in the city, a large number of people died by day and by night and it was amazing to hear it reported or observed directly. For this reason, almost necessarily, many things that were contrary to the early habits of the citizens appeared among those who survived. It was customary, as we can still see at present, that the female relatives and neighbors of the deceased would gather with the relatives in front of the deceased’s house and, according to the social standing of the deceased, there came the clergy and the deceased was carried on the shoulders of his peers, and with funeral dignities, candles and chants the deceased was carried to the church chosen by him before his death. These things, after the ferocity of the pestilence began to surge, almost ceased for the major part, or entirely, and new, different customs came about. For this reason, people died not only without having the company of some women, but there were many who passed from this life without any witness and very few were those who had the tearful grief and bitter tears of their relatives, rather, in place of them they had mostly laughter, witty remarks and the merriment of a happy company. Women, having set aside the feminine compassion for their own pleasure, had learned the new way for their own sake. Few were those whose bodies were followed to the church by more than ten or twelve of their neighbors who did not carry the noble and beloved citizens but a sort of grave digger coming from low people who were called sextons (becchini) who supplied this service for money. They pulled up the coffin and carried quickly the dead, most of the time, not to the church that he had chosen before



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

dying, but to the nearest one, behind four or six clerics with a few lights and sometimes none at all, with the help of the sextons, without working too hard or too long. And without a solemn office, they would preferably place him in any empty grave that they could find. The treatment of the common people, and of a large part of the middling class, was much more deplorable because the major part of them kept in their houses and districts became ill by the thousands every day, and deprived of any care or help died unassisted. There were many who ended up in the public streets during the day and the night; several others who died in their houses made their neighbors aware of their death first by the stench of their foul bodies then otherwise. Of these, and of the others that died elsewhere, the city was full. In most cases their neighbors followed the same habit, driven no less by fear that the corrupting bodies could hurt them than by pity for the deceased. By themselves or with the help of some bearers when they could find them, they took the bodies from the houses and placed them in front of the house doors, where, especially in the morning, a person walking around would have been able to see their enormous number and called for some biers to be brought. There were some, who because of a shortage of biers, placed the bodies on some boards; nor was there a single bier to hold two or three together, nor did it happen only once but one could have counted many more times when the wife, the husband, two or three brothers, the father and the son or other groups of this kind were contained. And very numerous times it occurred that, as two priests were going with a cross to some funeral, three or four biers brought by the carriers, followed the priests; and while the priests believed to accompany one dead person to be buried, they had six or eight, and sometimes more. Nor were there deceased citizens honored with grief or torches or a group of friends, because the situation had become such that one was no more concerned about the deceased than he would be now about goats: it clearly appeared that the seriousness of the ills had wised up and resigned also the simple minded, and the ignorants, who, confronted by those misfortunes that the little and rare damage that occur in the normal development of events, had not been able to teach even the wise how to withstand them patiently. The land assigned to interment of the large quantity of bodies that was carried every day and almost every hour was insufficient, and if it had been wished to give everyone a proper burial according to the old custom, they should have used the cemeteries of the churches since every other space had been taken. Instead, enormous trenches were excavated where hundreds of the newly arrived bodies were placed, stowed like merchandise in the ships’ holds, tier upon tier. Then they were covered with a little ground until the trench was full to the brim.

t h e t e x ts  | 51

But in order to avoid describing in every detail all the past miseries that occurred in our city, I say that during that adverse time also the surrounding countryside was not prepared. There, apart from the castles that were similar in size to a town, in the scattered hamlets and the regular countryside, the poor, unlucky peasants and their families died without any doctor’s assistance, equally in the day or in the night, not like humans but like animals, without helpers, in the streets, in their fields or in their houses. For this reason, as they had become as negligent in their behavior as the town people, they did not take care of their affairs or possessions. Besides, as almost all were waiting to die, they tried with any means not to take care of the future products of the land and enterprises and wasted those that were available. So it happened that oxen, jackasses, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens and the dogs most faithful to the country folks, chased out of their houses, roamed around as they pleased, in the fields where were the grains, still ungathered and uncut. Many of them, as if they were able to reason, after they had been feeding themselves in the daytime, returned back to their homes well fed and without the calls of the shepherds. What else can we say, leaving behind the countryside and returning to the city, that Heaven’s cruelty was such and perhaps in part that of the people, that between March and the coming July the force of the pestiferous malady and the neglectful attitude toward the sick who had been abandoned and because of the healthy people’s fears, it was believed that within the walls of the city of Florence there had certainly died more than one hundred thousand, and perhaps before the deadly pestilence one would not have expected to see so many die within the city. O, how many great palaces, how many elegant houses, how many noble dwellings once inhabited by families, by gentlemen and ladies were left empty even of the humblest servant! O, how many memorable generations, how many large inheritances, how many famous fortunes were left without legitimate successors. How many brave gentlemen, how many fair ladies, how many handsome youths who would have been considered healthy by Galen, Hippocrates, Aesculapius as well as others, in the morning had a meal with their relatives, companions and friends, had supper in the evening with their ancestors! deadly pestilence–mortifera pestilenza–pestilenza mortifera; superior bodies–corpi superiori–corpi superiori; rightful wrath of God–giusta ira di Dio–giusta ira di Dio; large numbers of lives–innumerabile quantità di viventi–innumerevoli viventi; anyone who had a nose bleeding–a chiunque usciva sangue del naso–chiunque avesse sangue dal naso; gavacciolo–a Tuscan form for bubbone; blotch–enfiatura–enfiatura; pestilence–pestilenzia–pestilenza; disease–infermità–infermità; convulsion–avvolgimento–contorsione; flower–fiore–fiore; fragrant herbs–erbe odorose–erbe aromatiche; several kinds of spices–diverse maniere di spezierie–diversi tipi di spezie;



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

tribulation–tribulazione–tribolazione; deceased–morto–morto; sexton–becchino– becchino; as if they had a reason–come razionali–come se fossero forniti di ragione *

Leggenda di San Giuliano l’Ospitaliere As he was uttering these words, a leper came through the woods; he was covered with sores and stank as if he were a rotting thing. Julian then saw him and walked toward him. He saw that the man almost couldn’t walk; he, then, picked him up, took him home and began immediately to wash him. After he did that, the leper who was our Savior, started to get up and suddenly there was a bright light and the brightest radiance in the world. Then Christ called Julian and said: “Julian, I am Christ, I have forgiven your sins and I tell you that in ten days you will be with me in the glory of paradise.” (On this legend see La Legende de St. Julien l’Hospitalier, Analecta Bollandiana, 1945, 145–219) leper–lebroso–lebbroso; leprosy–lebra–lebbra; Savior–Salvatore–Salvatore *

Guglielmo dell’Epopea: Guillaume D’Orange At that place he contracted a severe illness, and while he was praying it was revealed by the Lord’s angel that he had to go to Mount Petritium that is near Castellionem Burianensem (Castiglione della Pescaia). Going toward the mountain, with a fever that came every other day, he lived a hermit’s life, all alone with his illness, in a little hut built for him. Some days of the week the shepherds of the area gathered near the aforementioned servant of God and, acting like animals and dissolute people, caused such a loud noise that the saint could not stay in peace nor rest. For this reason, he left and went to live at Castellionem. In that place he was received kindly by those people for God’s sake, and from among them he was welcomed by a man of that place who had a wife. One day, returning home at Vespers, Guillaume told the woman: “I beg you, for God’s sake, give me something to eat because I am exhausted and feel I am going to faint.” The woman answered and said: “Only God knows that I feel so sick that I cannot

t h e t e x ts  | 53

move at all, otherwise I would do it gladly.” Then God’s servant Guillaume prayed devoutly, asked for her and invoked the name of Jesus Christ above her. Immediately, she was free from her illness and then, with a great sense of charity, took care of his needs, feeding the mentioned servant and blessed Guillaume, with good charity and love of God. This man had a daughter who had a very bad fever and he devoutly asked the servant of God, Guillaume, to bless a loaf of bread because he wished, after the blessing, to give some of it to his daughter who was feverish because he earnestly believed in God and the merits of the most holy Guillaume in order to be rid of the mentioned illness. The servant of God replied and said: “My lady, I am a very bad sinner and I have not any virtue in my soul.” As his disciple Albert heard these words, he turned toward him and said: Father, you deny the mercy of our Lord; it is very dangerous to deny what is asked by the charity of God with great faith and hope, because the faith that people have in you, Father, is sufficient to accomplish great deeds.

As the servant of God, Guillaume heard the words of his good disciple Albert, with many tears and praising the Lord he blessed a loaf of bread, saying: “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.” The good man brought it with great reverence to his daughter, and she, after eating some of it, was quickly freed from her fever and illness. And similarly, in the mentioned Castiglione della Pescaia, there were two other young girls who were affected by a similar fever and had been suffering from it (the quartan fever) for a long time. When they heard about the healing of the mentioned young girl, they asked her father, by the merit of blessed Guillaume, to give him a bit of the bread that he had blessed. He immediately gave a little bit of it to each one of the two. After the two other girls had eaten of that bread with deep reverence, instantly they were freed and healed by the grace of God and the merits of Saint Guillaume. (A fourteenth century Italian version of the cycle of Guillaume d’Orange. He lived in the second half of the eighth century. In 793 he defeated the Saracens in the battle of Orbien and supported the cause of Charles Magne’s son Ludwig when he ruled over Aquitaine. He founded a monastery in 804 where he died in 812. The literary figure originated from this historical character.) fever–febre–febbre; feverish–febricoso–febbricitante; affected–agravate–affette; quartan fever–quartana–febbre quartana; freed–libere–libere; healed–sanate– guarite, sanate *



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

Feo Belcari: The Life of the Blessed Giovanni Colombini From Siena Feo Belcari was born and died in Florence, 1410–1484. He was a friend of the Medici. He was a Prior in 1454 and one of the twelve Buoni Uomini in 1451 and 1458. He is the author of several works of poetry, religious laude, sacred plays and works in prose. He is also the author of a sacred representation, “Abraam and Isaak.” The Miracle of the Leper One day it happened that while the servants of God, John and Francis, were going to the cathedral to hear mass, they saw, before the door of the church, among the poor who were begging for alms, a man with leprosy, half naked and covered from head to toe with scabies and sores. As John was observing him, he was moved very deeply and felt pity and compassion for him. Then he told Francis: Look, look at this poor man, deprived of all human help, shall we take him to our home, by the love of Christ, and have care of him? Look, look, we are going to hear mass; this would be celebrating it.

Francis answered: “Do as you please.” Then humble John embraced that leper and placed him on a bench, then he put his head between his thighs and carried him merrily in that manner on his shoulders holding the leper’s hands with his and out of the sweetness of charity he pressed his cheeks now against one and now against the other one. When they reached home, they took him in. But when John’s wife saw him, upset by the horror of the ugly disease, having become angry at John, said: “Is this the food that you bring me? You brought home stench and muck: I am going out of the house and you do as you please, as you are wont.” But John answered her gently and said: I beg you to be patient. This man is a creature of God redeemed as we are by his precious blood, we could become like him, if God wanted it. By Christ’s sake I beg you to let me put him in your bed, so that he may rest a little. Do remember how much pleasure we have enjoyed and how many sins we have committed and offended our Creator? Do not let it be too harsh to suffer a little thing that the poor and the sick represent Christ’s person, because he said in the holy Gospel ‘Every time you help and do some good to one of these poorest people of mine, you do it to me.’

She answered: You have a big mouth, do as you please, I will not meddle with it; and if you let him stay in our bed, I will never lie on it. Don’t you see and smell the stench that even now I cannot stand?

t h e t e x ts  | 55

Then John and Francis, ignoring the woman’s words, prepared a lukewarm bath, washed diligently the leper and after they had dried him gently, they put him on the bed where the woman used to sleep, so that he would rest at ease. The woman endured this against her will. Finally, John, in order to mortify himself further for the love of Christ, drank a lot of the water in which they had washed him. Then he admonished his wife to visit the sick man until they would return from the church, and he with his friend Francis went back to hear Mass. … leprosy–lebbra–lebbra; scabie–scabbia–scabbia; sore–piaga–piaga; leper–lebbroso– lebbroso; head–capo–capo, testa; thigh–coscia–coscia; hand–mano–mano; cheek– guancia–guancia; stench–puzza–puzza; muck–fracidume–fradiciume; bath–bagnolo– bagno *

Giovanni di Pagolo Morelli: Ricordi Ricordi was written between 1393 and 1411. Morelli was a Florentine dyer. His book portrays the origins, the experiences and the progress of his family as well as the people of Florence. His narration includes personal experiences, extremely sad at times, such as the death of his first child, and the events of the city of Florence in times of pestilence. Morelli left San Simone and went back to live in Corso de’ Tintori as it was more suitable for his trade; I do not know when but I know well as I learned from our predecessors that Corso de’ Tintori, at that time, was outside the city of Florence, and at that time Florence grew larger as it is at present so that the location became part of the city. He married a woman of the Isciermi family, an old and decent family; they lived across from the Baldovinettis; her name was Monna Lapa. He had several children, but the one who will be mentioned and remained after him as his heir, by the name of Bartolomeo, will be mentioned in the following chapter. Morelli di Calandro, when he died, was rich, well settled, esteemed and well liked by reputable persons. His body was entombed in Santa Croce, under the arches in a new tomb that Morello had planned to have built there. I do not know precisely when he died, but he lived a long time, more than eighty years, and had Bartolomeo when he was in an advanced age; I think it was one of the latest children. One may discover that in his writings, not because there is any recollection of this fact. *



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

The man was wise and honest; in merchandizing he was a practical and knowledgeable companion of Giovanni Morelli at the warehouse of the “guado” where they had lived, they could have become very wealthy. He had no wife nor any children at all. He left this life as it pleased God, July 7, 1363, of the pestilence; for, as you can see, in Florence there was a great mortality and it affected our ancestors a lot, for out of four brothers only one, the youngest, remained alive. He left the amount of six thousand florins: his heir was Pagolo (who received) half of that sum, the other half was inherited by Giovanni Morelli, and the same was inherited, one half the property of Calandro, may God forgive him and the others. His body was entombed with honors in Santa Croce with his predecessors, may God have truly forgiven them. It is time now to remember the fourth and last child of Bartolomeo who was named Pagolo Morelli. Although this is the youngest, it seems proper to me for no other reason than his virtues to honor him by remembering some of his sincere, useful and wise and good deeds, that are many and so proper that my mind is not capable of grasping them entirely. But I change my mind and will say that my remembering poorly his great and noble deeds is not honoring him but rather diminishing his honor, because I would not know how nor could I write and place them in the right, proper and intelligent view as his fame deserves. But since I have mentioned only the surface of the indicated things, so, at present, I will dwell on the matter without deviating from the real truth. * Then brothers of his died of the pestilence, in the thick of the mortality of ‘63 that was large, and went to the feet of God in the time of twenty days; and, as you saw, the two were busy in the traffic of the blue dye and in cloth dyeing where he had invested fifteen thousand florins. The third one, and the first to die, was married, and his wife was alive and young. This man was involved in usury and did not do much else. This traffic did not cover only Florence but the entire countryside, and it involved also laborers and very poor people as well as great and powerful men both in Florence and elsewhere. The mentioned Pagolo, young, alone, without any assistance or advice but his friends’, at the time of the mortality, upset by the death of his relatives and the fear for his health, being involved in several credits to cash and thousands of florins, since many of his creditors and workers had died who kept in their minds their business information, had to be contacted not only in Florence or its countryside, but further on, in Arezzo, Borgo San Lorenzo, Siena and Pisa and the outlying locations to retrieve merchandise, return it and develop everything; this was not a job to be carried out without solicitude and

t h e t e x ts  | 57

labor. Do consider and think what your mind would suggest to do if you were living at that time and in that situation! Yet he wound it up and disentangled it from the largest to the smallest item properly and diligently. * Among the other things one could notice this concerning him: that because of the mortality of 1374, having all the remaining members of Giovanni’s family and Pagolo’s gone to Bologna to live in a simple house … we were, counting men, women, children, nurses, men-servants, outsiders and friends, more than twenty persons in the family. The handling of the expenses and all necessary things was entrusted to Gualberto … and he, a young man in tender age, an outsider in that land and not so experienced, took care of those duties with good decisions and solicitude. * Later, another girl was born that was called Antonia and she too had the same swelling; she was not medicated but her head was kept warm with a cap lined with andesia and eventually it was reabsorbed and she healed well. She lived seven years or so and later she died of the pestilential illness in July 1400, in the Palazzo Ispini. Her body rests in Santa Trinità in the family tomb of the Ispini, namely in the last chapel, on the left side, going toward the high altar. This was done out of necessity considering that the mortality was high and one could not find people who would take the bodies from the houses; besides this, in Florence, there was only Monna Filippa who, given her age, had to depend on other people’s help for her needs. The third baby girl came at the beginning of that mortality, and was named Filippa; she lived a few months and finally died in the mentioned mortality before Antonia, at Quinto, where she was being nursed and was buried there in the church of Quinto. * In the year of Christ 1348, in the city of Florence, there was a great mortality of human beings who died of pestilential disease; many great events can be learned from the ancient people and several are found in writings; among the others an abundant story was written by messer Giovanni Boccaccio in a book that he wrote of one hundred short stories and (the description of it) is the beginning of the book. *



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

Many astonishing things were seen: to visit a victim of the disease, to treat him or touch his clothes meant to fall dead instantly. Among other things, messer Boccaccio says that he saw two pigs root and tear on the street certain clothing items belonging to a poor man, and they dropped dead on those rags that they had torn up. Can you see how dangerous and risky this pestilential illness is? One cannot beware of it enough. Now, as you have seen in part and understood, the mortality was inestimable, and it was said, and it was certainly true, that in our city two thirds of the persons died and it was believed that in Florence, at that time, there were one hundred twenty thousand souls and that eighty thousand of them died. Imagine what a disaster it was! It is not the case of being very surprised that it happened like this, because there were many causes to set off the disease, and it was more amazing if one would consider carefully everything, to see how many survived and how many died. The reasons were, in part, the following, namely in Florence the illness was not known, by far and large, by the community because it had not appeared for a long time; Florence had a large population, larger than it had ever been; the previous year there had been in Florence a great famine, and I believe that twenty people out of one hundred did not have bread or corn, and those had very little of it. People lived on vegetables. … * … do not go out too early: when it is foggy or rainy stay by the fire. Have your meals at the proper time, eat good food and not too much; get up from the table with a good appetite, be careful with fruit or mushrooms, do not eat them or have little and rarely. Do exercise but not strenuously that you may perspire, gasp or get your clothes wet; stay away from sex and do not get involved with a woman in that year. Do not eat or drink, if you do not want, and if your stomach is full, allow it to digest and then wait an hour before eating or drinking. Be careful at supper, eat a little and good things, do not have any pork at all; if you have a strong stomach, use vinegar, sour dressing but not so much that it may be hard to digest. Use your body with restraint and go out at least twice: if you are constipated, use an enema every eight or fifteen days. Do not sleep too long; get up at sunrise. And in this manner spend your winter. If you observe these habits, you will purify your stomach or the entire body so that the infection in the air will not find matter to attach itself. In spring, or really in March, you will know when it is good to leave town. Wait for some of your fellow citizens to travel: do not try to be one of the first, but when four or six have left decide and go where most of them go and in such a city where with your money you may be able to find what is necessary for the health of your

t h e t e x ts  | 59

body. Do not be foolish and lock yourself up for any reason in a castle or in the country where you cannot find good doctors and medicines. … * In the year 1363 there was in Florence a pestilential mortality: it was great and many people died but it did not cause one fourth of the damage than the one of 1348, although for us it was three times worse; for, in that infection, as it was recalled previously, three brothers of our father died, namely Pagolo of Bartolomeo, Giovanni, Dino, and Calandro, the day and time were indicated above. * In the year of our Lord 1374, there was a great pestilence in the city of Florence as we noted above. Pagolo gave up the ghost in that year and we all fled to Bologna, as it is written. * In these somber and unpleasant times for me, because of the nasty and confused burdens that I have and always had, or shortly before on a Monday morning of May 19, 1406, Alberto, my first child, got ill, with a flow of blood from his nose. On the previous day and night it came three times before we could notice that he was running a fever; later, on Monday morning, while he was at school, he had a fever, a strong nose bleeding, an upset stomach and diarrhea. As it pleased God, he was ill sixteen days, and during the first four he remained ill and then he improved, but lived in very great pains and anguish until Friday night at three on the fifth of June. The illness was this: he had a constant fever that came back every evening and it grew worse. … * He was placed on Friday, at 11, in Santa Croce, in our tomb, in the section reserved for men with those funeral honors that could be observed without breaking the rule. May God have placed his soul in Paradise, and may He give life to the father, mother, brothers and sisters if the best is in store for our souls; otherwise may God’s will be done. I could have never thought that having God separated me from the above mentioned son, having him go from this life to another one, would have been



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

and is not possible for me and his mother to forget; we constantly have his image before us in all the ways, situations, words and actions as we remember them, during the day, at night, at dinner, at supper, indoors, outside, in our sleep, when we are awake, in the country, in Florence; in every frame of mind in which we are; it is like a knife that cuts through our hearts. This really does not happen because we deliberately mirror ourselves in it, but because of the contrary; because from the day that he left us we have estranged ourselves from the thought of him for what is possible to do; except in our prayers. We left from home and waited a month before anyone would go back in. Then, for the entire summer, no one of us went into his room and from the day that he left it in death, for twelve months, I, Giovanni, did not go there, not for any reason but because of an immense grief. May God not want this reason to hasten the time of our death! pestilence–pistolenzia–pestilenza; death–morte–morte; health–sanità–salute; mortality–mortalità–mortalità; pestilential–pestilenziale–pestilenziale; body–corpo–corpo, cadavere; illness–male–male, malattia; fever–febbre–febbre; death–morte–morte; life–vita–vita *

Pandolfo Collenuccio: Istorie del Regno di Napoli, a lo Illustrissimo Principe Ercule, Duca di Ferrara Pandolfo Collenuccio was born in Pesaro, January 7, 1444. He died July 11, 1504. In the Istorie del Regno di Napoli he dedicates his work to Prince Ercole, Duke of Ferrara. All the books, one by one, are dedicated to Ercole I d’Este, to whom he dedicated officially the entire work. After he left Rome, he encamped in Naples and sent Constance to Sicily, but being compelled to give up the undertaking of Naples owing to the plague, he ordered Constance to follow him to Germany. He left Italy in the year 1193 leaving behind in Romagna a baron of his named Marquardo Annenveiler, whom he nominated Duke of Ravenna and Romagna and Marquis of Ancona, and, for the governance of Terra di lavoro another one named Diepoldo, and Federico Lancia for the affairs of Calabria. plague–peste–peste *

t h e t e x ts  | 61

Niccolò Machiavelli: De Principatibus XXIII Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469. Little is known about his early youth. In 1498, after the tragic end of the Savonarola republic, Machiavelli became the Secretary of the Second Chancery. That position marked the beginning of his fervid career that continued until the Medici returned to Florence in 1512. The Republic entrusted him frequently with numerous ambassadorial tasks. He was an envoy in France to King Louis XII in 1500, 1504, 1510 and 1511; to Rome in 1503 during the conclave when Julius II was elected and later Machiavelli accompanied him in 1504 to Imola; while in 1507 he was sent to Emperor Maximilian. During the missions his task was, among others, to study the rulers’ political intentions, that he eventually would incorporate and discuss in written works. They are, for example, Del Modo di Trattare i Popoli della Valdichiana Ribellati (1502); Descrizione del Modo Tenuto dal Duca Valentino nell’ammazzare Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo; later on, in 1508, he wrote Rapporto delle Cose della Magna that was amplified in Ritratti delle Cose dell’Alemagna (1512) and the Ritratti delle Cose di Francia (1510), rich in political acumen and observations of the character of the foreign people, their laws and political orientations. With the ruin of the Republic, Machiavelli lost his office and was forced to live in the Albergaccio, a house near San Cassiano, not too far from Florence. In a famous letter addressed to Francesco Vettori in December 1513 he describes his life away from the activities that he liked most. Some of his major political and literary works go back to that period: De Principatibus, Discorsi, Arte della Guerra, Historie, Mandragola. Niccolò Machiavelli, one of the supremely noble expressions of Italian humanism, died in the month of June 1527. I do not want to disregard an important matter and an error from which princes can hardly defend themselves if they are not very prudent or if they cannot choose with sound judgment. These are the flatterers that courts harbor in large number because men take such delight in their own concerns and are easily mistaken about them that they can hardly defend themselves from this plague, and in trying to defend themselves from it they run the risk to be blamed. For there is no other way to guard oneself from flattery except that you let people know that they do not offend you if they tell you the truth. Yet when one can tell you the truth you will lose his respect.

Discorsi sopra la Prima Deca di Tito Livio Having the Roman people create the Tribunes of Consular Authority, all Plebeians except one, and having the plague and a famine occurr that year (444 b.c.),



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

as well as certain portents, the Nobles took the opportunity against the creation of the Tribunes saying that the gods were angry because Rome had misused the majesty of its authority. * As a very serious pestilence was raging in Rome, it seemed to the Volscians and the Aeques that the time had come to crush Rome. Having organized a very large army, they attacked the Latins and the Hernici to explain what happened to the Romans, asking them to be defended. As the Romans were burdened by the epidemic, they answered them to decide to defend themselves with their own weapons because they (Romans) could not run to their defense. * The Tribunes of the People, who would always favor the things that benefited the people and the more they went against the nobles the more they supported them, on this occasion they joined the nobles in order to overwhelm a mutual plague. * The current sultan Sali, known as the Great Turk, after preparing the action in Spain and Egypt (as it was reported by some people of his country), was encouraged by one of his pashas that he had stationed at the Persian border, to move against the Shah of Persia. Incited by this suggestion he started out with a very large army toward that adventure, and having arrived at an extremely vast country where there were several deserts and few rivers, as he came across the same difficulties that ruined many Roman armies, was overwhelmed by hunger and plague, and, although superior in military strength, he lost a large number of his soldiers.

Historie Fiorentine: Libro secondo, XLII The debacle of the nobles was so dire and it affected their party so much that they never dared undertake hostilities against the people, rather they became more humane and humble. The consequence of this was that Florence gave up not only its weapons but all generosity. After this disaster the city remained peaceful until 1353. During that time there occurred that memorable pestilence that ser Giovanni Boccaccio made famous with his great eloquence in which more than ninety-seven thousand persons perished.

t h e t e x ts  | 63

plague–peste–peste; famine–fame–carestia; epidemic–morbo–epidemia; pestilence– pestilenzia–pestilenza *

Francesco Guicciardini: Consolatoria (dated September 1527 and written in “tempore pestis”) Francesco Guicciardini was born in Florence in 1483 from a distinguished family. By the time that he was 26 years old he could already write a Storia Fiorentina that indicates his capability as an historian. In 1512 his city sent him as an ambassador to Spain. When he returned to Florence he worked during the Medici’s government. But with the decline of that family he fell out of favor and lived in a villa near Florence and then in Rome in 1530. When he returned to Tuscany, and Cosimo de’ Medici became duke of that region, he was not well received by the young prince. He then lived in his villa in Arcetri in 1540. During his life, Guicciardini was not particularly concerned to publish his writings so that in the second half of the sixteenth century only the Storia d’Italia and the Ricordi Civili e Politici had become publicly available. Only between 1857 and 1867 was the major part of his works printed. His writings are both political and historical; the most important are Del Regggimento di Firenze, and Considerazioni sui discorsi del Machiavelli. It is certainly a serious thing to know that all of us must die; we all live as if we were certain to be always alive. I do not think that the reason for this is that we are more affected by what is before our eyes and falls under our senses than the distant things that we do not see: because death is near and one may say that through daily experience it appears to us every hour. I think it occurs because nature wanted us to live according to the way it determines the course or order of this world machine; and not wanting to let it be inert and meaningless, it gave us the ability not to think of death because if we thought about it, the world would be full of indolence and apathy. * When I consider how many incidents and dangers of illness, of chance, of violence and endless other ways man’s life is subjected to stand, and how many things must come together in the years for the harvesting to be good, there is nothing that may amaze me more than seeing an old man or a fertile year.



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

Storia d’Italia This plague that was found many years before in Germany was brought to Italy for the first time by the Venetians, in the year 1380 in the war that they fought with the Genoese, in which the Venetians, defeated by sea and distressed for the loss of Chioggia, would have accepted any terms proposed by the winner if moderate judgment had not been missing on such a famous occasion. * Nor should this be admired because as the distribution of the magistrates and the deliberation of the laws do not need a daily common consent but depend on the will of a smaller number, the citizens, no longer intent on the public welfare but in greed and private ends, there arise the sects and special conspiracies that are connected with the divisions of the entire city, a plague and most certain death of all republics and all empires. … For I shall add, forced by truth, this thought, namely that in our city a government organized in a manner where few citizens may have moderate authority will be a government of a few tyrants who will be the more pestiferous of a single tyrant as the ill is greater and it hurts the more as when it is multiplied. … plague–peste–peste * Thus, who is freed from a tyranny, if he is not held back, hastens to an unbridled license which might correctly be called tyranny because a people resembles a tyrant when it gives to one who does not deserve it, when he takes away from the one who deserves, when he confuses the levels and the distinctions of the persons, and this tyranny is the more pestiferous as his ignorance is more dangerous, because he uses neither weight, nor measure, nor law but the malice that keeps going with some rule, some restraint, some limitation. pestiferous–pestifero–pestifero * The pontiff endeavored in his behalf to stifle this pestiferous doctrine by not using in this pursuit the remedies and medicines capable of treating so great an illness.

t h e t e x ts  | 65

pestiferous–pestifero–pestifero * The cause in the space of some years grew to such a degree of danger that almost the entire Christendom (ran the risk) of being infected by the contamination. contamination–contagione–contagio * But the city of Milan, afflicted by the widespread plague that had tormented it that summer, did not seem to be the same any longer because a very large part of the people had succumbed, and of those who had escaped from such an event several were absent. … plague–peste–peste *

Lodovico Ariosto: La Lena Lodovico Ariosto was born in Reggio Emilia in 1474, from Niccolò, commander of the fortress of the city, and Daria Malaguzzi. At ten years of age he moved with his family to Ferrara. He began to study law, but after five years he dedicated his attention to literary studies. His studies were interrupted when his father died and he, the oldest of ten children, had to assist his five sisters and four brothers. One of his brothers, Gabriele, paralyzed, remained with him all his life. Lodovico worked for Cardinal Ippolito d’Este. The Cardinal took advantage of Lodovico’s abilities for diplomatic missions and ambassadorial tasks that continued for several years. Lodovico, who would have preferred a calm and easier existence, finally succeeded in his attempts, married Alessandra Benucci, and lived with her for the most peaceful and rewarding years of his life. Among the large number of his literary works one should note his Commedie and the Satire. His masterpiece, Orlando Furioso, a chivalric poem divided into forty-six canti in octaves, was published originally in Venice in 1516; Ariosto died July 6, 1533. As in the case of other famous Italian writers, also noticeable passages of Lodovico’s works used to be memorized by every student of the early grades and were remembered as examples of our refined Italian poetic style and unrivalled literary tradition. May the plague get hold of Master Lazaro, / who put in my hands this little house! / I do not want to live in it any longer: let someone else have it!



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

What the hell, could you say in one hundred years? May you get a fistula and what did you see, awful jackass? Phew, may you get the plague! / Ah, rascal, may you get a fistula! Suspicion, the worst of all evils, / the worst spirit of every malicious plague / that torments the unlucky minds of mortal people / with poisonous prods. … plague–peste–peste *

Letter to the Duke of Ferrara Concerning the news from Pisa, one can learn little about the truth because there is the plague. I do not allow a person who comes from there to enter this place, nor anyone of our people to go there. We have been in great danger on account of the plague because these peasants, after celebrating Easter, are used to going in large numbers to Rome and the Maremmas to earn (money) and later, after the harvest of the grains, they return home, and many of them, on their way back, carry the disease. I had a very hard time in confining them in their own lands, but interned some here, some there, and assisted them in the woods with their needs; but I was not able to prevent many of them from going to their wives and their houses; and in one of the new districts called Roggio the plague spread around so that nine of them died immediately. Great assistance has been and is provided nevertheless, and I hope that it will not spread any farther. These people from Maremma have ceased to arrive so that we do not expect the worst. Be that as it may, I wanted to keep Your Excellency informed. plague–morbo–peste; fistula–fistola–fistola *

Battista Guarini: Il Pastor Fido Battista Guarini was born in Ferrara in 1538. Alfonso d’Este entrusted him with several tasks as ambassador to Turin (1569), Venice (1572) and Rome. In 1574 and 1575 he was ambassador to Poland. His report, Discorso sopra le cose di Polonia, is particularly relevant. His most important work is a pastoral drama, Pastor fido (1590), a tragicomedy, as the author defined it. Guarini died in 1612.

t h e t e x ts  | 67

Corisca: Oh, great exploit! oh brave lover, / strict and tenacious / like a stubborn beast, / Like a senseless rook! / Rigid and pertinacious! / There is no greater plague / nor fiercer and deadlier poison / for a soul in love than faith. plague–peste–peste; poison–veleno–veleno *

Michelangelo Buonarroti Il Giovane: La Tancia Michelangelo Buonarroti Il Giovane was so named to distinguish him from the famous artist of whom he was a great grandchild. He wrote a play, La Tancia, in the Tuscan tradition of the rustic comedy as well as La Fiera. Michelangelo was born in Florence, November 4, 1568. He died in Florence, January 11, 1646. He was the son of Leonardo who, in turn, was the son of Buonarroto Buonarroti, brother of the famous sculptor. If he did not have the chance to know his great-uncle, he professed for his entire life a true cult for him and dedicated to him an entire gallery in his palace, where he kept works and drawings of the great artist in order to hand them down to posterity. It is well known that his will was respected so nobly by his descendants that the last one of them was able to donate the collection, in 1858, to the city of Florence. (Luigi Fassò)

Oh dear! Who might it be? / It’s certainly Ciapin, if I hear him well. May he get the plague, just where he is, / he is always behind me. plague–morbo–peste *

Sforza Pallavicino: Del Bene Marquis Sforza Pallavicino, from the Pallavicino family of Parma, was born in Rome, November 18, 1607. He pursued legal and theological studies in Rome. He joined the Compagnia di Gesù in 1637 when he began a long and brilliant career. He wrote a tragedy, Ermenegildo Martire, the dialogue Del Bene and Considerazioni sopra l’arte dello stile e del dialogo. Between 1649 and 1653 he worked on the eight volumes of Assertiones theologicae and the Disputationes in Primam Secundae S. Thomae that were followed by the Arte della Perfezione Cristiana. He died in June, 1667.



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

Even the painted figures, although they are recognized as such, still affect intensely our feelings. Through a good or evil work, it is revealed by the pious tears that often draw from the eyes of sensitive persons the well painted portraits of the tormented Redeemer and the pestilent flames that are excited in the youthful hearts by obscene images that, to the shame of human impudence, are often paid very highly in order to be like the bellows of sleeping lust, to purchase as the very desire of sinning as a precious object.

Quanto sien false le lodi attribuite da’ poeti alla vita contadinesca (How false are the praises written by the poets in honor of rural life.) Some (writers) glorify to heaven that stark poverty of rural life, a poverty that enjoys (as they say) treasures of sincerity, innocence, safety, moderation of desires; it is, in brief, a vivid portrait of the golden age. … Finally, in order not to leave out that highly praised similarity with the golden age, if one considers it carefully, no life is more different from the happiness of the golden age than rural life. The privilege of that century imagines this, that the earth bestowed on many all good things without exacting in return the cost of his efforts. This privilege now belongs to the wealthy man, who, without any hardship, enjoys not only any fruit of nature, but every delight of art. For him there lasts that age when in the field and without the labor of the plough the crops were turning golden, the rivers were flowing with milk and honey trickled from the bark of the trees. Since now it is so easy for the rich man to obtain all these goods as if nature produced them so abundantly. So, the passion of gold is what causes one to enjoy really the age of gold. Precisely there where the peasant endures two calamities directly contrary to the richness of that age. At that time, goods were enjoyed and one did not have to toil in order to produce them; the present toils in order to produce them and then cannot enjoy them. In everything else, that kind of life, very close to that of an animal, is full of hardship, scant in pleasure, not enhanced by science, virtue, honor, cordial friendship, such that, in a word, praising it could be equally understood as a theme by Berni when he wrote the chapter in the praise of the plague. pestilent–pestilente–pestilente, pestifero; calamity–calamità–calamità; praise of the plague–commendazione della peste–elogio della peste *

Secondo Lancellotti: L’Oggidì Secondo Lancellotti was born in Perugia in 1583. After his studies of theology he was assigned to the monastery of Monte Oliveto and then to Siena as a preacher,

t h e t e x ts  | 69

to Brescia and Padua. After several travels and assignments in various parts of Italy, he went to France, in Paris, where he died in 1643. He wrote Della vita del Lancellotti, Chi l’indovina è savio, and L’Oggidì (Nowadays). The world, not more calamitous than … we will look behind us, and the past will walk backward, observing one by one the evils by fault, namely of our will and malice, such as pomp, vanity, conspiracies, injustices, wars, cruelties and others of the same kind, gluttony, carnality, and avarice that mankind always wickedly perpetrates. Then we shall consider the evils of pain, such as earthquakes, floods, excessive cold, pestilences, famines, fires and similar prodigies that occur out of our own doing and are mostly punishments for human crimes. * Let us consider two of these mentioned among the others, Martin Luther and John Wycliffe before him. The former, after harboring and giving power in his soul to a most furious ambition, and John, vying immoderately for the bishopric of V …, and Martin, for the cardinalate and, further on, the papacy, unable the one and the other to satisfy their desire for those honors, stepped both on the pestiferous pulpit and then they vomited the poison that filled and swelled their chests and infected their followers: John writing two hundred books, if we believe Enea Silvio (Piccolomini, Papa Pio II) and Martin, raging with his pen as much as we know, plagued entire kingdoms. calamitous–calamitoso–calamitoso; pestilence–pestilenza–pestilenza; pestiferous– pestilente–pestilente; plagued–appestarono–appestarono; famine–carestia–carestia *

Daniello Bartoli Daniello Bartoli was born in Ferrara in 1608 and died in 1685. He was a Jesuit and wrote a significant work, Storia della Compagnia di Gesù.

Il Giappone Here Father Marcello, after he entered the mosque, burned the books that he found there and the pestilential chair of the Muhammad (from which two horrible snakes that lurked there came out), blessed it and changed it into a church dedicated to Our Lady of Good Success, that was used to celebrate the twelve days that they remained in Mindanao. pestilential–pestilente–pestifero *



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

Paolo Segneri: Quaresimale Paolo Segneri was born in Rome in 1624 and died in 1694. He was known for his Prediche, sermons of the Quaresimale. The common people, who do not understand it, interpret its language against the princes from whose conditions theirs differ; not against the commoners with whom they share the same fate. Didn’t everybody see very soon after that appearance the explosion of that pestilence that affected so many thriving parts of Europe? At this very time, a person who could travel in it will find the still faint voices of the mothers who recently cried for their children, wives with their hair still disheveled, who have recently cried for their husbands. What horror it was to see cities, so beautiful until then, cheerful, so full of people, fill suddenly with misery, shouts and loneliness. Wherever you turned your eyes you saw all around you sick people, hopeless, dying without any comfort. Carts loaded with heaps of dead bodies went around the city every day as if they were carrying death in triumph, pale and bold. Every house quickly contributed by throwing from the windows its grievous tribute. One gave friends, one masters, another gave wives, sisters, fathers fearing themselves to have to follow those ones they had sent in the morning. If you asked me where in this century of ours plague has been so triumphant, what would I do? First I should show you Sicily from which it came out and then all of our Italy that contributed to this greedy beast no less than a million cadavers. Then I should indicate France, Spain, Dalmatia, Candia and, besides these, England, Poland, Corsica, Sardinia, Catalogna where the signs of the immense mortality remained, as the signs of the recent wrecks remain in the waves. … You still do not turn to your God? You do not commend yourselves? You still do not repent? Arise my dear sinners, arise and shake off this noxious lethargy. Arise and give up that practice, since God, on account of our dishonesty, causes our flesh to putrefy with such horrible plague. pestilence–pestilenza–pestilenza; carts loaded with heaps of dead bodies–le carra de’ cadaveri accumulati–carri dei cadaveri accumulati; plague–peste–peste; mortality– mortalità–mortalità; plague–peste–peste *

Francesco Berni: Encomio della peste Francesco Berni was born in 1498 in Lamporecchio and died in 1535. He initiated the tradition of the poesia burlesca, comic poetry that had a considerable following

t h e t e x ts  | 71

for some time. He worked also on a revision of Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato and original sonnets.

Chapter One A Maestro Piero Buffet, Cuoco Don’t be amazed, Master Piero, / if last night I did not want to express / my opinion on that doubt of yours, / when we were discussing over dinner / what was the best time and loveliest season / that nature could create, / because this is a certain story, / on abstract topics, a soup / that cannot fit in every soup cup. / Poets begin from the right side / of the year and they make up / a gelding with a crown of broom; / they cover the ground with grass and posies, / they make a smiling sky and elements, / they want everyone to be pregnant and fall in love; / that friars just out of the monasteries, / to walk in groups to their chapters, and not by twos but by tens and twenties; / they have the poor jackass become desperate, / braying after his sweethearts; / and in this manner they portray lovely spring. / Others maintain that summer is much better / because the certainty becomes more real / to satisfy the hunger of the crowds / the wheat is shucked, one feels a certain sweetness / of the fruits that seem to become sweet / of grapes that begin to turn darker / that’s hard to describe like that in a few words; / days are so long that it seems / discreetly that one should like to sleep; / he who can has a chance to do it, / and he who is not sleepy and has no worries, / not to sin in idleness, goes to eat, / or sit at a table, / in the breeze of an open door, / with a cooler full of glasses. / There are others who said that it is better / to have it in front baked than seeing / the ingredients with which you bake a pie, / but the season that offers things to drink, / that sets the table for all this, / has this difference in its pleasure / than the work, the design, the flower and the fruit; / I believe you understand me, although somewhat obscure / seems the meaning of my verses after all. / I mean those people want it ripe / that fruit and not still green; they want it in their hand, / that bird, not in the sky, for it is safer: / but they praise October more than June, / May or December, and with effect / I do not want to contradict their opinion. / And there was also somebody who said / many good praises of winter adducing reasons: / that it is sweet to stay in bed at that time; / that all animals, then, are good, / even the pigs out of which one makes sausages / brains, bacon and bigger sausages; / in Lombardy they take their fur coat / bunches of feathers grow on their hats / and make … / what the short days take away is put back / in as many nights; they stay awake / until four or five, six or seven o’ clock; / the baking pan is used more often then / to make pies, puddings and vegetable cakes / than are the broom and the curry-comb in Naples. / All times are equally praised, / all have different usages and pleasures, / as you will see for yourself, if you observe it; / I



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

say, if you look in your breviary, / while you recite your office and cook the beef / painted behind at the bottom of the calendar; / one will look like a cook, just as you are, / one is warming up and one is pruning vineyards; / another goes with the sparrow hawk hunting the cranes / one barrels wine, another scrapes the mare / all months have their festive times, / as he who painted has imagined. / Now take and put together all of these / opinions and conclude that it is all nonsense / compared with the time of the plague. / Nor do I want my talk to sound too strange, / nor that I talk and chatter away casually / as if I were a fool (blackbird) or a jay: / I want to fill your vase up to the brim / of your intelligence, in fact, fill up the bushel / that you may act as did Saint Thomas. / I say that be it September or be it January / or another in comparison with the mortality, / there is no season that may be worth a penny; / and so that you see that I am right / and give you what is due in cash, / listen quite carefully to my thought. / First it drags away every scoundrel: / it destroys them, pieces and rips them inside / as we do to the geese at All Saints’ time. / It does a good thing taking them away / no one will bump or tread on your feet / at the moment the Host is elevated. / It does not keep a count of your debts or credits: / buy and get a loan if you know how / because there will not be any creditor to bother you; / and if one of them comes, tell him that you have / a headache and that you are feeling weak; / he’ll run away without turning back once. / If you go out, nobody will bother you, / rather they will make room for you and honor you / even more so if you are covered with rags. You witness people doing the strangest things, / and you have fun of everybody’s fear. / One lives then under new laws and rules, / all honest pleasures are allowed, / it’s almost licit for everyone to be insane. / One eats good roasts and delicious boiled meat; / that old, great ancient cow of ours / is chased away with rewards and public notice. / Above all one runs away from labor, / I am a chained slave of the plague / because both are my mortal enemies. / One lives a special life, clear and serene; / Time is spent in great merriment / between every dinner and supper: / If you have some old and rich relative, / you may make plans to become his heir, / if just one person dies in his abode. / But this seems to be going against our faith, / so let it be said as an example, / so that one cannot say: “He is a non-believer.” / Nature sates itself playing a thousand tricks, / because at that time all schools are closed / for children there can be no worse misfortune. / Everybody finally can do what he wants / this is the season of the noble freedom / that is so dear to the whole world. / Possessions and persons are then safe; / have no doubts if you were so surprised, / everyone finds his things where he left them. / It seems that plague affects our minds / and turns it to God: you see the walls / of Saint Bastian with printings as well as Saint Rocchi; / therefore since everything is safe and sound, / this is the golden age and that celestial / early innocent state of our nature. / Now, if these reasons are quite clear, / if you touch them with your hand and you like

t h e t e x ts  | 73

them, / do conclude and say that the season of the plague / is the best time there is in the whole year.

Chapter Two I did not yet tell you about the plague / What I had to say, Master Piero; / I did not dress her up since the holidays’ time / and to tell you the truth, I’m a bit afraid, / that she might complain like the women / who did not get what is due to them. / She’s whimsical, she’s a woman herself8 / you know what kind of character they all have: / they always want their cup to be filled to the brim. / I wrote that chapter about her this year / and, as I said, I cut some large cloth for her, / yet some material was left just the same; / but now, concerning her, something else is left / to be said and, God helping, I shall tell now; / I do not want her to bother me any more. / I once read about a Pandora’s vase, / inside it contained cancer and fever / and a thousand ills that ran out of it. / The people intoxicated by the pains, / would gladly have shot her with arrows as a target; / they sent to her every day three hundred evils, / because it seemed to them to disdain her. / They said: If that thing had not been opened, / We wouldn’t have had to take action against her. / Finally, this self-respect is like a beast / and the ignorance that always goes with it / causes ill to be called good and good ill in turn. / That Pandora is a Greek word / which in our language means “all the gifts”; / these have given her a grim meaning. / Some opinions receive similar fame / for they always believe the opposite thing: / They pull the reins and spur the horse at once / One cried because of the pains and the French swelling, / for he is crazy and has not yet seen / what Master Biss had made out of them all: / He says good things but wouldn’t be believed; / read, Master Pier, that little work, / for if you didn’t yet, you’ll get that sickness. / There never was a disease without prescription / Nature created both of them together: / it soils things and then wipes them clean; / it discovers the plough and then the ox, / the wolf, the lamb; the hare, the dog, / and gave them all individual qualities; it made the ears and the bells, / it made absinthe bitter and honey sweet, / the poisonous grass as well as the good one; / it discovered darkness and the candles, / and finally death and life, / it seems benign at a point as well as cruel. / It looks, I would say, like a lost sheep: / you can really see that from it you may get / only good, for it is infinite goodness. / It found the plague because it was needed / and it purges bad humors from that way; / what our doctors used to call crisis / I think in fact that it is exactly that. / And we, foolish people, put on a sad face, / as we say: “The plague has come here!”; / we complain, as if we were all being killed, / we should pay her a sum every month, entertain her as a captain, / in order to use her in a thousand feats. / As all rivers do as they flow toward the sea / so do all evils going toward the



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

plague / to pay their debts and bow to kiss her hand; / and her welcome is so great and special / that everyone from vassal becomes friend, / in fact, they all become her carnal brothers. / Every puny scoundrel and beggar / turns into plague or an illness of that kind, / as every bird in August is a fig eater. / If you want to be settled very promptly, / having to die, as you know very well, / dear Master Piero, but only of that death: / at least you’ll have no notaries around you, / wanting to draw up your will and testament, / nor the vulgar cliché of “How are you?” / that’s the cruelest torment in the whole world. / Plague is a test, a sounding lead, / that causes friends to come back at one per cent: / do unto them what the sieve does to the corn, because when it is … / it is useless to resort to vinegar and garlic. / It is then that lovers do their business: / it will be seen if she can face the test, / when he uttered: “My darling, I long for you, I’m dying”; / for if he disturbs her and leaves her alone / if he does not lock himself up with her, / she says: “He was lying in his teeth.” / He who dies of the plague in our own times / will not spend too much for monks or priests, / that may sing for him the requiem prayer. / The other ills are ignorant and indiscreet: / they run through the body in every part; / this one, instead, goes to the most secret places, / such as those that are covered by the underpants, / under the chin or in the armpits / because it is bashful … / It does not want man to show it in the open: / do you see how Saint Rocco was portrayed, / who, to show his plague he just unlaces. / Whether this illness wants instinctively to hurt the parts where the vital strength resides / and is driven by it toward those parts / or truly, the flesh of the heart, the liver and the brains it might prefer, / because it is perhaps of the race of the hawk; / you must understand this problem well / for you are a master and know flesh well / better than any cook in the world, in my opinion. / Therefore, I leave to you to make the judgment: / I know that you have some knowledge of the plague / and know the difference between one thing and another. / Now the praises are like a building / those who want to erect it up to its roof / will be more busy than are the friars of Saint Benedict / when they say their prayers / thus, I will stop building at this point / leaving the remainder to a better architect, and I leave to you my Master Piero / this most notable reminder, / that the plague is an illness sent by God; / and he who believes otherwise is a big idiot. plague–peste–peste; French swellings–bolle francese–sifilide; body–corpo–corpo; liver–fegato–fegato; mortality–moria–moria; headache–doglia di testa–mal di testa; arm–braccio–braccio; cancer–cancro–cancro; fever–febbre–febbre *

t h e t e x ts  | 75

Ludovico Antonio Muratori The most important historians of the eighteenth century, in Italy, were Ludovico Antonio Muratori and Pietro Giannone. We shall consider some parts of the former’s writing concerning the plague epidemics. Muratori was born at Vignola (Modena) in 1672 and lived a life dedicated entirely to his studies in an extraordinary activity where his natural characteristics of dignity, devotion to Italy and religious faith defined his existence. He was helped by the Este family and in Modena he was the court librarian and archivist from 1700 to his death, which occurred in 1750. He wrote on several and different subjects but his renown is mainly due to his research as an historian. His first publication was the Anecdota Latina ex Ambrosianae Bibliothecae codicibus. This was followed by Anecdota graeca, Della perfetta poesia italiana and Riflessioni sopra il buon gusto nelle scienze e nelle arti. In 1703 he began publishing also a plan for a general society of Italian literature, Primi disegni della repubblica letteraria d’Italia. It was followed by Antichità Estensi ed Italiane as well as Rerum Italicarum Scriptores ab Anno Oerae Christianae 500 ad annum 1500 that was issued in twenty-eight volumes. At the same time, Muratori edited a series of essays, Antiquitates italicae medii oevi. In the third volume of this collection he included the Muratorian Canon, concerning the history of the New Testament canon. One should mention also his collection of ancient inscriptions, Novus Thesaurus Veterum Inscriptionum, as well as, on Italian history, Annali d’Italia. Considerable attention was received by his writings on freedom of thinking, De ingeniorum moderatione in religionis negotio, as well as Della regolata divozione de’ Cristiani, and De superstitione vitanda. He continued his literary work by writing Vita e rime di Francesco Petrarca and Vita e opere di Lodovico Castelvetro. On philosophy he published also Filosofia morale esposta and Delle forze dell’intendimento umano as well as Governo della peste politico, medico ed ecclesiastico, Difetti della giurisprudenza and Della pubblica felicità.

Del Governo della Peste e delle Maniere di Guardarsene Muratori’s massive and extremely detailed volume is introduced by the following page, that appears in the first edition of the work as follows: Del Governo della Peste e delle maniere di guardarsene Trattato



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

Lodovico Antonio Muratori Bibliotecario Del Sereniss. Signor Duca di Modena Diviso Politico, Medico, e Ecclesiatico Da conservarsi ed aver pronto per le occasioni che Dio tenga sempre lontane Dedicato al Merito Del Dottor Fisico Michele Pica degl’Inculti Jatronte Conte Palatino e Cavaliere del Speron d’Oro ____________ Modena, Per Bart. Soliani Stamp. DVC 1714 E di nuovo in Napoli, Per Felice Mosca 1720 Con Licenza de’ Superiori Reimprimatur HONUPHRIUS EPISC. CASTELLANET. VICAR. GENER. D. Petrus Marcus Giptius Can. Dep. Reimprimatur, in publicatione serventur. Regia Pragmatica, Neapoli die 21 mensis Octobris 1720 ____________ Foreward and Dedication to the Most Illustrius CURATORS of the City and Health of Modena

Great apprehension and fear, most illustrious curators of the city and health of Modena, if we want to confess it frankly, were brought in the recently elapsed year 1713, the rumors about the Plague. Having entered into Austria from Hungary and then in Prague, in Regensburg and other lands, while another began at the same time, and that I suppose differently, in Hamburg, such illness had spread terror over the neighboring lands. The least brave persons had already thought of seeing it stroll through the Italian lands and were already thinking of the ways to escape from it; and in fact, the wisest did not cease to doubt about the aspects of

t h e t e x ts  | 77

some circumstances that cropped up to give substance to the doubt and reasonableness to suspicion. As a long time has elapsed since Italy experienced this thing that some people call Divine War; and having some individuals observed through the time of several elapsed centuries that after a period now of many and then of a few years, but never reaching the span of a century, the Plague is used to return to visit the Peoples; and considering, on the other hand, that Lombardy had enjoyed a complete exemption from it from 1630 and 1631 till the year 1713, one could probably fear that such event could be sent to us by the adorable Providence of God, considering above all our faults, deserving of this and worse. In addition, it was thought that since in a few years we had experienced so many ills now because of the wars and then because of Famine and very bitter cold spells, with death of vineyards and then trees, and then of frightening floods that in other times would have been considered near the final Judgement when a person thinks of afflictions coming one after the other, it seems that they are endless and that this chain of them ends with the terrible illness of contagion. A great fear could equally be started by the violent and pitiful Mortality of the cattle that, not yet quite well extinguished in the past three years, was and is devastating poor Lombardy and many other places to the point of fearing, in some cities and their territories, a total death of animals that are so necessary for Mankind. It is not true that similar epidemics may always be followed by those of Men because from a Plague of the Cattle that took place in 1514 (see Fracastoro in his Treatise on Contagion) it was not followed by a mortality of the human species. In another case preceded by the sterility of the grapes we have a record left by the Saxon Peter in the year 809 with these words: Saevior omni, Hoste nefanda Lues Pecudum genus omne peremit, etc. But not even at that time the deadly influence affected Men. … Some people believe that the pestilential breath of the Oxen or of their infected dead bodies are the reason why also Men catch the disease. This, however, does not occur because we see and know from many other examples that the Plague of a species of animals normally is not transmitted to the others. But, apart from that, one would not doubt because for some years the Air had become infected as well as the very humor of the Earth while one could not only see the above mentioned fatal Disease of the Animals, but a fiercer and unusual quantity of worms that ate early grains as well as, so to say, a certain inclination of the ground toward sterility or to produce a lot of rye-grass with other filthy weeds and not mature fruit trees that would easily rot (perhaps because of the confused Seasons): it certainly did not seem a negligible conjecture that from (these facts) damage might occur in Food and the Humors of the Human Body as a possible cause of this pestilential



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

infection. This prejudice might even have become a major issue when those Animals that “earn the bread for Man” and feed him with their Bodies and dairy products might have brought about worse consequences. Nevertheless, that (fact), apart from considering our sins and the mentioned circumstances, was sufficient to give a foundation of fear to Italians about the active and well known contagion of Germany that was mentioned above. One would not really understand the Plague if he did not know how easily it penetrates and scores more conquests, if it is not properly contained without mentioning many other times, the year 1630 when the latest contagion of Lombardy took place, the Pestilential Poison found a good way to enter through the Alps and then infect and bring desolation to several Italian Cities. There was a much stranger reason to be afraid in those times, because of the duration of the scarcity of Food and the War and many other disturbances of the World, that experience brought to our attention. I do not say only by means of Presages but through astonishing spreaders and vehicles of Contagions. Then, in the past year, the Prudence of many Rulers of Italy and particularly of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, always keen in foreseeing and always diligent in providing as much as human strength permits, so that Foreign Diseases do not enter its state. There equally followed the onerous interruption of the trade between several Cities, with many sites for the Guards and Gates, all things that were feared and people said that had to be feared. But finally, in Vienna, Prague, Regensburg and in other cities and areas of Germany, because of the good influence of the cold weather the terrible, menacing influence came to an end so that now it seems that, together with the illness also any reason to fear it in Italy seems to have gone away. The longed for trade between the Lombard cities has been restored; and having Peace returned to console the Catholic Population, all of us have good reasons to praise and give immortal thanks to Omnipotent God Who wants us to feel in many ways the effects of His Mercy. Now, in these circumstances we were able to learn two things that deserve great attention. One is that fearing and even exceeding in fear, where suspicions of infection arise, very often contribute to preserve one from the very contagion. Since, in that case, remedies are multiplied and spiritual as well as temporal measures, that Religion and human Prudence suggest to arrest the progress of such a powerful Enemy, exist. Certainly one must attribute the great benefit to remain immune from Pestilences and from other scourges not to human Diligence but to God’s beneficent Providence. Similarly, it is also certain that God is pleased if the reasonable Creatures act on their initiative, as it concerns the natural preservation, as He avails Himself of our action in order to carry out His incomprehensible designs: therefore it is a useful and necessary thing, and it will always be not to excuse in similar cases any precaution

t h e t e x ts  | 79

or projects that might come from the intelligence of the Wise One. To some people of limited intelligence it seems a wish for the Plague only to hear someone speak of it; others then easily conceive excessive fears owing to the rigors that are enforced by some Rulers in their states. But, at the end, it does not take much to understand that discussing about it, fearing it and providing as much as one can in similar dangers and as a precaution for the future is not what gives the wings to Pestilence and causes it to come down from the foreign or the border states. It must be certain, furthermore, that not being afraid or hiding it would be like sending to it a message inviting it to visit us as soon as it is possible for it. Therefore, all reasons advise, in similar situations, to imitate the rigors, although superfluous perhaps and very expensive as well, that were adopted in several cities in Germany and Italy, than the action of other, less fearing people. It will be also more desirable that when these problems arise, in no Italian city there should be an impediment because of the location of their situation, to proceed in accordance with the others for the purpose of keeping away with uniform diligence a Disease that threatens everybody but that is used to respect those who stand in its way rigorously. The other truth that we have learned in this occasion, is that, in the case of suspicions or risks of a Pestilence, one sees in a great Confusion and Disorder not only the Private Persons but the public Magistrates of many cities while all in that event would like to know how they have to govern themselves and the others, without finding for the major part, those who should enlighten them. It is true that books are not lacking and have dealt with this topic, but the majority of the people have none, and very many could show even one of them, as (it happens to) works that are never read willingly and that, once their presence is no longer needed, are left to collect dust or are given to the fish vendor, to be looked for in vain later on when this heavy scourge comes back to call. For, if similar books are not available for some scholars, it usually occurs, nevertheless that also the best ones are not in their hands that are to be consulted more than the others in similar and other occasions. Now, as I am thinking about this not so simple necessity of Private persons and the Public, that was unfortunately brought to our attention by the danger that was lately against us, I dedicated myself until the past Autumn to read how many Ancient and Modern ones I was able to find that dealt with this subject and to note what seemed to me more useful to be known. I wrote up the present Treatise on the Handling of the Plague hoping that my personal study might somewhat benefit and assist the public and especially my Country, both to protect and take the right direction in case of such a calamity. My intention was to prepare a popular Treatise, namely useful and understandable by the majority of the people, having avoided the most Thorny and Scholastic issues and even the abstruse ideas with which some Professors of Medicine try to get abundant



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

credit with a little expense and the least understanding. On the other hand, with the fierce influence that has now passed, it will seem, I know, that also the need has gone away, but it is not so, because our descendants, and our own time in fact, will always have to fear of experiencing, some day, what the Divine Clemency prevented us from knowing at present. It is not convenient to wait for the Enemy to arrive and study, later, the way to defend ourselves; but we must always keep our weapons ready at hand. Other people, after the Plague was finished, used to write and publish books about it and shall suggest what may be more appropriate so that it may never begin or in order to have the best rules if the need should arise again. Thus in Florence, at the present time, they are reprinting the Report of the Council of 1630 prepared by Rondinelli because, lately, it was noticed that it had become strangely rare and people want, for this reason, to take measures for the future. Thus the Plague, that in 1679 performed its exploits in Vienna, in Saxony and in other lands to the great apprehension, even then, of the Italian people, motivated the wise magistrate of the Health of the city of Ferrara to publish in 1680, for a prudent precaution of future times, a very useful Work, where they recorded the Rules to be Followed in Suspicions of Infection. Thus, I also have decided to do the same thing, Most Illustrious Gentlemen, so that You and your population may have a token of my respect in addition to this aid, if the miserable times that I always wish may stay away from the States of everybody and mainly from those of the Most Serene House of Este and of our Country should occur again. I have, therefore, divided the material of the Handling of the Plague in three parts, namely Political, Medical and Ecclesiastical, thinking that in that manner the benefit might be even greater. The Medical Art may indicate to us a large amount of books, which is expected from it; but very scanty is the amount concerning the Political and the Ecclesiastical Sections. Besides this, as the above indicated three elements are not found together, it seems to me to have avoided someone the toil of finding here and there what will be found here in a single treatise for their convenience. The person who, more than the others, handled and read books on this topic, will be abler to understand their usefulness and convenience, that may benefit the Public as well as the Private side of the Work that I present now to you. In this enterprise, therefore, I based myself on the information and observations of preceding Writers, by considering selecting, arranging and adding, as it appeared preferable to my limited understanding and judgement. For if someone should ask, as I do without being a Doctor by profession and never was present in that terrible disaster, I took up such an understanding with the confidence of being able to be completely satisfactory, I shall answer that if I am unable to speak as an eyewitness I was able to speak of it with so many dead persons who were eyewitnesses of the Pestilences and who described them in many published books.

t h e t e x ts  | 81

And if I am not a Doctor, those writers whom I shall quote studied Medicine for me, and practiced it at the time of Contagion so that, not my Authority but that of the Professors of that Art may give credit to my Treatise, that will not be published without the approval of the best Philosophers and Physicians that our City has. On the other hand, I do confess that the Medical part may receive a more favorable consideration and fame and more order in the division of the Medicines, if it were dealt with by illustrious Doctors among the modern ones. And one would especially hope to enjoy this advantage from the work of those worthy men who, at present, enlighten with their printed works equally the Letters and the Dominion of the Most Serene House of Este, namely Bernardino Ramazzini, the glory of Capri and Antonio Vallisnieri, the Decorum of Reggio, who, in the famous University of Padua, hold the first two chairs of Medicine, and Mr. Francesco Torti, the splendor of Modena, Doctor of my Most Serene Lord and a public lecturer as well in our Fatherland, and Mr. Antonio Pacchioni from Reggio whose knowledge shines in Rome in favor of Medicine; and much more may be expected from Mr. Dionisio Andrea Sancassoni da Sassuolo, a head physician from Comacchio from whose labor derive so many useful practices. May I be allowed to mention that although great minds applied themselves to deal with these subjects, one should not hope immediately that several of them could bring about better Remedies, and more efficacious that I too have learned about and consider. It might rather happen that some of those, without trying to build better, destroyed even the little that I, with the help of the most reliable Authors, have known here, since this is the habit of our times, nor does it seem difficult in Medicine to doubt about everything, in order to have it known as a misleading and most weak art as are its Medicines that may be even dangerous as it is indicated by Carrara, Agosti and others and in our days, that attempts to show this were made by the late Leonardo of Capova and the living Mr. Anton Francesco Bertini, renowned Doctors, the latter one of them, nevertheless, has also defended it. This would be much easier concerning that fierce devastating agent about which all wise physicians confess that their Art progresses mostly blindly, nor has a safe system in its medications to be widely trusted. Be that as it may, I think that not to terrify people is quite important nor to cause them to despair in similar circumstances by blaming and discrediting everything. Therefore, as I have composed the present book, not for a desire of glory, but only for the desire to be of use in this effort as much as possible, both for my Fatherland and for anyone who might not have better help in his decisions, with some Prudence in the dangers and at the time of this calamity, I hope that it may turn out to be really useful and I hope even more that all people may never



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

have to use it, except for pure entertainment of their curiosity. Because, even if one day there should come what no one of us wishes to see, probably no one will regret of having learned for the first time in this book of mine how to protect himself, by knowing the face of this terrible enemy as well as its disorders and strange effects. Unfortunately, we have also observed a small example of it, but very lively nevertheless, in the dire mortality of the bovines, that came the past September also in several locations of the Duchy of Modena and Reggio. We were able to learn not just a few things from this Scourge, such as the most correct treatment one should apply in the danger of Contagion among human beings, in order not to be disappointed in the Guards that have been set up but not correctly; and in order to prohibit our Markets and Fairs and the admission of the foreign ones, although the Disease does not appear to have penetrated in those places; and with which regulations and measures people may set up to forbid from step to step the approach of the Disease, following the orders and until the disaster is out of the country, raising great alarm, rigorous orders, frequent and sudden inspections as well as much else that can be done in order to make even the Farmers and the Guards aware of the danger that never looks imminent to them, as well as the extremely large damage that is inflicted upon those who are hit by this misfortune that is never understood properly until there is no more time left to seek a Remedy. Some people think that this cruel Pestilence of the Oxen is not only spread by the contact with the animals or the people who contacted infested animals, but even may appear spontaneously in some stables, at times at the distance of miles from the affected towns, that are kept clean with rigorous diligence. The same is often suspected and believed also about the Human Pestilence. I do not want to absolutely deny, at this point, this possibility, but I say that it is difficult to believe, having seen many stables unaffected in whose Animals the Origin of the Disease would have been ready and would have soon “exploded” in those animals that come in contact with other infected ones. At any rate, it will be wise, in every case of the Plague, to act as if the Contagious Illness could not be contracted but by Contact. One must think that even if one cannot prove it, there might have been some Person or Object that introduced the Poison into that house. The Dogs, the Guards, even the Physicians may inadvertently bring it with them, and the most accurate Mr. Vallisnieri in T.X. of the Newspapers of Italy has been also informed that among the many ways of propagation of the Bovine Plague, there was that of leading them without any precaution to be blessed with other ones, or allowing that somebody went to bless all the stables without distinction. What troubles and scares more than any other thing is noticing that in this Mortality of the Bovines, what Virgil, at the end of Book 3 of the Georgics and others had

t h e t e x ts  | 83

already indicated that in similar Pestilences of the Animals, and it is confirmed in the above mentioned Book X of the Journals of the Year 1712 by the authority of several men of great merit, namely, that no Remedy may be said to be positively of use, and although, at times it appears to be beneficial (since a portion of the Infested Bovines had been cured in those places) yet (the remedies) were not useful for many others; by God’s will, some of them hastened their death and caused the end of those that without any Remedy would have healed. Unfortunately the same occurs even in Men’s Pestilences. Therefore, it is wise not to concentrate so hardly on some Principles, Precautions and Remedies that, when better knowledge comes, are no longer needed, and one has to change procedure. And a Wise Person will have more Information than ordinarily on the matter than a Magistrate (may have) from afar. But let us finally deal with our topic in the name of that omnipotent Lord whose Justice we must all fear, whose Mercy we must all implore, both in Prosperity as in Tribulations. Modena 15, June 1714. Muratori’s massive and extremely detailed volume is divided into three main parts as follows: Political, Medical and Ecclesiastical Rule. The Political Rule includes 12 chapters whose topics are indicated below: Chapter I. Explanation of the Plague. Its origins and duration. Differences between one type of Plague and the others. Its horrible damage and aspects. Obligations and possibility of defending the country against this scourge. Useful and necessary human cares. Chapter II. Barriers and defenses against it so that the Contagion may not advance. With what defenses one may oppose its entering and progress. Attempts to stifle it after its progress. A quarantine organized to that effect. Chapter III. Relieve the cities from some inhabitants. Should the poor be evacuated? Freedom of the citizens to go to the countryside. Useful escape allowed to everyone, except for the persons who are necessary in the republic. Chapter IV. The necessity of having prudent and active Magistrates for the Control of the Plague. Their appropriate authority and rigor. Their care to protect themselves. Election of dependent employees. Doctors should not be forced to treat infected people and how to provide in their behalf. Chapter V. Plague transmitted by Air, Bodies and infected Objects. How one part of the country should defend itself from another one. Regulations concerning the transportation of provisions. No attempt to conceal the disease. Duties of the Doctors. Ways to smother the invading disease. Chapter VI. Relationship among persons on the way to be followed, if the disease cannot be overcome. Lazzaretti and arrest of the diseased. Provisions for mendicants. Public cemeteries outside the cities. Rules for the Doctors, surgeons



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

confessors and their signs. Seizure of children and women. Rules necessary for the undertakers. Chapter VII. Activities with Foreigners prohibited. Rules to keep oneself immune in infected lands and Cities. Care to be used in handling infected clothing and connections with infected persons. Measures that can be easily observed, drawn from Experience, Necessity and Usefulness of Bravery in such cases. Chapter VIII. How one can be protected against infected air. Protective scents and various Prescriptions. Dangerous, delicate and warm scents. Ways of cleaning the Air in the Houses and the Cities. Chapter IX. Forbidden exchange of infected Clothing. The necessity of cleansing them first. Three ways to cleanse them. More useful and easy the one by means of Perfumes. Dosage and Method to scent Objects, Houses and other Places. Rigorous Orders concerning cleansing and the necessity of this Remedy. Chapter X. Caution in exempting from Disinfection several Items of Clothing. Rule concerning Dogs and Cats. Coins and other Metals if likely to spread Infection. Rules concerning Clothes and Animals. Places selected for trading food and the way to carry it out. If there is infection spread and enlarged through Malice. Considerations about the evil effects of Terror and precautions. Chapter XI. Setting up of Lazzaretti for infected and suspected individuals. Rules concerning similar places. Damage caused by the Lazzaretti, arrests and other punishments. Necessary Precautions. Who may be arrested. Concern about the Undertakers. Book Two, the Medical Rule, contains the following: Chapter I. Medical Rules for individual protection from the Air. Various prescriptions for perfumes. How a person should go about Eating and Drinking, Sleep and Wake time of Motion and rest, Quiet, Emotions of the Soul. Great Usefulness of Fearlessness and Bravery. Chapter II. Cauteries that are praised in order to protect oneself from the Plague. Which persons more easily contract the disease. Blood-letting and Purging Medicines, non advisable Preservatives, Amulets that are dangerous or doubtful against the Plague. Concern of the Magistrates against those who sell off useless and harmful Remedies. Preservative bags. Oil of Mattinolo useful also in Prevention. Chapter III. Medicine for Oral Use. Herbs, as well as tablets. Minor Antidotes praised by many. Other Drinks, Powders, Preserves, Syrups, Wines, Ointments, etc., believed to be preventive. Vinegar and its praises, as well as other Acids against the pestilential Poison. A Method used by some Doctors to protect themselves from their contacts with the plague victims.

t h e t e x ts  | 85

Chapter IV. Curative medicines for the Plague. No certain specific has been found yet. Periods of Pestilences in a City, Beginning, Duration and End and their different consequences. Medications that were discovered to be effective during a Plague and not in other cases. Blood-letting and Health Medicines. Remedies found to be dangerous or noxious. Chapter V. Sudorifics, one of the most praised remedies for the Treatment of the Plague. Chapter VI. Other Medicines to treat the Plague. Those used in the Contagions of 1560 and 1656. Highly praised camphor and various camphor preparations. Sulfur and its qualities against the Plague, Armenian Bolus, Theriaca and other Antidotes praised or condemned. Chapter VII. Procedure to be followed in the cure of the infected persons. Sudorifics. A Remedy considered more useful than the others. Aphorisms concerning Perspiration and the way to provoke perspiration. As the Patients’ Rooms must be kept. What Foods and drinks are more appropriate for them. Chapter VIII. Buboes, Carbuncles and Petechiae, ordinary Symptoms of this disease. Predictions concerning Buboes. Three ways of treating them. More certain than the others the one of causing suppuration. Various poultices, useful and effective in maturating buboes. Methods and various Medicines to complete the treatment. Use of Vesicants. Chapter IX. Pestilential carbuncles. Prognosis about them. Unfavorable methods to treat them. Maturation and separation, the most praised treatment among others. Several medicines for this purpose and others to remove eschar. Chapter X. Petechiae, Fever, Delirium, Drowsiness, Vomit, Dry Tongue, Hemorrhages and other symptoms of the Pestilence. Necessary promptness to treat the victims on time. Pestilential poison if it coagulates or loosens the Blood. What main Remedies should be ready for the times of the Plague. Book Three, Ecclesiastical Rule, contains the following: Chapter I. Necessity to turn to God and appease Him especially on the occasion of the Plague. Which must be the duties of the Bishops and the other ecclesiastical members in the danger of Contagion in order to keep the disease away; as well as the preparations before the disease arrives. Chapter II. How necessary Courage is at the time of the Pestilence. Faith and Hope, divine Virtues and sources of Bravery and Joy. Sinners to be reminded of God’s Goodness and Mercy. Resignation to God and devote oneself entirely to Him. Chapter III. Duty of the Bishop upon the arrival of the Contagion. Availability of Ministers and other Temporal and Spiritual Aids. Lazzaretto for



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

Ecclesiastical Members. Console and encourage the People with one’s presence and other Aids. Various permissions to be given by the Prelate. Where Masses may be said. How to organize Sermons and Processions. Rules to be followed at the time of quarantine. Chapter IV. Tasks of the Parish Priests and the Confessors before the Disease and after it arrives. Precautions for the Churches and Confessionals. Parish Priests are obliged to administer the Sacraments to the Infected Persons and which Sacraments. How one may administer Penance, Last Sacrament and Extreme Unction. Which Votes should be suggested. Chapter V. How essential for a Christian is Charity toward one’s fellow man, especially during the calamity of a Pestilence. Duties of the Seculars during such times in assisting the other persons. Various ways to carry out acts of charity. The Confraternity of Mercy. The Praise for the Person who assists in treating his family members in their illness. Chapter VI. Charity toward other people is essential for a Christian, particularly in the Calamity of a Pestilence. Duties of the Seculars to help the People in similar contingencies. Various ways to use Charity. The Confraternity of Mercy. Charity of the Rulers toward their Subjects. More is required from the Ecclesiastical than from the Laics and even more from the Beneficed. Obligations of the Regulars. Necessity in cases of Need to use the sacred Vessels. Most valuable Charity of those who are exposed to the treatment of the Victims. How those Charitable persons should be safeguarded. Chapter VII. How necessary are Piety and devotion in times of Pestilence. Wickedness of some Individuals who become even worse. Which sermons are appropriate for these persons. Exercises to increase and sustain Mercy, Spiritual lesson. Prayers, Meditations and short prayers. Chapter VIII. Recourse to the Saints’ Intercession, but especially recourse to God. His immense goodness and Merits of Jesus that give us courage. Love and Devotion for Jesus and Hope in Him are useful and necessary assistance at all times but in particular during Calamities. Chapter IX. Measures to keep unharmed the Convents of religious Orders. Several precautions for this purpose and others should the Disease appear. When religious members are obliged to administer the Sacraments to the infected persons, and when the Seculars are obliged. How the Rules should be observed in the Nuns’ Monasteries, if the Plague should spread there. Exhorting people to carry out Sanitation. Promoting Piety after the Contagion. How conforming to the will of God is the cause of true peace. Following are some excerpts from the three parts of this work.

t h e t e x ts  | 87

First Book. Chapter 1 Explanation of the Plague. Its origin and duration. Differences between one type of Plague and the others. Its horrible damage and aspect. Obligation and possibility of defending the country against the scourge. Useful and necessary human cares. The Plague, one of the most terrible Harms that may afflict mankind, although it is not precisely the same thing as a Contagion, yet among us, is usually called Contagion because healthy persons become infected by coming in contact with the Body, or the Air of the plague victims as well as with their clothes, with such strength and loss of lives that is unusual in other epidemic contagious diseases, since the Plague spreads to the point of depopulating cities, lands and provinces. Pestilence consists of certain poisonous, malignant Spirits which, by infecting the blood or in some other way, by hurting the Humors cause people to lose their lives, often in a few, and sometimes after, several days and, in some cases, almost suddenly. The one that comes from the total infection of the air occurs never or almost never although it may happen by accident that the Air around the plague victims becomes infected and the infection grows the more the larger and closer is the number of the plague victims. On the contrary, the one that is contagious by bodily infection, namely that affects people through contact, is much more dangerous in the smaller cities that are more densely populated and where Winds that clean the Air are not common. It is not improbable at all that differently from other epidemics that are generated and appear all of a sudden in some places because of bad food, or because of the winds from the marshes or other similar sources of diseases, Plague is a stable epidemic that keeps itself active around the World and going from one country to another one and returning there after many, or a few years, according to Man’s negligence or the Disposition of the Bodies or other circumstances open the doors to it, although it seems certain that the Plague of one time is not similar in all its symptoms and consequences to those of other epochs. And truly, Experience dictates too often that the Plague does not originate spontaneously in many countries but it swarms there over and over again for years that keep the poison of the previous Poison, or it enters them, carried from other countries (and this happens frequently) by persons or goods or other infected objects, without knowing, at times, how it happened. The person who could gather valid and ample news of so many and different countries of Asia, Africa and Europe would find out that there is no year when the Plague does not devastate some Country and after the slaughter of one it does not pass to the next to give vent with a similar slaughter. The states that are mainly under Turkish control, are, I would say, a perpetual growing ground of Plague because it almost never departs from there, and it is particularly felt at Constantinople and in Cairo, in Egypt, so that any



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

trade with those countries is always dangerous. In fact, the most recent Plagues of Italy and Europe came either because of negligence from Africa to the Christian Islands of the Mediterranean Sea and then to terra firma or, by penetrating from the Orient into Hungary, Dalmatia Poland and other borders with the Turk, have afflicted several other areas of our Europe. It is not necessary to mention here many Pestilences that have afflicted the Land from Century to Century, but one cannot refrain from mentioning one of the most terrible that were ever experienced, that was described by several historians, and particularly by Petrarch and Matteo Villani. This one began in 1246 from China that was known even then, and advanced through Eastern India as far as Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Greece, etc. Some ships belonging to Christians that left the East in 1247 brought it to Sicily, Pisa, Genoa, etc. In 1348 it infected all of Italy except Milan and some lands near the Alps, that separate Italy from Germany, where it caused little damage. In the same year it crossed the mountains spreading into Savoy, Provence, Dauphiné, Burgundy, Catalonia, Castile, Granada, etc. In 1249 it attacked England, Scotland, Ireland and Flanders. In 1250 it oppressed Germany, Hungary, Denmark, etc., continuing later to affect their countries and then it returned to France and Italy in 1361, where it devastated Milan and Venice by taking the life of the Doge Delfino, and several cardinals. Then it passed another time to Florence in 1262 where the above-mentioned Villani died. This is how one Country infects another. As it was written by Giovanni da Capistrano in his Mirror of Conscience, the Plague was brought to Bologna by an infected man and from Romagna it went (by boat) to Genoa and Venice; another person introduced it in Brescia, Verona, etc. However, with these and other numerous examples that one could consider, I think that the Plague sometimes arises by itself, without being carried from other places, caused by the bad quality of the Air or by the Stench of the Cadavers, as well as the suffering caused by Man, such as Hunger, War or other similar disorders and once the contagious infection is born it attacks the neighbors and it is called Contagion or Plague, when it has some symptoms and causes a large Mortality of People. The usual permanence of the Plague in a City lasts normally nine or ten months after which it subsides. But in some places where people live with a bestial scorn or too great a familiarity with this disease, without caring too much about the disinfection and without using several other Remedies that are wisely observed in some cities, it remained several years or it exploded again after a short time. Concerning the mentioned Plague of 1248, Villani wrote that it did not last more than five months in every place and others mention some months. In 1620, the plague that plundered Italy so much, entered even in our city of Modena in the month of July, as it appears in the Edicts of the time and it ended on November 12 of that same year although people continued to practice trade … (illegible

t h e t e x ts  | 89

text follows) city, it started again in the year 1520 and it continued in 1527, 1528 and 1529 as Summonte writes. However, where careful precision is practiced, the tenacity of the disease is overcome. The Plague entered the city of Rome in 1656, in early June, and toward mid March of the following year 1657 because of the good handling of the case, good health was restored in 1657. But, as new cases occurred, the measures were reestablished until the disease ended completely around the end of the following July. The Plague usually causes more deaths in the warm months or in Autumn rather than in the cold months; but it does not relent its fierceness even in Winter, sometimes, rather than in Summer, perhaps because at that time warm winds come or because if the Plague started in Summer or Autumn, its highest fierceness and spreading occurs in the Winter. The Plague of 1630 reached its peak in Padua in the Months of June and July. But in Venice the same disease caused its largest number of deaths in October, November and December, continuing then for the entire following year, 1631, always decreasing. In Gheldria, the Plague was very intense from the beginning of May to the end of October. A great variety at this point, but, as I said, Summer usually causes a major fury in this most pernicious Poison and the Cold Winter weakens or extinguishes it. Another difference between Plague and Plague usually consists in its minor or major intensity. Some are very deadly and fill the earth with death; others, not so cruel, are satisfied with a more limited contribution of deaths. The one of 1248, that we just mentioned, took from the World four of the five parts of the European people, as Villani as well as other writers indicate. In the same century other and no less fierce Pestilences caused an incredible mortality in Italy, Germany, France and Spain. The one of 1564 was so violently rampant in the territory of Lion and Savoy spreading to the Swiss border and the territory of Graubünden that it killed four-fifths of the population. The other one that in1575 and later distressed some cities in Italy, was much lighter in Milan than a preceding one that happened there earlier in the same century that was most injurious for the City of Venice. The other one of 1620 brought a terrible calamity to Milan, in which City and Dioceses, from the beginning of April when it was declared to be a Plague, to the half of the next September, caused the death of 122,000 Persons and continuing in that place for some months. It was also noted that some pestilence infected the men of some Professions, or Nations, and left untouched all the other Professions or Nations, although they all lived in the same infected Country. This difference of consequences derives either from the type of the Pestilence itself, whose spirits are now more now less poisonous, or from the more or less precise care and safeguard of the City or from the different conditions of



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

the bodies, of the Seasons and of the Air. In 1628 there was a large famine in the State of Milan and other places in Lombardy that was worsened later by the War that occurred so that during that and the following year 1629 in Milan not a few persons died of hunger and poverty and there was a rebellion of the people. Now, one should not be surprised, if with the coming of the Plague a short time later, and the finding so badly nourished and affected by illnesses the needy population of Lombardy, it took so many hundreds of thousands from this World. However, in Modena and in its rural area, we know that the contagious disease did not rage as it did in other countries, generally, on the other hand, the healthy and well nourished ones; on the contrary, it happened, sometimes, that the former rather than the latter ones became the victims of the Disease. Another difference may be observed among some Plagues and it is that some cause flows of blood, petechiae, dysentery and others cause vomit, delirium and weakness as well as other symptoms. However, all the various kinds of true plague cause Carbuncles and Buboes which will be discussed at the proper place. I shall refrain from scaring the readers at this point with the horrible appearance of some Plagues, described by the reports of those who were the wretched spectators because my intention is rather to prepare and advise (to summon) some courage in such terrible occasions. However, so that the persons, and particularly the Magistrates, considering the situation at an early time, and keeping vividly before their eyes the immense misery of this great scourge, may carry out all possible means and diligence to be safe and keep it away, I consider it necessary to remind that among the Ills that may afflict the Public, there is no one that is more horrible or miserable than the Plague, both for those who succumb to its violence by dying, and for those who may remain alive. He who looks at a healthy city, at this point, and then imagines the Contagion that penetrated into it may, without fear of being wrong, tell himself: Of so many thousand persons, strong and healthy, of so many Artisans, Workers, of so many Citizens honorable, honest and useful, of some of my Relatives or Friends, all Brethren in Christ, many will not be here any longer and in a few Months a large number of them will die almost suddenly, although very healthy, at first. Some will be barbarically abandoned by their children, brothers, husbands, relatives, and their dearest ones in part because of hardship or for lack of assistance or nourishment; and this in the same lazzaretti that were created mainly for the Poor, and sometimes without the Sacraments, without anyone to be present at that great passage and in total despair, avoided and abandoned by all. And as the Plague becomes stronger it is incredible what terror assails one who is not provided with good Courage (and these are the largest part of the population), seeing themselves surrounded by the dead, hearing the noise or seeing the ugliness of the carts that remove, one piled on the other, the cadavers of those

t h e t e x ts  | 91

who died and fearing constantly that, from one hour to the next, the same may occur to the person that now felt in great health. Only being obliged to remain locked in a house for weeks or for months (and even worse if because of an order of the Magistrates) is the most painful imprisonment added to so many needs, the little chance of being helped by Friends or Relatives, or one’s own Farmers owing to the difficulty or the impossibility of Trading, so much that seeing themselves surrounded by so many of their own or other people’s illness, become like insane persons and others die even without being affected by the Plague. And since the rules, on that occasion, lose the major part of their State, namely many subjects, and the major part of the taxes and dues, and this for several years afterwards, being themselves forced to confront not a few difficulties and dangers during the Contagion, since the Rulers themselves as much as the last of the Subjects are for the first time deprived of their revenues, and several other very serious inconveniences of their Houses. Nor does the damage of the Plague end with the ending of the Plague itself, as one can see it being followed by famines because of the lack of people to work in the country and the difficulty of finding the necessary Workers, Laborers and Servants as well as paying a high price for all the domestic work and the foreign goods, as the desolate and tormented lands or cities may never recover, or recover after a long time, to its original condition. I said a lot yet I did not say much to make one understand properly the great damage, Terror and misery that the Pestilence brings with itself. But the remainder may easily be understood and this is even too much to go to a very important idea, namely the necessity that all Rulers have, as well as the Magistrates and the leaders of the People, to work as much as possible with concern and attention, as well as funds, to forbid the Plague to enter into their Countries and to keep it at a distance or expel it quickly once it has arrived. One must convince himself that human attention, if it proceeds apart from a faithful recourse to God, may protect and does protect the Countries from the contagion and, consequently, not using it as much as possible and at the right time is a grave and miserable insanity, or a negligence, with difficultly, worthy of forgiveness both for men as well as God. Nor should anyone expect to get out of that obligation or to escape from that sentence by saying that when God wants to scourge a city, human attentions are useless because, although this conclusion is most certain, it is not our duty, blind mortals that we are, to want to enter the high Offices of the Supreme Providence to defend ourselves and our fellow men from illnesses, death and misery by imploring, at the same time, from the most merciful God forgiveness for our faults and help for our needs. Only to the Turks it is allowed not to take precautions when it is necessary against the present ills or act as if it were a reckless or superfluous action against the laws of Heaven. A Christian must venerate totally the holy and always rightful



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

and wise will of God, that is certainly superior to all human efforts but does not believe in that Fate or Destiny that the Gentiles taught and knows that the Divine providence does not confuse the course of Nature or of the secondary Reasons, nor does it take from Men their Freedom; on the contrary, it orders them to use Prudence in their enterprises and preservation of this life on earth. But in infinite other events and in the protection from many other ills also the most Learned and Saintly must not omit, nor do they omit any form of Diligence, and it must be done particularly by a Christian republic in the dangers of Contagions. One must also rebut that at the end, there would be very little to be hoped in many countries by similar provisions, if one considers the lack of so many things, particularly of supplies that, in order to be provided, require relationships with the neighbors, and it becomes most difficult to avoid their disaster. But one may answer that there are rules and ways to have controls even with infected or suspected lands even during the Plague, in order to obtain supplies without attracting the Plague. We shall mention them at the appropriate place. The question is that such regulations cannot be followed, nor are they often followed, nor are they often observed properly, leaving thus useless, in turn, all the previous precautions; therefore, the attention of the Magistrates must be very keen so that one may not indulge in rewards or punishments, vigilance or funds. … A few years pass without hearing about the Plague reigniting over Constantinople, Smyrna, in Greece, or other lands of the Turk bordering the Venetian State, yet it ordinarily does not penetrate any longer owing to the great precaution taken by that illustrious Republic that could be called the Master of all, also in its diligence and prudence in keeping away that terrible scourge. A few Years ago Poland, Hungary, Prussia, Denmark and the Northern Countries were seriously attacked by the Contagion, but this did not affect the bordering lands. The same was seen to rule over Vienna in Austria at the time of Leopold I, but it was so well contained that it did not spread over other countries. The city of Conversano, in the Kingdom of Naples, at the time of the Vacancy of Alexander VIII, was seriously struck but thanks to a sanitary (separation) cordon established by the other healthy countries, it did not spread its illness to its neighbors. In the year 1576, the Plague attacked the Cities of Milan, Mantua, Padua, Venice and other places. But the major part of the other cities, of Lombardy, defended themselves and Cavitelli noted that in the territory of Cremona they never enjoyed such a good health as at that time, although Parma, Piacenza had banished that city as infected, as it could not avoid trading with Milan. That Plague raged also in Sicily, Calabria and Apulia and also the city of Naples enforced rules and limitations, that it was able to protect itself, and this, by the indication of Summonte, in spite of the fact that some diseased people penetrated secretly and were treated without causing any

t h e t e x ts  | 93

damage to other people. In 1656, Rome, Naples, Genoa and a few other Cities yielded to the plague without the Poison being spread beyond the Apennines, Tuscany or other bordering countries. In fact, Castelgandolfo, although near Marino and other infected lands, was saved because of the Measures taken in that area. But to come to the Plague of 1620, that was disastrous for entire Lombardy, that is still remembered also in our City; it is certain that the City of Treviso, although besieged all around by the disease, remained unharmed. Also Ferrara was spared, yet, as we shall say, there happened some cases of the plague. And then, the City of Faenza was the one that, by keeping itself healthy, stopped the process of the disease that would have arisen in Romagna from Bologna. This happened because as the people of Faenza placed some Guards near the River that flows at a short distance from the City, a respectable Prelate, who was then in control and in charge of its Care, tireless day and night, when one would expect it in the least, appeared riding on horseback to check the Guards, and the easiest wading spots of the River, and keeping the gallows standing out of the City did not spare either terror or punishments for the disobedient. Thus the City of Reggio, although situated between Modena and Parma, both infected places, kept itself healthy for a long time, and perhaps it might have totally avoided the infection of the disease had it not been introduced thoughtlessly by those who presided over the regulations. And in that very same Plague of 1620, it is known among us that in the Duchy of Modena, the Terre di Vignola, Guiglia and several other Castles in the hills and in the mountains, although bordering other infected lands owing to the Pestilence, surrounded by it, by means of the Guards and precautions, avoided such a terrible misfortune. On the contrary, almost all the territories and cities invaded by the Plague know and could tell where was the beginning of their infection, namely, from having neglected the appropriate measures and from not having the laws obeyed (illegible text) the Plague in Naples (that had entered there from Sardinia) many clothes were removed and destroyed for they had been handled by persons infected by the Plague, having caught the seed of the disease and these persons, once that they were in Civitavecchia and Nettuno passed stealthily into Rome itself starting then, in all those places, the Contagious fire that little by little spread out in the surroundings. The Plague penetrated into Padua in 1620, because guards were placed on the border with the infected areas of Vicenza, but they were not kept properly yet these were not (illegible text). Powerful persons, on the other hand, entered forcibly into the area of Padua, since laws in some places were like cobwebs that stop the flies but soon give in to what has more vigorous wings. The interruption of trade had reduced the City to be wanting of a lot of goods that usually would come from Venice; in particular, leather for shoes, whose



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

shortage was a great inconvenience. A Merchant acquired several bales of leather already infected, and introduced part of it in the place where it was purchased, in order to have it cleansed, and some were stealthily pulled up, at night, over the walls. The leather infected first the carriers and then all kinds of People. I do not mention other examples. These are, then, the consequences of using or omitting to use human Regulations in so serious dangers as are those of a Pestilence. But if the Diligence of the Political Government may keep away from a country and city this terrible disease, the consequence is clear: the People’s Leaders deserve great shame among men because they neglected them or did not have them carried out when Plague is suspected and have them render accurate account to God for having, through their negligence, defended so badly in such an important occasion the people entrusted to their care by the Divine Providence. Moreover, that is no less serious an obligation than an important interest as much for the subjects as for their Ruler. Nor these Precautions, that may entail many expenses for the public and many inconveniences for the private people, may be neglected because the great truth had to remain well implanted in the minds of the Rulers and the Magistrates and the private persons as well, namely, that there are no expenses or discomforts that may equal in any case the terrible cost and the inconveniences of a Plague, and that the efforts and the funds are never used in a better manner when they are used for the entire population. One spends, and one must spend, a lot in (erecting) lazzaretti and supporting the Poor, treat the diseased, (in organizing) guards and employees when a Plague has arrived. Even in those occasions there is the loss of useful and necessary persons for the State: how much more, then, it will be appropriate to like and tolerate efforts to keep a Contagion away, thus saving the lives of such a large number of persons who would perish because of the lack of those Expenses and Cares. Those who are not expert in economics, but are more interested in Christian Charity, will immediately understand the necessity of having these preventive measures, of which I will deal with the Political Rule in the Times of the Plague.

Second Book. Chapter XI It is indispensable to establish two Lazzaretti. The first for infected persons where should be brought without delay those who show signs of infirmities of the plague; the other one should be set up for the suspected, namely to take there those who are not already infected but who associated with infected people, or handled infected things. It is a great cruelty to oblige this latter kind of persons to go to the lazzaretti of the Plague Victims because, as they might easily be healthy in spite of the

t h e t e x ts  | 95

suspicion, Charity and Justice demand that they may not be exposed to the very serious danger to become really infected by living together with so many Plague Victims. If, in this second lazzaretto, it is discovered that one is affected by the Plague, he should be immediately transferred to the other one destined to infected persons so that the other individuals may not be infected: his room must be disinfected to make it suitable for others that come afterwards. Those among the suspected who remain healthy after twenty days, should be dismissed; and in that lazzaretto each family may be kept united, but if anyone of its members should fall ill with the signs of the infection and therefore be moved to the other lazzaretto, the family should follow anew the policy for the suspected persons. But it should be clear that before releasing someone from either one or the other lazzaretto, his clothes and body must be disinfected. Namely, in the lazzaretto of the infested persons, when one is thoroughly healed, there should be a large cauldron of boiling water where they will disinfect bed sheets, clothes, linen that he/she used/and uses, provided that they may withstand the disinfection, while Scents and other materials shall be used for items that cannot be boiled. The recovered person, meanwhile, remaining naked in a room for a quarter of an hour, will wash or will let his body be washed with a good solution of Vinegar. For the person who will be dismissed from the lazzaretto of the Suspected People, it will be sufficient for him and his clothes to be scented with perfume for half an hour.

Second Book. Chapter XII The duration of the quarantine, according to the prudent Magistrates of Venice, is now of few, now of many days, determining its duration, by the major or minor danger, and by the major or minor distance of the infection. The entire quarantine is of forty days, from which it derives its name (Note: In Italian the term ‘forty’ is quaranta.), and such a time is required in the serious suspicions of Plague. Nevertheless, it seems to one very worthy of consideration and well based that principle by Lodovico Settala and the R. Mauritius from Toulon, a Capuchin, about whom I shall report the feelings and reasons. The Practice, he says, of twenty and more Years encourages me to assert frankly that a Quarantine is of 40. It is certain that he who handled infected items, or has attracted Pestilential Air so that the Disease affected him, will experience before fifteen days have passed, some serious occurrence such as fever with vertigo and restlessness, he will walk unsteadily; will not have a clear vision, with a pale face or livid, vomit, a heavy sleep that resembles lethargy, frenzy, etc., or will show signs of buboes, petechiae, etc. Therefore, the fact is that if some suspected person, upon entering the Quarantine, will have



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

washed well with Vinegar, changed clothes, and scented all the other items and did not feel any shade of illness, after the twentieth Day, may be dismissed as safe, since I observed many times that there is no infected Individual who, before the 15 days has passed that period and is healthy, was then found to be infected. Finally, the strong Passions of the Soul during Contagion may be called the first Gravediggers of man. Let all Physicians shout together that particularly Anger, Melancholy and Terror must be avoided as the Plague itself and, in their places, make room for Hilarity and Peace of Mind. Thucidides says that, in the most serious Pestilence described by him, more than the others, the largest number of Victims were the Melancholic and the Scared ones. Similar things were observed in their times by several Physicians, and, among the others, Sermerto attests not a few had been caught by this disease only because of the Terror that they had by observing at a distance, or even without seeing it; but only by hearing about it when the funeral carts passed under their windows on which they carried the bodies of the victims. Others, scared by a single, deadly sign were so disheartened, that, after falling ill, they defeated all Medicines. And it was also reported that those who caught the plague after suffering from Terror had rarely escaped death while the others who, although attacked by the disease and had not suffered from a spiritual crisis, were able to survive. Once imagination is shocked and the spirits and humors are shaken into a disorderly condition by some frightening sight, the Pestilential Venom is caught very easily and people die of Fear, at times of Consternation and Black Humor. On the contrary, observations, which were carried out, show us that the Brave, the Fearless and the Cheerful are less prone to catch the Infection; one will have to establish for himself a form of Christian Constancy and of an honest spiritual Cheerfulness in the Escaping from Sadness and Fear and the occasions of getting angry by keeping in mind Bauderon’s words, as he deals with the Plague: Confidentes ut plurimum servantur; contra Meticulose facile corripiuntur. This is so true that there is no dearth of Philosophers and Physicians who think that the closest and essential cause of the Plague is nothing but Terror and not the communicating of the most subtle pestilential Spirits. Also Rivino, dealing with the Leipzig plague of the year 1679 or 80 was of the same opinion. The above-mentioned Elmonzio, however, teaches that it is not sufficient not to consider the Plague a terrible thing, but its being necessary and consider it certain, that we will not be infected by it, because in such a way the Archeo, namely the vital Air of Man, is strengthened with an Idea, which is the contrary of the pernicious idea that Terror and Fear can exercise. As far as I am concerned, I do not believe that all this is true, differently from some Authors; and I am much less certain about Elmonzio’s Idea, but in spite of all this we may learn at least from this that it is greatly advantageous to protect ourselves from Fear and any strong Apprehension concerning that deadly disease,

t h e t e x ts  | 97

as it is probable that a single cause may bring about the depression of the Spirit parts of the blood, in which condition it may become more prone to receive with a lighter contrast the poisonous impressions of the contagions effluvia.

Third Book. The Ecclesiastical Rule. Chapter I Therefore, the most unwavering hope of keeping the Plague away must be placed in the Mercy of our God, and in order to be able to obtain that, it is necessary to faithfully, and not falsely, turn to Him with public prayers and a serious emendation of our life so that He may liberate His people from the danger that hangs over them. As we see in Bk. 3 Ch. 8 of Kings and Bk. 2 of the Paral., Ch. 6, the major trust of the Hebrew people in times of great calamities was placed in their self-humiliation through prayers to God. Just as much, and more, will be done and hoped by His chosen and beloved people of the very Law, from His supreme clemency did not spare the Blood and the Life of His Only Begotten to whom, His Only Blessed Son, He promised things, and many times, in his most infallible Gospel. Therefore, while being in such a grave danger, the Bishop will order, according to St. Carlo’s instructions, to have a procession for three days, as well as Fasting and other forms of Penance and Piety, to placate God and implore His great Benignity by ordering also a general communion on some Festive Day. He will order the Forty Hours for the exposition of the Venerable, so that prayers will be said at all times and our devotion may be expressed to Him who must be our greatest hope. Furthermore, we will prescribe one or two days of Fasting, each week, and in a determined Festivity he will give the blessed ashes as if it were the beginning of Lent. So did also St. Carlo. Then, both the Bishop and the Parish Priests, the Preachers, the Directors and the Heads of the Monasteries will direct their attention and uproot those Corruptions and Public Sins that irritate God’s anger the most, such as Adultery, Concubinage, Usury, Injustice, Illicit Contracts, Oppression of the Poor, Usurpation of People’s Property, Enmity, Irreverence against the Holy Temples and other similar offenses against our Creator. Here, more than ever, should burn and shine the Zeal of the Ministers of God without ever forgetting the laws and the advice of Prudence, the faithful companion of every action and Virtue.

Chapter II When the Plague enters into a City for the first time, it already is seen to begin, overcoming all obstacles, to mow down the lives of the people; few are those who, like the spectators of such a horrible, never seen dangerous scene, are not filled



the theme of the plague in italian le t ter s

with terror, consternation and even faintheartedness. And although not a few persons regain courage with the passing of time, like some soldiers, afraid of the first Battle that later on build up their courage little by little by getting used to the fight; yet, more numerous are those who, during the Contagion, always afraid, still harbor the early horror, fearing everything and everywhere seeing in the death of other people’s faces their own demise. But if there is a time when it is necessary to have Constance of the soul, Fearlessness and Courage, that of the Plague is certainly, and, more than the other, such a one. I have said it, and I repeat it: according to the conclusion of the wisest Physicians and any Person familiar with similar situations, one of the great defenses against the Plague is not being afraid of the Plague. Courage, Cheerfulness, Tranquility of the Soul, keeping in a healthy balance without alternations, the Spirits and Humors of the body, stop in some manner the progress also of the external Poison of the Pestilence. One should not neglect the other Means and remedies to protect oneself: but this must be one of the first ones. Apprehension, Terror and Sadness are themselves Plagues in the time of Pestilence, by sowing Disorder in our Imagination and by predisposing the Humors to receive easily, and, in a certain way, to call from afar the reigning Poison, as experience has shown in endless cases. Most necessary, therefore, are Strength and Constancy of the Soul for the benefit of each person in particular; but there is especially a great necessity for the benefit of the Public, in the Magistrates, Priests and in any other Person trusted by the spiritual or temporal order of the People in the midst of the dire calamity. If those persons are controlled by Fear, if they escape omitting to govern and assist with appropriate measures, or with their presence the unfortunate population, the disorder is immense, enormous is despair and endless the slaughter. But if these persons, having strengthened their hearts with a Noble and Wise Courage, will start in it even the Fire of Charity, adopting a paternal and Christian love and omitting nothing for the Health of their Fatherland, one cannot say how many will have been saved, thanks to them, the life of the Soul and how many more times that of the body. … Finally, one must always consider the obligation that we all have, to carry out the Will of God. We are His Creatures, His Servants, His Children; therefore, if the Master, if the Father calls, we must obey Him with great submission and resignation, as well as with good will. All day, in our Prayer that was taught to us by his Son, we say that his kingdom must come and that his will be done. Will we not do it then? Or will we do it with rebellious repugnance and with fear and spite injurious toward Him? The will of God must be carried out in every way: it will be a misshaping weakness and a sort of foolishness carrying out unwillingly what we have necessarily to do. Death is bitter only for those who placed all their happiness in this vain and miserable earthly life and do not like to submit their will to that of our most loving Father God. May He want, in His infinite Clemency and

t h e t e x ts  | 99

most powerful Grace, that we become a part of them. If we consider it properly, and will not be blinded by passion, it will be clear to us that if we lose our life in a Contagion, we will leave our life at a time when, more than in others, it is easy for the Christian Souls to pass from this valley of misery and sin to the most blessed kingdom of our great God, and Jesus the Savior. In other Occasions, Death is want to come upon us suddenly, finding us ill-prepared for the journey into Eternity; or, under the attack of Fevers and other Illnesses, they do not leave to us the use of our Reason and Senses in order to settle our accounts with God and the World, before starting our journey. But when the Pestilence is rampant, the countenance of people proclaims at a loud voice that Death is coming, that we must convert to God, able, in such a way, with a sane mind, to prepare ourselves to achieve easily the Glory that is awaiting for us in the other life. Furthermore, the Plague is a great field to use our Virtues and gain great merit from the Lord of Death and Life. The very suffering of death willingly with the intention of obeying God, will be an immense merit toward God. “This plague,” said St. Cyprian, about the one of his time, in his Sermon on Mortality, this disease that appears so frightening, is inquiring who is and who is not good and examines the minds of Men; if the Healthy help the Diseased; if the Relatives charitably love each other; if the Masters have compassion of their Servants who are ill; if the Physicians do not abandon the diseased; if the cruel one restrains their violence; if the greedy, at least out of the fear of death, extinguish the constant and insatiable fire of their furious greed; if the Proud bend their heads and if the wicked put down their effrontery; if the Wealthy, at least because their beloved ones die, and remain without heirs and are themselves near death, donate something then, for us, these are not grievous misfortunes but exercises that offer the soul the glory of Strength and with the Scorn against death they prepare us to the Crown.

Chapter IV In our City, when the Plague of 1630 set foot in it, the Health Supervisors ordered, with a public Proclamation, that if someone, either relative or Domicile Sharing Person in the house of a plague victim, were asked by the ill person to call a Confessor and the person did not comply with the request, said person incurred a serious monetary punishment that could be extended, by a court decision, even to imprisonment. In order to protect themselves better, the Parish Priests and other Priests, in saying Mass, could order to place gates, barriers and any other obstacles around the Altar where they would have to officiate. This was ordered so that no person from the people might get too close. The rule said, furthermore, that it would be



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

a better precaution if each one had his own paraments that no other person could use. Such precaution “will be necessary,” said the rule, for an individual who will have to associate with Infected or suspected persons. The priests who will have to administer the Sacraments, will be separated into two groups, namely some for the Healthy and others for the Infected or Suspected persons,

according to the Bishop’s orders. Other rules read as follows:

Chapter V The distribution of alms will be carried out not by the Parish Priests but by the Chiefs of the Confraternity, or other persons known for their faith and wisdom. If the Parish Priest has to do it, he should be accompanied by some member of the Brethren or other God-fearing persons. And Gatherers and Distributors should be reminded that the person who would distribute or keep for himself these alms without necessity would be guilty of a crime punishable by death, as this action amounts to stealing without necessity from really needy persons. The Bishop, then, when necessity requires it, would have to permit to help the Poor with some yearly funds allotted for other charitable purposes. He should also recommend, if he deems it necessary, to the Deputies and the Leaders, never to abandon anyone, suspected or infected, as long as the person is alive, because acting differently would be an undescribable cruelty. In addition, he should recommend to them as much as possible not to forbid that there may be mutual assistance between Children and Parents, Parents and Children, and Relatives, in the Disease, or in the Suspicion of Plague, being this a duty of great Charity and Mercy. And given the fact that, unfortunately, many lose heart, forgetting the Laws of Nature and even more those of Charity, think of saving only themselves in the shipwreck without minding even the needs of their relatives: it will be the duty of the Parish Priest and Preachers, to limit as much as possible such monstrosity by describing its ugliness and convince all of the debt of Gratitude, as well as the most beautiful and holy teachings of Christian Charity. Saint Antoninus teaches us that not administering, when one can do it, to the Infected Persons the things that are necessary for their Bodies and Souls est contra Caritatem, Humanitatem, et Christianam Pietatem. And since the Lord God (one cannot remind it enough) in the Final Judgement will ask, more than anything else, if we have performed Acts of Mercy toward our fellow men, so much more inexorable will be His anger against those who did not help their Relatives, that must be loved and assisted more than the others, and the God of Charity will be more forgiving and will give the prize of eternal life to

t h e t e x ts  | 101

those who, bravely and faithfully, without being frightened by dangers or troubles or the aspect of the earthly Death, will have assisted in holy union and patience in the care and needs of their Parents, Children and Patients.

Chapter VI The obligation of the lay persons to assist each other in times of great misfortune is clear; but the Ecclesiastical will have to burn much more certainly of the fire of Charity and help their fellow men, The Ecclesiastical, both Secular and regular. This truth speaks by itself and it is superfluous to quote Authors. Due to the obligation that they have to give a good example to the others, and because of a duty of their profession that consists in being more virtuous than the others, as they became part of the Inheritance of the Lord, this same God requires and expects from them in the calamity of the pestilence every action of brotherly Charity. Those who, by means of things, are able to must assist with them in the suffering of the People. Those who cannot do it with their means, should try to do it with their own presence or in another manner. The Bishops, especially, are obliged to do so by the Sacred Canons and by the Holy Fathers. As for material things, one must remember that although the Ecclesiastical, that enjoy titles, Abbeys, Benefits either as Simple or Curates, given to them by the Church, are always obliged, under the pain of a serious Sin to distribute for pious purposes, and especially in behalf of the Poor, the income from these Properties, while they may keep only what is necessary for their honest, and not pompous, sustenance; yet, when the Pestilence rages, that Obligation increases, as they must live more frugally than ever and take away a lot from their comfort in order to remedy as they can the numerous inconveniences that the People are forced to suffer at that time.

Chapter IX The Bishop, furthermore, will assign a Priest or another Ecclesiastical with his Assistants as a Commissioner for every three or four Convents of Nuns who, together with the Helpers, will visit if necessary, and will give the appropriate orders for the good administration of the Monasteries entrusted to him. It will be his task to see that the Religious women will be supplied as soon and as much as possible with provisions, especially Wheat, Flour, Wine, Oil, Cheese and Soap; reminding them to economize and enforce it if the highest authority should be invoked. The same Commissioner will visit, with his Assistants, the entire area of the cloister, having every Door closed or any other place from which it is possible



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

to speak from outside, give away or receive things, leaving only the common gate open with the new Drums and Parlatory. He will also select in every Monastery two places, separated and viable, to be used as lazzaretti. In cases of need, infected or suspected persons will be separated and the Communication with the rest of the House will be cut in the best possible manner or arranging everything in order to place huts in the garden, if necessity required it. And for the purpose of limiting the frequent entering into the Monastery, he will have a detailed map of the enclosure drawn up with all the locations, specifications of every Cell, of whom uses it, ordering then that no one change her location without his permission; and he will keep a log of this. Every day he will visit the Monasteries that had been assigned to him, (and should he be unable to do it, he will have it done by one of his Assistants) being informed and observing if the Nuns are all healthy, with a healthy appearance, encouraging them, as much as possible, while fear in women may cause, more than in other people, serious disorders; and paying particular attention that if the Disease was in the city, nobody should report to them the grievous events. If one of them should fall ill, the Commissioner, having the latter enter in his log both the ill and the dead Nuns, in order to send a note every evening to the Notary appointed by the Bishop, will, in turn, send a copy to the Health Office. The Bishop will also order, with an official notice, that every one who falls ill should go indispensably to the Infirmary and that, although there is no suspicion of Contagion, she may be visited only by the Nuns or by sisters, or deputized Nurses, because in such a manner, if worse emergencies should occur, the others will remain exempted from the obligation of the Quarantine. *

Giuseppe Parini Giuseppe Parini was born at Bosisio in 1729. In 1762 he wrote some poems that he published with the anagram Ripano Eupilino. From 1754 to 1762 he was the private teacher of the family of Duke Serbelloni that he left some years later. In 1763 he published the first part of Il Giorno (The Day), namely Il Mattino; in 1765 he completed Il Mezzogiorno that was followed by Il Vespro and La Notte. These parts form a satyric poem describing the day of a young nobleman and the characteristics of the author’s times. The poem was published in its entirety only after Parini’s death that occurred in August 1799. New and old doctrines in literature are discussed in his Dei principi delle lettere. Parini has an extremely important place in the history of Italian literature as he interpreted the concerns and aspirations of a country in an epoch of radical social and political innovations.

t h e t e x ts  | 103

From La salubrità dell’aria (On the salubrity of the air) Nor there lie here any marshes / that from their foul beds / spread over the barren field / clouds polluted by plague; / and the noontide / dries the gentle crests / of the lovely hills. / May he perish, the one who first exposed / my city to the stagnant waters / and the fetid slime; and for profit / had no consideration / for the citizen’s health. L’innesto del vaiuolo (The smallpox inoculation) O Genoese, where do you go? What / ray of hope shines on your daring ships? / Don’t you fear the wings of the unknown winds? / What courage places you / on the untried vastness / of the immense ocean? / Listen to Europe’s mocking, listen / how it laughs at your accomplished deeds. / But you spurn the common herd. He errs / the man who says that nature placed borders / of vast marine expanses, / if it gave him the mind to restrain them: / and from the high slope / it taught him how to direct / the large trunks in the sea, / and enclose in powerful canvas / the winds with which he boldly races on the waves. / Thus the heroic helmsman thinks, he fells / the feared pillars of Hercules; / he greets new stars; / and hears the roar of new storms. / The surprised people of the hidden world / see the prodigious stranger. / He returns; and boldly shows his treasures / to Europe who still mocks him on the beach. / More than gold, BICETTI, man adores / this long hope of his life: / more than gold itself, beauty / exerts more power over the human soul. / Yet the ignorant rabble / now condemns the test, / or resists against the event / of him who brought it a double treasure, and scorns / the new worlds for it is used only to the old one. / Like proud corn in a summer field / the fruit of holy embraces grows. / The dear father rejuvenates / in the looks of his children; / and in his happy heart / contemplating the hope / of his final moment, / already prepares soldiers for the country, famous mother of heroes. / Grow little children: one day you will be / a strong defense of your country’s walls, / and your sweet concern / and pleasant goal of chaste hearts. / But, o Lord, what sickle cuts down / the sweet promises / of the charming harvest and sweet promises? / What fury of an atrocious hail / disfigures the lovely green and early flowers? / Among the tender limbs, horrible, there sits / a silent seed, and suddenly it is awaked / by a deadly fury, / scourge of the race of man. / It works inwardly, it wounds / with a deadly ferment; / and the frail machine / is either completely won or it captures its beauty / as the rival’s chisel against a hero’s statue. / The indomitable ravenous fury attacks all, / all in the most tender years; / and the cries and worries are made to / echo from humble huts to royal palaces / and with its grasping hand / confines in the graves / an immense number of men’s children. / Someone escapes, it is true, from the infected glances; / but let him expect, in his fear, a worse result. / O wretched people! What good is



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

the doctor’s art, / The fruit of studies, the medicines, the hands? / All efforts are in vain, / when the universal infection is at the door; / it receives greater vigor / over the surprised body / and its imperfect resistance. / O weak art, o uncertain defense / that wait for illness to come, and / are unwisely unprepared. / In the Orient the numerous peoples / that we call barbaric and rude do not wait for it; / but, sagaciously, they elude / the fierce, unavoidable demon. / Since it has reached the good point / from which it can win the monster, / it challenges it bravely; / and, in the fight, it forces it to use / the weapons that obtusely are put in its hands. / Of the lording disease it chooses naturally / the part that is less bad; and they use it to infect / the much loved offspring / that is safe and never falls ill again. / That is why the human flock / lives plentiful in Pekin, / and out of woman’s merit / the Circassian grows rich, and adorns his temples, / where the Goddess of Cyprus blindly reigns. / Oh, Montegú, which singular ship, / sailing unknown seas and visiting foreign lands / and disinterring ancient and vast kingdoms / of various peoples / and returning to us laden / of strange jewels and of gold, / brought such a great treasure / sufficient to equal or surpass / what you brought to us from the Black Sea? / England, France and Italy laughed / at the remembrance of the fabulous inoculation: / and the troublesome judgment / of the false logic arose / In vain success was propitious / for the attempted undertaking / because false pity arose / against its own good and against truth, / and armed itself with the women’s lamentations. / (The European nations) were very prompt to accept the unfavorable gifts / that, crossing the boundless ocean / Amerigo brought them; / they quickly welcomed them with both hands, / of the ruined thrones / the bloody remains / and the poisonous fruit / they grabbed joyously; and / from the same source / they sucked up pains and shame. Such is the lot of insane mortal man / he abuses nature and goes against reason; / or he misuses reason and goes / against nature that offers him its gifts. / This true loving mother / taught an ignorant people / how to avoid death; / and the educated people understand much more, / rebels against such mother’s advice. / A great novelty always seems a falsehood, / My dear BICETTI to a weak and vulgar mind: / but, unperturbed, the kingdom / of the wise minds continued to pursue what is useful. / Neither threat nor shame / can stop it or remove it; / it builds proof on proof; / it destroys the idols of people’s error and destines health to posterity. / Thus England, France and Italy saw / a group of wise people arm themselves against the common herd. / Their zeal burn unbeaten, / A grim, homicidal weapon, / it was no longer weak and bare; / but behind a safe shield / the youth cautiously descended / and took inexorable fate by surprise. / Run along the footsteps of that daring man, / you too, BICETTI and try to fight the violent pity / that burdens the hearts of the Lombard mothers. / Help humanity; spurn the unjust throne / where superstition, the enemy of truth, /

t h e t e x ts  | 105

and the obstinate, insane, ancient school / arms themselves with pride. / What multitude of noble descendants / will cultivate our serene fields!9,10 clouds polluted by the plague–nuvol di morbi infetti–nuvole infettate dalla peste; stagnant waters–oziose acque–acque stagnanti; fetid slime–limo fetido–limo fetido; disfigures–sfregiano–sfregiano; scourge–flagello–flagello; all efforts are in vain–tutti i sudor son vani–ogni sforzo è vano *

Antonio Genovesi: Discorso sopra il vero fine delle lettere e delle scienze Antonio Genovesi, Naples 1713–1769, was a writer of philosophy, ethics, economics and pedagogy, Piano delle scuole, 1764; Lezioni di commercio, 1765; Logica, 1766; Metafisica, 1766. In Naples he held the first professorship of political economics in Italy and was the first to lecture in Italian rather than in Latin. He (Caracalla) wanted to concentrate all his power in his hands, namely, in the largest and most frightening smallness one may find himself, who, without being united with his fellow men, is always the weakest animal that lives on earth. Asia Minor, Judea, Egypt and Sicily were rich and formidable nations when they were populated: they became poor and negligible when they were deserted and the incredible fertility of their soil did not help them at all. Our kingdom, as it grew in number of people, became proportionately wealthier and more powerful because the deposits that it has on the surface, the more cultivated they were the more they produced in proportion. It seems a paradox but it is true that man is such a power that, when united with another man, does not create one equal to the sum of the two, but, if I am permitted to say so, the square of the sum. Emulation, glory, joy, love, mercy that come among similar people and, if you will, ambition, envy, anger, indignation and all the other passions that man feels in the company of another man, are like springs that multiply and accelerate actions and cause ten persons to accomplish in a day what one alone could not do in one hundred. For this reason, one may conclude that those who strive in some way do depopulate nations, and are much worse enemies of this precious commodity and unfriendly to her Sovereign Farmer than hail, rust, worms and other similar causes that devastate the labor of the hard-working farmer. Fire and plagues may be their only similarities. plague–peste–peste *



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

The poorest families, if they are made up of righteous and honest people, are skillful, economical, confident; thanks to these virtues they take giant steps toward greatness and power, while the richest and most powerful where dishonesty, the common evil, and the contempt for the laws that follow indivisibly the common vices are introduced, in a short time are led to beggary and slavery. * The French, therefore, began to translate into their language all the books on trade that the wise nations wrote, and especially those that demonstrate the origin, progress, perfection of the arts, economy and commerce. * How many times do we turn back to consider the most cruel sores and the dreadful wounds that these provinces have suffered for such a long time, now because of foreign wars, and then for civil conflicts, for the frequent plagues and famines and many other causes that our history has preserved, it is surprising to see how we did not become a desolate land. The main cities such as Salerno, Nocera, Capua, Aversa, Benevento, Troia, Bari, Melfi, Taranto, Reggio and many others were many times conquered and conquered over again, sacked and burned: the fields were devastated; the inhabitants killed or dispersed; the land was left uncultivated, relinquished were the arts, forbidden the letters, and, in this exchange, there was introduced a superstitious and distressing ferocity, a dried up commerce, and an extinguished love of country. The plague was allowed to run like an unbridled torrent for a long time; the shores were infested by pirates. The puny barons, having become bold, destroyed one another. The neighboring towns and the families of the same towns were butchering each other. Hunger frequent and unchecked caused squalor and emptiness. And, finally, the vagrant people without laws, religion, without humanity, plundered Calabria, the Principalities, Abruzzo, and Campania. To top it all, ignorance and a fierce superstition painted everything with a cruel and savage look and spreading diffidence, it severed every social bond. What a horrid image! * Then there arrived an immense quantity of vagrants and idlers, who are always the true plague of the political bodies. The kingdom was in this condition around the half of the past century: when, to crown all ills, there occurred a universal rebellion, and, ten years later, a distressing and heart-rending plague that, spreading fiercely and with impunity over all of our regions affected by ignorance and

t h e t e x ts  | 107

immorality, killed, as many persons of those times wrote, about the sixth part of the inhabitants, a loss that can be made up only through centuries. *

A Romualdo Sterlich, Marchese di Cervignano, a Chieti Tuesday, after my (summer) holidays of 29 days, I returned to Naples, healthy as much as I can wish to be but lazy, with my imagination full of the rural leisures, my mind distracted, in a word not much of a philosopher. There, our life was a series of honest pastimes, conversing with the wisest and most charming old man whom I ever met. We visited the most attractive places of the mountains of Massa Equana, the caves, the valleys, the water streams, even the steep cliffs that had something singular to entice our curiosity. Whether it was the comparison with Naples that, due to the number of houses, the height of the walls, the number of inhabitants, the heaviness of the exhalations, has become not so healthy and cheerful, or the location of those mountains facing the summer south, the pure air, the looks of the underlying seas, the hills covered with a charming greenery harboring in themselves all those delights that most sensitive people may desire, it is certain that I easily believed to be on Mount Olympus. … the heaviness of the exhalations–gravezza dell’esalazioni–la pesantezza delle esalazioni; the pure air–l’aria pura–l’aria pura *

Francesco Longano Francesco Longano was born in Ripolimosani, Febrary 3, 1729 and died April 28, 1796 in the Comune di Santo Padre in Terra di Lavoro. A few years passed again among his mountains in Molise persuaded him once more that he had to sacrifice everything in order to return to Naples; Genovesi helped him, appointed him as his substitute, opened for him the doors of private schools. From then on he was going to live for several decades more or less poorly depending on the number of students that he could scrape together. In 1764 they were a few: the famine and the mortality thinned them out even more the following year. Then came the persecutions by the ecclesiastical authorities even more persistent and pernicious. (A note written by Franco Venturi) the famine–la carestia–la carestia; the mortality–la moria–la mortalità *



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Domenico Grimaldi: Visitatore per le università Domenico Grimaldi was born in 1735 and died in 1805. He was a member of the Ligurian noble family that saw some of its members settle in Southern Italy. He wrote a Saggio di economia campestre per la Calabria and a Piano di riforma per la pubblica economia delle provincie del Regno di Napoli per l’agricoltura delle Due Sicilie as well as Piano per impiegare utilmente i forzati. For a topic of such importance the visitor will have a broad area to carry out most useful observations. In every place he will examine the quality of the air, of the water, and the maintenance of the waterworks: the precise population, the ratio between births and deaths, the active epidemics and the seasonal occurrences, the number of weddings that are officiated every year, the number of bachelors, of the foundlings, of the vagrants and beggars. The number of priests, of the regulars as well as the nuns; of the churches, convents and monasteries, conservatories, confraternities, pious ecclesiastical and laic places and the beneficiaries; he then will consider the political government of the community in order to learn about their abuses. * Piano per impiegare utilmente i forzati e col loro travaglio assicurare ed accrescere le raccolte del grano nella Puglia e nelle altre provincie del Regno. (A plan to employ usefully the convicts and by their work ensure and increase grain harvesting in Apulia and the other provinces of the Kingdom) In order to till the lands of America, Europeans must look for slaves from the coasts of Africa, meet the high cost of buying them and bear the loss of not so few of them who die during such a long journey. These wretched people, born in a very warm climate, have a very weak character, nearly stupid and quite lazy because of the constant habit of idling; they often prefer suicide than working. Yet, in spite of all these decisive disadvantages, the industrious and cruel European is able to make a profit from the slow and compulsory labor of the slaves that he not only can match the expense of buying them but make such a profit as to go beyond his own hope. the air–l’aria–l’aria; the water–l’acqua–l’acqua; epidemics–epidemie–epidemie *

Francescantonio Grimaldi: La vita di Diogene Cinico Francescantonio Grimaldi was a brother of Domenico. He was born at Seminara, May 10, 1741 and died February 8, 1784. He is noted for writing La vita

t h e t e x ts  | 109

di Ansaldo Grimaldi, Patrizio Genovese, 1769, La Vita di Diogene Cinico, 1777, and Riflessioni sopra l’Ineguaglianza fra gli uomini, 1779–1780. All philosophers were satisfied with correcting the errors of mankind from their writing desks; by writing the icy, vague maxims of their morals, that even more icily reach the eyes of the readers and never enter into their hearts. Let us confess candidly that we have thousands of volumes on morals, and in this huge number of books of this kind there are those that teach us truth with the utmost openness and candor, but these books are either not read or are read inattentively, and without any interest, or are not understood because the reader has his mind troubled by other maxims so much so that I would dare say that they function as an adornment of literature, not as an advantage for public morality. But the word of mouth and the example have another force and cause a different effect in this gender, philosophers may be compared with physicians. The excellent books of medicine are useful for those who learn them in order to use them to treat the ill: but the ill are not cured with books but with the wise practice of a knowledgeable doctor, competent in his work. knowledgeable doctor–medico istruito–medico istruito *

Giuseppe Maria Galanti: Nuova Descrizione Storica e Geografica d’Italia. Carattere, arti, letteratura, religione, lingua, usi e costumi degl’Italiani Giuseppe Maria Galanti was born at Santa Croce del Sannio, in 1743 and died in Naples in 1806. He wrote the Elogio di Niccolò Machiavelli … con un discorso intorno alla costituzion della società ed al governo politico, 1779; Dello spirito generale della religione cristiana, Osservazioni intorno a’ romanzi, alla morale e a’ diversi generi di sentimenti; Descrizione dello stato antico ed attuale del Contado di Molise, con un Saggio sulla Costituzione del regno; Nuova descrizione storica e geografica d’Italia, and Nuova descrizione storica e geografica della Sicilia as well as Testamento forense. Italy is the country of heroes. We saw that it was the homeland of the greatest people of all kinds. Many illustrious geniuses of ancient Rome who created the destiny of the universe were born there. Marco Polo, a Venetian, travelled in Asia toward 1288, at the time when all of Europe was barbaric. Italians were the discoverers of America. Virgil was quite right when he said about Italy: Hail, great mother of good crops, land of Saturn, mother of heroes. … The Italians’ character is similar to their climate. They are in a correct proportion between extremes, and they must be, as Vitruvius said, owing to the favorable



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

position of the country where they live, the most prudent, wisest, the most able to govern. … Italians are always illustrious by a regal renown, distinguished in justice and laws. They have always enjoyed the reputation of good politicians. Furthermore, Italians are well shaped, with pleasant features, lively, sensitive, ingenius, discerning, fond of joviality and merriment. The fertility of the ground, the mildness of the climate, the attractive appearance of all natural things, have inspired in them the principles of taste and the tendency toward the talent of inspiration. Printers and poets are born in Italy and develop there without the help of any artfulness. The talent of extempore poetry, commonly called improvisation, is common in Italy even in the most unrefined persons, and it is unknown beyond the Alps. Only Italy gave life to geniuses who were at the same time painters, sculptors, architects and poets. All nations do not have as many poets as Italy has. Here there is no woman for whom poets have not written verses. The Italians’ music is a passion and it seems that they have the most harmonic and sonorous ears than the others in the rest of Europe. In the cities and in the countryside one sings and plays perpetually. It is not surprising if Italians, before the others, have fostered the arts and knowledge, as if we brought perfection to the light. Only Italians have known true music and the true art of painting and building. The most sublime creations of the genius of these arts are abundant in Rome, Florence, Bologna, Naples and Venice. Every capital city in Italy contains more artistic masterpieces than the rest of Europe put together. The works by Tasso, Ariosto, Metastasio are the most extraordinary products of nature that have no equal in all nations. The French poets are not of the same opinion but their verses are not sung in the streets and are not on the lips of all women and all lovers. These natural dispositions have created in the Italians a dislike for the simple tragedy. They seek only entertainment and a show that does not provoke laughing for them is insipid. For this reason in the theatrical works they like only the comic and the farcical: the tragic is appreciated only in musical opera. People take great pleasure in hearing Tartaglia, Coviello, Pulcinella, Arlecchino, Brighella, a Venetian Pantalon, a Bologna’s Dottor. These characters perform mainly in impromptu comedies that normally consist in love affairs and intrigues. Comic theater in Italy is extremely licentious. Naples and Venice are the main schools of opera theater. There arose in this field many great composers who surprised and charmed other nations with their masterpieces. The taste for operatic theater causes in Italy the tolerance of the abominable use of castrating men in order to produce artificial voices that are appreciated all over Europe. The beautiful voices of this kind are paid at an excessive price. Apostolo Zeno and Metastasio have created brilliant and original

t h e t e x ts  | 111

masterpieces but at the present time the plays by Metastasio are preferred because they are written with more grace and harmony. Every year composers adapt to dramas a new music showing a continued and prodigious variety. This taste for Italian operatic theater has become the European general taste; and in this field the Italian theater went above the French one. Metastasio’s plays are produced on stage even in the least cultured provinces of America. Nowadays, it seems that some of the fine arts are in decline in Italy. If she has no longer great painters, it must not be attributed to a lack of genius, but to accidental causes. Peculiar revolutions occur in the government, in the ways of thinking and living that bring about the decadence of the arts by removing from nature all its energy. We are sated with so many masterpieces among which we are born and live. The abundance of the ancient ones brought down the value of the new ones. Because of this and other reasons talents do not develop. The work of the great engravers are not paid owing to the large crowd of mediocre engravers and the men of genius that nowadays abound in Italy, spend their lives in poverty, complaining about the injustice of their times. Other political reasons that are easily known, cause the decadence of heroism in Italy. The first European academy of natural history was established in 1565 by Bernardino Telesio at Cosenza. Then there came the one of Cimento, established by Cardinal Leopoldo of the Medicis in 1657. There has never been a more noble institute for the sciences than the one of Bologna, no university more famous than Padua’s. Nowadays universities and literary academies are to be found everywhere. The main ones are those of Turin, Milan, Catania, etc. It seems that in Italy letters do not have that luster that they had once because knowledge has become more widespread. If Tuscany, like Attica, is no longer the mother of genius, Naples and Milan boast about good scholars and excellent writers in all fields. Generally, Italians show more common sense and reason in familiar discussions than in books, and the people who print almost never write what they think. Freedom of the press is restricted in Italy. A poor writer is obliged to express himself in conformity with the opinion of his reviewers. In Venice and in Tuscany the government allows the printing of what one wants, and for these two nations the press is a matter of big business. Italy is flooded with frivolous, inept books of all kinds. The French ones are very fashionable, because they are written freely and are more in accordance with the taste of the century. The printing art brought about an essential and notable change in the spirit of European nations. It did not only expand knowledge and spread the principles of reason and healthy morality, but it has also caused a great easiness in the activities of life; and by increasing the number of books of all kinds it has engaged the minds in an abstract world of imagination and ideas. People rail



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

against frivolous books, but perhaps with little reflecting. The current condition of Europe presents an immense number of popular cities rich and lazy, and frivolous, high-spirited literature does a lot of good by interesting the persons who, without it, would be turbulent and subversive. Some habits like the fad of fashion, the shows, a gallant lady, occupy the restless minds of men and establish the peace of the state. During the coarse and ignorant centuries, characters were ferocious; souls were fed only with strong and violent passions, and time was spent in discord, factions and tumults. Not all are able to understand of what turbulence human passions are capable. At present, society has become a pleasure theater and this condition is very happy for politics, because people are quiet and may be governed with kindness. At present, Italy is divided into many little states11 and since each one has its own metropolis that decides the taste and the manner of living and of thinking, this (situation) caused in these fields some differences. Generally Italians are restrained, nevertheless they all agree about magnificence and the spirit of dissipation that have become nowadays their activities after they ceased to be masters of the world. Every city has its permanent shows as every season has its entertainments and plays. Even the religious functions are a spectacle for them. The most renowned are Venice’s Ascension, The Fair of Reggio, the carnival of Milan, the Holy Week of Rome, and summer in Naples. After it was the center of revolution, Italy, at present, has become a theater of society and pleasure. Humanity and sweetness are qualities peculiar of Italians. All Italian cities abound in public charitable institutions where old people, children, young women, sick people, the poor may find assistance. The lowly people live by the day and are content with enjoying the present without worrying much about the future. They believe they did their utmost when they fed them and taught them a trade in order to survive. Differently from other people, Italians want to be governed with sweetness. They cannot stand a harsh government, and revolt against barbarity. The human soul was never debased in Italy, as it was elsewhere, and the feudal and ecclesiastical governments were much less harsh than in the other European regions. Atrocious tortures are not seen among Italians, and they become upset hearing about those of the other nations. Italians are governed more by customs than by laws. In the opinion of foreigners, Italians are believed to be jealous, while all well to do women have lovers. This habit is incompatible with jealousy. Italian women are not as attractive as the men, but they are equally shrewd and humorous. They love to dance, and they love music, shows and pleasures. Many are those who foster sciences and arts with great success. Once they were restricted like all the other European women, but nowadays they enjoy full freedom and it is they who vivify

t h e t e x ts  | 113

society and make it beautiful. Their houses begin to become schools of refinement and propriety. They are more independent in Venice and in Florence; here they may go unescorted in the streets, to the theater and where they like. They do not use makeup nor do they alter their faces as French women do. The women of Venice and Turin, however, began to practice this very bad habit. Italy has many noble people who participate in the government only in the republics. They live in grandeur and their main prerogatives consist in knighthood orders and in appearing in the court balls and in exclusive associations. In the noble families, they usually enjoy their titles, majorats and primogenitures. Emperor Frederick III, in his sojourn in Italy, the Aragoneses and the Catalans, started the fashion of the titles in Italy and established a large market of honorary titles; thus they introduced vanity, pomp, and a foolish and slothful life. The younger sons of the noble houses find a career in the military and the enjoyment of ecclesiastical benefits that are very numerous in Italy and have been established mainly by their elders for this purpose. Monasteries are populated by noble women who once would have never decided to marry a man of a lower social condition. Nowadays the nobility’s customs are more reasonable. Citizens make themselves equal to the aristocracy by way of wealth, positions and honors. To this class belong mostly those who govern the state, except in the republics. In Genoa and Venice the nobles do not disdain commerce. Farmers, generally, are not landowners, but they are not slaves. They normally give the landowners a half of the fruit of their work. This system is detrimental to the progress of agriculture for which the civil laws are not so favorable for its progress. The state of the Republic of Venice has no landed estates and trade is rich and flourishing. Lombardy is less feudal than the States of the Church, the Kingdom of Naples, Sicily and Sardinia. People are not so poor, manufacturers are numerous and thriving, the peasant is not so poor and unlucky. But such are the fertility of the Italian soil and the mildness of the weather that with a bad constitution, the arts and the manufactures of some areas thrive in all their perfection. The people of Genoa and Venice distinguish themselves by their trade. The main religion in Italy is the Catholic, except the Waldesians in the valleys of Piedmont. The Greeks who settled in Italy recognize the pope’s authority and are not numerous. Jews are tolerated in Rome, Leghorn and Venice. Clergy is as numerous as are religious houses. There are more bishoprics in Italy than in the rest of the world. Churches and monasteries possess goods and riches, consequently bishops and abbots are considered very highly. Almost everywhere churches are magnificent. Everything the arts have produced in their greatness and perfection, everything good taste was able to imagine in beauty and nobility, all the riches of



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

the four parts of the world are used in the luxury and decoration of the churches. The outward image of religion is great and august in Italy, and the divine service is celebrated decorously and magnificently. Foreigners believe that religion in Italy is intolerant owing to the effect of the Inquisition in the places where it is established. But the Italian people, as it has been noticed, are not cruel nor have they ever imitated the nations that are considered most pure in their violence. The cases of Calas and the Knight de la Barre are not believable. An Italian cannot conceive of these events happening in France in the eighteenth century, among its plays, its arts and its novels. Neither the clergy nor the magistrates harm a person in Italy. Italy if full of French protestant houses established there for trade reasons. For the government to intervene in some citizens’ errors, it is necessary that the matter entail crimes, which amount to disturbing society. The clergy deals with leniency in those things that in France would be purged with the wheel. The French speak a lot about indulgence that amounts to saying they feel they need it most. The Italian language was born from the corruption of the Latin language that brought about the various jargons of the barbaric people. As it was seen, it was perfected by the genius of Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio. Although it cannot be compared with Greek and Latin for beauty and perfection, it is, however, the least imperfect in Europe after Latin ceased to be spoken. It is rich, harmonious, regular in its form, varied in its modifications, full of force, grace and amenities. All these advantages are owed to Latin and to the Italians’ delicate organs. The other European languages kept the harshness of pronunciation and the more coarse expressions of the warlike and ferocious peoples that dominated us. Languages are also under the influence of the climate and the Italian climate has an advantage over the climate of the other European countries. The French, after Francis I, sweetened the harshness of the pronunciation and preserved it in the written form. Foreigners, like all those who consider good only that which belongs to their usage, do not want to recognize any preference in the Italian language. But a truly happy language is harmonious, a language that is suitable for music and poetry. The French who, owing to a defect of their own language, have neither music nor poetry, and cannot conceal this advantage of the Italian language, are reduced to say that the Italian language suits music and poetry but their language rules in the prose. This difference is quite peculiar. A language eloquent in verse will it not be eloquent in prose? Nowadays, that kind of sublime eloquence, capable of moving entire assemblies that freedom required (when speaking) at the stand, nowadays reason and truth must speak; they must instruct and please more than stir the minds, and modern languages are built with these tendencies.

t h e t e x ts  | 115

Languages improve with society, the arts and with trade. The French language, less abundant, less manageable, less energetic than Italian, became widespread because it devoted more attention to the groups of women that François I called to his court for its ease due to the uniformity of its syntax, for its pleasant books. “It is a currency,” said Voltaire, “more common than the others, although it has no weight.” The French owe the fortune of their language to the perfection they gave theater, and they succeeded in perfecting it only because they fostered their language. We observed how widely Italian Latinists damaged the perfection and the fortune of the Italian language. Tuscans cultivated it like pedants and turned it into a ridiculous arsenal of words. Italy has several popular dialects but people everywhere understand and write pure and correct Italian. In the major part of Lombardy, Calabria and Basilicata the nobles and the commoners speak a dialect of their own, and it is graceful. The Genoese dialect is barbaric; the Neapolitan is clumsy but expressive. The Italian language is spoken better in Tuscany and it is pronounced better in Siena. Italians dress French style and follow the French fashion. Their main pleasure is a good table (meal) and treat very candidly many people at their homes. Frequent are the cases of those who ruin their fortunes because of excessive magnificence. They welcome graciously foreigners and travel very little. In the evening they gather in conversation in the houses where there are ladies and their first words are said to ask about news. This is caused by boredom that in the present political situation of the European nations torments our lives. Then they spend the evening playing. These conversations are frequent in Italy and are inspired by sex. On Christmas and Easter Day, Italians have the habit of exchanging with each other best wishes. In Italy men are indicated by their baptismal names more than the family name and those names are chosen from the names of the saints of the Catholic religion. Married women use their own names and not those of their husbands. Differently from other Europeans, Italians count the hours from an evening to the next, and precisely half an hour after the sun sets. The manner of calculating time was practiced by the Hebrews, the Athenians and other oriental people and it is currently used by the Chinese. The use of counting from the point where the sun reached the meridian has the advantage of having midday and midnight at the same time and to have fixed clocks without the need to accelerate or delay their course according to the irregularity of the day. But the use of ending the measure of the time with the end of the lamplight, is, without doubt, more natural. This method is even more suitable for our occupations, the needs of society and, above all, of those who work and travel. The two methods have their advantages and imperfections. The Italian person is forced to calculate the time when the sun



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

reaches the meridian, and the French individual must calculate when the sun sets. In the countries situated under the equator, the Italian method is the best, without exception. In Turin, Modena, Parma, and in Tuscany the French hours have been introduced. revolutions–rivoluzioni–rivoluzioni; old people–vecchi–vecchi; sick people–malati– malati; poor–poveri–poveri; wheel–ruota–ruota *

Paolo Frisi: Elogio di Maria Teresa Imperatrice Paolo Frisi was born in Melegnano in April 1728 and died in November 1784. He was a scientist and his cultural interests put him in touch with the most important European intellectuals of his time. He wrote: Ragionamento sopra la podestà temporale dei principi e l’autorità spirituale della Chiesa; Saggio sopra l’architettura gotica, Cosmografia Physica et Mathematica, Della meccanica, parte seconda che contiene l’applicazione ai fiumi, ai torrenti e ai canali navigabili principalmente d’Italia e di Lombardia. In Lombardy and in almost all of Italy one had, unfortunately, acted ferociously for similar causes in the barbaric and dark centuries. In the single province of Como more than one hundred sorcerers and witches were burned and in 1485, just in that city, they burned forty-one of them. The victims of a certain tribunal were so numerous that it decided to torment them in various ways and then throw the condemned to the flames without appearing to condemn them, and without following any procedural rule, charges, witnesses or possibility of defense and appeal. sorcerers–stregoni–stregoni; witches–streghe–streghe; procedural rule–regolarità di processo–regolarità processuale; flames–fiamme–fiamme *

Gianbattista Biffi: Viaggio a Venezia, 1773 Gianbattista Biffi was born in Cremona in August 1736 and died there in May 1807. He was well versed in the English language and literature and wrote a Raccolta di sentenze e massime morali, that indicates a deep knowledge of writers such as

t h e t e x ts  | 117

Pope, Hume and Swift as well as other authors among whom are Voltaire, d’Alembert, Rousseau and Montesquieu. We were assigned certain seats among the nobles and from there, for several hours, I saw the formalities, the methods and the view of the assembly. That morning the Council was very small, for it did not count more than 400 patricians, but I swear that it was imposing. It seemed I had been brought back eighteen centuries and of being in the Temple of Tellus or in Pnice, there with the Themistocles, the Alcibiades, with the Scipios and the Fabii. From here, I told myself, Italy was ruled, from here the league of Cambrai was undone, from here it ordered to seize the Levant, from here they issued many statements of justice, integrity, forecasts, and knowledge of all kinds. The majesty and greatness of the place, the countenance of the fathers, the large number, the various gowns and colors showing the dignity. The venerable faces of those patricians who held embassies, navy and land ranks, some almost decrepit, dragged themselves to the council to serve their fatherland even in their last moments. All of this marks a reverence that cannot be expressed. I saw an octogenarian and blind Quirini standing on his feet, being led by the hand by another nobleman, attend the entire ceremony; I would have gone very gladly to kiss his hand. This could be the place to discuss in detail how the Senate is formed, where it meets, how it is subdivided, how long the position lasts, one important work that unfortunately was lost. He died in Ivrea, August 12, 1794. How far goes the given authority and a hundred similar things that I have tried to learn superficially at present and that I could not describe now. justice–giustizia–giustizia; integrity–integrità–integrità; knowledge–sapienza–sapienza; majesty–maestà–maestà; greatness–grandezza–grandezza; octogenarian and blind–ottogenario cieco–ottuagenario cieco *

Francesco Dalmazzo Vasco: Note all’ Esprit des Lois. Il Dispotismo Count Francesco Dalmazzo Vasco was born in 1732 in Pinerolo and studied at the University of Turin where he completed his studies in 1750. He considered Pietro Verri, Cesare Beccaria and the group of Il Caffè, “… i più illuminati scrittori del nostro secolo.” He wrote Delle leggi civili reali, Discorso sulle imposizioni in uno stato monarchico, Saggio filosofico intorno alcuni articoli di legislazione civile, and Saggio politico intorno ad una forma di Governo legittimo e moderato da leggi fondamentali, an important work that, unfortunately, was lost. He died in Ivrea, August 12, 1794.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

True despotism is an illness without a remedy no matter how one considers it. It is like a body infected by the most malignant plague, that it is better for a healthy person to flee from its presence and allow it to perish quickly rather than risking to be infected in the hope of giving it remedies that can do nothing but lengthen for a short time its certain and inevitable demise. The only remedy would be to cut it, namely, change the form of government and make it moderate. But where is that despot that might settle for the remedy? Most of them cannot be persuaded about their illness or at least they always hope that the end is a very remote event and may never occur to them but to their successors. Meantime, extreme independence united with absolute power to satisfy all possible whims confronting a limited power, of a dependence from the fundamental laws, the control of justice above the whims, make this second condition hateful to those who are in the first. How long has been the time since the philosophers have been proclaiming in their writings that the true interest of the rulers is to make their subjects happy, that their wealth depends on that of their subjects, that if they want to be powerful they must give them the means to get rich, that the person who wants to reap must sow the seeds? Yet, how few are those that let themselves be persuaded, that lighten the excessive burdens that scorn the projects of the subjects? The momentary advantage prevails too much upon the human heart. … *

Mezzi d’incoraggiamento al matrimonio It is true that to the depopulation of Europe there contributed grievous, minute feudal wars, the crusades, the religious battles, fanaticism, slavery, and, finally, superstition, the scourge of unfortunate mankind. From all this we were freed little by little by those enlightened individuals who dispelled the darkness of ignorance; they finally adopted a much less destructive way of fighting, the plagues were effectively removed, grounds were cultivated, rivers were controlled, channels were built, everything was done for the population increase; but the erroneous legislative and governmental system, once introduced, is still in existence more or less everywhere. the most malignant plague–la più maligna peste–la più maligna peste; illness without a remedy–male senza rimedio–male senza rimedio; illness–malattia–malattia *

t h e t e x ts  | 119

Giuseppe Borghi: Allo Spirito Santo Giuseppe Borghi does not refer to political events but to the spreading of Protestantism. He was born in Bibbiena in 1790 and died in Rome in 1747. He wrote commentaries on Dante and Petrarch as well as an edition of Pindar’s Odes. He composed Per la flotta sarda a Tripoli, Per le seconde nozze di Leopoldo II, Per l’Inondazione di Firenze del 1844, and Per la battaglia di Navarrino as well as Storia italiana dall’anno primo dall’era cristiana al 1840. Descend, vital breath, / drive back with your power, / the advancing disease / from the hyperborean land. the advancing disease–il morbo che s’avanza–il morbo che avanza *

Antonio Guadagnoli: Colera morbus Guadagnoli was born in Arezzo in 1798. He opened a private school for the study of Italian in 1833 in Pisa with good results. In July 1843 he received a professorship of rhetoric and eloquence at the Liceo S. Ignazio of Arezzo. In 1849 he was elected mayor of Arezzo. He died in Cortona in 1858. He wrote a poem, Naso, that brought to the author a certain fame. Will you calm down? You are making fun of me! One hears nothing else from morning to night, / one can see nothing else around the corner / but cholera, cholera and more cholera! / Look for something else that may be new, / and leave cholera alone where it is now. Cholera–colera–colera *

Giuseppe Giusti: L’incoronazione He was born in Monsummano in 1809, and studied law in Pisa graduating in 1834. He was a close friend of Capponi and Manzoni whom he visited in Milan in 1846. He was a moderate liberal in the political events in Tuscany in 1848–1849. He died in 1850 in the house of Gino Capponi, in Florence. Giusti is recognized



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

as one of the most brilliant poets of his generation, particularly for his very popular satirical works. Then there came a different plague of harpies / to inflict on the temple the final plunder: / o revenge of God! The Cossack treads on Peter’s robe. a plague of harpies–una diversa peste–una diversa peste d’arpie *

Ippolito Nievo: Le Confessioni di un italiano. Chapter XXI Ippolito Nievo was born in Padua in 1831 and participated with Giuseppe Garibaldi in the wars of 1859 in Lombardy and 1860 in Sicily. In March 1861 he died at sea in a storm near Naples. He wrote a well known novel, Confessioni di un italiano, poems, Lucciole and Amori garibaldini, short stories and two tragedies, Spartaco and Capuani. Death takes my second-born son and makes a clean sweep of friends and enemies. It finds a powerful ally in cholera. A sixty-five year old boarding school pupil. To weigh down the scales to her side, the occurrence of cholera contributed in no small measure. Entering Italy for the first time with the scare that accompanies contagions and unusual diseases, it threw the entire city of Venice in a state of dismay. Our Giulio was struck by that terrible disease and her constancy and courage with which his mother assisted him, gave her back the rights of a mother. If nothing else, cholera was well-deserving for cleaning the world of many persons that one did not know why they had come to it. One of the first to leave was Agostino Frumier, who left behind several children and was sorry to be buried without the chamberlain key that he had desired for a long time. And so, returning to previous events, there escaped from my lips the name of Amilcare Dossi, who had remained in the kingdom and had not given any information about himself. Then Mattelli answered that unfortunately he had news of his pitiful end. He had gotten involved in the Abruzzi war and jailed; he had succeeded to escape but then, after going to Sicily after a life of misfortunes and crimes, had ended up on the scaffold haranguing proudly the people and calling upon his executioners the justice of God. These things happened in the year one thousand eight hundred thirty-six, and because an incitement in the tumultuousness stirred up the island and exploded the following year with great uprisings on the occasion of cholera.

t h e t e x ts  | 121

cholera–colera–colera * As you can see, we are plagued; or better, we are considered as such. we are plagued–siamo appestati–siamo appestati. * Letter of Nievo to Arnaldo Fusinato, a poet (Born at Schio 1817. He died in 1889.) … the copies from Udine did not arrive yet, it is perhaps the fault of cholera. Here we were not infested by that ugly evil—this year’s lists of deceased barely equals those of last summer. ugly evil–malaccio–malaccio *

Ugo Foscolo: Discorso storico sul testo del Decameron (1825) Ugo Foscolo, one of the most loved and admired Italian poets, was born on the Greek island of Zante in 1778, the son of a Venetian father and a Greek mother. After his father’s death his family moved to Venice where his early poems made him known in literary circles: In morte di Amaritte, 1795, and Le Rimembranze, 1796, and In morte del padre, 1795. Al sole appeared at that time. In 1796 his tragedy, Tieste, was performed with great success in Venice. In 1799 he composed an ode, A Bonaparte Liberatore. After leaving Venice for political reasons he wrote Le ultime lettere di Iacopo Ortis in 1802 as well as Sonetti and Odi between1799 and 1803. In 1806 Foscolo was in Milan and between 1806 and 1807 he composed I Sepolcri. By this time the writer had acquired a great renown and was invited to teach at the University of Pavia where he delivered his famous inaugural lecture on the Origine e l’Ufficio della Letteratura. With the return of the Austrians in Lombardy, Foscolo, rather than accepting favorable offers from a foreign government, chose to go away from Italy as an exile and on April 1, 1815 he left his country, the first of a large number of other exiles. After a period spent in Switzerland, where he published the Ipercalisse, a satire in Latin, he moved to England where he spent the last years of his life dedicating his time to political and critical works.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Foscolo died in September 1827 in his house near London. In 1871 his mortal remains were moved from England to Italy where they are kept in Florence, in a monument in Santa Croce. When the pestilence of 1348 in Florence gave Boccaccio cause for writing the stories, he was thirty-five years old, and it seems that he published them a few at a time, since at the beginning of the fourth day, he answers those readers who had censured them. And although he claimed to write them in vernacular Florentine—and in a most humble style, and as plain as possible—nevertheless he confesses that he dedicated care and time and was giving his pen and tired hand some rest—thanking humbly him who after such a long labor had led him to the desired end through his help. Petrarch, who never received the stories of the author who used to send him everything (that he wrote), saw them many years later by accident: and he praised only the beginning because of the description of the plague and the end because of the story written to instill obedience in the wives; or rather to redeem it from the unworthy company of the others he translated it into Latin. Their age adulated in both noble minds the ambition of speaking in an already dead language than their fellow citizens among whom another language was growing rich and most vigorous. description of the plague–descrizione della peste–descrizione della peste; the pestilence of 1348 in Florence–la pestilenza del 1348 in Firenze–la pestilenza del 1348 a Firenze

Notes 1. Some areas of Naples and surrounding localities are well known for the presence of numerous natural water springs containing different chemical elements that were used in antiquity, and are still used in the present time, for the treatment of particular illnesses. These thermal stations can be found in the areas of Bagnoli, Pozzuoli’s Phlegraean Fields and south of Naples, at Castellammare di Stabia (the ancient Stabiae). This is one of the most important hydrothermal stations in Italy, and counts 28 mineral springs of different chemical characteristics and curative purposes. Loyse de Rosa’s witty remarks and suggestions remind any person who had the fortune of living in Naples of its citizens unique humor and jocular conversation. 2. Januarius (St. Gennaro) is the patron saint of Naples. It is believed that he was born in the third century and died a possible victim of persecution. He is considered a martyr by the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. He is the principal patron saint of Naples, where the faithful gather three times a year in the city’s Cathedral to witness the liquefaction of his blood which is contained in two glass ampoules. He was the bishop of

t h e t e x ts  | 123

Naples at twenty years of age and was beheaded at the Solfatara at Pozzuoli in 305 during the persecution of Christians by Emperor Diocletian. His feast is celebrated on September 19 in the Catholic Church. 3. This event is ascribed to the year 1224, when Saint Francis returned from la Verna with the stigmata. 4. Professor Singleton comments that according to this legend the nymph Aegina, daughter of the river god Asopus, was carried to the island of Oenoue by Jupiter to whom she bore a son, Aeacus. Aeacus eventually renamed the island in honor of his mother, but Juno, jealous of her rival, nearly depopulated the island by infesting it with a pestilence. Aeacus, then, appealed to Jupiter who restored the population by changing the ants on the island into men, thereafter called Myrmydons for the Greek term for “ants.” Here is, in part, Ovid’s narration from the Metamorphoses: A plague, through Juno’s hate and anger, came / Upon the land which bore her rival’s name. / Before the cause was known, the thing was thought / A natural ill, to be with physicians fought; / But death prevailed, and treatment came to naught. / At first, strange heat from clouds that over spanned / The darkened skies, lay heavy on the land: / Four times the moon attained her perfect round, / And four times was her waning web unwound. (The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Tran. by A. E. Watts) 5. Cardinal Giovanni Colonna had died on July 3, 1348, and Laura on April 6. “Broken is the tall Column and the green laurel / that shadowed my sad thought / I lost what I do not hope to find again.” 6. Laura died in Avignon on April 6, 1348 and Petrarch, who was in Verona, at that time, heard of her death only at Parma on May 19. 7. A note to this letter by Enrico Bianchi reads as follows: More than an epistle this is a long soliloquy, where the poet performs a painful analysis of himself, revealing the internal struggle between the flesh and the soul. He himself says that he wrote it during a pestilence, and many thought about the famous one of 1348. But in a codex of the Biblioteca Laurenziana where it is transcribed by the hand of Boccaccio, one can read that it was composed during the pestilence that raged over all of Tuscany especially in Florence in 1340. Nothing impedes us to believe that this date is correct so much so that in that year the plague devastated Tuscany although not as severely as in that which occurred eight years later. 8. In Italian the term for ‘death’ is feminine: la morte. 9. This composition is dedicated as follows: ‘Al Signor Dottore Giammaria Bicetti de’ Battinori che con felice successo eseguisce e promulga l’innesto del vaiuolo.’ 10. Parini refers to Maria Wortley Montagu (1689–1762), a British writer who during her voyage to Constantinople with her husband, who was the British ambassador in Turkey, observed the procedure of the inoculation against smallpox and promoted the introduction of the procedure in Great Britain. 11. In some of the documents mentioned in this study that concern Milan and its region, Lombardy, the territory in question is referred to as the patria. The term patria is a learned word that derives from the Latin terra patria (the land of the fathers). Some related terms are patriota (patriot), patriottico (patriotic), patriottismo (patriotism).



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

In some documents mentioned here, the term used by some historical figures of Milan is la patria that they intended to be constituted, at their time, by the city of Milan and its region Lombardy. To an Italian of our times, la patria (the fatherland) is the entire peninsular territory as well as the large islands of Sicily and Sardinia and some other, smaller islands. But at the time of the plague of Milan in 1630, Italy was not a unified country. It constituted an entity formed by various individual states separated in many ways the one from the other, presenting noticeable differences including language and forms of government. Laws and customs were also different as were many other things belonging to everyday life. The actual unification of the country was going to come about much later and it required countless sacrifices and wars as well. It may be correctly said that the process of the Italian unification was completed only at the end of World War I, in 1918. In order to give a general idea of the political situation during the period covering the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, we shall mention the names of the most important states of the country at that time with their Italian names. Beginning from the north there were: Il Ducato di Savoia, il Marchesato del Monferrato, il Ducato di Milano, la Repubblica di Venezia (with Trieste e Spalato in Dalmazia), il Piemonte e la Sardegna, il Ducato di Parma, il Ducato di Mantova, la Repubblica di Genova-Nizza, il Ducato di Toscana, San Marino, lo Stato della Chiesa e Roma, la Corsica alla Repubblica di Genova, il Regno delle Due Sicilie.

Bibliography Alighieri, Dante. La Divina Commedia. Firenze, 1902. ——. La Divina Commedia. Testo critico. Vandelli, Milano, 1952. ——. Tutte le Opere. Firenze, 1926. Berni, F. Poesie e prose. Firenze, 1934. Billanovich, G. Petrarca letterato. Lo scrittoio del Petrarca. Roma, 1947. ——. Restauri Boccacceschi. Roma, 1945. Boccaccio, G. Ameto, Lettere, Corbaccio. Bari, 1940. ——. ll Decameron. Firenze, 1960. ——. Decameron, Filocolo, Ameto, Fiammetta. Napoli, 1952. ——. L’Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta. Bari, 1939. ——. Il Filocolo. Bari, 1938. ——. Il Filostrato. Bari, 1937. ——. Le Rime, L’Amorosa Visione La Caccia di Diana. Bari, 1939. ——. Teseida delle Nozze di Emilia. Bari, 1941. Cavalcanti, G. Rime. Torino, 1980. Di Francia, L. La novellistica. Milano, 1924. Falqui, E. Antologia della prosa scientifica italiana del seicento. Firenze, 1943. Fanfani, P. Michelangelo Buonarroti, La Fiera e La Tancia. Firenze, 1860. Gelmetti, L. La questione della lingua italiana dopo la relazione di A. Manzoni. Milano, 1868. Getto, G. Il barocco in Italia, in Manierismo barocco. Torino, 1960.

t h e t e x ts  | 125

——. Vita di forme e forme di vita nel Decameron. Torino, 1957. Machiavelli, N. The Chief Works and Others. Durham-London, 1989. ——. Opere. Milano-Napoli, 1954. Monaci, E. Crestomazia Italiana dei Primi Secoli. Roma-Napoli-Città di Castello, 1955. Monteverdi, A. Studi e saggi sulla Letteratura Italiana dei Primi Secoli. Milano-Napoli, 1954. Orientamenti Culturali, Letteratura Italiana, I Contemporanei. Milano, 1958. Orientamenti Culturali, Letteratura Italiana. Le Correnti. Milano, 1958. Orientamenti Culturali, Letteratura Italiana, I Maggiori. Milano, 1956. Orientamenti Culturali, Letteratura Italiana, I Minori. Milano, 1956. Orientamenti Culturali, Repertorio Bibliografico aggiunto ai Contemporanei. Milano, 1964. (Le) Origini. Testi Latini, Italiani, Provenzali e Franco-Italiani. Milano-Napoli, 1956. Oxford Illustrated History of Britain. Oxford, 1984. Petrarca, F. Canzoniere. Torino, 1964. ——. Opere. Milano, 1968. ——. Prose. Milano, 1955. ——. Rime, Trionfi, Poesie Latine. Milano-Napoli, 1957. Storia della Letteratura Italiana dalle Origini al Duecento. Milano, 1965. Storia della Letteratura Italiana, Il Trecento. Milano, 1965. Storia della Letteratura Italiana, Il Quattrocento e l’Ariosto. Milano, 1965. Storia della Letteratura Italiana, Il Cinquecento. Milano, 1965. Storia della Letteratura Italiana, Il Seicento. Milano, 1965. Storia della Letteratura Italiana, Il Settecento. Milano, 1965. Storia della Letteratura Italiana l’Ottocento. Milano, 1965. Storia della Letteratura Italiana Il Novecento. Milano, 1965. (All published by Garzanti) Storia della Letteratura Italiana nel secolo XIX a cura di Alberto Asor Rosa, Prefazione di C. Muscetta. Manzoni. Milano, 1964.

chapter three

The Dawning of a New Age

At this point of our study, let us consider which were the main centers of Italian life and how they entered an age of social, political and literary renewal. In his review of the period that history called Illuminismo (Enlightenment), Ferdinando Giannessi gives an overview of the epoch in question concerning some of the main centers of Italy. Lombardy witnessed the collapsing of the Spanish power at the beginning of the eighteenth century, when in the complicated play of the first war of succession the Austrian emperor Charles VI could, with a certain easiness, expel his enemies from their Italian possessions that economic and strategic reasons considered the most valuable. It was, and it could not be otherwise, a change of the guard; with the aggravating fact that the new ruler forced to defend the new acquisition, at a time when the situation could suddenly change for the worse, felt that he was logically compelled to strengthen the control of his new subjects and the confirmation of how open to all risks were the circumstances arisen in the second war—that for the succession in Poland—when the king of Sardinia, Carlo Emanuele III, seemed to take his first step in his intention of conquering Italy as one eats artichokes, by finding its best leaf and conquering Lombardy for three years (1733–1736). A new, greater evidence arose also in the third one of these wars, the succession in Austria, because the new invasion, that lasted only three months, between the end of 1745 and the beginning of the following year, had Spain as a protagonist; an old ruler and, consequently, favored in the conquest of well known lands and peoples.

the daw n i n g o f a n e w ag e

 | 127

It was only with the peace of Aaken that Austria could avail itself of Lombardy: the new empress Maria Theresa could rule over that region that had been impoverished and disheartened by the Spanish rule and the wars. The events in Tuscany were not very different. The Medici’s court, that had been ruling unchallenged for two centuries, offered the miserable spectacle of a government deprived of any intention, besides its lazy devices sufficient to the preservation of their rule. The latest grand dukes let themselves fall into a ruling that, from tranquil and peaceful, had become, in the absence of a lively mind, idle and imbecilic. Legitimate worries had vexed—malicious people said—that they were the only ones to occupy for fifty-three years of government—Cosimo III, who could not count on a possible lineage beyond his son Gian Gastone. The problem of succession interested the great people of Europe who, remembering how the Medici’s ruling had been reestablished in 1530 by Charles V, thought it right to consider Tuscany a sort of imperial feud and felt authorized to use it as a true dominion of theirs. It was in this manner that the last great duke, in 1731, saw the arrival of Don Carlos of Spain, the son of Philip V and Elisabetta Farnese, with the obligation of considering him the heir to the throne. But three years later, on the occasion of the succession war for Poland, Spanish troops landed in Tuscany directed to the south. Don Carlos joined them and, abandoning Florence, conquered the entire south of Italy initiating a new kingdom recognized later (1738) by the Peace of Vienna. When the succession in favor of the Bourbons of Spain came to an end, Tuscany, that had become again available as a useful object of rulings in diplomatic dealings, was assigned to the Dukes of Lorraine as a compensation for relinquishing their land in favor of France. Emperor Charles VI could assign to Austria indirectly also the control of Florence as, at that time, the Duke of Lorraine was Francis, the husband of his daughter Maria Theresa. Formally, however, it was called independence. The drive that brought Austria to Lombardy in 1706, brought the imperial troops even to the South, received as liberators as in Naples. They were preceded by a popular insurrection that expressed their dissatisfaction with the Spaniards. The treaties of Utrecht and Rastadt recognized the situation by allotting initially Sicily to Piedmont but, later, by reuniting it with Naples under the Austrian rule. It seems, however, that the well accepted Austrian rule satisfied the subjects if, in 1734, the same people who had greeted the imperial soldiers as liberators, gave the same welcome to the old rulers: the Spaniards of Don Carlos, who inaugurated a new dynasty with the name of Charles III. Even in this case, the official statements gave to the new kingdom independent politics that did not conceal—nor could one have dreamed of the contrary—close connections with the politics of Madrid. Lombardy, Tuscany and Naples, then, were the regions which felt the most the political and military events of the first half of the century: the first two ending up



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

under the domination and the control of Austria while the third remained connected with Spain but in a less direct manner and after an experience that had to lead to a renewal of civic life. From these three centers there came the strongest drive for a new character of cultural life. Two renowned regions kept their governments: Piedmont and Venice. Piedmont should be remembered as a diligent, at times enthusiastic, participant in the events of European life but always in a secondary position offering its help to one of the fighting sides according to extemporary and variable hopes for advantages. Piedmont is the only Italian region that succeeds in intervening in the history of the early eighteenth century with the weight of a free intention. Historians were to speak, later, of the national mission of this region. Venice was the great solitary nation. Held by five century old institutions, it was going to be attracted in the sphere of the new political realities by Napoleon’s intervention. Until then it will remain closed and apparently satisfied by avoiding any connection with events which might resemble those that were happening a little bit everywhere in Italy. From Venice there will not come yet sensational utopias or images of generous deeds; on the contrary, from its very abundant production a mediocre dimension held firm by the patient use of old principles. But no other region gives evidence of an equal abundance of enterprises and active initiatives in the cultural field. If these were the historical and political events, what was happening in the world of culture? The most concrete influence that yielded the most positive results and the best changes occurred actually in the cultural spheres. As man had to be led along the way to happiness (Voltaire) through the conquest of truth, and being the discovery of truth the work of reason, it was natural that the right means should be given in order to broaden knowledge and offer society the tools to be used in scientific research. Thus, one could have witnessed a large blossoming of institutes that, following the example given by Maria Theresa, spread quickly over the entire Italian peninsula, becoming for the governments a moral obligation apt to preserve, in the eyes of the subjects, a sort of philanthropy. Even the least progressive areas witnessed the establishment of academies, museums, libraries and even the last backward rulers liked to be considered deeply concerned about the impending problem of public education. It is right to remember also an extremely important event that occurred in France the first of July, 1751, namely the publication of the first tome of the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des Arts et Métiers, par une société de gens de lettres, preceded by a Discours preliminaire by Jean-Le Rond d’Alembert (1717–1783) who became a member of the Academie française and, later, its secretary in 1772. In his

the daw n i n g o f a n e w ag e

 | 129

preliminary speech he indicated that the general inspiration of this work was that of the eighteenth century. The censorship, always menacing, could not intimidate and impede the authors from revealing openly their opinions. As far as religion was concerned, their approach consisted in suggesting some doubts. While they condemned some heresies, they explained them along with the accepted doctrines while the articles concerning literature reflected the accepted theories without any essential modifications. This encyclopedia represented the greatest attempt of French culture to enter the world of the people at large and direct them toward a better life through an improvement of its intellectual life. It was a “revolutionary” initiative that became more evident in 1789. In Italy this trend had less categorical forms. One of the most significant signs of the new order of ideas, however, was the powerful drive to establish new libraries, museums, public cultural organizations and, above all, the academies that had already been flourishing in the years of the late Renaissance. It was sincerely believed in an accessible education for everyone, apart from one’s social position. It is in the light of this universal cultural movement that the following authors, their works and the events that occurred during their lives and later should be considered.

chapter four

Milan 1630

Francesco Cusani, 1802–1879, translator into Italian of Giuseppe Ripamonti’s De peste Mediolani quae fuit anno 1630 (“About the plague that occurred in Milan in year 1630”). In the introduction of his translation from Latin into Italian of Ripamonti’s book, Francesco Cusani wrote a review of Ripamonti’s life and works. At the beginning he defines him as one of the most illustrious and meritorious writers of national affairs. I shall deal with his works and his life more extensively than I did in the case of the other historians, because the former are more important and the latter remains until now wrapped in a sort of mysterious cloud that I shall try to dissipate. All the contemporary Milanese historians speak of Ripamonti praising highly his knowledge, his elegant Latin style but say very little about the events of his life. As much as I tried to search, I could not come across a single word about the trial and imprisonment that he suffered for five years. Even in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana of which he was a Member, there is no trace except a note which says that Ripamonti was excluded and, later, readmitted to the “collegio” and nothing else. Girolamo Legnani, one of the sixty decurions who charged him with the writing of the history of Milan … remains absolutely silent about it. In the short biographic note that he placed at the beginning of the Fifth Decade he says: “He confronted several events of luck, sometimes favorable, sometimes adverse but his spirit was always undaunted.” An idea that is so vague

m i l a n 1630  | 131

that it means nothing. Ripamonti, in his subsequent works, does not say a word about his cases. Yet his trial had been long and sensational that it is impossible that his contemporaries could ignore it. Why, then, such a general and total silence? Out of deference for the doctors of the Ambrosiana and the congregation of the Oblates, of which several members did not appear very favorably in that trial. And the veneration for Cardinal Federico probably induced people to remain silent because, although he mitigated Ripamonti’s punishment and later kept him near, by favoring him, it is still true that he left him languish in prison many years because of the slow procedure. The first to cast some light on Ripamonti’s life was Ignazio Cantù, by dedicating to him the forty-first chapter of his Vicende della Brianza. He examined the voluminous trial of our historian, which was found in the archives of the Borromeo family, a most precious archive because of the very important documents of our land’s history. … Giuseppe Ripamonti was born in Tegnone in 1577, a small village in Brianza. His parents were not wealthy, but, even though they did not have to till the ground, they lived parsimoniously on the products of their land. The well-shaped boy grew strong in the balsamic air of those lovely hills and since he gave signs of a precocious and lively intelligence he was destined by his parents to the ecclesiastical career that, at that time, would open a large world of honors and fortune also to the young people of the middle class. Ordained in 1606, he joined the Collegio Ambrosiano from which he received 1000 lire a year. In some documents, the favor that Federico had for young Ripamonti appears clearly since the time of his youth. In 1609, when he established the Ambrosiana, he nominated Ripamonti as a lecturer entrusting him with the honorable charge of writing the country’s history, and later on he ordered to free him from the trouble in which he had become involved with his colleagues at the Seminary by welcoming him in his archiepiscopal palace. Did Federico receive any gratitude? Not too much. Ripamonti, a man with an arrogant and restless character, prone to speaking ill of other people was, it must be said, a troublemaker; he made an enemy of the director of the Seminary, Bernardo Rainoni, by constantly mocking him because he stammered, and the other colleagues, because he did not want to conform to the rigid discipline of the congregation. It is also true that these men were people of little intelligence and pedantic and could hardly tolerate the superiority of a literary man who was exclusively dedicated to his studies. Things were not progressing better with the doctors of the Ambrosiana, both because of his irascibility and the envy that was aimed at him because of the Cardinal’s favor. One of his colleagues, the theologian Antonio Rusca, once took and



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

hid the medal that Ripamonti wore on his chest, as a badge of his position. First there was an exchange of insulting words between the offender and the offended and then they came to blows. There were also bitter and numerous clashes with the first librarian, Antonio Olgiato, with Giggeo and Salmazia that, although they were caused by frivolous reasons, they heightened the anger against Ripamonti, which the storm did not take a long time to rage. When the first decade of the Storia Ecclesiastica di Milano (Ecclesiastical History of Milan) was published in 1617, it received universal praise and Federico himself praised the author. But his enemies accused him of having narrated his own events and of having denigrated, here and there with malicious allusions, the good fame of several of his colleagues, both of the Seminary and of the Biblioteca, and of having falsified the letters of Saint Gregory the Great in narrating the events that occurred to a priest, Fortunato, from which he had taken that episode. It was also rumored that while the book was being prepared, he had included that story in his manuscript after it had been accepted by the censor Bariola, a member of the Holy Office. Ripamonti responded that he had received an oral approval but since the censor had died in the meantime, it was impossible to reveal the truth. At the same time, his unstable character, his love of profit and perhaps more than everything else his premonition of the threatened revenge, induced Ripamonti to accept the offer of the Count of Toledo, the Governor of Milan, who wanted to take him to Spain and pay him to write histories. Federico, a zealous protector of studies and a good literary man himself, would certainly not remain indifferent at the loss of his protégé who, in spite of an irascible and restless character, shed luster on the dawning Collegio Ambrosiano and would have done honor to the archbishop and the fatherland by continuing to publish his Decades. Federico, however, as his dignity required, did not hamper Ripamonti’s departure and limited himself to a tacit disapproval. This was sufficient to cause our writer to become doubting, as he was unequalled in his instability. Any person, who had not the patience of studying his very long trial, could not imagine how many times Ripamonti would change his mind: now he was very happy to go to Spain, now he repented for leaving his land and his illustrious patron. Amid these doubts he spent the spring of 1618. Finally, the stipend of 400 ducats per year, and the half of that sum that was given to him in July by Toledo’s secretary, won over Ripamonti’s hesitation to leave without the explicit consent of the Cardinal. A few days later, however, he regretted it for the hundredth time, and with the assistance of a Father Ignazio, a Capuchin monk, who carried out the favor, he had the 400 ducats returned. At the same time he sent the abbot of Chiaravalle to ask for a pardon from Federico, who was at his villa at Groppello,

m i l a n 1630  | 133

entreating him to allow him to stay there because he feared a revenge of the governor. The archbishop refused to receive him and answered that Ripamonti could do what was the best for himself because he did not want to have anything else to do about it. He suggested, however, that Ripamonti could go to the residence of Melzi at the rectory, near Veprio ( July 29). Ripamonti liked this, went there and asked me immediately after carrying out the restitution of the above indicated money by the Capuchin Father, that I should inform him at once for his own consolation, because he would not have been able to sleep until he received news of the restitution of which I (the Capuchin) assured him the following morning.

But the consolation was very short lived because in early August he was arrested there. Seeing himself in a sorry plight, he found a way to send secretly a letter to the secretary of the Count of Toledo: “I am treated violently,” he wrote, “tomorrow they will take me away and I do not know where. Therefore I beseech Your Excellency to get me free because, at any rate, I want to go to Spain with you.” But the old and whimsical Spaniard, although he wished to have at his service a refined historian, was not a man to draw upon himself a serious challenge from the ecclesiastical authority in order to defend a man with such an inconstant character. Ripamonti was taken to Milan the following day where he was imprisoned in a room of the archiepiscopal palace, and the trial began. The charges were: Entering in his Ecclesiastical History of Milan, while it was being printed (First Decade), the story concerning Priest Fortunato after the revision of the censor and narrating under the name Fortunato the events concerning Rainoni, rector of the Seminary. Having recollected some actions of Saint Augustine that occurred before his conversion, that it would have been appropriate not to mention, and of having derided the canonization of Saint Charles. He was charged that, under the names of some non-existing religious members who lived at the time of Saint Ambrose, he portrayed some of his colleagues by deriding them with some malicious allusions. That, in the years when he was a teacher at the Seminary, he neglected his religious duties to the point that he had never been seen reciting the Office or making the sign of the cross. At last, he was accused of atheism and denial of the immortality of the soul. Ripamonti was charged also of committing shameful turpitudes but it appeared



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

from the beginning that it was such an obvious slander that it was not mentioned any longer during the trial or in the sentence. Overwhelmed by such serious charges and driven by the natural desire of freedom, the accused tried to mollify his jailer by promising him forty-five ecus if he helped him to find protection under the Duke of Savoy who had invited him to his court with a substantial salary. Having found him incorruptible, one evening he quietly left his room, and after locking his jailer in a nearby room, he was almost out of the archbishop palace when he was caught up by his guardian who had been freed by his comrades. This attempt to evade, that Ripamonti tried to justify by saying that he was afraid that the Cardinal wanted him to die in prison, complicated the trial even further because the jailer, out of stupidity or for revenge, accused him of being possessed by the devil. The rigors increased but he was allowed to have Cicero’s works. This lack of books must have been extremely painful for a man used since his infancy to study for a large part of the day. All the doctors at the Ambrosiana were mentioned, the Oblates of the Seminary and all those who had any connection with Ripamonti. Their depositions were aggravating for the defendant. The criminal ecclesiastical vicar Arcelli, who was in charge of the trial, was a personal enemy of his, and, in addition, a man of little value. Ripamonti’s real faults and the statements of his numerous enemies equaled in the Cardinal’s heart the esteem and affection that he had for him and so he could not decide whether to condemn or absolve him. The pope and the cardinals’ congregation, on the other hand, had taken charge of the Ripamonti case in their capacity of supreme judges of ecclesiastical matters. The father of the defendant wrote to the pope in the spring of 1619. The prisoner who had been in jail for four years and was suffering from very bad health, requested to be sent to Rome in order to be tried there. Also, the Congregation wanted him in Rome, in fact Cardinal Millino … wrote on April 22, 1622, that Ripamonti’s father had addressed a new appeal to the Pope. The letter ordered the trial to be held in Rome and Ripamonti was transferred there. In the foreword it was stated that he deserved a severe punishment but that it was believed that he deserved also a degree of consideration. He was, therefore, condemned: To incur the censure of the ecclesiastical censures of the Lateran Council with the possibility of requesting an acquittal. To three years of imprisonment in the archiepiscopal jails and two more years in some religious location chosen by the archbishop. To suspend the publishing (of his history) until it was reprinted with the appropriate corrections.

m i l a n 1630  | 135

The publication of other works was forbidden if they did not have the special authorization of the Holy Office. He was ordered to fast every Friday for a year, and to recite the Rosary every week. The Archbishop and the inquisitors were given the authority to commute or alleviate the penalty. Was this sentence a fair one and the severe punishment proportioned to the seriousness of the guilt? asks Cusani. This is the doubt that arises in the mind of every impartial reader. And he continues: May I be allowed, therefore, to indicate what emerges in my opinion that is true or at least very probable after the precise review that I had to make of the trial and some documents. The charge of having falsified the passage of St. Gregory by narrating the events of Priest Fortunato is false and the comparison of the two texts is sufficient to prove it. As for the passages where our Author was accused of slandering Saint Charles and Saint Augustine, the charge is quite vague and unsustainable, if one allows a reasonable liberty of opinion in the historian. The most severe charge of atheism and materialism not only lacks real evidence, but is contradicted by a very valid evidence to the contrary. Said evidence, in favor of Ripamonti, offered by men known for their knowledge and compassion, was not lacking support for Ripamonti in order to do justice in his favor on the charge of having neglected his ecclesiastical duties. A reproachable coldness in carrying out the duties of his position, caring only for his studies, an irascible character intolerant of any discipline, the ease of ridiculing any person he did not like, his love of money, a bit excessive, and the little gratitude for his benefactor, the Archbishop, these are the true and evidenced faults of Ripamonti that rendered him deserving of reproach and that were eccessively exaggerated by the deep resentment of his numerous enemies. Persuaded that he did not deserve the severe punishments inflicted by the sentence, he wanted to make an appeal to Rome; but when his early resentment diminished, following a better advice, he asked for the Archbishop’s forgiveness; the latter man being benign and considering Ripamonti sufficiently punished, changed the imprisonment to a simple arrest in his palace. Overjoyed by such forgiveness that mitigated almost entirely the rigorous sentence, the morning of September 29, Ripamonti dictated a statement that was notarized, where he asked for the Archbishop’s forgiveness, thanking him for his generosity in alleviating his punishment and declaring his intention not to proceed with any legal action in his behalf. The lesson was a bitter one but not useless for the historian because, having returned eagerly to his interrupted studies, he regained the friendship and protection of Federico and that opened the way to a successful career of honors and respect.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

He was readmitted among the Doctors of the Ambrosiana, or better, declared to be always a member of it, and rewarded with a salary increase of 1600 Lire a year by order of the Cardinal. After he was appointed Canon of Santa Maria della Scala by the King of Spain and royal historian by the Marquis of Legnanes, the Governor of Milan, who kept him for a period of time in his residence, Ripamonti published the second (1625) and then the third part (1628) of his Ecclesiastical History of Milan. When the plague ended, the General Council charged him to write the history of the epidemic, and Ripamonti published it in 1640. Three years later he published the first ten books of an impressive work requested by the same Council, which had elected him chronicler of the fatherland, namely the History of Milan from 1313 where the history of Tristano Calco ended to the death of Federico Borromeo. He was attending to completing this work but the long and laborious studies and his imprisonment had weakened his robust constitution. Affected by a slow fever, he suffered from swelling caused by dropsy. The best doctors, by public decree, began to treat him but all remedies were useless. Then it was decided, as always, that the only hope for his recovery was to breathe his native air. The patient went to the hills of Brianza, at Ravegnate, in the house of the parish priest. But his illness grew worse and on August 14, 1643, he died with great resignation. The announcement of his death saddened Milan and the literary persons and it was found in some Memoirs that the Senate suspended its meeting as a solemn observance of mourning for the loss of the historiographer of the fatherland. But it was a short lived enthusiasm that ran out in a large number of epigrams, where, with the pomposity of the seventheenth century, one extolled his works, and they railed against the Fate that dared to cut his life. … Not even a memorial stone, that would indicate his tomb in the church of Ravagnate (was placed), in fact, he fell into such an oblivion, that the events of his life and even the date of his death remained a sort of mystery until our days (of Cusani, of course). Of this, nobody should be surprised; countless are in all epochs the examples of neglect and ingratitude for the meritorious people of one’s own country.1

Note 1. It should be noted that Cusani’s sad remarks refer to his own times. In reality, years after Cusani’s death, the City of Milan dedicated to Giuseppe Ripamonti one of its longest streets that connects Porta Vigentina with the ancient rural suburb of Vigentino and, later on, Alessandro Manzoni immortalized Ripamonti in his novel I promessi sposi.

chapter five

Giuseppe Ripamonti (1573–1643)

Among the epidemics that were chronicled by writers of renown, the plague that affected Milan in 1630 is one of the most relevant both from the historical and the literary points of view since it inspired Giuseppe Ripamonti to write his De peste Mediolani quae fuit anno 1630 (On the Plague that Occurred in Milan in 1630), that, in turn, offered Alessandro Manzoni, the author of I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), the background for one of the main parts of his novel, as it will be seen further on. Written originally in Latin, La peste di Milano del 1630 was translated into Italian by Francesco Cusani and published in Milan by the Tipografia e Libreria Pirolla e C., in 1841. At the beginning of his book, Ripamonti wrote a dedicatory note that reads as follows: To the Most Illustrious Gentlemen The Vicar and the Sixty Decurions Of The General Council Of The City of Milan

It is now the third year since the General Council by a Decree of the Most Illustrious Decurions entrusted me with the task of collecting the documents of



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

our country’s history and arrange them in a continuous narration from the origins of our city to the beginning of the reign of Philip II and the death of Saint Charles. Since our work was uniting under an ecclesiastical title both sacred and secular matters, it was decreed, in order to help the fame of Milan, that the memoirs collected by me also in the subsequent time were to be written in the language of Latium, the one that was always considered appropriate for history, the only one which may make eternal the recollection of human events. This was decreed by the two learned decurions, Giovanni Maria Marquis Visconti and Gerolamo Legnani, to whom the care of the national history had been entrusted. They considered that my writings, added to the volumes that I had published already, would constitute a complete historical work of a uniform style; a monument that is not yet available among the numerous Lombard works to satisfy the scholars. The memoirs of Lombardy and Milan, from its foundation to our days, were indeed handed down to us by several eminent authors, but neither style nor diligence are equal among them, nor did they use the same language in order to compile them. Sometimes they contradict each other; and the history of Milan, as one of the great empires, suffers because of an excessive quantity of material whereby it succumbs, so to say, under its own weight. It would not be easy to find elsewhere a numerous group of writers as the one offered by Milan, the city of the poet Ausonius, the teacher of the Caesars, a city called the Second Rome; as events kept developing in it there grew among its ingenious people the desire to leave a memory of it in their writings. This happened at the time of the Republic, namely when the free Milanese governed Insubria with a regime almost similar to that of the Romans, and even more when the Republic was inherited by the dukes. Lastly, the writers’ number grew, when after the Milanese republic ended, and the number of the dukes died away, our city was annexed to the empire of the Catholic monarch. There was, then, I repeat, a large group of historians who wrote either out of their own initiative or by order of those in charge, who are different from each other by character and tendencies. Galvano Fiamma tends willingly toward fantastic tales, by deriving from the heroic age the name of the most distinguished families, always including some miracle in the events, happy to narrate incredible facts even where the naked truth would be sufficient to attract the readers. Another one, a sincere writer, gets lost in the mist of time and considers certain only what he finds in the archives. Some of our historians studied the concision of the style, but Arluno, with the pompousness of his words and his prolix style, ruined his histories with nonsense, as Plato says about Alcydames. Some left diaries of the events that occurred in Milan in their times. Bonaventura Castiglioni, formerly canon of La Scala and a colleague of ours, collected

giuseppe r i pam on t i (1573–1643)  | 139

inscriptions and marble signs and, through a not easy labor, although it was considered pedantry by many, by noting places, times, names and with the lasting memory of memorial stones, saw to it that the fatherland, so to speak, narrated its events having become the historian of itself. Tristano Calco and Simonetta, the only two ones among our own people who strove to reach the geniality of the ancient Roman history, left their work imperfect; Simonetta his Sforzeide and Calco the History of Milan, that he did not continue beyond the death of Emperor Henry III. For this reason, the two above-praised decurions considered it easier and appropriate that I, resuming the narration of the Milanese histories that I wrote and published in the past, should continue with the same method. It is now three years that they entrusted this task to me. In the meantime, after Visconti’s death, the surviving Legnani continued to request that I started (to write) the history of which he had charged me and that he could have written quite well himself. I, then, did not think of procrastinating any longer, and starting from the end of Philip II’s reign and the times of the two Borromeos, at first with the vicar Sermani, then with the vicar Archinti, I decided to tell of the events and actions of this period, and the implacable and atrocious war that is fought by the two kings that will be famous also for the future generations. I delivered a volume of this history to Decurion Legnani, so that, after examining it according to his duty, he may decide whether it should be given to press now and be printed, or suspended according to his decision. For the time being, as I have collected several notes and memoirs of the plague that occurred in Milan in 1630, I decided, in part, in order to fulfill my duty toward Legnani, and because of the earnest request of vicar Castiglioni and then of Alfieri, his successor, to publish the narration of that plague in five books (parts), publishing them without delay separately from the main part of the histories. This I did, following the example of famous historians who separated some passages of their works when either the greatness of an event was above all the others, or the admiration that surrounded it drove them to describe it with greater care. May I be allowed to follow their example, although I may not be able to equal their merits. I endeavored to obtain a great honor for this simple and sad work by publishing it in the name of the General Council, and by dedicating it to you, Most Illustrious Decurions, as it was due. Born under your auspices, it was dedicated to you who were, in that very grievous time, the fathers of the fatherland and of this city. Your order during that slaughter provided funds in such quantity that it will seem incredible to other people how it could be collected, if they do not observe keenly in the newspapers and in the books how they were spent. And in truth, your generous offers were such to equal the amount of other cities.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Ripamonti divided his book in five parts (Libri), as follows: First Book: Conditions of Milan before the contagion. The plague. The untori Second Book: The untori Third Book: Cardinal Federico Borromeo and the Clergy during the plague Fourth Book: The coming and spreading of the plague in Lombardy. Actions taken by the Tribunal of Health Fifth Book: A comparison of the plague of 1630 with others, particularly with the plague of 1576

As it is indicated in the title, the book was written “per ordine dei LX decurioni” (by order of the 60 decurions of the City of Milan). Cusani begins his introduction with an overview of the situation caused by the Spanish rule during the conflict for supremacy between Charles V and Francis I. “We are at the time of the Spanish era,” he wrote, that covers a period of one hundred seventy years, when the victorious army of Charles V and the Treaty of Cambray added also our country to the immense possessions of that monarch until the arrival of the Austrians at the beginning of the past century. A fateful and bitter memory for the Lombards! The kings (lived) far away and were difficult to approach, because in order to go to Madrid it was necessary to cross France (that was) almost always at war with Spain, or other Italian states. (There were) governors who represented the sovereign, alien to the laws, the customs and our language, eager to satisfy their ambitions and greed. They did not rule but harried the country (which was) left to their mercy.

There was a senate made up mostly of Spaniards, that ruled irrevocably like God. … The Lombards’ innate cheerfulness and sense of enterprise were replaced by the sullen haughtiness, arrogance and indolence of the Spaniards. Thus, the noble people gave up commerce, as they considered it dishonorable for their families; industries decayed, arts and studies were neglected, public works were ignored, briefly, our country was wearing out through a slow starvation, it was reduced to a sterile and sluggish land because of the lack of agricultural and manufacturing industries and civic energy. However, to attribute the decadence and ruin of Lombardy exclusively to the Spanish domination as it was done by several writers, seems to me a sin of exaggeration. Let truth be said: that disarray was for the most part the consequence of that general turmoil of ideas and passions among the European nations that, having recently come out of the middle epoch, began to establish their governments on new principles. And Cusani continues:

giuseppe r i pam on t i (1573–1643)  | 141

… I believe that the Spanish epoch may be divided into two periods: from 1537 to 1632, and from that year to 1705 with the coming of the Austrians. The two pestilences of 1576 and 1630 are inevitably the two most important events of the former one; as, in the same manner, Saint Carlo and Federico Borromeo are the most renowned characters of that time. The latter is not characterized by any great event because Lombardy lay in a deeper and deeper lethargy, prostrated by a famine and maladies and a thwarted drive forced upon the clergy and the population by those two archbishops.

Cusani concludes by observing that while San Carlo remained in the popular opinion the more distinguished figure of the two cousins, the renown of Federico Borromeo is due essentially to the work of Alessandro Manzoni who portrayed him with great admiration in his novel. “Let us honor Alessandro Manzoni,” he suggests, who, by using with such a powerful talent the abundant material of histories and archives, shed such a bright light on that doleful episode of our history, and brought back studies and attention to men that had fallen into oblivion!

Lombardy and Milan Let us consider, at this point, the reasons for the developments in Lombardy, in Milan and elsewhere in Europe, before the onset of the plague in the Lombard metropolis according to the major historian of the plague of 1630, Giuseppe Ripamonti. In his opinion, the continued peace and the protracted disuse of foreign wars, that are the sources of good and bad and ills for every city, had become deep-rooted in the customs and habits of the city. After the wars that were fought by the French and the Spaniards under the rule of Charles V and Francis I, as a consequence of which, through their fighting, enormous losses had been suffered by both sides, the destiny of the territory of the Duchy of Milan was decided, and no enemy had disturbed any longer the Lombard metropolis. And since it did not initiate any war against any state, it remained, for almost one hundred years (1535–1630), peaceful like a sea that is not disturbed by the weakest breath of wind. But since the heads of many kingdoms and provinces, that were conspiring with the daring Henry, King of France, began to arm themselves, that sea that is an image of our city, became rough with such an inner turbulence, that it caused such a storm, that in turn brought war, hunger, and lastly the plague that almost destroyed it. The man, and the fury of a single individual, unless it was the hand of some god, enfeebled, at a certain point, the tremendous conspiracy that threatened mainly our city. But the seeds of that conspiracy, spread from far away, were the cause of several events that put in a turmoil kings, and minor princes with hatreds, suspicions, fear of atrocious deceits that they had devised against each other, secretly incited in this by their ministers. During those times



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

our province, amid constant war preparations, was waiting for the hostilities to begin as an inevitable consequence of the conspiracy.

The Spanish Governors In those days the governor of Milan was Azevedo, Count of Fuentes, who, while all things were secure and quiet, did not indulge in resting. Trained in the military life since his early youth, that had brought him the fame of a brave man, now that he was pressed by old age, more than death itself, he loathed to end his days in peace. He, a warrior by nature for his entire life, had no patience for idleness; he was restless, unrestrained in his wishes, inflamed with glory, anxious for deep-rooted loyalty to his king, suspicious of everything, suspected by everyone, a simulator, an investigator of other people’s ideas, he paid men who would spy not only the halls but the thoughts of the hostile princes. And amassing all together arms and soldiers and every preparation for war, he had brought things to such a point to keep his enemies in a state of drowsiness and to be able, through his preparations, to make them aware of the danger in which they were and stir them up to action. But his uncertain allies, who secretly were his enemies, stirred out of their own will and plotted some schemes. It is still doubtful if the old governor had stirred them on the quiet or if, ignoring them, he died of grief when he discovered them. At any rate, by an amazing coincidence most appropriate in keeping the peace, the murder of the king of France and the death of the Count of Fuentes happened almost at the same time. It would not be easy to say whether the latter one left this life because of old age or because of the regret that his plot had been suddenly thwarted. And so, with the mutual dissimulation of the parties, the peace between France and Spain was not upset, and Lombardy remained more secure than it was before in the unsteady peace. That peace, however, was quite a precarious one, and hatred as well as the military preparations kept the minds suspicious. The dead Fuentes was followed by governors such as Velasco and Mendoza, grandees of Spain, who were neither feared by the enemies nor busy in spying their moves. Velasco devoted to studies and given to pleasures, Mendoza much more careful in his office, both satisfied with the glory of their ancestors, were praised by the wise people because in spite of the instigations of many persons, they kept the peace and tranquility of the minds that was so necessary in those times. The peace and idleness of Mendoza were broken by the Duke of Savoy, who, as an enemy of his son-in-law, invaded the area of Mantova with his troops, upsetting Italy’s peace and giving a very bad example to the other princes by going beyond the limits of moderation. The arms of the king of Spain intervened to

giuseppe r i pam on t i (1573–1643)  | 143

defend the weaker side; from this originated the calamity of introducing foreign soldiers into Lombardy who spread the contagion there. This was preceded by the famine whose events help to shed light on the history of a terrible pestilence.

Origins of the Famine After the war broke out and foreigners were introduced, a broad access was opened to the fatal famine and the distressing plague, which by natural order often follows it. The guiles and wickedness of the rulers as well as human malice inflamed the war and from this there arose hunger and pestilence. The provisions, in truth, were sufficient in Milan, for citizens, foreigners, the troops and even the occasional enemy, since war and peace had been alternating during which they exported more wheat abroad than what was used for inhabitants and soldiers. The abundance of grains was partly due to the wise regulations of the two governors sent by Spain to rule over the Milanese duchy, the Count of Toledo and Figueroa, who were as praised by the public as their two predecessors had been blamed. The Count of Toledo, who was rumored to belong to the Spanish royal family, was a sullen man, eager for glory, intolerant of rivals, who secretly despised everybody, experienced in military life, rigid in time of peace, he modeled his entire life to antiquity. The prudent individuals of our century dared use different names for the virtue, innocence and severity of the Count of Toledo. By either facilitating or limiting the export of provisions, if the annual harvest promised scarce or abundant crops, and by balancing expenses and income as a diligent family man, he always took care of provisions both in time of war and when inclement weather caused the grains to be scarce. Owing to this foresight, the famine had disappeared and people did not even remember its name. The same sense of security continued with Figueroa who succeeded him. Although he was young, he was not inferior for judgment and experience to Toledo, who, a decrepit man by now, did him justice by not disdaining those who compared or even appreciated him more. He truly outdid him in gentle manners and in the art of deceiving the shrewd, who made fun of his old and raffled predecessor. After a brief interregnum, the war resumed even more violently and there came a new governor, Consalvo, a man of illustrious birth and great mind, whose destiny, however, was negative for the Italian affairs. After Consalvo there came Spinola, entirely involved in the siege of Casale. For this enterprise thousands of German soldiers descended to Lombardy; the country was oppressed by taxes; the rich people amassed corn and the land did not yield any crops. In this manner, by transporting wheat around, wasting and hiding it for greed and profit, our people began to suffer from hunger, while, formerly, they were used



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

to feed other populations and they were reduced to such conditions that even by selling all their furnishing they could not find even the food necessary to support life.

Famine in Lombardy Many and horrible examples of hunger were gathered by historians, as the inhabitants of besieged cities fed themselves with the most revolting animals, grass and even leather and how, at times, because of their need of food, some of them threw themselves down from the city walls and by offering their unprotected bodies to the blows of the enemy in order to die of war wounds rather than languish in a slow starvation. But I will not write … for the sake of marveling … but what I saw … with my own eyes. The fateful famine spread among the population not suddenly but by degrees, and I would say, methodically. The inhabitants of the countryside were the first to die of starvation, then the richest farmers whose lands, overused by them, denied, as a punishment, to yield any crops. The luxury and the vices of the city dwellers were overwhelmed by the calamity that, if it had not been so strong as to stun the minds, it would have offered, at the same time, a ridiculous and mortifying spectacle of human pride. Those who, a short time earlier, had acted terribly against the population with their bullying and the bravi that followed them, ready at their slightest hint to carry out their bloodthirsty whims, now roamed around alone, tame, humble, with faces that seemed to implore for peace, some in ragged clothes showed clearly how things had changed. A similar spectacle was offered also by servants and bravi, once dressed up and sweet smelling, and now wandering about the city, half undressed, holding out a hand for charity. Hunger had humbled the haughtiness of depraved people to such a degree! But much more harshly were hit the innocent farmers, the laborers, the lowest class almost indigent and the beggars. At first there came to a halt those works that, dedicated to public use, and, let us say it, fomented vices, sustained a large number of persons. They began by closing the shops from which the population of the city received in great part things for their survival, the few that remained open resembled a deserted field, made squalid by the bareness of the famine. The populace, left without work with which to earn a living, without any activity, forced to rot in idleness, not used to suffer inside the city, but emulating in fact, even in their clothes and food the luxury of the wealthy people, the populace, that is, began to find it hard, then to languish in hunger and finally to die. As every donation had ceased, the multitude had become beggarly, the new beggars differing from the old ones only because they

giuseppe r i pam on t i (1573–1643)  | 145

could hardly stand rejection, while the old ones bore with it. Exhausted because of the lack of food, they dropped dead in the streets or wandered in the squares and in the churches with deathly pale faces. The number of that wretched rabble did not diminish because the more of them were seized by death, the more increased those who remained owing to the families that every day fell in the utmost poverty dragging other ones along both by ceasing to hide them or by robbing them maliciously. As if the crowds of beggars going to the city from the fields and the hills were not enough, there arrived others from the near towns and from abroad as if (Milan was) a safe haven where food would not be lacking, deluded by the fame of Milan, and ignoring in what a sad condition it had fallen. It was a moving spectacle to see citizens and outsiders beg together driven by their hunger while our Milanese went out to the countryside and neighboring towns looking for bread. But all, equally frustrated in their vain hopes, died in the streets and in an unfamiliar land. While I was taking a walk with some friends along the walls of the military road, a woman carrying a little bundle on her back and a little child in swaddling clothes, unable to find any food, had decided, it seemed, to go out of the city taking along her child and her few, dearest belongings, but reached by death, she fell lifeless just out of the city gates. A fistful of half-chewed grass protruded from her mouth and its greenish fluid wetted her lips, an evidence of her angry hunger. The child was whimpering on his mother’s dead body. We shuddered at that atrocious case, and some compassionate persons having arrived they picked up the infant and took care of him. Several similar cases, and some even more dreadful, were told every day by individuals who had seen and heard them in person. For those wretched people forced into such indigence death was the lightest of evils. It is a law of nature that man, a reasoning being, born for virtue and heaven, feeds himself with bread, that was his food since he abandoned a feral life in the forests, feeding himself with acorns. In those days, as bread was no longer available for the peasants, forced to chew grass like the animals, they lived by eating the bark of the trees that caused them to die after a short time. The peasants, so well deserving from society, because with their labor they feed even the idlers, gave up their ghost on the roads and in the fields that, tilled by their labor, often had provided abundant crops. Many of them escaped to the city and with their emaciated looks and the news of the misery they had endured drove many others to abandon the city. At this point a note of Cusani reads as follows: It seems a contradiction or a play on words, but, after all, the Author is telling the truth because in such calamities man, driven by hunger, always believes to find elsewhere the help that he



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

lacks in the countryside. The peasants had, and still have, exaggerated ideas about the city’s affluence; on the contrary, the people who live in the cities, hearing confusedly that grains, wine, meat, oil, etc., come from the countryside believe that its abundance is inexhaustible and they cannot be persuaded in times of famine that people may be starving there. Thus, the shifting of population mentioned by the Author in his ornate style is natural. The widows with their children, the husbands with their wives, carrying their children and the farming tools, dragged themselves toward Milan where, arriving in large groups, they stretched out on the ground under the eaves and filled the area, mingling with the old beggars. The stench that they gave off because of their filth, their gaunt faces and, even more, the nauseating image of indigence that appeared all over their persons inspired such a repulsion in the passerby that the latter would hold his mouth and nose as if he were walking among plague victims. The wretched crowd saddened the city: in the day with its looks, at night with its wailing; and it was a new calamity, because everyone, in part, felt guilty for the desperate condition in which one saw those unfortunate people. Amid such a lack of order, nothing upset more the minds of compassionate people than the sight of the simple and innocent farmers reduced to skeletons, dying of starvation. As the ox of the ploughman, which, after toiling the entire day under the rays of the sun, carrying a heavy yoke to dig the furrows gets angry, flares its nostrils and turns menacing its head if its food is denied to it, so did the farmers turn angrily their staring eyes, overcome by anger as they found out that they had been unable after a tiring attempt, to free themselves from their tormenting hunger, reduced for lack of any help to being unable to work. They showed sunburned faces, twisted eyes, hairy chests, reduced to skin and bones and ashamed of their nakedness. And the citizens blushed as of a public dishonor in seeing in them a humiliated agriculture that was so ennobled by the Roman emperors.

The Decurions Among the magistrates of Milan there were the sixty Decurions, chosen from the best of the nobles who were charged with ruling over the Victualling Board and administering the municipal property. They were chosen by the governor from the original patricians and no foreigners were included in that council. Conscientious, well informed in their country’s affairs and in accord, they vied with each other for the good of the state and their specific task was to keep and increase the ancient fame of Milan by restoring the city’s buildings. Originally they were ninety, but at the time of these events they were sixty, a sufficient number for the decorum of the group and the fulfillment of their activities.

giuseppe r i pam on t i (1573–1643)  | 147

Among them there were some experts in peace time affairs, others were expert in the art of war, depending on their inclinations. Some entered the group because of good character and religious feelings, others, embittered by human vices, were forced to get involved in human wickedness because of their tasks. One worked cautiously, another one always preferred easy concessions and such a variety of opinions was wonderfully helpful for the good of the common fatherland as the ancient wise men noted when they thought of a perfect government, because they believed that the harsh and the mild orders, by mitigating each other, became very useful for the public administration. … The sixty decurions, noticing the sorry state in which Milan had fallen because of the famine, where people were dying of starvation as if they were in a wretched hut, in order to infuse courage, opened the Lazzaretto as a common shelter for the needy.1

The Lazzaretto (I) The Lazzaretto was built by the dukes of Milan at the time when Francesco Sforza, having ascended to the throne, was trying to make it hereditary for his family. His successors beautified the city, erecting many public buildings among which the Lazzaretto is an evidence that the mind of the new princes was nobler than their humble origins.2 The gate that is called Oriental (Porta Orientale) because at right it faces the east side, is situated in the most salubrious part of Milan, facing the hill from which comes a gentle breeze. Around it there are no fetid marshes that corrupt the air as in other places and make it heavy. In that location the Sforzas erected the Lazzaretto, a shelter for the plague victims because, in the occasion of a contagion, one could take care of the public health by separating the patients and the suspected sick individuals from the healthy ones. The building has a square shape, and it encompasses a large grassland surrounded by a trench full of water. It has as many rooms as the days of the year, each one capable of sheltering eight or ten persons, besides the porticoes that run along the four sides and are used as shelters for the patients when the rooms are full. Furthermore, on the lawn there were rows of huts in order to contain the overwhelming number of patients, almost as in as many courts of the Lazzaretto, as people remembered our fathers had done when the plague afflicted Milan. The chapel stands in the middle and is visible from every side. The Lazzaretto, built in the case of a plague epidemic, became useful also during the famine, although, after a short time, it resumed its function by sheltering the plague victims. All the poor who were in the city, those who came from the country, and those who roamed and were lying in the streets and the squares, bare and famished, were gathered by an order in that public hospice. The municipality



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

and the government, ignoring their own financial straits, provided abundantly for the needy. They had dwelt for a long time before opening the Lazzaretto, fearing that it would help bring about the imminent contagion, which, preceded by hunger, was menacingly approaching our city, after having devastated the neighboring towns. And so, all those goods that originated from suspected places or people were locked up there and, after a short time, the Lazzaretto became flooded with them. The Lazzaretto harbored a second place for beggars, large enough for the moment, and easy to be expanded, if necessary, because of its location, near large vegetable gardens, that receptacle of the most abject poverty that was called Hospital of the Stars and where boys and girls without relatives, homeless and in the dark about their origin, as if they had been born by the land, used to be fed. In this hospital they sheltered temporarily the throngs of starving people, decrepit old persons, young boys and girls looking like the old people out of the hardship they had suffered, both citizens and outsiders; those who had suffered of starvation for a long time and those who had just begun suffering, the ashamed for their recent poverty, the inveterate shameless all driven by privation and hunger were assembled there. As their number grew every day, the borders of the hospice expanded and the munificence of the citizens grew in proportion. Several persons in financial difficulties limited their own food, sending some of it there as charity, others who were near death, disappointing the hopes and the greed of their relatives, donated their possessions to the Star, whereby a large number of poor could live in separate rooms, while food was divided according to sex and age. In a few days their number grew to three thousand and they increased day by day. It was observed and recognized as true the proverb that said jokingly: “There was, even in begging, a certain sweetness.” Men and women without a home during the day or a shelter in the night, not even certain to find their food for the day, who used to lie down exposed to the winds and the frost, were now indoors, had their food, a bed and peace. It was necessary, however, to have them taken there handcuffed by the bargelli (guards) who earned two soldi from the magistrates for every poor person that they took there. It was evident that our paupers preferred to beg in the streets and whine in the open rather than being fed and housed in the hospice. By that time the numerous containers that had come from far away and the goods of all kinds suspected of being infected by the plague, that had cluttered up in the first days the Lazzaretto, disinfected by fumigation and collected in a single place, gave the opportunity to gather some of the poor that the hospice of Stella could not take in any longer. Therefore, after opening also the Lazzaretto, part of the same people was transferred there where once there were the plague victims who were to use it again in a short time.

giuseppe r i pam on t i (1573–1643)  | 149

Soon afterwards both locations were bursting at the seams because every day some people went there spontaneously and many others were taken there by compulsion; yet the care for feeding them did not diminish. As we are admirers of the ancient times and indifferent to what is recent, we usually do not praise the virtues of our age and have no regards for what is splendid and admirable in it. But I, even if the Spartans praised age as well as their old laws were to return, do not believe that they could offer better institutions in order to feed a mass of people in a closed area than were those that our magistrates had adopted. The inhuman rigor and harshness had disappeared as well as that indulgence that leads to new faults; a defect that, undoubtedly, marred the ancient and praised institutions of the Greeks, when, united within the same enclosures, the inhabitants of a province, their vices and virtues intermixed. Among us no one considered unbridled lust as well as theft a virtue as it happened in the profane gatherings of those ancient people. In a rabble of individuals, having taken the appropriate precautions to insure honesty, it was tried with great zest to direct the minds of the corrupt ones toward the religious duties and the rites of the Church that they had forgotten. The magistrates and the noble families of Milan, gave, in those days, a shining example of catholic piety by feeding and instructing the people at the same time. The proud politicians will not blame me if I hint at the discipline established in the Lazzaretto and the sacred functions that I witnessed more than once with undescribable pleasure. Mass was celebrated every day in the chapel that stood in the middle of the field, and that, being open all around, is visible from the entire portico that surrounds it. From this, as well as from the doors of the rooms, everybody could see the bloodless sacrifice, where the son of God is immolated for the salvation of humanity. Afterwards, the poor went to work, each one according to his trade, providing some gain for the place and escaping from idleness that is very damaging even for the most indigent. Several idlers went around here and there wasting time until dinner hour. These people would disturb the other workers, and it was not possible to keep such a rigorous discipline as to prevent some vices to affect that multitude.

The Lazzaretto (II) Section V of the Fifth Book of Ripamonti’s history gives an additional perspective of the events and conditions that characterized the life in the Lazzaretto and further details concerning the area’s layout as well as the patients’ life as it was organized and directed by the city authority.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

The plague was not diminishing and showed that its slaughter could have been larger than any other previous one, had it not been exceeded by that of our own time, in whose description I followed the example of all times and men, always inclined to exaggerate one’s own suffering in comparison with the others’ whereby the present disasters are always considered fiercer and more terrible than all the others. Also at that time, because of the widespread contagion, the Lazzaretto became too small for the multitude of the plague victims, although it seems that such a large building should be more than sufficient for any other city. In 1576, as in 1630, the Milanese people complaining as always about the benefit and generosity of the government, were crying out, accusing the wisdom of the old dukes of avarice and lack of foresight in allowing the area of the Lazzaretto to be so limited. In the people’s opinion, they should have enlarged that hospice of death so that it might contain the vast area of Milan, had a contagion occurred. The limitations of the Lazzaretto were made up, as we equally did, by building for ill persons and the dying ones branch-lazzaretti outside the city walls. In fact, I think that in this matter we followed our ancestors’ example who had decreed that from all the territory within the distance of twenty miles, wood poles, boards and straw should be carried to Milan in order to build the huts. There were two hundred per gate, and it was useful to describe their shape as it is written in the annals of the plague, so that it may not be buried among the acts of the municipality and may be known by all. They would select a place as high as possible on a declivity, building the huts in equal rows according to the configuration of the ground. The lanes that crossed the lazzaretto were set ten braccia3 apart the one from the other, and there was an empty space of six braccia between each hut and the next whose entrance opened on the same side with a fissure above the door and a window situated in such a way that every patient, even when it rained, could see the light, breathe fresh air and avoid, in part, the boredom of his narrow prison. The huts were built with small beams, the floor was the unpaved ground, somewhat high, so that it might not be damp with several holes all around through which the rain water ran into gutters. A very deep ditch surrounded each lazzaretto in order to prevent, in the day or at night, anyone from entering to mistreat the patients as well as to prohibit the latter ones from rashly trying to escape. Into these ditches ran all the water conveyed by canals from the near springs and used in the lazzaretti for various purposes. Outside the perimeter of each lazzaretto there were shelters for the soldiers who guarded the borders; there were also the shelters used as kitchens, taverns and pharmacies for the numerous needs of the group collected in that place. A large cross offered a consoling sight of the Redeemer to the wretched victims, because religion was always the main treatment both in the S. Gregorio lazzaretto and in the secondary ones. Every morning a signal was given so that everyone, on

giuseppe r i pam on t i (1573–1643)  | 151

his knees, turned his eyes toward the cross thinking of the torments suffered by Christ. Mass was celebrated every day in special areas so that each patient from the door of his hut might see, if not hear, the Holy Office. In order to prevent the patients’ escape, some gentlemen were invested with a special authority. They had the title of captain and one hundred soldiers under each one’s command with a public clerk and other officers. The sum spent for these guards was 46,000 lire, for the rent of the houses near the lazzaretti, firewood, mattresses and other furnishings to be used by the soldiers and their leaders as well as for their provisions. Other gentlemen were posted at every gate of Milan, with the task of buying and sending victuals to the lazzaretti. Not all poor people, however, were admitted easily to these places; but when the officer in charge of this task reported that there was some poor to be taken out of the city, the nobleman in charge of this care in the individual parishes visited them. Finding out that the indicated reasons were legitimate, they received him recording in a ledger first the family name, condition, if he was married and how many children did he have, in which parish they were living, which house and the day in which he had been admitted. Then he was either carried or led to the entrance of the lazzaretto,, took off his clothes, bathed and put on a new tunic. Then he was taken to one of the huts with a companion, and sometimes with two, with the precaution of always keeping the suspected cases and the plague victims in separate quarters. Every district had its own leaders and helpers, with the prohibition of even the slightest contact among them, so that the healthy persons could not contract the disease. Doctors were scarce either because they were hiding or pretending not to be physicians, especially those who put the pleasure of living before profit. Although most generous salaries were promised, it was not possible to take several of them out of their villas, who lived there hiding, abhorring the recompense of death. In such a privation of an art whose very name is a relief and medicine for the sick persons, while they searched everywhere individuals who, having at least a smattering of medicine, agreed to enter the lazzaretti, there arrived near Pavia some Frenchmen who pretended to be doctors, and one would have believed they really were by their appearance and clothes. They blurted out aphorisms and, having been led by an innkeeper to visit some patients in that neighborhood, they prescribed medicines that, after being taken, cured them probably because the hour of their death had not yet come for them. The Frenchmen said that they had arrived in Venice to free that city from the contagion. A Lonato, sent by the Health Service to Pavia, hired and took along with himself four or five of the selfstyled doctors, no more expert than the old woman of the mountains, who, in our days, sneaked into the lazzaretto. They were assigned a monthly salary higher than



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

the best known doctors would have demanded, namely one thousand six hundred sequins, the largest part of which was given to them on the spot. Admitted into the lazzaretti, their effrontery and ignorance were discovered soon afterwards; they were imprisoned, beaten with canes and deprived of the money that they had received, and so that they might not be an additional burden, they were expelled. However, two of those impostors died of the plague in prison. Finally they had recourse to the doctors’ association in order to take care of the urgent need and the latter, owing to its authority, had the doctors reappear and they did their duty properly. Each one was assigned from the public funds a 50 sequins salary per month: one hundred to Lanfranco Boniperti from Novara because of the great renown that he had in his art. Medicines, preparations and anything that was considered useful to cure and feed the patients was contributed by the Institute Santa Corona that was opened by its founder who, with great generosity, opened to benefit the poor; and when the private income of that benefactor was not sufficient, the noblemen and the municipality made up for the expenses. A most valid help in every emergency was given by Cardinal Carlo (Borromeo), who was alive at that time, a saint among men, and I believe that what he did during the epidemic worked more than anything else in his active life to open for him the gates of heaven at the end of this calamitous career of ours, and provide him later with the honors of canonization. He took joyfully upon himself the care of the plague victims for the love of his people, he gave generously of his wealth, sold his land properties and stripped his palace to assist the needy and did much more during the time of the pestilence for the spiritual health of his flock.

The Lazzaretto (III) It was contemptible and indecent not only to see but even to think that the sacred ministers’ bodies were piled up on the carts, even among the naked bodies of the women and then thrown in confusion into the graves without any burial ceremony. A shameful spectacle and a shameful practice, a consequence of those days of misery and calamity. The building called La Canonica, belonged already to the Umiliati who spent days in that place idly with their useless wealth. They met with the ecclesiastical censure and, after the unheard-of misdeed, the Order was abolished and the clerics took their place and resided there while they were being prepared for the priesthood. Federico destined this building to be a lazzaretto ecclesiastico, for the purpose of assigning there not only all the priests and clerics affected by the plague, but only those who contracted the infection in the exercise of their ministry. He appointed Girolamo Settala as its director, a brother of the protophysician who, as the archpriest of Monza, had become a Grand Penitentiary in Milan; a

giuseppe r i pam on t i (1573–1643)  | 153

man of such knowledge and virtue that our church had only very few equal to him, and very few will be also those that the other churches and cities will ever see. After his death, he sent Primicevio Visconti, a nephew of his on his sister’s side. The two mentioned directors of the ecclesiastical lazzaretto chose several from among the ablest from the Congregation of the Oblates whose task was to see that the sick priests were properly treated and would not lack any assistance in their last hours. There were doctors, surgeons, assistants and other employees to help in the best manner if someone of them should die. After the early Oblates died in the lazzaretto, other members of that Congregation replaced them with alacrity, hoping to receive spiritual reward and in order to do a welcome work for the Cardinal, and also because they considered it a glorious gesture to risk their lives in that charitable task. But since the wealth of Borromeo and the public funds were not sufficient to pay these expenses, they invited the parish priests, canonic officials and the other ecclesiastical persons of the city to donate a certain amount, as personal situations allowed, in order to support that lazzaretto, that had been established for their sake and that some of them might have used. Not a few sent money out of a feeling of charity, others out of shame, and others because they were wealthy. Many wealthy priests who were patients in that lazzaretto, seeing their death approach, left to their guardians the wealth that they could not take along and that at that point, were thinking of the treasures of the other life. In this manner the wealth of that charitable institution increased. The lazzaretto subsisted for four months in the areas of the Canonica, with a variable number of patients, but never fewer than sixty. Each one of them, after recovering, assisted the others, and in this manner they showed their gratitude to God, the Cardinal and our Church for their regained health. The Lazzaretto Is Censured and Then Closed. But more than the souls the bodies became corrupted and several deaths followed; it might have been called almost a little contagion. Some attributed its cause to the attendants’ rascality. It was believed that they had adulterated the bread by mixing sand with the flour. But the writer believed that the mortality was attributable to the excessive heat of that year, the filth and the lice, the brutal companions, almost indivisible of the beggars that afflicted them more revoltingly in that place because of the crowding. In the meantime, those groaning and agitated people who had lost their freedom and the right to roam around, longed for their old and cherished habits. Boredom, sadness and despair as well as their hatred for the Lazzaretto appeared on their faces; complaints grew more and more. They cried that they had certainly been confined in that enclosure to die away from their land of origin without even the opportunity of turning their eyes to it in point of death; and, cursing their fate, many gave up the ghost. The nobles were also ashamed and indignant that so much care and the



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

great generosity in the public distress had only caused the death of a larger number of poor that they intended to feed. Therefore, having discussed the matter in the Council, they found that the only expedient was to release that multitude of indigent as soon as possible, allowing them to go back, as they had done before, to beg in the streets. Having established that, the Lazzaretto was opened, and the throngs poured through the city with insane joy and a gratitude greater than at the time when they had no fire and no shelter and had obtained both shelter and food. The city, freed for a short time from the greedy sight of the doctors, saw again the grievous spectacle; and pity grew in the minds of those who had thought how so many poor had died, in spite of the help of public charities, for which at present they blushed with embarrassment, now more than before, when they saw them die of starvation.4,5 For a better clarification and so that the Milanese citizens may know in future times the wretched sepulchers of their ancestors, that the Santa Barbara Lazzaretto, almost identical in shape and vastness to the San Gregorio one, was set up at Porta Ticinese. It consisted of ten jugers of ground, and it had a hastily erected church in the middle. There were four canals that drawing water from the fountains formed four washing sites for the cleaning, shelters for the guards, others for the clergy in charge of the spiritual care and other separated ones to be used by those who, having recovered, had to wait for a quarantine before being free to leave. The mentioned places were out of the perimeter; inside it there were two hundred seventeen rooms and four thousand patients were sheltered in them. A second lazzaretto, almost similarly arranged, was being set up at Porta Comasina, near the Church of the Trinity but it could not be completed for its use. The same happened for other lazzaretti that were being prepared at great expense that were left unused because of the violence of the disease that suddenly broke out. However, some lanes were useful because, after the inhabitants had been moved, they were isolated and guarded as were the lazzaretti. There were four of them, some at Porta Orientale across from the Croce di San Rocco, a second one at Porta Vigentina, the third at Porta Ticinese, the last one at Porta Comasina. They contained many houses and went as far as the city walls. They were very useful and appropriate to lodge there those fortunate persons who, having avoided death during the first forty days, remained forty more days in those lanes in order to remove any doubts that they were ill with the plague. Then, purified and healthy, they were set free. Those who came out alive from the lazzaretti, dressed with new clothes, owing to the care of the compassionate and generous magistrates, were led to those safer shelters in orderly groups. Once there were detained for a quarantine sixteen thousand persons between patients and recovered, the first group that came out from the lazzaretto of San Gregorio in order to go to a quarantine counted fifteen thousand persons.

giuseppe r i pam on t i (1573–1643)  | 155

The historian’s duty forbade him from being silent about the huts, the graves, the funerals and the cadavers: a mournful topic! The huts for the plague victims were six hundred forty-five at Porta Nuova, seven hundred fifteen at Porta Vercellina, no more than three hundred at Porta Romana. Each one cost two sequins in addition to the cost paid to the owners of the ground, who were also thanked officially for lending the area to the Municipality. The enormous ditches for the cadavers were dug in other fields and were twenty-four besides the smaller ones that, because of the large number of deceased people, were dug up every day near every city gate. The number of the deceased could not be obtained precisely because during the fury of the contagion, also the Health Officers in charge of recording their figures perished. More and more of them were appointed in vain because the plague would kill them all violently: as needs and concerns increased, the care for the lists of the dead victims was given up as irrelevant and almost impossible to be met. Nevertheless, according to the general opinion, it was believed that one hundred thousand persons died. If this conjecture is ambiguous and the number of this contagion is uncertain, there is no doubt, however, that if the illness had lasted any longer the provisions of the Council and the remainder of the ancient wealth would not have done any good in order to save the few surviving citizens.

The Riots of St. Martin’s Day, 1628 The situation of Milan that preceded the onset of the plague, with critical scarcity of food (cereals and grains) and the inadequate measures taken by the authorities, both Spanish and local, led to the tumults that occurred on St. Martin’s Days, November 11 and 12, 1628, described so vividly by Manzoni in his novel and based on Ripamonti’s history of the same events. Cusani indicates that besides the Italian sources he had the opportunity of examining the report of the events written by order of the Council to Governor Gonsalvo: Breve y sumaria relacion del subceso en Milan el savado fiesta de S. Martin, y el domingo a 11 y 12 de noviembre 1628. On those days people rioted in Milan but similar actions on the part of the people had occurred rarely since the Milanese territory was very fertile and it supplied yearly a very large amount cereals not only to the neighboring populations but to the distant ones as well. At that time, the city and the duchy were governed by Chancellor Ferrer because Governor Consalvo was engaged in the siege of Casale. As the shortage of wheat increased daily, finding no remedy and aware of the people’s complaints, he devised a plan that did not remove the cause of the sedition but only delayed it. Confronted



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

by a makeshift solution, the wheat merchants and the bakers, people who should have been cajoled in those days, becoming outraged, threatened an extreme ruin, to give up the transportation of the wheat as well as all baking and distribution of bread. The minimum price of wheat was from forty-five to fifty lire, an adequate and common price that the suppliers were not ashamed to ask and the buyers accepted without indignation. But the wealthy profiteers, the shameless usurers and the rich landowners, having secretly set the price among themselves, said, declared and demanded with abominable and unbridled greed, enormous prices, as if they were the arbiters of the citizens’ lives or were the only ones to have the right to live. Nor did the usual edicts avail against such greed or better rage of the misers ordering that each one had to declare the amount of wheat that he had at home. The Chancellor, amidst the frauds and avarice of the people and the shortness of wheat, in those difficult times, by following a middle of the road approach, had thought to let the bakers bear the damage originating from the calamitous times and human malice. He ordered that bread should be baked and sold at the prescribed amount, establishing a limit for both sellers and buyers. Perhaps he believed that the loss might be offset by the preceding earnings of the bakers and what they would gain in the future. … The bakers made a great uproar declaring repeatedly that they would have shut their ovens and abandoned their work. The Chancellor did not budge, resolute to having his edict obeyed, and the crowds, almost racing to buy the bread at such a good price, that was almost a gift, besieged the bakeries for the whole day with such an importunity that no matter how hard the bakers worked they were unable to satisfy their customers. The shouting and the complaints grew louder and stronger and the magistrates did not know what else to do to react. The Decurions wrote to the governor and agreed with him to find an appeasement. Consalvo gave orders to several officials to establish the price of the wheat so that the bakers could continue to provide bread. Having favored the bakers, the price of bread was raised ten cents per modius. The rage and the furor of the populace occurred because of the increase that helped the bakers, while people expected to pay a lower price for bread. Seeing themselves forced into a worse situation, they stopped respecting edicts and tariffs, and made themselves owners and distributors of the cereals. Thus, in Milan, a city known since the remote past for its respect for the governors and the propriety of manners, people became aware for what reason weapons are used against a furious populace, or rather against an unwarlike crowd of women and youngsters driven by hunger. It was St. Martin’s Day, a day that was always cheerful and happy because harvest is over, wine is put in barrels and the products of the year are stored in the houses of the wealthy people. At daybreak many baker shops’ boys went out with panniers and baskets full of bread in order to deliver it to the monasteries and the nobles’ houses, or to

giuseppe r i pam on t i (1573–1643)  | 157

retail it in other places. The people took all that bread as if it were their own or had agreed to have it delivered to their homes. Groups of boys, youths, women and elderly people, unarmed but strong in their number, moved against the baker shops’ boys who carried the bread on their shoulders and, as they found them, they forced them with violence to stop and put down the panniers ordering, afterwards, to go away. One had to obey because being suddenly surrounded and astonished, they got rid of their burden and took to their heels fearing worse trouble. Anyone who tried to oppose them was mistreated with blows and kicks. Thus began the rebellion of the mob that, attracted by the tasteful loot that they had obtained without shedding any blood, became bold believing to be capable of everything, if they only dared it, thinking that the indigence that they had suffered was a consequence of the tameness that they had adopted until then. The populace had become proud and daring for having taken the bread with just a request, forcing, for the time being, the families where it was to be delivered, to remain without it. The magistrates, however, rather than becoming angry, felt compassion for those corrupt individuals, laughing for having themselves to wait for their bread until late that day. But the people abandoned themselves to worse crimes, and, resolved to destroy the bakery, they walked toward it without any leader because the immense mob was a guide for itself. They uttered seditious words, they cried out that they would destroy the bakers’ stores, centers of swindling deprivation and a public calamity. By chance they came upon the bakery near Porta Orientale (East Gate). The mob was already armed with clubs, stones and what happened to be at hand, as if they were going to a fight. They forced the doors open, and set the place on fire. After breaking the gates, they stole all the flour and the corn that were stored there, spreading them on the floor and throwing some also in the street out of spite. Some filled the stolen sacks with flour and carried them away; others loaded them on carts and came back repeatedly without anyone opposing their stealing. The places where the plunderers came and went were white with flour as if it had been snowing, and it was collected by the poor and the lowly people who got busy taking it away. In the meantime, the leaders of the mob had found the baker’s counter where there was the money of several days and they stole all of it. Having given vent to their anger upon what had instigated the uprising, and in the absence of anything else to steal, they finally took out their fury at the tables, counters, baskets and the other implements of the store that had not attracted the greed of the looters, and, after piling them up they set it on fire as a sort of sacrifice to Ceres, the famine and the saint, whose celebration had brought them together for that enterprise! They threw into the fire also the books and the ledgers of the store and



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

they would have thrown into it also the baker and his shop boys if these, for their own good luck, had not saved themselves by running away or hiding. Having spent the morning in these events, the mob reached the worst of its atrocity running wild and furious to kill the Vicar of Victualling Office, a Milanese magistrate who had been elected yearly and was the head of the public council and almost of the city itself, a most noble and excellent person against whom the mob felt a great hatred. His name, probably mentioned casually by somebody, echoed quickly through the whole city. The Vicar, either hearing the noise or because he had been warned, was locked up and hiding in his house. The groups of people surrounded his house, hitting its door and trying to scale the walls. The magistrates called a squad of Spanish soldiers to be sent to guard the Vicar’s house, but those soldiers, instead of striking fear in the mob, were caught by a sudden terror seeing those people around the house grow like an army. The Spaniards hesitated and kept far away while the mob insulted them and their harquebuses, which were always feared because they hit from afar but, at that time, they were useless and object of derision. The soldiers’ arrival did not slow down the fury of the people who were attacking the house. To restrain considerably their vehemence, there came Chancellor Ferrer, venerable because of his old age, who gained the liking of the people exactly because he was not afraid of confronting that turmoil. Going ahead in his carriage in the middle of the crowd, now he asked for silence with his hand, begging them to listen to him, and then by raising his shoulders and bending his head he asked what they wanted. And when the uproar ceased for a moment and he could be heard, he put his hand on his chest and promised bread in abundance, calming the tumult with the kindness of his manners. But he was served better by his ability, that was always very useful to a man, even in ancient times, when people wanted to kill. The Chancellor stated that he had come to take the Vicar in his carriage to his palace where, if he was found guilty of some injustice against such a well-deserving population, he would be punished according to the old laws of Milan. This promise calmed the mob and the Vicar, sitting in the carriage, under the pretence of being taken to his torture, avoided, in that terrible event, his death. It was already late and, either because of the coming darkness and their tiredness and satiety, all slowly went back home, happy of their feat and the revenge they thought they had gotten for all their suffering, and within their domestic walls they enjoyed some rest and talked about the events of the day. The magistrates and the decurions, however, were not resting, as they feared that during the night new crimes would be committed. They secured the Vicar’s house with beams and put a group of soldiers in place. Then they held a meeting. First, they took steps so that, on the following day, that was a Sunday, there would be plenty of bread. The bakeries worked all night. At the same time they ordered to look for

giuseppe r i pam on t i (1573–1643)  | 159

wheat everywhere so that it would not become scarce. At daybreak, the population was calm and, going out half sleepy to shop for food, everyone went his own way stopping briefly to exchange a few words. One would have said that they were confused out of the shame for the preceding riot. But it was a brief pause and, again, the populace raged anew with more violent vehemence not so much to ransack the bakeries but to demolish them to their foundations and burn them up. … It was decided, later, to reduce the price of the brown bread. … At that announcement the mob rejoiced with wild happiness, people smiled bitterly and in the street corners and the wine shops they boasted of having lowered the prices to that level. At the same time, quibbling about it, they uttered that the merry-making would soon end: they said that the wheat was mixed with harmful substances, that they did not trust that benefit but that they would enjoy it for the time being. … The riot of the Milanese citizens distressed and worried the public Council that was ashamed of it as a head of a family discovering malfeasance in his relatives and his good name sullied … The people of Milan had trampled upon the public authority, insulting the king and our fatherland that was so dear to him because it had always generated men both strong and humble at the same time. These thoughts distressed the noblemen who feared that news of the events, combining the truth and untruth, should reach the monarch, as if the popular riot caused by the famine had occurred because of the Council’s fault. The city had sent to the Catholic king a legate for other reasons, who, at that time, was in Madrid. The Council sent him some letters of this general substance: Few individuals of the lowest social classes, driven by the hope of stealing, had excited, at first, youngsters and women, others, later, had joined them until the riot, because of the scarcity of bread, had become a revolt. After the bakeries had been ruined, they sought the death of the Vicar. Consequently, letters had been sent to the legate asking that he should have an audience with the king, as soon as possible, explain to him what had happened and add that it was a sudden outburst and insane action of the populace and not a planned revolt, and that the noble people kept their faith, that they had inherited from their ancestors, toward His Majesty and that in Milan there was no nobleman who would hesitate to sacrifice his life if that popular agitation would not abate. The members of the Council added other letters to this one that the legate could use at the proper place and time, should one attempt to hurt the ancient statutes of the city on account of those happenings and induce the king to punish it by promulgating new laws. They urged to explain the Council’s solicitude, the expenses which had been met, the uninterrupted diligence so that the population should not lack victuals and how it had purchased recently, at public expense,



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

fifteen thousand modii of wheat and twelve thousand of rye, negotiating for an even larger amount to be carried to the city that would never be short of corn, if what the Decurions had requested had been carried out by the highest authority, namely that exporting should not be permitted to anyone. The same (Decurions) had also entreated that it should be ordered, with most strict laws and punishments, that the profiteers should not be allowed to come from the farthest borders of the Verbano to the city gates with their donkeys to purchase corn, and then carry it from their houses to the Swiss bordering people, as it was easy for them to do because of their proximity. Furthermore, it had been forbidden to carry to foreign lands the wheat from Lomellina that is Milan’s granary. The bakers and the millers of this city had been denied permission to buy and carry it in their stores.

The Onset of the Plague in Milan To return to our original topic, we find the city of Milan in the grip of these events when the first appearance of the plague occurs. In Ripamonti’s words: Ponte Vetro and the district of Porta Orientale, are Milan’s districts comparable for their size to small towns. Within their territory there appeared the first symptoms of the plague which, similar to a flame exploding from the roofs, was to invade the neighboring houses, strike almost all citizens, spread far into the countryside and was to end only when, as an agent of heavenly wrath, it had purified everything.

It will not be useless to indicate where, when and in which day the contagion broke out and who were the first persons to be affected in order to see how, from a simple beginning the storm became large and invaded the entire city, killing several thousand victims. The first one was a soldier named Pietro Paolo Locato who, being based in Chiavenna because of the tumults in Valtellina, was on a furlough with the permission of his commander. Having reached Milan on November 22, he went to his aunt, Elisabetta, and remained with her three days. He was neither visited nor isolated although he was coming from infected localities. He became ill and getting worse he was taken to the major hospital, since there were no possibilities to treat him in his little house. After two days he died, and after an autopsy of his body was done they found swellings, a certain sign of the plague, never seen in town before although people gossiped often about it. In a short time, all the persons who lived in that house died, removing any doubt about the plague having entered in Milan. After the case was reported to the Health Magistrate, the house, that was owned by a Colona who also died as did his wife and children, was impounded.

giuseppe r i pam on t i (1573–1643)  | 161

The disease began to be rife slowly as if merciful God, by allowing occasional halts, gave the opportunity to use some remedy. But our noblemen in whose hands rested the governing of the state, by not availing themselves of divine goodness, confronted the slaughter carelessly as it always happens when heaven wants to punish mankind. Remedies were slow to come although the plague, that was threatening the city in the early days, seemed to hide out of fear. The contagion that had descended from the Retian valleys and had remained a few days in the house of Colona, owing to the distance from which it was coming and its slowness in spreading, caused it to be diagnosed as a different illness. Yet, before the above-mentioned events, toward the beginning of February 1627, there had been an uncertain rumor of an approaching plague infection. Later on, grievous news came that the calamity was impending. Now it had come, secretly, almost stealthily, hitting the citizens and it forcibly attacked some of them with all its strength; it stopped, it burst out again alternating in this manner according to human nature hopes and fears whereby now people believed they had exaggerated the danger owing to a vague suspicion or for not adopting sufficient measures to protect themselves from it. Therefore they posted railings and guards at every gate; established quarantines and other unusual measures; but not much time passed that they removed them, ignoring, because of ignorance, all precautions with such inconstancy that it appeared to be one of the signs of the plague. Although three years elapsed, among anxiety, remedies and a fatal negligence, as the plague broke out in Colona’s house, no more than one hundred persons died in the span of four months; a small number considering the nature of the disease, the vastness of Milan and the many thousands that were going to become victims in a short time. Soon enough, however, the wild animal, upset by the ties that held it, still broke them tearing bodies unopposed. And it was a real torture, although it was not caused by weapons or wounds. The most horrible sight were the dead by contact, breath and the hidden tabes than the sight of a battleground with torn intestines, spread out brains, truncated arms and other horrible wounds, where two fighting formations, driven by fury, go to battle. Ripamonti was convinced that among the causes of the malady, nothing contributed to its development as the persistence of the public in denying it, “insulting with catcalls, sneers and insults anyone who mentioned it.” A note of Cusani indicates that these signs of rejection were common in the spring of 1630, when the illness began to make its way in the district of Porta Orientale and might have been gotten under control by means of good measures. Such folly was not only common among the populace but even among some doctors who, dwelling in endless debates, laughed at buboes and swellings of the



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

groins and considered them consequences of unrestrained lust every time a plague victim showed them those very clear signs of the plague and asked for assistance. Those ignorant people were clamoring in some gatherings that the fevers were contagious and that a number of persons died suddenly because of occult troubles of the intestines. Through these absurdities and other rumors typical of their most misleading art they dissuaded the sick from taking the remedies that had to be sought in time. These quacks won the favor of the masses to the point that the wise ones who, thinking very differently were convinced the plague was already present in the city and some people had already the disease, were treated like impostors, or even enemies of the country. The populace shouted that they were looking for favors and that they introduced the plague even where it did not exist, out of greed for gains. In a short period of time and in spite of all the measures taken to control the epidemic, the plague began to kill a considerable number of persons. None of the measures taken by the government of the city seemed capable not only of putting an end but even to limit the spreading of the catastrophe. As it happens in similar circumstances, people felt overwhelmed by the events and hoped in the protection of a beloved man, Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, who was considered a saintly benefactor. The magistracy of Milan, therefore, implored Cardinal Federico Borromeo to open the tomb of his cousin and allow the body of Saint Carlo to be carried in his bier through some of the main streets of the city. They earnestly hoped that the mortal remains of the saint, returning to the quarters which he had seen when he was alive, would chase away the epidemic and its “poisons.” Cardinal Federico agreed to let the body of Carlo be seen by the citizens and the procession was organized with the appropriate magnificent array. When the preparations were made, “the private magnificence competed with the public one” and “the citizens did not mind the expense for those preparations with which wretched humanity presumes to honor the Creator.” Three days were spent to have everything ready. As the procession finally passed, everybody’s eyes were riveted to the bald, mitered head of San Carlo, his half-open lips, empty eye sockets, for in such conditions death with its inevitable power had deformed the venerable head of the saintly archbishop. The prayers of thousands of people implored him to defend once again his beloved city. But all prayers were in vain, because pestilence, grown fiercer by the voice of the suppliants, became stronger and crueler. The bier that contained the body of the holy archbishop remained in view eight more days and nights on the main altar of the Cathedral. The population went there in groups with prayers and tears for that assistance that, because of the inscrutable divine decrees, had already been inexorably denied.

giuseppe r i pam on t i (1573–1643)  | 163

At this point, several individuals suspected that the epidemic was started and spread around fraudulently by the leaders of the warring parties who were seeking to gain control of Lombardy as well as of Milan. They thought that once the territory would be reduced to the worst possible squalor, the main city would soon be in the same condition and become an easy prey to a conquering army. Powerful rulers and their advisers began to accuse each other of being the originators of such a desperate ploy, and “it should not be a surprise if also our citizens started to have faith in these suspicions,” comments Ripamonti. “Such a state of agitation,” comments the historian, “no less deadly than the havoc caused by the plague, should be attributed to the inscrutable decrees of Providence.” This thing grew to the point, in its calamity, wretchedness, arrogance and folly, that every day they punished untori6 in the city while, at the same time, in the Lazzaretto, similar to a public burial, suspicion and evidence of their crimes existed and vanished at the same time. The first well-founded suspicion concerning the ointments spread by human malice to bring or feed the plague arose when people saw, along the length of the city, the house walls smeared here and there by large stains. This happened early in the morning, on April 12, at daybreak. The day was clear so that everybody could easily see those stains with his own eyes. Some persons who went out to work at the first light saw them. Then others invited the passersby to look at them until, with growing curiosity, many people rushed in groups. These stains were spread along the walls and dripping in various ways as if somebody had soaked a sponge with rotten fluids and smeared the walls with it. One could also see some house doors oiled here and there with that substance. It was a grievous crime committed recently almost to insult the population. The bystanders were horrified but, as usual, they soon forgot it. However, as the disease and the daily slaughter grew worse, the stains that they had seen came back to their minds more vividly; every day one could hear stories of smearing and messy objects everywhere and those who had touched them became sick. When this opinion became widespread, it was believed that people had also been infected either because they were unaware of being smeared both by contact with already contaminated persons or by having touched objects used for daily activities. The general opinion became such that not only objects but the very areas of the city and the air as well had been infected by the untori. The public rumor added to that the presence of “enchantments” as well as demons that consorted with certain humans to devastate Milan and its territory. Among the numerous fable-like stories on this subject, it may be insightful to mention the following one reported by Ripamonti. There was in Milan a common belief, not considered as absurd even by sensible people, that the devils occupied safe rooms in Milan where they had established a storage



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

of their arts in order to distribute their ointments. Many people dared point out the district where those houses were situated, naming even the landlords and mention was made also of the identity of the landlords. Finally, they mentioned the names and pointed out a man who would tell the story that follows. One day, as he stood casually, as he used to do, in Piazza del Duomo, he saw a coach drawn by six white horses. Inside the coach sat a man escorted by a large number of attendants; he looked like a prince, but his forehead looked fiery, his eyes were flaming, he had bristly hair, a threatening mouth and an expression the likes of which he had never seen. While he was gazing at the strange person, the coachman pulled the reins, stopped the coach and told him to get in and go with them. After agreeing, out of courtesy, they took him for a long time around the city until they reached the entrance of a certain house where he got off and entered with the strangers. That house, went on the narrator, seemed very similar to the man who had let him climb on his coach and whose orders, he noticed, were obeyed by all. The description of the same may be similar to the one of Homer when he describes in the Odyssey Circe’s cave. Horrors in one with majesty, and I do not know what delightful and terrible: here glitter and light, there darkness and artificial night, where shades were sitting in a circle, almost as if holding a meeting, where there were immense deserts, halls, woods, gardens and water cascading into a lower basin from the edge of dark cliffs. Our narrator added other wondrous portents that under a serious scrutiny became silly and ridiculous. Finally he concluded and said that in that house they showed him immense treasures and caskets filled with money with the promise that he would receive his share and much more, as he might wish, if, by swearing in the name of the prince, he would help with what had to be done. If he accepted the proposed agreement, he should indicate his consent by raising a finger, turning around himself once and bending his knee to the ground. As he refused to comply, he suddenly felt himself taken back to Piazza del Duomo where he had stepped on the coach.

He made up this story in such a way that many thought it had been gathered from an event that had occurred in ancient history. The Milanese believed it and foreigners believed it too. Some German publishers took advantage of that tall story in order to make money at the expense of public curiosity by selling a print representing the purported event. I myself saw fragments of a design on paper made in Germany where one could see the devil on a tall coach under which there was a writing in German that explained how this apparition had deceived the Milanese. I saw, furthermore, some letters written by the archbishop of Mainz to our cardinal asking for clarifications on the truthfulness of the supernatural events that fame divulged and had occurred among his flock. The answer was that no infernal coach and no ghost had been seen in Milan. Thus foreigners did not believe those fairy tales, because living away from us they were not so interested in them, but in our own people it made all tales more credible as they became more threatening and peculiar.

giuseppe r i pam on t i (1573–1643)  | 165

While the contagion, the piles of dead bodies and the dying people lying everywhere and the dead mixed together with the living, changed the city into a single sepulcher and a funeral pyre, the public calamity became more and more horrible owing to the internecine hatred, the embitterment of the minds, the horrible suspicion that some individuals corrupted and bribed by the devils with gold, devoted themselves to spreading the plague. Even relatives and friends avoided each other; nor was only a neighbor or a guest feared as a dangerous person but parents, brothers, husbands and wives who normally are united by bonds of love. Horrible and shameful to be said the dinner table, the bridal chamber and whatever else is considered sacred by the right of nature and the people, struck terror if the disease hid itself and spread there. Anxious and cautious the citizens walked in the streets overwhelmed by the fear of the pestilential ointments. When the plague took root and its consequences became well known it was necessary, wrote Ripamonti, “to establish tribunals, place guards, issue edicts and take care of everything with the most earnest attention and security service.” Two esteemed senators were selected as presidents of the Medical Office. Giovanni Battista Arconati in 1629 and M. Antonio Monti in 1630, his successor. Both risked their lives with true compassion for the fatherland: they carried out their duties in spite of the danger in order to defend with prudence, loyally and carefully, our wretched city and its Milanese province, the most beautiful among the lands under the rule of the Catholic King. The system was the following: All the other magistrates and the primary nobles gave counsel and assistance to the Health Service in proportion with the courage of each one as well as his prudence when in danger. For every city gate and district of Milan they established the days and the times that each nobleman had to visit them and the duties to be performed. In the first place, it was ordered that people, animals and goods would not enter the city without first checking the bills confirming that their place of origin was a safe territory. And in order to prevent forced entry, gates were installed outside the doors and behind the gates they built huts where the guards were lodged day and night. Other noblemen and persons chosen by them patrolled those locations every day, as well as the parishes and districts of Milan, visiting the houses and taking care of many people’s needs at public expense and even with private charity. As far as the disease was concerned, the suspected sick people and the daily cases of the plague, the following steps were taken. Those who became ill were admitted immediately to the lazzaretto together with their families and those who lived under the same roof; or, if they wished to remain at home they were kept there and the Health Service guards were placed there. Those individuals concerning whom there were only suspicions of the disease, were isolated as a precaution



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

but with a less strict vigilance and received food from the public sources if they were considered indigent. The dead bodies were carried away on carts preceded by a foot guard who, at a loud voice, sent the passersby away, warning aloud anyone who was walking toward the carts to move aside and avoid any contact, as well as the monatti, because the dead were there and the plague was there as well. Enormous pits were dug up as deep as the water level and when the bodies had been placed there, they threw quicklime over every row so that it could absorb the putrefied matter with its causticity, since it was dangerous even from underground for life and the public health. But by this time, there seemed to be no more hope for survival or health because the more bodies were buried every day, the more their number grew every moment. Once those immense ditches had been filled, more and more were being dug up and not even these were sufficient any more. “History describes pitiful scenes of human events of war, violence or the massacres of death that equalize the greatest and the lowest but I think” says the historian, that in no other place one would have seen such a scorn as the one offered by Milan in those days and at any hour of the day. Nobody is unaware of what kind of individuals the monatti were, hopeless agents and the becchini who, mocking death, faced any danger. Their name derives from the lowliness in which they must stay because nobody is allowed to mingle with them. This kind of people handles, without taking any precaution, dead and dying people, touching wounds, tabes, bleeding limbs, even reveling with wild happiness over the piles of dead bodies. The monatti, I blush with shame as I describe such turpitude, ravished even the cadavers, the ultimate excess of lust and insanity that I did not find even among the wild animals. Entering every house, whether it was suspected of being infected or not, because by now it was legitimate to suspect of all, they would grab husbands, wives and children in order to drag them to the lazzaretto, unless they could save themselves by shelling out money. Some most shameless young men tied bells on their legs, entered some houses searching every room and even in the streets did what they wanted, as if they were monatti invested with public authority. Once it happened that in the same house these pseudo-monatti met with the real ones. A brawl and fighting ensued and it ended in bloodshed. A public calamity was also the way the law confronted these disorders because the very subordinate employees broke into the houses carrying out, insolently and with impunity, the thefts, plunderings and abuses that they were used to committing. They did not cease to rob and extort money until some of them were charged and arrested as a punishment and example, and condemned to the gallows.

giuseppe r i pam on t i (1573–1643)  | 167

One day, when three of them had to be hung, in the absence of an executioner, one of them was offered to be pardoned if he could replace him; he happily accepted and strangled his companions. But the mob of monatti mistreated living and dead at will, dragging the dead bodies as the butcher drags the animals to the slaughterhouse, all tied up with a single rope, calves and kids. They went bundled together men, women, adolescents, girls and children hanging from their mothers’ breasts, young people and old. The servant was loaded near his master, hitting his face with his feet, all naked, rich and poor, and it was rare to see a rag covering modestly their nudity; and if by any chance a sheet was thrown upon them, the greedy becchini will pull it away. Heads, arms, legs dangled from the carts, became entangled with the wheels and the cadavers fell down here and there on the ground. A note in Ripamonti’s book refers to a description written by Pio della Croce. It reads as follows: A horrible scene to be observed was then the once so glorious but at that time wretched city of Milan. The houses were desolate, the families wiped out, the stores were closed, the churches abandoned, the districts deserted. One could see in the streets only those funeral workers who took the unhappy plague victims from their houses to the lazzaretti. The carts loaded with dead people creaked constantly along the streets, even more horrible to the sight because the bodies, confusedly piled on them, offered a more frightful view of themselves. The monatti teamsters came out of the Lazzaretto singing, hardened already in their hearts by their horrible task, their caps decorated with feathers and galls, as if they were part of Death’s trophy; they entered boldly the infected houses and it seemed that they were going to sack them like enemies rather then offering them some friendly help. Those monatti grabbed the infected victims, who lied on their backs, by their heads or their legs as it best suited them and then unloaded them from their shoulders on the carts like corn sacks, not caring if from the cart sides there dangled indecently legs, arms and heads. Carelessly covering nudity with a cloth, they went to unload them at the grave while the feeble cries of the family members accompanied the “funeral” as they watched the bodies of their beloved relatives being handled so wretchedly. One could hear no other sound of a church bell but the grievous tinkle of the little bells that the monatti and the horses pulling the carts wore hanging around their necks and legs to warn the people who walked in their direction. No less painful was the sight of the victims, who were not allowed to breath under their own roof among their dear ones. Some arrived on carts, sometimes tied by force, filling the air with plaintive cries, others were carried on chairs or on foot, leaning on sticks and went along moaning to meet, before the doctor or the medicines, their death and the grave.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Notes 1. At first, a rice soup was distributed among the poor, as it had been done on the occasion of the plague in 1576. At that time, Governor Hayamonte had a cauldron of rice set up at every street corner for all the poor in the neighborhood and at the door of his palace he had a soldo given to every poor person. 2. Reference is made to Francesco Sforza’s father, a farmer from Cotignola in Romagna. The Lazzaretto designed by the famous architect Bramante from Urbino was initiated by order of Ludovico il Moro in 1489; his brother, Cardinal Ascanio, contributed largely to its cost. It was completed only in 1507 at the time of the King of France Louis XII, who, in those years, ruled over Milan. 3. Braccio pl. braccia was an ancient linear measure varying from 50 to 70 centimeters. 4. The fault was the Decurions’ who did not pay attention to the health authorities. Alessandro Tadino and Settala, who publicly protested against the imprudent measure, predicting that the large number of poor that caused an obvious exchange and the putrid and fetid breath mainly among them, as well as the ill disposition of their bodies, would have stirred up a contagious disease. The number of dead from January to the end of September 1629 was 8,570 in Milan alone. (Ripamonti) 5. The person who knows the things that were done during the years of the pestilence, and even better, the funds that were needed, should not suspect any fraud or stealth concerning the conspicuous sum than was spent. The main Lazzaretto, the branch Lazzaretti, the fields which had to be used in order to build the huts, numberless as they were, the implements for the houses which were rented in town, the doctors, medicines, and the food for the victims and the indigent, so many thousand persons for ten months, as if they were grouped up in a single house and provided with everything that they needed. (Ripamonti) 6. The term untore, pl. untori, from Lat. unctor, from past part. of ungere, to oil, to grease, was used to indicate, in this case, persons who would transmit the pestilential infection by smearing oily substances containing the infection on doors, walls and other objects that might be touched by people, thus causing them to contract the disease.

Bibliography Cavenago, V. Il Lazzaretto. Storia di un Quartiere di Milano. Milano, 1989. Devoto, G. Profilo di storia linguistica italiana. Firenze, 1953. Ripamonti, G. La Peste di Milano del 1630, Libri Cinque, Volgarizzati da F. Cusani. Milano, 1841.

chapter six

Ludovico Settala and Alessandro Tadino

In the first book of his work, Ripamonti introduces two main members of the medical team who were engaged in the fight against the epidemic: Ludovico Settala and Alessandro Tadino. Settala (Milan 1552–1633) had reached the position of chief medical examiner at the time in question and Ripamonti defines him as the first among the doctors and the philosophers, as well as an outstanding scholar. To the dignity of his profession he added a blameless life and disregard for wealth wherever he was called, by the poor, scholars or friends, and these were the least of his good qualities. Aged and influential for the precision of his diagnoses, the “Hippocrates of our time” enjoyed an unlimited trust, even amongst the most prudent, and the general public venerated him before becoming infatuated in their insane beliefs. One day, as Settala was on his way to visit his patients carried in a litter, owing to his old age, he was insulted by the shouts of porters and silly women in the street, and his bearers worrying for his life, entered a nearby house of a friend of his and remained there until quiet was restored and the rascals had disappeared. The mob shouted and said that the doctor was the head of those who maintained that the plague was indeed a fact, that he spread terror in the city with his beard and grim looks so that a multitude of doctors would not remain idle and, instead, would be given work. In this manner the excellent old man, who had saved the



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

lives of a large number of people with the skill of his profession and his own money, ran a great risk because of the populace’s stupidity and impertinence that did not insult only him but the courts and holy justice by defying the sanitary rules as useless and inspired only by the fear of the public authority. A note added by Cusani says, in part, that Settala assisted with his competence and solicitude Cardinal Borromeo and gained the fame of learned and charitable doctor not only in his land but in all of Italy and beyond. Princes competed in order to have Settala: in 1608 the Duke of Bavaria asked that he would be given the primary position at the University of Ingolstadt. The Duke of Tuscany offered him a professorship at Pisa. The Senate of Bologna offered him a high salary if he should attempt to go to that famous university. The Senate of Venice tried to have him accept the chair of medicine at Padua, but he constantly refused these flattering offers because he did not want to leave his Milan, a reward gained through his knowledge and virtues. When the plague erupted in 1630, Settala, although he was eighty years old, worked with great zeal as head of the health services in order to put into action the most active measures to stop the contagion. But it pained him not to be believed or rather being insulted by the public in spite of the veneration brought by his knowledge and work in order to assist his fellow citizens. Yet, he was not discouraged by it and during the epidemic he helped with his experience, since old age did not allow him to be of help more actively. Unhurt by the plague, Settala ended his long and honorable career on September 12, 1633, honored as a doctor and excellent citizen. In the second book of his most significant work, Ripamonti wrote: In the preceding book I explained what was the character and knowledge of Ludovico Settala and his fame, by reporting on the risk that he ran because of the foolish rabble who, refusing to believe the plague existed, was squawking that he himself was the man who spread its name among the people.

Alessandro Tadino (Milan 1580–1661), a student and great friend of that scholar, whose equal he was, or closely similar, by character, courage, nobility of origin, studies, in a word, everything except the age, had to suffer the insults of the rabble and found safety by taking shelter in somebody’s house. The risk that they ran, however, increased the good reputation of both. Alessandro Tadino, in the prime of his life, almost a primary doctor himself, a diligent companion in the sciences and emulator of the venerable and famous Settala, at whose side he always was, equaled him after his death. Both of them discussed at length the origin of the plague, especially at the time of the contagion and the poisoning that the Milanese believed was victimizing them.

ludovico se t tala a n d a l e ss a n d r o ta d i n o  | 171

After Settala’s death, the surviving Tadino continued to analyze these events, taking advantage of the discussions that he held with his friend and clarified his opinion at length and precisely. The writer continued: As I had already seen some of his writings, and having heard that this book of mine was about to be published, he discussed with me his opinions and debates and lent me his commentaries. I shall report faithfully the main ideas of this most renowned doctor and philosopher about the provoked plague and the diabolic practice of the untori. However, the matter shall remain undecided for us since the “ointments,” of a diabolic and obscure origin, gave rise to a large amount of doubts in our minds.

Tadino, after the philosopher’s style, began his discussions with observations drawn from the stars, as he was no less clever in the study of the celestial regions as he was in medicine, that is called one of the three “born” sciences and joined into one. He wrote that the “ointments” had been preceded by a comet, an apparition that was always considered an omen of great novelties and calamities. That comet, of a more frightening appearance than usual, showed up in the sky in the month of June, a time believed to be one of major preparations of the “ointments.” It shone in the northern sky and it was seen by many persons. Experienced and foreseeing men knowledgeable of things to come, after conducting daily observations, predicted that what ensued later was coming from that comet. Another comet appeared in 1628 in the right quadrant for the conjunction with Saturn, a portent that is considered the most deadly. Tadino then deduced these and other consequences by means of that “sublime science that is generated among the celestial spheres and even dares to draw the eternal stars to participate in the life and events of the mortals and joins the heavens with mankind.” After discussing several cases of “provoked” infections and similar events that occurred in Madrid, Palermo and other places, the historian concludes by saying: “These evidences about the ‘ointments’ were advanced by Tadino, a physician and philosopher.” The “creation” of the plague through human ingenuity is not an idea born only in our city. The plague, that in other times was considered a natural disease produced by the corruption of the air and internal decaying of the bodies, is propagated by breath and contact. “Even in our place (Milan) similar unambiguous portents in the previous pestilence of 1576 appeared, greater than any other one, if the latest had not diminished its fame.” He concludes by saying: As long as men exist it will always happen to discover, from time to time, new crimes. They will be punished but, after punishment, they will come back to life, such being the destiny of crimes as of any other human event.

chapter seven

Father Felice Casati

Faith in God, self-sacrifice and total dedication to the good of mankind inspired another significant figure, perhaps the noblest one, in the tragic events described in the story. Father Felice Casati of the Franciscan Order was born in Milan in 1581. At the age of 22 he became a Franciscan friar. After a period of novitiate and ecclesiastical studies, he devoted his attention to preaching and instruction. In 1615 he was in Lugano and later in Merate. Between 1621 and 1630 he was in charge of the novices at Orta and Vigevano. In March 1630 he was preaching in Milan during Lenten time when the plague erupted in all its power and gravity. In Ripamonti’s own words: While the plague raged obstinately and without respite in the Lazzaretto, Supervisor and judge of everything in that place was a man worthy of being remembered in the annals of Milan, even if I were narrating not the contagion and its slaughter but the splendor and the glories of our fatherland.

Father Felice Casati of Milan, of the sacred Capuchin Order, perfectly apt for that task, seemed to be destined by the heavenly providence to assist our fatherland in that downfall. Physically impervious to fatigue, at the peak of his strength, magnanimous, calm, gentle and rigorous when necessary, disdainful of life and earthly things that he had renounced since the time that he abandoned the worldly pleasures, he chose the Capuchin Order and entered that austere concept of life.

fat h e r f e l i c e c a s at i  | 173

The Decurions called Father Felice and entreated him that for his and his Order’s sanctity he should take upon himself the demanding supervision of the Lazzaretto. After he spoke humbly about himself and of the importance and seriousness of the charge, he took some time to decide, having in mind to confer openly with the Cardinal. If the great and religious Federico agreed he, interpreting his decision as the will of God, would accept and go immediately to the Lazzaretto; otherwise Father Felice would have thought heaven had not destined him to pursue that task. But during the visit of the Capuchin with the Archbishop, something facetious and elegant occurred amid that general mourning. The Archbishop, after he heard Father Felice’s words, remained somewhat in suspense and said some things that seemed to express a certain hesitation in his mind, whereby the Capuchin, having bent his knee on the floor, was going to leave. But suddenly Federico, looking very cheerful, said: “It is really true, then, Father, that you will be admitted to the Lazzaretto without any trouble!” and embracing Father Felice he kissed him over and over again, by showing with his familiarity and tenderness how happy he was to have found a man who, rejecting ambition and life at the same time, was ready to give up his position as a guardian to confront terrible dangers. Filled with admiration for such a sacrifice, he omitted nothing in order to increase authority and honors and by confirming the public decree with his authority, appointed him head of the Lazzaretto. Having received his order, Father Felice entered that location among the plague victims as a voluntary victim of the epidemic of which he was not destined to die. This increased people’s veneration for him because the man who saved the lives of thousands, needed himself the assistance he granted to others; and after having seen thousands and thousands die, wishing in vain to die too, almost ended his life through neglect for his own health, as people reported. It was a beautiful sight, and a pitiable one at the same time, to see him exercise the control of the Lazzaretto wearing his penance as a war uniform. Earnestly vigilant, almost always fasting, he would walk about, around porticoes and huts through the lanes of the Lazzaretto in the daytime showing the authority of his position and his habit and at night time going around holding a long cane. In one place he would secretly put an end to some crimes, in another he would give prizes and administer punishments. … These were the daily labors of the Father, never at rest; very often worries and more serious troubles would anguish him. Father Felice had under his control in the building and the huts about fifty thousand plague victims, to whom the city supplied food but, due to the large number of patients, attention, money and established procedures were no longer sufficient for distribution so that many people starved amid plenty of food and wine. … “Father Felice used to relate,” continues Ripamonti,



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

that many times when all the money had been spent and the supply of bread and wine was all used up, they feared hunger, the worst of all evils, yet suddenly provisions would arrive in abundance without knowing the names of the benefactors.

Gold and silver were given in such quantity that Father Felice was astonished at the sight of the sacks piled in front of him. The rich people and the prosperous families, either by divine inspiration or because having given up all concerns for earthly things, did not consider money useful for anything else, were carried away in the attempt to placate God’s anger and sent in their “base metal” in order to have prayers said for them! “Toward the end of 1631,” writes Agostino Borromeo in the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, Vol. 21, 1978, the plague could be considered overcome and on February 7, 1632, the end of the epidemic was officially declared. The Milanese authorities expressed publicly their gratitude with a testimonial where Father Casati’s work as the director of the Lazzaretto was solemnly praised. …

Father Casati’s work in his Order continued actively as Assistant to the Father General (11 times). In 1633 he was Guardian in the Convento dei SS Apostoli in Cremona and in 1634 in Como as well. In February 1637 he became Provincial Father in Lombardy and on June 15, 1644 the City of Milan entrusted him with a mission to Spain. His main task was to seek a reduction of the fiscal pressure and a reform of the Spanish abuses concerning military quartering. We find him in Spain toward the end of 1644, where he was received several times by King Philip IV from whom he received the promise to improve the situation in Milan, a good result for the city of Milan but not for Felice Casati who was sent to Corsica in the spring of 1646 upon request of the Spanish ambassador in Genoa, Ronquillo, Chancellor of the State. Father Casati remained two years in Corsica. Upon his return to Milan he took the position of Provincial Father from 1648 to 1651 and from 1654 to 1655. In 1656 he was elected Guardian General for the Chapter of his Order that was going to be held that year in Rome. But he suddenly fell ill during his voyage and died in Leghorn on May 5, 1656. The second book of Ripamonti’s history ends with a chapter entitled, “How the pestilence began to slow down and how it came to an end.” In this narration, the human and the divine forces seem to unite in order to save the stricken city and its territory. The disease that had remained impervious against all human remedies and was sent by heaven to punish human iniquities, could not be slowed and extinguished but for

fat h e r f e l i c e c a s at i  | 175

the intervention of divine mercy that did not fail the unlucky city of Milan, reduced by now to the ultimate slaughter amidst such desolation. Among the churches that the ancestral faith of the citizens and the more recent time, emulating its traditions and original examples, dedicate to Mary, most famous is the one to which the favor of the Virgin gave its noble name and that is called delle Grazie (of the Graces), because of the many graces bestowed by the Most Holy Mother upon the Milanese. Our dukes adorned it with regal munificence when they ruled this land and the Fathers of St. Dominic, pillars of faith, take care of it and reside in the adjacent monastery where are located the Holy Office and the Supreme Tribunal of the Inquisition. It was there, on September 13, in the quiet silence of the night, while some of the Fathers were resting or were studying in the isolation of their cells, and others, assigned to that task, were awake and prayed in the dark corners of the church waiting for matins psalmody, that suddenly the bells began to ring by themselves. Those who were dozing are shaken up, the alert ones are amazed at such a peculiar thing, and trembling with fear, roam around in the place, but, in a short time, realized that the bells were ringing because of a miraculous force since nobody had touched them. Amazement and fear pervaded the monks’ minds who discussed that portent in a gathering and, at a certain point, it was reported that, amidst the sounds of the bells a voice was heard, more resonant than a human voice, saying: ‘I will have pity of my people, mother.’

They interpreted it (as a sign) that the plague would have ceased soon, as it had been requested by the Virgin of her divine Son who answered her prayers. At this point of the narration a note reads as follows: The church and the monastery of the Grazie were built in the place where once stood the quarters of the soldiers of Francesco I Sforza. Count Gaspare Vimercati, General of the monastery, donated the ground to the Dominicans and in 1464 he laid the foundation of the building. He died before finishing the church and recommended it to Lodovico il Moro who had it completed by expert architects, by destroying the main chapel and the ancient choir; it was completed in 1497 after the death of his wife Beatrice d’Este. The stupendous dome of the Grazie was designed by Bramante. It would be superfluous to note that in the monastery there was the famous Last Supper by Leonardo of which, nowadays, almost nothing is left, owing to the ravages of time. The historian continued his narration indicating that he reported that portent because it was correct and fair to consider it among the authentic events after the testimony of the Dominican Fathers, the general belief of the city, and the result that confirmed it. Also the group of prisoners who, on account of crimes committed against religion or because of suspicions, were kept in the jails of the Holy Office, in a remote part of the monastery, heard the booming of the bells. When they were questioned, they answered that they had heard in the night unusual sounds and voices; and in order



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

to eliminate any doubts that the public safety originated from Mary, Patron of the Church of the Graces, I shall add that the oil of the hanging chandelier that burns before the image of the Most Sacred Virgin, was an effective antidote even later on against the plague. … When the daily decrease of the plague’s intensity and of the deaths occurred, the faith in the miracle and the ever diminishing number of victims indicated that God had been placated, the leaders … initiated a new quarantine, the last hope of the city and the whole population that had to remain confined and hidden in their houses for that period of time.

Several measures were taken then to limit or eliminate the contagion. By the end of that year the plague had almost disappeared but people had a hard time resuming a normal existence. Milan was still anxious and afflicted as it tried to recover from death. People would avoid each other, did not shake hands, feared their breath and stood apart. … Some simpletons who stubbornly resisted any form of persuasion, did not want to believe that (the plague) hid in the clothes and in other objects … and grabbed what happened to be at hand and kept it causing some increase of the pestilence. The judges punished, but neither punishments nor the fear of contagion could prevent them from buying, stealing or hiding and they eventually put an end to their lives. Several died … and there were others who, for a miserly gain, plunged into new misfortunes not only their families but villages, towns and entire municipalities that were already free from the plague.

Ripamonti ends his “sad and mournful description” of this episode by comparing the plague of 1630 with others that had occurred in different places as well as in Milan. The comparison is appropriate, he affirms, because the most recent contagion seems to be much more grievous than some of the preceding ones and shows that the plague, when it erupts, shows always the same symptoms, brings havoc uniformly and causes the same human folly everywhere. He indicates, at the same time, that a comparison of this kind offers the opportunity to remember the glories of noticeable writers of the past ages. In ancient times, the pestilence entered the city of Athens and caused such a havoc that the historian who described it became famous. Perhaps there will never be an eloquent narrator as he was, who, being expelled by his fellow citizens, was sent by Rome to Greece; and no other writing of his is as fine as his description of the plague. These values do not so much derive from the intelligence of the writer as they stem from the horrible appearance of those things that disturb and please the mind of the reader at the same time. Thus a snake upon a table pleases as much as it is revolting to the sight; and the eyes that are always eager to see new things stare fixedly at the ugly reptile.

fat h e r f e l i c e c a s at i  | 177

The pestilences that caused a great havoc in Athens and its historian as well, are largely famous nowadays, after many centuries, in the best schools of philosophers. And the name of that city remains famous no less for the recollection of that disaster than for its flourishing of the sciences and the arts. Next to Thucydides, stands for his elegant style the Paduan Livy who described Syracuse caught between two powerful armies at war and reduced to extreme distress by a slow disease. Also the few lines with which Homer describes the arrows shot by Apollo in the field of the Greeks, the piles of bodies left on the ground to be devoured by birds and dogs, those lines, create in the reader’s mind fear, marvel and appreciation. For the age in which he lived and the language that he used, a writer, not comparable to them but who drew fables from reality of life and taught how to narrate stories; a master and craftsman of the Italian language that, thanks to him acquired elegance and beauty, described the plague (that occurred) in his fatherland. He, a facetious and playful narrator, availing himself of the art that he learned from the great historians, by describing the carnage of Florence, causes amazement at his genius and compassion for such a mortality. Scholars will always read Boccaccio’s plague and the most demanding critics will never grow tired of admiring that example of human vicissitudes: the atrocious, vile and wretched examples that pestilence showed on the human bodies in my land were equal to that of the ancient ones and perhaps exceeded them. If they were not described with a lesser skill, they would give on these ages a more imposing and horrifying spectacle. … Since our city is reborn from a more thriving stock after the massacre and its citizens return to the previous pastimes, I shall also try to sweeten the bitter recollection of the mortality by comparing it with other ones that occurred in foreign lands.

A Comparison of Milan’s Pestilence With the Very Old Contagion of the Athenians If it were not inappropriate to use comic expressions for tragic topics, I would not find milk similar to milk and an egg similar to an egg than the Milanese contagion to the most ancient plague of Athens described by Thucydides. The germination, the first phases and the causes of both epidemics resembled each other, the very nature of the disease, the trace that it left behind as it advanced, the terror, ruin, suspicion and portents, in short, the sums of all the misfortunes of the plague of Milan did not differ in any way from the Athenian one either because chance brought about identical events or because there is for human events a certain law that recreates at intervals of centuries the same occurrences. The plague that dragged almost to its ultimate end the city of Athens, famous because of a number of events, first menaced it from afar; then from Lemnos and



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

other locations it came closer and closer, entered within its walls and invaded it entirely. The thought of having remained indolent in spite of the facts that should have suggested precautions against the contagion, intensified the pains of the dying people as well as the survivors. The same happened in our case, and somebody might say that the plague conspired with equal means for the elimination of two illustrious cities in Greece and in Italy. Also our contagion began to ravage distant populations, then, getting closer to the borders, it invaded the state and, at last, the capital with such a vehemence that it seemed that only the buildings would survive and its very name. Both the ancient plague of Athens and the most recent case of Milan left similar marks in their passing and other circumstances. Thucydides relates that when the people saw how the disease killed whomever it infected, they gave up hope of any human assistance and, at first, they had recourse to the gods; then, when their prayers remained unanswered, they were overcome by despair and death, neglecting remedies or pleas at the altars of the gods, abandoning themselves and the republic to the scourge. From so much discouragement it happened that even the doctors died among the earliest victims, carried away by the violence of the disease while the prayers as well as the frequently dedicated votive offerings did nothing but increase its cruelty. The mentioned Greek historian, by describing in the early stage of the plague the Athenians’ dismay at the destruction of their land and deprived of all divine and human help, instills in our minds terror and pity for the unlucky people who were perishing in that condition. Not differently among us, doctors lost their lives in the earliest attempts to cure the disease, and the city witnessed, for some time, as an evidence that God’s anger did not diminish by praying, the same thing. The historian points out another resemblance, when the two populations noticed that the contagion was not ending and the origin, as well as the causes of the plague could not be explained, they attributed them to human misdeeds, imagining that the plague was the result of human contrivance, while, instead, it was God’s punishment. The inhabitants of Athens believed that the Peloponnesians against whom they were fighting a war at that time, had poisoned their wells in order to destroy their city. We too, finding out that any remedy and measure was useless, believed that there was a great leader who, by using people and money, prepared poisons and had them spread out, a suspicion that represented a second calamity for Milan. The Athenians paraded around the false simulacrum of Isis, as we did with the body of St. Carlo. Several of them jumped into the water and performed many incredible things, so that we may conclude that the contagion that devastated the two great and renowned metropolises was entirely similar.

fat h e r f e l i c e c a s at i  | 179

A Comparison of Milan’s Plague With That of Florence Ripamonti never fails to speak in praise of Boccaccio’s artistic ability to describe the catastrophe that occurred in Florence in1348 and its consequences on the social structure of the city. The third chapter of the fourth book, in fact, is dedicated to that epidemic and its various aspects, medical, social and historical. In fact, he begins to observe it immediately after the description of the plague of Athens. “The ancient pestilence of Athens,” he says, is followed by the more recent one of Florence, of which the author of the elegant stories gave us a real and not imaginary description, which differs from mine in a copy that the skilful artist makes of an original painting for the purpose of selling it.

Not only Boccaccio, most elegant prince of the Tuscans’ writers, but other moralists of that land (whose writings) I consulted, relate the progress of that epidemic (as follows). After emptying Fiesole, Prato and Volterra and other lesser places, it threatened Florence, where it was awaited as well as derided nonchalantly by the people. After drifting around by the near hills and the charming neighboring fields, it finally burst into the capital of Tuscany and established its rule there. Then, here with the fierceness of a faulting tyrant, there, like a most strict ruler, it upset and arranged everything at the same time, by forcing within proper borders that contentious and merchandising people, rolling in comforts and immoderate luxury that, proud of its heavenly gifts and its pleasant weather, boasted about its superiority. Whether the same happened also in our case or customs, in spite of the punishment, are the same as before, I will let truth and fame to decide, since distant persons may judge better and more precisely than we can. Everything else is so similar that the description of our plague might as well be the same as the other one if I wanted to tell what happened in Florence when its citizens, affected by the temporary disease, were undone by it. As if they had been caught by a deadly lethargy, there was no vigilance on the part of the Florentine magistrates against the threatening disease that was arising. The gates of the city were closed, however, and access was prohibited, but this was carried out so carelessly that it was as bad as not guarding them to the point that the plague sent by God penetrated also because of the people’s indolence. Even there they tried supplications and votive offerings as well as what fear and devotion suggest to placate heaven; but they could not obtain any mercy until, according to its imperceptible mysteries, Providence opened the treasure of its mercy and rained a heavenly dew over the unlucky city.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Also the symptoms and the blotches, signs and consequences of the plague, were identical in their progress and variety in both contagions. The boils, carbuncles, antraxes, buboes, often mentioned during our calamity, appeared also in Florence, as large as an apple in some people, in others like an egg, in the groins and armpits. From those parts of the body they later spread to the other parts. These tumors that the common people called gavaccioli, changed into black and bluish blotches that on the arms, legs and on every other parts appeared, on several people, large and sparse and on others small and numerous. That was a very clear sign of certain death because almost all, after the third day of the appearance of those signs, sooner or later, and almost without any fever or other occurrence, died. The historians of the plague in Florence related that if somebody touched an infected person, death was unavoidable and that many died because of that. Nor did it only happen that humans contaminated themselves and others, catching the infection by touching one another or inanimate objects but even the animals became infected although they have nothing in common with the humans’ health. Thus say the mentioned historians who relate it as an incredible portent. We, however, are not surprised at all since it was well known that the contagion spread very easily to clothes and household objects. We saw here and there the bodies of dogs, cats and other dead animals that perished for having come in contact or dragged around clothing of the plague victims, which had been discarded and thrown in the streets. In this ruin and in the deplorable conditions to which human life is reduced, it is told that three kinds of people could be noticed in Florence. The first were the temperate, joyful, and moderate who would have been unreproachable by the philosophers and the strictest moralists even when the city was thriving and peaceful. These, who shunned from any worldly concern and sad thought, avoiding dishonest pleasures, were temperate but refined in their use of food and drink and gathered in some retreats where neither the noise nor the report of the funerals could come to upset them. They idled listening to music, songs and friendly conversations, believing that in this manner they could properly protect themselves from the plague. Others, on the contrary, gave themselves, as a remedy, to any kind of excess and lust; they roamed around like Bacchantes and self-confident individuals, entering even in other people’s houses that had been abandoned by their dead owners and reveled there for a short time as if they were in their own domiciles. Taking under their control all the foodstuff and every other object, that in a house are normally kept closed, they used them without taking the trouble of considering that they had been left behind by people who had died. When they had enough pleasure

fat h e r f e l i c e c a s at i  | 181

in one house, they carried away what they wanted and, leaving behind those of their groups who had died, they went to enjoy the abandoned belongings in other houses. These people, wasting and throwing away other things rather than using them, would end their lives on the beds or the barrels or, after gathering what had any value, would hoard the precious items whose bulk increased as they roamed around and then died under their weight before reaching the place where they intended to bury them. Some were able to carry things away and conceal them, however, and a few Florentines became rich through depredation at the time of the calamity while other families impoverished or died out. But these greedy, desperate people as well as those who were sober-minded, modest and sensitive were joined by a third kind of people neither lawless nor meek who, with wise caution, went to stroll in the outlying lands and in the fields that surrounded the city walls, alleviating their dejection with the sight of pleasant natural views and enjoying lavish and delicate food. They would protect themselves against the infectious breathing by smelling flowers and perfumes of various kinds, thus hoping to avoid the common destiny or at least to prolong happily and quietly their lives amid the fear, the flight and the death of the citizens. Other persons of a similar character, escaping far from Florence, withdrew in their country houses as secure havens against the plague that reached many of them just the same. In such a manner the clever Florentines escaped, and tried to escape to elude the contagion, but it was in vain. Also in Milan one could see unrestrained and lustful robbers ransack empty houses; and others, on the contrary, modest and cautious, caring only for their safety as well as the pleasure seekers, getting the same results as it had happened to the people of Florence. …

A Comparison of the Pestilence of 1576 and 1620 The Fifth Book of Ripamonti’s history of the pestilence that affected Milan and its region closes with another comparison, this time between the episodes that took place in 1576 and in 1620. The narration takes the reader to the time that followed the clash between Charles V and Francis I and the ensuing events in Northern Italy. “In truth, at the times of our fathers,” he wrote, “there were neither wars nor foreign armies that, either by crossing the land or by occupying it, vexed the land spreading the contagious disease around from which it could enter the city as it happened in our days.” Italy and other countries were at peace but in 1576 the early signs of the contagion appeared albeit from a different origin: the borders with the Republic of Venice, that had been attacked by the plague.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

A large number of people, however, were visiting the city of Milan on the occasion of the Jubilee that had been obtained by S. Carlo (St. Charles) from the pope and had been officially announced during Lent. People from several cities where some cases of the plague had been observed went on a pilgrimage to Milan and “it should not surprise” if some persons coming from the affected areas brought the plague. At this time there was a certain “surprise” since the past had shown that the disease followed extreme agitations and disorders that accompanied battles and invasions that, in turn, were normally followed by famines and contagious diseases. But people acted very differently from the events that accompanied the episodes occurring in other contagions. Obedience to the laws established by the city government to fight the emergency, medical measures and appropriate assistance were established soon. Decrees and institutions had a mark of greatness and magnificence and there was no incredulity, consequently no fatal delay. Soldiers were ordered to guard key centers in the city and nobles helped in keeping order and discipline in the whole area. The prices of foodstuff were scheduled dutifully and inns were not permitted to accept customers coming from other towns. They drove their precautions to the point of prohibiting the sale of mushrooms, fruit and unripe grapes. Silkworms were not allowed to be kept in order to prevent bad odors; adults, their children and other relatives obeyed the decrees by adopting similar measures.

As it happens repeatedly in similar circumstances, the Decurions of those times addressed the local Spanish authorities in order to alleviate the financial pressure on the city treasury. The response to these and other requests came from the royal ministers of a monarch who owned the treasures of the new world, on whose possessions “the sun never set.” After a solemn procession where the Cardinal carried himself a cross, the situation of the city did not improve and a famine almost as bad as the pestilence became more critical. “Famine, that in our days preceded the infection,” wrote the historian, “appeared later in 1576 but was no less grievous.” An additional difficulty arose when the Lazzaretto became insufficient to accept the large number of victims. “The city expanded the areas of medical centers by creating additional sanitary zones outside of the city walls.” In such a circumstance, they managed the situation as we did by opening additional medical zones outside the city walls. I think, in fact, that we followed the example of our ancestors who decided that, from all the lands within twenty miles from Milan, poles, boards, and straw would be provided as well as the manpower to build additional huts.

fat h e r f e l i c e c a s at i  | 183

As the epidemic gave no sign of abating, and the funds of the city became more and more scarce, some persons donated repeatedly large financial sums that would seem unreal were it not for the information offered by the ledgers. The most generous were Giacomo and Francesco d’Adda who gave large parts of their family wealth, accumulated by their ancestors and their own activities, donating or landing funds to the city without requesting any interest. While the plague was raging, the Cardinal Archbishop asked the clergy under his jurisdiction to follow the general ordinances and encouraged the population to avoid the negative consequences of the isolation and idleness during the imposed quarantine; they were to pray seven times a day at the signals given by the bells. Those prayers and the daily mass helped to keep the mind concentrated on devout thoughts and to placate the divine anger. When the quarantine was declared, it was observed with discipline and perseverance, better than it was in the more recent years when, after it began, it was carried out badly and was suspended after some time. But in order to use effectively the isolation created by the quarantine, houses became virtual prisons where people were relegated come animali velenosi (like poisonous animals). As the disease affected one member of the family, all furnishing and personal objects were spurgati, cleansed. The practice of carrying out these “cleanings” originated in Milan in those days, un’infausta gloria, an unfavorable glory, for the city of Milan. The infected house was marked at once so that it could be avoided as was the contagion itself. The cadaver of the deceased person was collected by the monatti and the sick persons, if there were any, were taken to the huts outside the city walls. Their cases, trunks and all their household goods were placed in the street or in the courtyard. Nothing was opened or moved unless in the presence of witnesses or interested persons. The money that was found was taken to Francesco Amati, the Head of the Public Treasury, and it remained deposited under his guard up to the time of restitution. Objects of little value or none at all were burned, the others were given to the monatti after being listed and packaged in separate bundles in order to be carried to washing stations or discarded according to their quality. Then other monatti entered the houses and scented with resins, incense and pitch the inhospitable houses and infected walls. They washed every place with lime and lye to detach and remove the plague. On the belongings that were taken to the washing stations for the cleansing they wrote the owners’ names. The same monatti, after placing the cards with the owners’ names on sticks, showed them to the owners later for restitution. The houses that were disinfected in that manner were 8,953 and the families were 4,066. Codices, ledgers, bookcases, papers owned by chemists, innkeepers, lawyers, doctors, as well as mattresses, beds, prints, metals



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

and whatever else is used in studying or in the pleasures of mankind, was first aired out in the open under a clear sky, disinfected and treated repeatedly with fluids and perfumes. People learned again the skill of not ruining those things while cleaning them so that, by taking care of the common health, they wanted to save what beautifies life itself. When the period of the quarantine had not reached half of its duration, its beneficial consequences began to be felt as well as a growing relief that was strengthened by the course of the sickness. Ripamonti points out not only the perseverance of the ancestors in observing scrupulously the quarantine but also praises them for establishing another one at the end of the first, in order to explore the insidious sickness, perpetually deceptive which, like an implacable enemy, spurns truces and even a stipulated peace. Toward the end of that epidemic, the cities behaved somewhat similarly in 1577. As for the other concerns, toward the end of the calamity in 1577 and in 1631, the diligence and the efforts made to ease the infection brought some hope and gratitude for the obtained divine favor. In both episodes, unfortunately, as the pestilence was ending and public health seemed reestablished in Milan, people saw the Lazzaretti tainted by faults and turpitude that were usually committed by human beings. Also in 1576 a man, who was somewhat similar to Father Felice Casati, was found and invested with the authority to head a lazzaretto. He was Fra Paolo da Brescia, a Capuchin monk quite able to take the burdensome responsibility that he exercised with a stern and flexible discipline. He was the main authority of the Lazzaretto by order of S. Carlo, and his gruff manners made him the stern leader who could settle disciplinary problems and crimes. Our historian indicates that even in his own time there remained a vivid recollection of people and things associated with him such as hangmen, scaffolds, and ransacks. He himself was always armed, looking fierce and threatening whether he gave orders or punished. What a sight it was to see a monk disguised like a magistrate! But this was caused by the wretched conditions of those times. A most severe disciplinarian, he punished and abolished theft, excesses and other vices that burdened those dens of misery and poverty. Toward the end of 1576, Milan was free from the contagion and its inhabitants, without suspicions and reassured, resumed the ordinary activities of life. It was decided to declare the city healthy again at the request of Senator Magenta, who succeeded Brugora as President of Public Health, who did the utmost so that in the year of his tenure all the huts were destroyed, leaving no trace of those woeful dens. On the day of St. Sebastian, when with decrees and through the voices of the town-criers, the City of Milan, by the intercession of the Divine Clemency and

fat h e r f e l i c e c a s at i  | 185

the Blessed Virgin of the Saints and the fellow-citizen martyr Saint Sebastian, was free from the plague, it could resume its trade with other cities. From that time on everyone was allowed to enter or exit from his house, enjoy the former freedom, the air and the light of the sky, common gifts to mankind. That day was celebrated by the citizens of Milan who had returned to civilized life. At nightfall, the whole city was illuminated: lights shone on balconies, windows, chimneys, in the squares and along the streets in large number, so that it seemed that the sun was shining in full daylight. The survivors said that they had never seen a more glamorous day than that night of St. Sebastian, because the entire population that had survived the disease was walking in the streets, thanking the Protector Saint with joyful voices and blaring of trumpets and musical instruments that echoed everywhere. These things were done in Milan in 1576, a memorable time because the church was under the direction of immortal S. Carlo. He assisted the people during that havoc, with the fervor inspired by heaven, with the labor and compassion of the clergy instructed by him, by the religious Orders and especially by the assistance of the Fathers of the Company of Jesus, a faith that later brought so much light to the Church and instructed in the sciences, the letters and the morals so many nations, and that, still in its beginnings, made itself well-deserving of S. Carlo and Milan.

The Issue Concerning the ‘Untori’ In his History, Ripamonti introduces in the Second Book the topic of the untori, a concept and a kind of person that did not appear before in descriptions of previous epidemics. The term untore (pl. untori), as we saw, is defined as follows: “A person who, during the plague epidemic that raged in Milan in the seventeenth century, was believed to smear with infectious substances houses, doors and similar things in order to spread the contagion.” The term is used extensively by Alessandro Manzoni in his novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed). It derives from the Latin term unctor. Ungere in Latin means ‘to apply an oily substance on a surface’ and the Italian word ungere has the very same meaning. Ripamonti begins to mention it in the Third Chapter of the Second Book as follows: I do not believe I am making an absurd statement in this tragic story by introducing individuals guilty of using ointments and sorcery, so that as they were a dismal yet strange spectacle under the torture of the irons in front of the judges, they may also make a spectacle of themselves for the reader, about their answers and their actions.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Cusani, then, adds that the trials of the untori, “that had been so amply discussed in those years, is kept in its entirety in the Criminal Archives, or, to say it better, was kept there since it was largely lost ‘years ago’ during a rearrangement of old documents.” He then introduces one of the defendants, by the name of Padilla, and another suspect, Mora, whose case was studied by Pietro Verri, the first writer who shed some light “on this wretched story of the untori” by writing in 1777 his Observations on Torture, and, in particular, on the effects that it produces on the subject of malefic ointments that were considered to be the cause of the plague epidemic that devastated Milan in 1630. Since 1761, Verri had drafted some ideas on the practice of legal torture and in another work, Spleen Illness, where he had Torture speak and say: I am a queen, and live among ruffians; I purge the one who is stained and I am believed to be necessary in order to know the truth and people do not believe what is said that is done by me. Strong people find health in me, the weak ones find their ruin. Educated nations did not use me, my rule was born at the time of darkness; my rule is not based on the laws but on the opinions of some individual people.

Eleven years later, he summarized his thoughts on that horrible excess and arranged them in his Observations. … In 1839, in Milan, a rumor spread concerning the publication of a work on the Pillar of Infamy, and there was a lot of talking about the possibility that it might be the expected composition by Manzoni on an original work by someone else. But when the book was published, the expectations of the public were dashed, because it was only a simple reprint of the Offensive part of the suit, that had appeared before in 1630, with the addition, for both information and conclusion of the case, of two passages from the Ragionamenti (Considerations) by Cesare Cantù. The book could not please the majority of the readers, because there is nothing more tiring than a record of a trial written in a barbaric and prolix style, therefore it lies forgotten: it is, however, an historical document not deprived of importance for the Milanese. Besides the juridical issues concerning the untori, that will be considered farther on, another important point focused the attention of many persons on the issue of the nature of the court interrogations and the use of torture in order to make the “guilty confess the truth.” It is probable, however, that this issue would have remained buried much longer among the records of the law courts, if Manzoni had not written the novel that shed new light not only on the plague as a social phenomenon but on its consequences on the entire life and institutions of a city. Chapter XXXII of The Betrothed, as it will be seen, besides describing the effect of fear and superstition

fat h e r f e l i c e c a s at i  | 187

upon some of the members of the Milanese population, from the commoners to the Spanish governors, the Municipality, the Decurions, the law courts, and the medical personnel, offers a description of horror, lack of good judgment and, at times, despair, anger and ultimately resignation. But the issue concerning the untori is a major one since it “opens the door,” as it were, to a world of absurd beliefs and senseless stories that the populace accepted and deemed valid. Manzoni refers to it with the expression celebre delirio, famous raving, concerning the unzioni (smearing with oily substances). The word untore became common very soon, solemn and dreadful. This time, people had seen again, or they thought that they saw, walls, doors of public offices, house doors and door knockers smeared with oil. News of such discoveries passed from one person to the next, as it happens more often than ever when minds are worried, when hearing about something made one believe really seeing something. “The image of that supposed danger besieged and tortured the minds more than the real and present danger.” The obsession of that lurking ghost became more painful than the true and evident reality of the plague. The next and last step of Manzoni’s analysis leads to the events narrated in the History of the Pillar of Infamy, the chronicle of the procedures followed in the prosecution of the untori: “The magistrates, reduced in number every day, and more and more at a loss, used, so to speak, all the decisiveness that was left, in searching the untori.”

On Piazza, Mora, Baruello, and Other ‘Untori’ In the third chapter of Ripamonti’s second book of the mentioned work, the historian wrote: I do not think that I am giving in to absurdity if I introduce in this tragic narration also the individuals guilty of ointments and sorceries because, as they gave evidence in front of the judges and under torture that was in one both dismal and strange, they, as well as their answers, should now constitute an evidence of what they did or were encouraged to do.

A certain Piazza, ‘leader’ of all the untori, was incarcerated: some women, summoned in order to be interrogated, said that they had seen him from their windows while he was smearing the walls with ointments. They agreed with each other so well in their answers, describing the appearance and the clothes of Piazza that he, recognized by the judges, was taken to prison. He was one of the officials charged to go daily to the houses and enter on a list the names of the sick persons. He had been assigned to the district called Porta Ticinese. It was inferred that



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

starting from the exit of the Vedra de’ Cittadini, he had smeared all the neighboring houses, the street corners, the lanes, the districts, the churches and the houses of the nobles. The Captain of Justice had him put to prison on Saturday, June 22. Piazza was a tall, rascal, lean man with a reddish beard and dark hair, he wore torn pants and boots, a black waistcoat; a hat with folding flaps shadowed his head and his face. When he was asked, after the usual solemn introductory remarks of the court, if he had heard that at Porta Ticinese they had found many walls smeared with ointments, he denied that he had and stated that he was totally unaware of it. The judges began to rebuke him and convince him because, as the fact was by now known and divulged around the city, it was not likely that he, who was charged with the inspection of the houses of Porta Ticinese, knew nothing about it and was the only one to be unaware of a fact that was so well known and dangerous for everybody. The interrogations and the answers got lost in ambiguities, because the malicious man, with his subterfuges, fought in order to outsmart the knowledge and prudence of the judges. Put on the spikes and given the strappado he was tortured more than normally with all the instruments of torture because of his contradictions, from which there emerged the crime that he insisted to deny. Yet, even under torture, he denied with complicated answers that opened the way to further suspicions, for which he was repeatedly put under torture again. On the fourth day, as he continued to resist in his denials, the judges, after having his limbs shaken uselessly, had him lowered more out of tiredness than for mercy. After they loosened the ropes that held his arms, he was about to be untied and, without resetting his dislocated bones, be taken back to his prison when, against everybody’s expectation, he shouted: “A barber gave me the ointments!” The judges, having eagerly accepted his spontaneous confession that seemed to unveil the origin of the crime and of the public safety at the same time, began to interrogate him diligently on the details. Nor did they end before having investigated who the barber was, the day and the place and on which conditions he had given the ointment. Piazza said that the barber, together with the ointment, had given him a little vial containing a certain fluid which, after drinking it, had the power of preventing by an occult force, that a person would confess. He shouted that, consequently, he could not reveal anything as long as the judge kept him hanging from the rope; and when he was lowered down and came back to himself, regaining his mind

fat h e r f e l i c e c a s at i  | 189

obfuscated by that drink, not only did he detest to confess his crime but he also did not recall who the responsible person was. Having said that, he explained the way he had used to anoint, how much money the barber offered him if he would work with real zeal and loyalty; but until that time he had collected only hope, having not seen any money. The barber accused by Piazza as a manipulator and accomplice of the anointings was named Giacomo Mora who lived at the Vedra de’ Cittadini and had house and shop where nowadays, on the ruins of that house, stands the Pillar of Infamy, a monument to the committed crime, as one could read on the attached inscription. After the judge heard what Piazza had stated under oath, he went with his group to the shop of the crime, believing that he would catch in the act the enemy of the public health. After they entered, they found Mora busy at a burner with some vials: also the fireplace had a fire because he was distilling water in several ways; the house was full of implements to start the fire and of boilers. The clerks, cops, the judge himself, whispering among themselves, declared that that was the shop of the ointments. The barber, undaunted at first, said that those waters were medicinal and explained for what use he prepared or mixed them. He mentioned in particular a remedy against contagion, apologizing for having prepared it without obtaining a license from the public authority inspired by the desire of saving from the general scourge at least his relatives and friends to whom he intended to administer the medicine. His words were heard amid the shudder caused by suspicion and anger. The officers started to inspect the house and after turning upside down some things, in a moment they began to search more slowly until they recorded vases, jars, cans, tripods, boilers and all the other implements needed to harm that they could discover in that wretched dwelling. More than anything else, something irritated the minds, something harmless in itself and discovered by chance, although dirty, that gave rise to suspicion about what they were searching. They found two copper boilers full of rotten and old lye that showed at the bottom a dirty viscous sediment of the color of ashes that stank like human excrements. When this sediment was inspected and analyzed by the doctors, whose habit it is not to feel disgust of this foulness, remaining doubtlessly from preparing poisons, they dragged to prison the barber, his wife, his children, his relatives, the shop boys and those individuals who went there to learn a trade. The unfortunate and imprudent father accused of such an infamous crime, persisted while he was being tortured, to deny, as the criminals used to do. When the torture had the upper hand, he implored for some relief giving the impression that he would reveal the truth, and was uttering things that were probable; but he would soon take back what he had said blaming the violence of the pain that had



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

wrung the words from his lips against his will. Tortured more harshly, he, to gain some relief, would answer to please the judges, then he would immediately recant. They summoned Piazza, his accuser and accomplice; when confronted, the two culprits argued but with a marked difference. Piazza addressed Mora with familiar and better words and the latter denied of having ever met him; they hurled insults at each other. Piazza reproached the barber for an infamous crime and his foolish hopes and the end where they were at present; the other shouted calling upon God’s revenge against the slander and deception that any malicious person can use against an innocent one. Put again to torture, Mora continued his ultimate confession and changes of mind, until, having lost courage, almost boasting of his crime, he revealed openly the origin of the ointment, the skill that he had used, the plan to destroy the city, what he had prepared in the individual containers and which locations were already contaminated and oiled. While Mora’s trial was in full swing and an inquiry was held, other evidence was discovered and new untori, vulgar brothel types, all coming from that shop, names worthy of the gallows and the stake, Magliavacca, Baruello, Bertone. Having sent the cops to arrest them, they were taken before the judges and with little difficulty they confessed their crimes, how they had met and what they had done in that vicious company. Some information was given that caused even the judges to shake with horror, without daring to speak, as it happens when men do not even dare to reveal their evil. Untore Baruello, among his depositions, said that there was a great leader in the shadow under whose support all the untori concealed themselves without fearing any damage or danger of any kind. This confession was considered as a sign of a greater evil, and as the judges insisted to know who this powerful great leader was, they were able to make him state that it was Giovanni Gaetano Padilla; he had given the money, promising a political change and then honors and titles if, after overthrowing the current government of Milan and of the state, he would become the supreme leader. The magistrates reported all of this to the governor without delay before continuing their investigation: in the meantime, the fact was kept secret. By order of the governor the questioning was repeated and the rascals, now questioned kindly, now under tortures of every kind, starting from the beginning revealed what follows. They had talked frequently with Padilla; they had discussed and agreed upon many things and exchanged messages among themselves until, at the end, they had met in the dark of the night in the square of the castle and there, on the esplanade where the cavalry performs its manoeuvres, after choosing a place to carry out the charm and confirm with infernal rituals the pacts previously agreed upon among themselves, they affirmed that they had evoked the devils to take part in the poisonings, swearing to them with sacrilegious ceremonies to spread the ointments.

fat h e r f e l i c e c a s at i  | 191

In that charm there appeared a Pantalone wearing a gown and pants as well as a wig on his head; Padilla, who covered his face with a little mask, and a priest who, holding a stick in his hand, drew lines and circles. These and other things that they added became absurd and ridiculous. Padilla, incarcerated, confuted his accusers, the plans and the time, pointing out that in those days he was not in Milan and had never met or seen those persons at all. The untori were punished, nevertheless, with tortures so harsh that the city would have been horrified if the seriousness of the crime had not made any punishment seem light.

Notes 1. Girolamo Migliavacca, a knife-grinder, was executed on September 7. 2. Pietro Gerolamo Bertone was condemned to the wheel and his throat was cut on December 23, together with Gaspare, son of Migliavacca. 3. Giovanni Stefano Baruello, brother-in-law of Bertone, gave himself up voluntarily on July 1. On October 11 he was sentenced to death with the promise of impunity if he revealed the untori’s names and their accomplices. He accepted and in a deposition that is an absurd story, he accused Padilla as the head of the untori. 4. Baruello died of the plague in prison on September 18. 5. Giovanni Gaetano Padilla, the son of Milan’s military commander, after two long trials, was declared innocent in 1632. 6. Note by Cusani, the translator of Ripamonti’s work. Francesco Cusani entered a note at the end of the second book concerning the present topic. At the beginning he quotes two paragraphs written by the historian Alessandro Tadino, which read as follows: The house of the barber Giacomo Mora, as the Senate ordered in the sentence, was demolished to its foundations and as a memorial for future centuries a pillar was erected in its place with a sign that read Pillar of Infamy and, separately, an epitaph. (Tadino) This pillar made of granite with a base of stone and a ball on top, stood on the left corner of the street named Vedra de’ Cittadini, entering Corso di San Lorenzo. … “A wicked monument because of errors made more by the times than by our ancestors, the Pillar of Infamy stood for 148 years and was always seen with loathing and horror.” The priest of San Nazzaro, Carlo Torre, when he reached in his description of Milan (A Portrait of Milan) the Vedra de’ Cittadini, exclaimed: Did you ever hear of a worse wickedness? It was correct to erase from the book of the living those who wished for the living to be extinguished: to ruin the walls of the dwelling of that man who wanted, deserted of its citizens, his ancient city and who, by means of ointments rendered more slippery the path to death. Believe me that Mora received advice from Moro, and if one who is Moro is black, he was a cruel modern Nero who, not with fire but with ointment, had conceived the idea of exterminating his Fatherland, although oils are used to increase the failing strength in weakening people.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Lattuada, one of the few very reasonable writers to doubt the story of the untori in his Description of Milan, tome III, 330–338, says the following: On the broad street that leads into the center of the city there is, on the left side, a pillar erected in a small square that leads to another district called De’ Cittadini, because in that place there used to live a noble family of that name, it was called Pillar of Infamy, etc. After telling the story of the event with Tadino’s words, he concludes: “If one is to believe it, if such ointments were prepared with diabolical skills and capable to bring death, we do not intend to guarantee such statement.”   But the sensible doubting of good Lattuada was an exception, almost unique, because, and it is painful to say it, the most esteemed and erudite men of the past century strongly believed in the existence of ointments. And this belief was so deeply rooted that, not only the common people, but the high magistrates and the famous literary men considered it almost as an article of faith.   In 1713, that is almost a century later, as there were suspicions of contagion from the district of Piedmont, the President of Public Health of Milan wrote to the commissioner of a village at Lake Maggiore, urging intense activity and diligence because news had reached the magistrate that some untori were going around to spread the plague. I myself saw the letter in a collection of official documents.   That Argellati whom the well deserving Milanese knights, the founders of the Palatine Society, called to direct the splendid edition of the Writers of Italian Matters, envisioned by Muratori, that Argellati who so well deserved the hospitality that he received from us for publishing in 1745 his labored very useful Library of the Milanese Writers, speaking in Monti’s house, and President of the Medical Office during the plague, calls it an Honorable Mention that his name appears on the inscription of the Pillar of Infamy among the judges of the untori.   The most learned Muratori, who united with immense erudition, sincere mercy and a quiet character, believed also in the untori’s crime. “There still survives,” he says in the Governo della Peste, Chapter 10, “its distressing memory in the Pillar of Infamy erected where the house of those inhuman persecutors stood.”   And, in a more recent time, the Lombard House, that with such a biting irony and bright mind arose to scourge the effeminate habits of his times and reveal old prejudices which, striking like a bolt of lightning with the ire of his powerful verses; he, a man of high ideals and an open mind, who from his professorial position educated the new generation to believe in the ideas of justice and beauty, he participated in the erroneous belief concerning the ointments.   But now Lombardy was rising again from the lethargy and the brutishness to which it had been reduced by the Spanish domination, thanks to the wise and humanitarian regime of Maria Theresa; and some citizens full of zeal for their own dignity, aware that that memorial of atrocity and stupidity dishonored Milan, thought of finding a way to have the Pillar of Infamy removed, so that, together with the pillar, what concerned the untori should fall into total oblivion.

fat h e r f e l i c e c a s at i  | 193

  Pietro Verri, and his friends of the Caffè, the most eminent and active literary men of his time, were particularly committed to this decision, but the difficulty consisted in finding a way to carry it out. In the meantime, Balestrieri had sent a copy of his Gerusalemme Liberata (Gerasulem Delivered), translated into Milanese dialect, to the Baron of Sperges, minister plenipotentiary for Italian Affairs in Vienna. This person, in his answer, complained with the poet for his mentioning The Pillar of Infamy in the book, a monument of dishonor in the Senate of Milan. This disapproval spread among the scholarly persons of our city and rekindled more strongly the desire to eliminate that unfavorable recollection. Balestrieri, attending a dinner offered by Count Firmian, informed him about the letter, and the enlightened minister in agreement with H. H. Archduke Ferdinand, and the other members of the government of Lombardy, caught the following opportunity in order to succeed in that attempt with the least possible publicity.   According to an ancient law, the memorials of infamy were not to be restored in case they threatened to fall down out of old age. Now, the Pillar of Infamy, at least to all appearances, was threatening to collapse from its base, either because it was not placed deep enough when it was built, or because of the natural sinking of the ground that had taken place with the passing of time; it was practically uncovered and the stone, corroded because of humidity, was disintegrating. In addition, the pillar was no longer stable on its pedestal, because on the occasion of gatherings during celebrations, boys, as they are used to do, climbed, holding each other together, around the pillar itself. Taking advantage of this, the Government had the senior member of the parish ask the inhabitants of the neighboring houses to sign a petition regarding the demolition of the pillar because of the bad condition in which it was. The Government forwarded the petition to the Senate that rejected it, and if what was said then was true, for no less than three times it was unwilling to reject, with a public action, the decision that the ancient Senate had issued a century and a half before. Then the Government, firm in its intention, began to set its hands on the affair. In August 1778 the inhabitants of the Vedra de’ Cittadini heard repeatedly, during the night, that the basement was being very heavily hammered down. The night of the 24th and 25th, the Pillar was demolished; as it fell down, it broke up and the sphere that was on top of it detached from the pillar, rolled down the Vicolo dei Vetrarchi. Finally, the last night of the above mentioned month of August, the demolition was carried out and so that nobody could witness it, they worked in the early hours of the day, a time of general stillness and, for further precaution, some guards were placed at the outlets of the neighboring districts, forbidding anyone who walked nearby to approach the site.   In an old Guide of Milan I find it mentioned that the following day, namely September 1, 1778, a judiciary inspection of the place was carried out; but I was not able to find its official document.   After the Pillar of Infamy was destroyed, its fragments were thrown in the cellar of the old house of Mora; there still remained the memorial tablet with the inscription; but having become almost illegible, owing to the passing of time, it was not removed.   A decision to tell the truth was a somewhat ridiculous contradiction, as the inscription called to mind, as did the Pillar, the trial of the untori that they had tried so earnestly to sink into oblivion. In 1801, the remaining ruins disappeared entirely since that place had completely changed its appearance. Franzino, a wine trader, bought the title on the square



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

that belonged to the Loria family, then Manzi erected a building in that place and opened some shops. In the same year the arch or habitable loggia that joined the two sides of the district was demolished. The Vedra dei Cittadini and the place, embellished in that manner, did not keep any trace of the ancient destination of infamy. The memorial stone was given to attorney Borga who, it is said, placed it in his own garden.   These minute details, not deprived of interest for the enthusiasts of the country’s events, I collected through long research as well as a small, handwritten chronicle by the famous chemist Prati, a witness of the demolition and from several other private memoirs. Francesco Cusani.

chapter eight

Pietro Verri, Cesare Beccaria, and “Il Caffè”

Il Caffè (The Coffee Shop) was an Italian periodical that was published from June 1764 to May 1766. It originated in Milan and its initiators were Pietro Verri (1728–1797), his brother Alessandro Verri (1741–1816), with the contribution of the philosopher Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794) and a considerable number of intellectuals who were members of the Accademia dei Pugni. Most of these persons were of aristocratic families but, in their literary and scientific pursuits, they supported actively the hopes and ideals of the emerging classes that were promoting reforms in the institutions, social progress and general improvements of everyday life. The periodical became one of the main documents of the Italian Illuminismo (Enlightenment) and remains a fundamental document of organization and progress of the Italian unification movement. With the Peace of Aaken of 1748, the tensions between the Hapsburg Empire, Russia, England, France and Spain relented thus allowing some peace among the European nations. In Italy the ideals of the illuminismo found a favorable ground in both Milan (Lombardy) and Naples (Campania) who were under the rule of reformist sovereigns. As we have seen above, Milan, in the eighteenth century, was ruled by a government that favored a constructive cooperation between the government and the intellectuals. The periodical was published every ten days; the total number of issues was 74. In order to elude the censure of the Austrian control in Lombardy, however,



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

the periodical was printed in Brescia, which was, at that time, in the territory of Venice. Pietro Verri wrote in the first article that the periodical was going to discuss “new things, most disparate things, unpublished things, things written by different authors entirely destined to the public benefit.” Of the 118 signed articles there were 53 by Pietro Verri, 31 by Alessandro Verri, 7 by Cesare Beccaria, 6 by Carlo Sebastiano Franci, 5 by Pietro Francesco Secchi Comneno and 5 by Giuseppe Visconti di Saliceto, 2 by the mathematician Paolo Frisi, Luigi Lambertenghi and the Abbot Alfonso Longo and, finally, 1 by François de Baillon, Ruggero Boscovich, Gian Rinaldo Calvi and Giuseppe Colpani. Both the title and the format of the periodical constituted a novelty in the Italian tradition and they took as examples the English periodicals of Addison and Steele, The Tatler and The Spectator, and presented the periodical as a point of convergence of the discussions, which were occurring in a coffee shop that had become a meeting place where people discussed about political and social issues. At the time in question, coffee houses were becoming numerous and consumption of coffee that was imported from the Middle East was believed to be good for both health and mind. It was said that coffee ‘reawakened’ the good qualities of people. Montesquieu, in one of his Persian Letters, had one of his characters describe Procope’s store where coffee is prepared in such a way that it gives life to the user. The coffee houses of that time were meeting places for people open to novelty and where favorable situations existed for the birth of new periodicals through active participation with discussion, or passive participation through reading. The periodical that we are considering, therefore, was directed to a very varied public that created, in the space of the coffee shop, a new type of socializing arising from the meeting of persons of different social levels. The matter of the propagation of the “lights” was also a “language” concern: “things and not words” was one of the mottoes of Il Caffè, where someone did not limit himself to reproduce reality in a passive manner but it was examined and explained so that the message of the article was expressed in a colloquial and frank style indicating the interlocutor’s intention of establishing a new and cordial connection with his public. The periodical did not continue for a long time, nor was it emulated as an idea by others, even though from the publicity standpoint it was completely original both, as it was said above, for its originality of language and for its commitment without attempting to follow the newspaper style of the time. What distinguished the periodical even more, was the public that it attempted to reach: no longer only a world of erudite persons and intellectuals but a public formed by professional people, artesans and the middle class, including women. This public, in essence, demanded to be informed about the arts in general, those

pie tr o verri , cesare b e cc a r i a , a n d “ i l c a f f è ” | 197

that were better suited to communicate emotions, images and issues to social groups; its object, namely intervention in current issues in a straightforward manner. For example, Beccaria dealt with game playing as a calculation of probabilities; Verri used topics like medicine, coffee and the cultivation of flax, while the essay on smuggling by Beccaria would be considered, later, by Schumpeter, as one of the great essays on economics. The chosen topics were many and varied, such as cocoa, modern technology, small pox, the postal service organization, the cemeteries, public health, property and federal nationalism. The article by Carli, for example, on the Italians’ Fatherland, may be considered a manifesto of the future Italian Risorgimento; in fact, for the first time, it dealt with the issue that no Italian person had to feel like a foreigner in Italy, whatever his region of origin. The editors of the periodical, while proposing the elimination of the internal customs barriers, the adoption of a single legislation and unified systems of weights and measures, were essentially demanding the end of the political fragmentation of the peninsula, a process that, according to the editors, should have happened through the enlightened politics of the sovereigns. The publication came to an end because of the antagonism that arose between the Verri brothers and Beccaria on the occasion of the publication of the book, On Crimes and Punishments, by Cesare Beccaria, a well known work that will be considered further on in this study. The activities of both thought and action of the collaborators of Il Caffè and other innovative studies, especially in juridical and economic matters, were accompanied by later reforms in the duchy of Milan during the government of Maria Theresa and Joseph II, that affected several fields. They may be summarized as follows:

• Attempts were made to subject the landed nobility (both laic and ecclesiastical) to the same retributive obligations that were met by the landowners.

• Ecclesiastical mortmain was reduced in order to allow the acquisition of

land and the setting up of agricultural businesses. • Trade corporations were abolished (particularly in the textile and silk areas) in order to liberalize productive activities. • Several convents were closed and their property was auctioned off. • The Inquisition and the preventive censure of books as well as the asylum rights of churches and convents were abolished. • Education ceased to be a monopoly of the clergy and it was placed under the rule of the state that tried to offer a less ‘academic’ education. • Since the Jesuits opposed these measures, they were expelled from the duchy.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Pietro Verri Count Pietro Verri was born in Milan, December 12, 1728. His father was Count Gabriele, his mother Barbara Dati Somaglia. He received a very strict education from his aristocratic family and private schools in Milan, Rome and Parma. His father tried to direct him toward a legal career but Pietro preferred to dedicate his attention to literature. From the Salon of Serbelloni he joined Parini and Beccaria in the Accademia dei Trasformati that offered an ample opportunity of knowing the new and powerful current of the enlightened philosophers and writers. After spending some years as an officer, under the leadership of Marshal Dawn against Frederick II of Prussia (Maxen, November 20, 1759), he returned to Milan where the Austrian minister Count Firmian became interested in his essay, On the greatness and decadence of the trade of Milan since 1750 (1761). In 1762 he wrote, A Dialogue on the Monetary Disorder of the State of Milan in 1762, and in 1763–1768, Historical Memoirs on the Public Economy of the State of Milan, that appeared posthumously in 1797. Verri joined Luigi Lambertenghi, Giovan Battista Biffi, Giuseppe Menafoglio, Giuseppe Visconti di Saliceto, Pietro Secchi, Alfonso Longo and Sebastiano Franchi in the Società e Accademia dei Pugni (1761–1762) in order to publicize the ideas of their academy. The Verri brothers (Alessandro, Carlo, Giovanni and Cesare) created a periodical, Il Caffè, that was printed in Brescia, as indicated above, but was directed from Milan. It appeared every ten days. This publication is considered one of the most significant expressions of the Italian illuministi and was very well accepted both in Italy and in several other European countries. Pietro Verri is often remembered together with the name of the renowned Italian novelist, Alessandro Manzoni, the author, among several other literary works, of I promessi sposi, because of the topic that connects them, the plague of Milan in 1630 and its social and moral repercussions. (Santino Caramella)

Osservazioni sulla Tortura (Remarks on Torture), An Introduction In the introduction of his book, Verri explains the genesis of his work and the motives that brought him to conceive and write his impressive work. Among the many intelligent and sensitive men who wrote against the use of torture and against the insidious tricks that are carried out secretly in the jails, there is none (writes Verri) who made an impression on the judges’ minds, and consequently they had no effect whatever. Most of them start from sublime principles of legislation, saved for a few profound thinkers, and in their reasoning they go beyond the common level of understanding and consequently people’s minds can only conceive a confused ‘murmur’, they become annoyed and reject novelties, ignorance about practice, the

pie tr o verri , cesare b e cc a r i a , a n d “ i l c a f f è ” | 199

vanity to show a witty mind, whereby, seeking the protection of the ever venerable century old tradition, they accept even more strongly the customs handed down by the ancestor.

Truth is more easily perceived when the writer, putting himself on the same level of the reader, starts from commonly known concepts and gradually and smoothly leads him over it, rather than announce it from above, with thunder and lightning that astonish one for a moment and leave a person in the exact place where he was before. Several years have already elapsed since the very loathing that I have for the criminal procedures caused me to examine its nature in its excesses, whose cruelty and absurdity confirmed more and more in my mind the idea of considering the tortures that are inflicted in the jails a pure tyranny. At that time, I took a large number of notes that remained untouched. Also, having reflected for several years on the events that caused the house of a citizen to be demolished and a pillar of infamy to be erected on its place by a public decree, I was wondering at first, if the crime was at all possible, for which many unfortunate persons were condemned; I was then firmly convinced that it was impossible, both physically and morally, to transmit manufactured ointments that could be safely handled by an individual, that with the simple external contact, after having been exposed to the open air on the walls of the streets, could cause the pestilence and that several men tried to form a group for the purpose of causing a general death in their city. I happened to have in my hands the voluminous manuscript record of the trial that concerned that event, and, after a careful reading of it, I am more and more confirmed in my opinion. The present book originates from the observations on the criminalists and the issue of the poisoning (infectious) ointments. I am trying to have the impartial reader decide if my opinions are true or not. I will abstain from declaiming or, at least, I intend to do so and if, sometimes, nature makes me hear its voice, and my reflecting will not always come to silence it, I hope to be forgiven. I shall try to repress it as much as I can, since I am not trying to seduce either myself or the reader, I try to go placidly toward the truth. I do not expect any glory from this work. It concerns an event not known by the rest of Italy; but I will have to mention parts of the trial and they will be words of poor wretched, uneducated persons who could only speak the Lombard vernacular language; there will be no eloquence or special writing style: I am only trying to clarify an issue that is important. If reason will teach that using torture is an unjust, very dangerous and cruel practice, my reward will be much dearer to me than the glory of having written a book; I will have defended the most unhappy and weak group of my human



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

brethren; if I do not show clearly the barbarity of torture, as I feel it, my book will have to be placed among the many useless ones. The majority of the judges had become hardened toward the agonies of torture because of a respectable principle, namely to sacrifice the horror of the evils of a single man who is a suspected culprit, in view of the general good of the whole society. Those who defend the criminal practice do so in the belief that it is necessary for public safety and are convinced that if the severity of torture were abolished, crimes would go unpunished and the judge would be deprived of the way of retracing it. I do not condemn as dishonest those who think like this, but I believe that they make an obvious mistake and an error whose consequences are cruel. Also, the judges who condemned to the fire the witches and the magicians of the past century, believed to purge the earth from its fiercest enemies, yet they sacrificed some victims to fanaticism and madness. There were some meritorious men who enlightened their fellow men and after discovering the fallacy that had become established in the previous centuries, abstained from those atrocious actions and a more human and reasonable system took hold. I wish that through this example there may come at least the patience of examining with me if torture is useful and right: perhaps I will be able to demonstrate that this is no more a better established opinion than witchcraft was, although, like that, it enjoys a legal tradition and the venerable spirit of antiquity. I shall begin from the case of the pillar of infamy, then I shall proceed to deal mainly with the subject proper, but first it may be helpful to give an idea of the plague that ravaged Milan in 1630.

From Osservazioni sulla Tortura (Cont.) In 1787, Pietro Verri wrote in his Memorie what follows: Men of letters exercise a greater influence on the destiny of the future generations than do monarchs on the living people … The philosophers’ books are those that ultimately forced the courts, in spite of the tenacity of the ancient practices, not to inflict any more cruelties against witches and sorcerers, to stop the ferocious acts of tortures, not to inflict atrocious pains on the basis of opinions, and limit torture to extreme cases. Books made accessible the meriting of the way of honors, that had been taken earlier by those who, simulating shrewdly, were flattering the common errors. We owe the philosophers’ works if, at present, enlightened and cautious physicians, rather than ignorant charlatans, cure, at present, our illnesses … In short, philosophers neglected, contradicted, persecuted during their lives, determine, at the end, the opinions; truth is divulged, from a few persons, it is conveyed to many, and from the latter ones to the most; they enlighten the sovereigns, and find the mass of the subjects more reasonable and disposed to receive peacefully those novelties that, not without danger, would have appeared in the darkness of ignorance. Opinion directs force, and the good books steer the opinions. …

pie tr o verri , cesare b e cc a r i a , a n d “ i l c a f f è ” | 201

But in 1769, at the age of 41, Verri had written, among numerous other important things, the Osservazioni sulla Tortura e singolarmente sugli effetti che produsse all’occasione delle unzioni malefiche alle quali si attribuì la pestilenza che devastò Milano l’anno 1630. (Observations on torture and particularly on the effects that it caused on the occasion of the malefic smearing to which the pestilence that devastated Milan in the year 1630 was attributed.) The book represents one of the earliest documents promoting radical changes in the regulations concerning the procedure followed by the courts in criminal cases. A phase of the suspect’s interrogation considered torture as a legitimate means to force an individual to tell the truth. On countless occasions, if the judges were not convinced that the suspect had told the truth, they had the authority to subject the person to extremely harsh torments, in the jail and without any witnesses. Pietro Verri and other writers, as it will be seen further on, disagreed with this method of interrogation that they considered uselessly cruel from a humane point of view and totally ineffectual. Verri’s considerations on this subject follow a scientific thesis with historical references, demonstrations and conclusions, aiming at the total abolition of any form of torture in the legal procedure. This book is divided into sixteen parts that are arranged in this order: (1) Introduction; (2) Description of the plague that devastated Milan in 1630; (3) How the trial of Guglielmo Piazza, Health Commissioner, was initiated; (4) How Commissioner Piazza accused himself of the pestilential smearing and how he accused Gian Giacomo Mora; (5) On the opinions and method of the criminal procedure followed on that occasion; (6) On the insidious cavils that were adopted in the trial of some unlucky persons; (7) How the trial about the plague smearing ended; (8) If torture is an atrocious torment; (9) If torture is a way to know the truth; (10) If the laws and the criminal practice consider torture as a way to obtain the truth; (11) If torture is a licit means to discover the truth; (12) The use of torture in the ancient nations; (13) As the use of torturing was introduced in the criminal trials; (14) The opinions of some respectable writers on torture and today’s use in some nations; (15) Some objections that are raised to support the use of torture; (16) Conclusion.

Chapter 2. Description of the Plague That Devastated Milan in 1630 Ripamonti, a bad reasoner, but a good Latinist, imprecise but sincere chronicler of the events of his times, wrote the history of the pestilence that occurred precisely when he lived, and a very deep compassion is inspired just at the idea of the extermination visited upon our fatherland at that time. It deals precisely with the destruction of two thirds of our citizens. The very cruel pestilence was one of the most pitiless that history recorded. The physical destruction was accompanied by the most dreadful



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

moral disaster. Every social tie was torn, nothing was safe, either material thing, life or wives’ honesty; everything was exposed to inhumanity and the blundering of some evil men who acted within the very body of their suffering land as a savage people would barely do against a hostile country. The monatti, a group of men selected to assist the plague victims, invading the houses, moved out what they found in them, they violated daughters and wives with impunity under the eyes of an agonizing father or husband; they obliged people to become free by paying amounts of money of their liking, threatening to take children or wives, although in good health, to the Lazzaretto. The judges, concerned for their own safety, refused to take any action. Several plunderers, pretending to be monatti, invaded and sacked everything, such is the scene described by Ripamonti who cried, as he stated, several times, at the sight of such horrendous calamities. Such were the habits, such was the spirit that upset our ancestors at that time that, perhaps, too carelessly some people would like to bring back with their wishes. The history of that disaster should start with a message that from the court of Madrid was sent to Marquis Spinola, then Governor of Milan. The letter was signed by King Philip IV. The arrival of a message, in those days, was a rare occurrence, from the court, unless it concerned the entire city, because a royal message did not depart from the court unless it concerned the most serious reasons. The message informed the governor that it had been observed how four men, who had brought ointments to spread the pestilence in that royal city, had escaped for an unknown destination in order to bring there the malefic ointments, therefore the governor was warned so that he could carefully keep on the alert in defense of the territory of Milan. These letters, says Ripamonti, being signed personally by the king, impressed very greatly the citizens already inclined to believe the most nefarious crimes. In those days, the ignorance of physical matters was very large. Did someone then think that it was possible to prepare a substance that when it was touched brought the plague? And, if it was possible, could a person carry it on himself without becoming its victim? Four men get together for such a journey and go around the world with the plague in some vials in order to spread it? For what purpose? What benefits? But the few persons who might have thought like that may have dared reveal it: the authority of a message, the public opinion were terrible contrasts that exposed to a much greater danger the man who would have announced this truth. Thus, the suspicion of these malefic ointments spread out. We know from history how people were governed at that time under the rule of Philip IV. The pestilence of Germany, through Valtellina, entered freely the Milanese territory, carried by the imperial troops that crossed it to reach Mantova, a short time after the disclosure of the message. But people’s common opinion preferred obstinately to believe that the mentioned pestilence was an artful invention of the

pie tr o verri , cesare b e cc a r i a , a n d “ i l c a f f è ” | 203

doctors in order to gain money, rather than examine and clarify the facts. Such diffidence was perhaps the consequence of the long series of deceptions inflicted by the upper class. Uselessly, the best educated doctors divulged the evidence of the victims that they had witnessed die of the plague, for the commoners always regarded them as the authors of a maliciously fabricated gossip. Famous is what happened to our venerable Ludovico Settala, a great man for that age, not so much for his erudition, culture, medical science and his knowledge of natural history of which our museum had pre-eminence among the European contemporary ones, but for the nobility and virtue of his mind, that he used disinterestedly and tirelessly for the benefit of the people. One day, when he was riding his horse as it was commonly done by doctors at that time, he was tumultuously surrounded by a crowd of men, women, children and all kinds of rabble, insulted most offensively as the main source of the opinion that there was pestilence in the city that the mob shouted was in the hair of his beard. In this manner the good old man who had saved the lives of a large number of persons with the knowledge of his art and by giving of his money ran a great risk because of the rabble’s stupidity and petulance. Finally, it became necessary, with the increase of the plague and the daily increase of dead persons, to disillusion the people and persuade them that, unfortunately, the illness was within the city, and where the discussions were not having any effect, the amassing of naked cadavers covered with poisonous bubboni, lying on the carts of the crowded city, brought finally the realization to their minds and perhaps it spread the pestilence even farther. In the public disasters, human weakness always tends to suspect extravagant causes rather than considering them natural consequences of the normal developments of physical laws. We see farmers attribute hail not to the laws of the weather but rather to the witches. We see the very wise Romans at the time when they were unrefined, namely the year of Rome 423, under Claudius Marcellus and Gaius Valerius, attribute the pestilence that afflicted them to the poisons prepared by a very incredible conspiracy of Roman matrons as in Livy, Book VIII, Chapt. XII, Dec. I. It was falsely said that some individuals had died of poison while, instead, death was caused, in that terrible year, by pestilence. We see that in Naples, equally during last year, namely in 1656, the pestilence being blamed on the Spaniards or the viceroy himself in order to ruin the people with pestiferous powders that had to be tracked to two soldiers of the Carmine Tower with the purpose of starting a quarrel that might end in a tumult, they attacked them accusing them of carrying in their clothes the dreamed up powder. As many people ran up there because of the noise, also a good man happened to be there and he, with careful words and moderate advice, persuaded them to let justice handle such wicked men so that, beside the torture that would have been



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

inflicted on them, one could find out what was the antidote for the poison that was able to save them so capably. But, as soon as it was known that of those two soldiers one was French and the other Portuguese, and hearing also the rumor that fifty persons wearing false clothing were spreading the poisonous powders, there arose worse disorders because all those who went around wearing foreign looking clothes, with shoes or had items different from the common uses, ran the risk of losing their lives. Thus, in order to quiet down the populace, it was necessary to have Vittorio Angelucci die on the wheel, guilty of other crimes, who was believed by the populace to be a spreader of powders, but, at the same time, a rigorous revenge was had of the inventors of this tale, as many of them had been taken to unknown jails. Five of them lost ignominiously their lives on the gallows, in the market, and in such manner they squelched the rumors. It is not surprising, therefore, if also in Milan, amid this large and cruel disaster, under such a malicious scourge one would suspect that the cause was mankind’s malice, and that one would verify the above-mentioned damage contained in the royal message. Such opinions, the more extravagant they are, the more believed they are, because, in facts, of an extravagant effect one believes an extravagant reason, and the more one enjoys in finding its origin in man’s malice, that can be contained rather than in the implacable physics that eludes human institutions. We know that was the culture of the studies of that century totally directed to the use of the words and the ravings of imagination. Therefore, the concept of the malefic ointments became triumphant; every stain that appeared on the walls represented a corpus delicti; every man who inadvertently raised his hand to touch them was dragged to jail by the people, when he was not massacred by the people’s ferociousness … Such was the spirit of those times. The pestilence was killing more and more human victims and people were having disputes about its origin, rather than rush to seek a remedy. Some made it descend from a comet that had been seen in that year in the month of June, looking even more frightening than usual, Ripamonti writes. Others attributed its origin to the infernal spirits and there was someone who said that he had seen very clearly a gentleman in the Duomo’s square in a coach drawn by six white horses: he had a proud face, a sullen and fiery look with a menacing air. His eyes were fiery, his hair was shaggy and his upper lip looked menacing. After entering the house, one could see treasures, ghosts, demons, and seductions of all kinds intended to lure men to accept the diabolic essence of those opinions and one is able to see more about this event in the mentioned Ripamonti. Even the most distinguished citizens and the magistrates busied their minds with these absurdities and, instead of keeping the population separated, instead of ordering that every person should stay home, assigning honest men in various districts in order to give to each family what it needed, the only remedy that could

pie tr o verri , cesare b e cc a r i a , a n d “ i l c a f f è ” | 205

prevent the spreading of the illness, a remedy that, if it had been adopted initially, it might have been able to overcome the pestilence perhaps through the work of one hundred men, they ordered with an ill-conceived piety a solemn procession where all the classes of the population converged and, by carrying the body of S. Carlo along all the frequented city streets and exposing it on the high altar of the Cathedral for several days for the prayers of the assembled population, the pestilence spread out prodigiously through the entire city where, starting from that time, they were able to count even nine hundred deaths every day. In one word, the entire city lost in the most mournful ignorance, let itself fall in very absurd and dreadful ravings, rules were conceived very badly, and while most strange opinions became widespread, every social bond was miserably undone by the fury of the superstitious incredulity; a destructive anarchy devastated everything, so that opinions lashed much more severally our unfortunate predecessors than nature itself in that doleful time; and they had recourse to the astrologers, exorcists, inquisition, tortures, everything became a prey of pestilence, superstition, fanaticism and plunder so that the proscribed truth could not appear anywhere. One hundred thousand Milanese citizens perished slaughtered by ignorance.

Chapter 3. Origin of the Trial of Health Commissioner Guglielmo Piazza While the pestilence raged more than ever, after the already mentioned procession, on the morning of June 21, 1630, a widow by the name of Caterina Troccazzani Rosa, who resided in the passage that crosses the Vedra de’ Cittadini, saw from her window Guglielmo Piazza who, from Cardaio, entered the district and being near the wall on the right side passed under the bridge. Then, when he reached the house of S. Simone, namely at the end of the Crivelli building, that, at that time had a large plant of laurel, he walked back. The same move was observed by another woman named Ottavia Persici Boni. The first of these women said, in the interrogation, that Piazza, from one place to another, would touch the wall with his hands; the other said that near the wall of the Crivelli garden he held some paper in his hands on which he placed his right hand and he seemed to be writing, but then she saw that Piazza, after moving his hand from the paper, rubbed it on the wall. They attested that it happened at eight o’ clock, that it was late in the day, and that it was raining. The two women immediately spread the rumor in the neighborhood that they had seen who had performed the malefic smearing and later, in a trial, Troccazzani Rosa said that she had seen that man do some things over the wall that she did not like at all. The rumor immediately spread from one mouth to the next, as it appears in the trial; it was examined if the walls had been smeared, and it was observed that at the height of an arm and a half from the ground there was some yellow grease; particularly under Tradati’s door near the door of Mora the



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

barber. Some straw was burned at the place of the smearing, the wall was scraped, the whole district was thrown into a state of confusion. Let us now consider the possibility of the crime. Nothing is more natural than walking near a wall when it rains in a city like ours where one does that to get sheltered from the rain. Such an atrocious crime is not carried out in full daylight, while the neighbors may observe from the nearby houses; nothing is easier than soiling as many walls as one likes under the cover of darkness. Upon this rumor, on the following day, the Captain of Justice was sent to that place; he questioned the two mentioned women, and although they did not say that they had seen that the wall had been dirtied where Piazza had put his hand, that the places which had been smeared with a yellow oily substance corresponded to the places in question. It was decreed to imprison the Health Commissioner Guglielmo Piazza. If the clumsy Piazza had committed a crime of such atrocity, it would have been quite natural that, thinking of the consequences that might have arisen and alerted by the rumor of the entire neighborhood of the previous day as well as from the solemn visit that on the 22nd of the month that the Captain of Justice had made in the public places of the street, he would have immediately run away. The police officers found him at the door of the Health President whose dependent he was and put him in prison. The house of Piazza was immediately inspected and from the trial it appears that they did not find either vials, or vases, ointments or money or anything that might create suspicions against him. As soon as he had been taken to prison, Guglielmo Piazza was immediately questioned by the judge and after the first interrogations he was asked if he knew the deputies of the parish; and he answered that he did not. When he was asked if he knew that the walls had been smeared, he said that he did not know. These two answers were considered lies and improbabilities. On the basis of these lies and improbabilities he was put under torture. The unfortunate fellow declared that he had told the truth invoking God and S. Carlo; he spoke aloud, shouted with pain, asked for a sip of water to refresh. Finally, to cause the torment to end he said: “Put me down and I will say what I know.” He was lowered down and when he was questioned again, he said: “I know nothing. Your Lordship, let me have a little water,” upon which he was newly hoisted up and tortured, and after a very long torment during which they wanted him to name the deputies, he always cried: “Oh Lord, Oh S. Carlo, if I knew them I would say it.” Then, desperate because of the torture, he cried: “Kill me, kill me,” and as the judge insisted by asking him to make up his mind and tell the truth about why he denied that he knew the deputies of the parish and to know that the walls had been smeared, the poor wretch answered: “The truth, I told the truth, I know nothing; if I knew it I would have said it; if you want to kill me, do kill me.” And moaning and crying as a man put under torture, he persisted repeating always the same thing until, in a low voice, he repeated he had told the

pie tr o verri , cesare b e cc a r i a , a n d “ i l c a f f è ” | 207

truth, and, exhausted, he stopped shouting, upon which he was lowered and taken back to jail. What improbability was there in the answers of wretched Guglielmo Piazza? He lived in the district of San Bernardino and not at the Vedra. What obligation did the poor man have to know who were the deputies of the parish? What risk could he have run if he had known them by saying so? What danger was he facing if they said that they knew that the walls of Vedra had been smeared? They reported the examination that had been carried out to the Senate and the result of the tortures inflicted on the unlucky man: the Senate decided that the Health Office and the Captain of Justice, with the assistance of manager Tornielli, had to torture Piazza again, with harsh torments and hemp ropes with interpolated screws at their judgment, and it was noted that they added … after shaving his hair and dressing him with prison clothes and, if it seemed appropriate to the aforementioned President and Captain, to administer a laxative potion; this was done because in those days it was believed that a man might hide an amulet in his hair, in his clothes or even in his intestine by swallowing it, and might hide an amulet or a pact with the devil, so that, by shaving, undressing and purging him he could be disarmed. In 1630 almost all of Europe was enveloped in this superstitious darkness. The whole of humanity is moved by the scene of the second torture with the rope, which by dislocating the hands, caused them to bend upward on the arm while the bone of the humerus was dislocated from its socket. Guglielmo Piazza said, while the new torture was being readied: “Kill me, because that will please me since I did tell the truth.” Then, while they began the very cruel dislocation of the joints, he said: “Let them kill me. Here I am.” Then, as the torment increased, he cried: “Oh, God, I murdered myself. I know nothing, and if I knew anything, I would not have waited till now to tell.” Gradually, the torture continued and increased, the Health President and the Captain of Justice asked him to respond about the parish deputies and on the knowledge about the wall smearing. The unlucky Guglielmo answered: “I know nothing; cut my hand off, do kill me. Oh God! Oh God!” The judges continued to ask and became more and more incredulous while he answered crying and shouting: “Oh, Lord! I am being murdered!” After repeated questions he answered always the same thing, declaring that he had told the truth and the judges, again, wanted him to tell the truth; he answered: “What do you want me to say?” They had suggested to him an imaginary accusation, he would have accused himself but he could not have even the benefit of inventing the names of people that he did not know. He cried: “Oh, what an assassination!” And finally, after a torture during which six pages of the trial were recorded and as he persisted in saying even with a weaker and lowered voice, “I do not know anything, I did tell the truth, ah! I do not know anything.” After a very long and cruel torment, he was taken back to his prison.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Chapter 4. How Commissioner Piazza Confessed to Being Guilty of the Pestilential Smearing and Accused Giacomo Mora Ripamonti reports a very cruel circumstance, that when Piazza’s torture had finished, the judge ordered him taken to jail with dislocated bones, without setting them in place, and that the horror of a continuing pain caused him to accuse both himself and Mora. But in the record that I have at present, I cannot see any indication of that. … It appears from it that impunity would have been promised to him if he would reveal the crime and his accomplices. It is quite likely that in the jail itself they managed to have that unhappy man understand that if he persisted in his denying, the pain would have been inflicted again; that the crime was believed to be true and that he had no other chance besides accusing himself and naming his accomplices and his life would be safe, avoiding all daily tortures. Piazza, therefore, requested and received impunity, provided that he would describe sincerely the facts. Thus, at the third interrogation, he appeared, and accusing himself, without any torture or threat, of having smeared the walls, very attentively and to please the judges, he began to say that he had been given the ointment by the barber who lived at the corner of the Vedra, where, at present, stands the pillar of infamy, that the ointment was yellow and that he had given him about three ounces of it. Asked if he was a friend of the barber he answered: “He is a friend, Sir, good day, good year, he is a friend, Sir, yes.” As if confidential affairs of such an enormous wrong doing were confessed to persons that one had just met. How did this horrible agreement develop? Here are the precise words. The barber, at first, told Piazza, who was asking who was walking in front of his shop, I have something to give you, something I do not know what it is. I asked what it was and he answered: “I do not know, some ointment,” and I said, “I shall come to pick it up.” And so, three days later he gave it to me, and this is the beginning of the story. Then it continues. Piazza says that when he made this proposal there were three or four persons but now I do not remember who they were but I will ask someone who was with me, by the name of Matteo, who is a greengrocer and sells produce at Carrobbio. I’ll ask him and he will be able to tell me who were those people who were with the barber. Who would ever believe that just in that manner, in the presence of four witnesses, such horrible conspiracy might be plotted! Yet, at that time, it was believed: I. II.

That the plague that people knew had come from Valtellina was the consequence of poisons prepared in Milan; That poisons may be prepared that, after being exposed to the open air, bring death by a slight touch;

pie tr o verri , cesare b e cc a r i a , a n d “ i l c a f f è ” | 209


That if these poisons existed, one could handle them with impunity; That it is possible, in the human mind, to create the desire of killing people just by chance; V. That a person, guilty of such a dream, would remain light-hearted after two days of rumors and would allow himself to be taken prisoner; VI. That the maker of the presumed poison, instead of smearing the walls by himself, searched uselessly to have some accomplices; VII. That in order to select an accomplice for such an abomination, he would consider a person whom he had just met; VIII. That this revelation was made before four witnesses, and Piazza would accept the offer without knowing them and with a vague hope to obtain a gift from a poor barber! These eight points should be placed on one side of the scales. On the other side one should place the very strong fear of the agony and the pains that were suffered, that force an innocent person to lie, and then let reason weigh and decide which of the two sides contains more unlikelihood. … Also in France, in those days, the woman of Ancre was burned as a witch, by the sentence of the parliament of Paris: all of Europe was much more in the dark than it is now. One must note that even in this horrible confusion there entered also sorcery and witchcraft and unhappy Piazza, to find a reason why he did not confess that before, responded to the judge that it was the consequence of a water that the barber had given to him to drink. Why that water did not “work” in the third questioning, as it had done the first two times before, no one tried to discover. On these premises they incarcerated Gian Giacomo Mora, the barber; and what deserved some accuracy was that they found him at home, with his wife and children in that house that, later, was demolished in order to erect the pillar of infamy. From the first interrogation of Mora it appeared that he had heard about the smearing that had been done in the district on Friday, June 21, that he knew about the imprisonment of Commissioner Piazza, that followed on the 22nd, a Saturday, and on Wednesday, the 26th, he would have allowed himself to be caught if he had been guilty. Everything that happened upon his arrest confirms his innocence no less than the surprise of the unhappy man. He had prepared an ointment for the commissioner so that he could protect himself from the contagion by applying it on the temples and armpits, an ointment of which he, later, described the ingredients, that, at that time, was known as the “ointment of the hanged man.” The commissioner had ordered the barber to prepare it and he was imprisoned before delivering it. Mora believed that he had been imprisoned for preparing the ointment, a work that pertained to the chemists. He complained for having been



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

arrested for that reason, if, by any chance, he said while he was arrested, in his house, before being taken to prison, they came to my house because I had prepared that electuary, but was not allowed to prepare it, I do not know what to do about it; I did it for a good cause, for the health of the poor.

Then he said to the policemen, “Do not tighten the rope on my hand because I did not do any wrong thing.” Then, sighing and stamping one foot, he cried, “May God be praised.” During the very careful inspection of his house in the presence of Mora, he gave explanations about the cans of ointments, medications, powders and pills that were found in his shop. Then, in the yard of his little house, they noticed a small stove containing a copper boiler where they found some cloudy water at the bottom of which they found a viscous yellow and white substance that, when it was thrown against a wall in order to test it, it adhered to it. Who would ever believe that a very powerful poison that caused death by touching it, would be kept in an open courtyard, in a plainly visible boiler, in a house where there were several persons, because Mora had children and wife, as it appears also in the trial? The young girls and the daughter, for whom it is recorded that he had prepared an ointment against the worms, might they be aware of the secret? Could one leave near children a poison that kills by contact, placing it in a boiler in the middle of the courtyard? After the trial had been solemnly conducted for six days, was it ever possible that the maker and distributor of the ointment would calmly keep that evidence on sight, and placed in the courtyard? None of these thoughts came to the mind of the judge. When Mora was asked what that boiler contained, he answered when they went to his domicile: “It is lye.” When he was asked again in the first questioning, he answered: Sir, I do not know anything, the women prepared it. Do ask them about it and they will tell you; I was as aware of the presence of that lye as I believed that today I would have been taken to prison; that is something that women prepare, something that I do not bother doing.

When the unfortunate Mora’s wife, by the name of Chiara, was questioned about it, she answered that she had done her laundry fifteen days earlier, and had left some lye in the courtyard. This lye was to be the corpus delicti. They questioned some washerwomen. Margarita Arpizzanelli, before examining the lye, explains her theory by telling the judge: “Does your Excellency know that by using bad lye one can prepare some excellent poisons?” Evidently, fanaticism had reached its peak and the persons who were questioned, at the risk of inventing new and unknown properties,

pie tr o verri , cesare b e cc a r i a , a n d “ i l c a f f è ” | 211

used to sacrifice a victim and believed to serve God and country by making up a crime. The lye is examined by washerwoman Arpizzanelli and she declares: This lye is not pure but it contains some rogueries because pure lye does not leave so much sediment, nor does it have this color, because it is quite white and it is not like this, which has an ugly color, sinks at the bottom and looks greasy, but true lye, when one moves the container the whole contents move inside it.

The other washerwoman had almost the same idea. Giacomina Endrioni said: It seems that there is some alteration and it seems that the more you move it around the darker it becomes. With bad and old lye one can make many dirty things and poisons. I do not believe that any chemist could prepare a poison with laundry water. In a barber shop, where they may have washed dirty linen, from sores and plasters, it is natural to find a slimy, greasy and yellow sediment after several days in summer.

The judgment of the physicians was not less grievous. Achille Careano concluded with this opinion: I did not observe very well what lye does, but I would say that concerning its greasy nature that one can see in this water, it might be caused by some oily linen that was washed in it, such as napkins, tablecloths and similar things; but since I saw at the bottom of that water and observed the quality of the residue that is there, and its quantity in proportion with the little water, I say and conclude that, in my opinion, it cannot be lye. The two washerwomen consider it lye with some awful things and some alteration, the doctor says that it is not lye at all, and he states it because in proportion with the residue, there is little water, as if after fifteen days that it had remained in the open air in the month of June, the major part of the water could not have evaporated.

It is disgusting to see with what ignorance and fury the case proceeded on the part of the examiners and the examined and how obscure was any glimmer of humaneness and reason in those cruel circumstances. Two other persons, namely the physician Gianbattista Vertua and Vittore Bescapè, opined more or less like Carcano and concluded that they were unable to recognize what kind of matter was in the boiler. On this judgment and on the statement of Commissioner Piazza … the trial was carried on. Piazza had said that he had been at Mora’s house, had named Baldassare Litta and Stefano Buzzi, as witnesses of the fact. When they questioned Litta on June 29 if he had ever seen Piazza in Mora’s house or shop, he answered: “No, Sir.” When Buzzi was questioned, on the same day, if he knew that Piazza and the barber were friends, he answered: “Perhaps they are friends and greet each other, but I would not be able to say so to Your Lordship.” When asked if he knew that said Piazza was ever in the house or the shop of the



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

barber, he answered: “I would not be able to say so to Your Lordship.” These were the depositions of the two witnesses that Piazza mentioned in order to prove that he had been at the barber’s house. The barber denied that Piazza had ever been in his house. Because of this denial the barber was put to the most cruel torture of the rope. This was done on June 30. The poor man, Giacomo Mora, a stout and fat man, as he is described in the records, before taking the oath, knelt before the Cross and prayed; then, after kissing the ground, he stood up and took the oath. When the torture began, he said: “Jesus, Mary, be always with me, I am a dead man.” The torture was increased and he cried out, declared his innocence and said: “See what you want me to say and I will do so.” It is too shocking for our mercy to continue this scene that does not seem to be performed by human beings but by those malefic spirits that teach us to be involved in tormenting people. In order to avoid the pain, unhappy Mora promised that he would tell the truth if the torments came to an end. They stopped them. When he was lowered to the ground, he said: “The truth is that the commissioner has no connection with me.” The judge answered that that was not the truth that he had promised to tell, therefore, he should decide to tell it, otherwise they would resume the hoisting and tightening of the ropes. Unlucky Mora replied: “Let Your Lordship do what he wants.” The torments were resumed and Mora shouted: “May the Holy Virgin be my help.” Whenever the judge asked to hear the truth he would repeat: “See what you want me to say, and I will do so.” The exceeding pain of the torture was what concerned him, and finally Mora said: “I gave him a jar full of dirt, namely dung so that he could smear the walls.” With this expedient the torture was halted; then, in order not to be subjected to more pain, he said: “It was human excrement because he asked to have it, the commissioner, in order to smear the houses, and that matter that comes out of the dead people’s mouth.” Notice the false creation of the mind of a miserable person oppressed by pain. Excrement and lye were not sufficient to cause death, he invents the saliva of the plague victims. Then, as the interrogation and the answers continue, Mora says that he received from Commissioner Piazza the weight of one pound of that matter from the mouths of the plague victims and that he poured it into the boiler, that he gave it to him in order to make that preparation so that many persons would become ill, the commissioner would have had a lot of work, and that with his medicine the barber would have gained a lot (of money). He concluded by saying that the agreement was reached, by talking together among themselves. Piazza, who had gained impunity, said nothing about all that. On the contrary, he was saying that he had been invited by Mora. How was one to collect so much saliva for one pound? How was one to collect it without catching the plague? How could one put it back in the boiler so that his wife and his young, careless children became

pie tr o verri , cesare b e cc a r i a , a n d “ i l c a f f è ” | 213

ill? How could one keep it safe after the solemn procedures and keep such criminal evidence? How could one hope to earn money by selling the ointment? Were sick people in short supply at that time? One cannot imagine a more evil and absurd story. Yet, everything was believed, provided that it was horrible and in agreement with the dire passions of those unhappy times. The following day, namely the first of July, Mora was questioned in order to see if he had anything else to add to the confession that he had made the day before, after he was removed from the tortures, and he answered: “No, Sir, I have nothing to add but I have something to ’diminish’.” What he had to diminish he explained it later at the interrogation: “That ointment that I mentioned, I really did not prepare it, and what I said, I said it because of the torture.” After that statement, he was threatened that, if he had recanted the truth that he had said the day before, there would be again the torture for him. He answered: “I confirm that what I said yesterday is not true and I said it because of the torments.” Then he added: “Your Lordship, let me say an Ave Maria and then I will do what she inspires me to say.” He went to his knees before the image of the Cross and recited a “miserere.” He then got up and went to the questioning. After, he repeated his sworn answer at the question of making up his mind and saying if the questioning that he answered the day before and its contents were the truth. In truth, it is not so at all. Then, it was ordered to take him to the torture with what follows, and as he was being tied in order to start the harsh torture, he cried to be left alone, without any more torture “for I want to confirm the truth that I said.” Then they untied him and took him back for questioning. Requested to speak he said: “What I said is not true,” and with this alternative statement he had to give up and prefer any other thing rather than the desperate choice of the torture. He confirmed the past interrogation and he was again in the same position where he was before. Here is how improbable is the “story” … He says that Piazza, a man that he barely knew and with whom he was not familiar, as it appeared also in the records, the first time that we got together he gave me that substance and told me: “Prepare a jar of this material for me, with which by smearing bolts and walls many people will get sick and both of us will make money.” What a likelihood! If Piazza kept the substance in a jar, why did he give it to the barber so that he would prepare a jar of it? Were sick people in short supply at that time when there were eight hundred deaths every day? What was the need to infect people? Why not anoint immediately? The thing makes no sense. And then, how was the barber to make the deadly ointment? “One took,” unhappy Mora went on saying, three things: one third of the matter that the commissioner gave to me, another third of human excrement, and another third of the residue of the lye; I mixed all the ingredients very well, without any other matter in it, and without boiling.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

The excrement and the laundry water could only weaken the power of the saliva of the plague victims. Having set up this second tale in contradiction with the first, Piazza is called back for an interrogation; he had immunity on condition of telling the whole truth, and was asked if he knew of what matter the ointment was made, and how it was prepared. He answered that he did not know. The judge replied if he knew, at least, that somebody had given the barber some matter to prepare that ointment and Piazza replied: “No, Sir, I do not know.” If Piazza had given the saliva of the sick people, since he had impunity, by relating exactly the whole thing and had to expect to be tortured if he did not do so, why would he have damaged the main issue during the time when the presumed accomplice, namely Mora, the barber, would have been discovered by means of the torture? Therefore, if it does not happen that Piazza gave the saliva, the forged story of Mora appears to be a forced one. The judge could have conceived this idea, but unfortunately reason had no role in all that misfortune. The judge then told Piazza that, from the trial, it appeared that he had supplied the dead people’s saliva to the barber, and the judge questioned him on this point as follows: To tell why in his examination and confession, that he made in order to obtain impunity, he did not mention that detail, the substance of the crime, as he was obliged to do. Piazza answered: I did not have any of the filth that comes from the dead person’s mouth, nor did I take it to the barber and the other things that I confessed when I was questioned, I did not remember it, and I did not say it for this reason.

Then he was told that because he had not kept his promise to tell the whole truth, and for having limited his confession, he could no longer enjoy the benefit of his impunity. At this threat, Piazza said immediately of having supplied the saliva and of having given some to the barber, no longer a pound, as poor Gian Giacomo Mora had said but just a little on a saucer. When he was forced in the interrogation to tell how all of that had happened, here is the answer the absurdity of which is demonstrated by itself. This is how the unfortunate Piazza responded: I acted because I was sought by the mentioned barber, who told me to do that with the promise of giving me a certain amount of money, although he did not specify (what I was to do). He told me that he knew a great person who had promised to him a large amount of money in order to do that thing and although I asked to tell me who that great person was, he did not want to tell me but he said only to wait and work at smearing walls and doors, and that he would give me a sum of money.

It is opportune to remember that the barber was a poor man, and it is sufficient to see all the space that was taken by his simple house. He was a family man with wife and children, he was not lazy or a vagabond that one could have chosen to carry out such a horrible act. Until now, they were able to have the

pie tr o verri , cesare b e cc a r i a , a n d “ i l c a f f è ” | 215

two stories coincide and compel the contradicting person to confirm the fable of those who had spoken before him. Two entirely new things emerge from this answer. One is that the barber promised a certain amount of money, the other is that in this situation there appeared a “great person”: neither the one nor the other had been mentioned by Mora. When asked if he had promised Piazza an amount of money, Mora answered in the fifth interrogation of July 2, 1630: “No, Sir. Where does Your Lordship want me to find this sum of money?” Then the judge told him what had happened in the trial about the money and the great person and was ordered to tell the truth. Mora answered these words: “Your Lordship wants me to tell just the truth. I have already told it when I was tortured and I said even more,” from which one can see how the unhappy man would have recanted all the dreadful fable that he had told, if he had not feared new tortures. He said this even more clearly when on July 2nd, he was charged and was set the very brief term of two days to prepare his defense, about which one can read in the trial records that the protector of the incarcerated persons told the notary the following: Because of my duty I went to the president, and spoke with him; I went also to see Mora who told me freely that he did not, nor could take the charge of defending him, he told me that at least the president might assign a defender for him, and that he may not allow him to die undefended.

From this one can observe several things: that Mora was sure that he had to die, and all the fierceness of the fanaticism that surrounded him had persuaded him sufficiently; that, although he considered his death a certain thing, he said freely of having lied because of the torments; and that, finally, the fury had reached the point that it was deemed bad and dishonorable to defend this unfortunate victim, given the fact that the protector (defense) said that he did not want nor could accept the charge. The time for the defense was extended later.

Chapter 7. How the Trial of the Pestilential Smearing Ended If I wanted to place exactly before the reader’s eyes the scene of the horrors that were methodically performed on that occasion, I should transcribe the entire trial. I should describe the tortures inflicted on the barber, their employers and other lay persons; most cruel tortures used to force them to confess that from their counter any amount of money was given to some persons, even if unknown, provided that he mentioned the name of D. Giovanni di Padilla; money that was given without requiring a receipt and without entering it in their ledgers; and all these absurd statements originated by the forced stories that the persistent pangs inspired between the wretched Piazza and Mora. But the sample that I mentioned



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

above is too dire, and too grievous for the mind and one’s heart. From the horrible scene which I described one can envision the atrocious fanaticism of the judge in leading with sharpness a poor man who did not understand the criminal scheming and lead him to the extreme distress from which the unhappy man would have tried to escape with thousands of accusations against himself if, by misfortune, the way to accuse himself had come to his mind. Torture was inflicted with the same inhumanity upon many innocent people; in one word, the entire affair was a scene of horrors. The cruel form of torture that was suffered by the barber Gian Giacomo Mora, whose house was destroyed in order to erect he pillar of infamy, Guglielmo Piazza, Gerolamo Migliavacca, a cutler, who was called Forese, Francesco Manzone, Caterina Rozzana and many others; these were put on a cart, pinched with iron claws in many parts of the body along the way, one hand being cut off; and the bones of arms and legs fractured and “woven” in the wheel while they were still alive, left in agony for six hours and at the end of which they were slaughtered by the executioner and burned, and their ashes finally thrown in the river. The inscription placed in the place of the demolished house (was): Here, on the location of this square, once stood the barbershop of Gian Giacomo Mora, who conspiring with Guglielmo Piazza, Public Health Commissioner and others, while the plague raged more fiercely, having spread here and there deadly ointments, caused a painful death for many. These two men, then, deemed enemies of the fatherland, were ordered by the Senate to be tortured on a high cart, tormented first with red-hot pincers and their right hand cut off, then fractured with the wheel, placed into it and slaughtered after six hours by the executioner and finally cremated. And so that nothing should remain of so evil men, being their possessions confiscated, their ashes were thrown in the river as a perpetual reminder of this crime, the house that was the melting pot of the crime was leveled by order of the Senate never to be rebuilt in the future, and a pillar being erected called “of infamy.” Stay away, then, stay away good citizens lest the unhappy, infamous ground may infect you. August MDCXXX. …

Chapter 8. If Torture Is an Atrocious Torment There is no doubt that at the time of the presumed pestilential ointments torture was indeed most painful. But one could also say that times have changed and that, in those days, there was an excess caused by the intensity of public ills not suitable to be considered as an example. I believe, however, that in our days the criminal law is oriented by the same books that were consulted in 1630, and basing my analysis on these works, it seems to me an easy matter to recognize that torture is really agony. By the term torture I do not mean a punishment inflicted upon a guilty person as a sentence but the presumed search for truth by means of torments. The interrogation

pie tr o verri , cesare b e cc a r i a , a n d “ i l c a f f è ” | 217

is the investigation of truth by means of torments or of torture; and torture may be called interrogation since the latter is an investigation because the judge searches for the truth by means of torments. The supporters of torture try to soften the loathing that every sensitive heart experiences through the simple imagination of what torture is. They say that the pain suffered by the tortured person is small, it is a passing pain for which the intervention of a doctor or a surgeon is necessary; the imagined pains are greatly exaggerated. Such is the first argumentation with which they try to suppress the horror that the idea of torture arouses in humans. Yet, from the events that occurred in 1630, the horror of these tortures is defined by words written in blood; the laws, the customs in which we live are the same, as I said, and nothing else is missing to repeat the same cruelty but the return of the judges similar to the ones of those days. At the present time they use as a torture the dislocation of the bone of the shoulder; sometimes fire under the feet is used, cruel practices in themselves but no law limits the cruelty of these two methods; the doctors, who are the experts of these sufferings, the doctors who are consulted by the rules of criminal justice, certainly do not prescribe a lot of moderation. Bossa, who deals with the criminal practice of Milan under the title, ‘On tortures’ says: I shall not call torture any pain of the body: torture must be more intense than the cutting of both hands; and to suffer torture is to endure the highest suffering of torment. It is sufficient to observe the preparation and the manner of torturing in order to understand it; nothing is gentle, in fact, everything is most cruel; for this reason torture with fire is inflicted many times and what a man says when he is tortured with fire is considered the real truth.

After this I would never know how one can say that torture itself is a light evil. I do not deny that a considerate judge may alleviate the ferocity of this practice, but the law is certainly not mild nor are the master doctors. Notice with what cruelty Ziegler describes this most inhuman practice: Besides the pulling, it is customary to to burn the guilty with lit candles at a slow burn in certain parts of the body or some small sticks of resinous wood are inserted at the finger tips, under the nails and then the wood is set aflame or they (the persons) are made to sit on top of an empty bronze bull or ass inside which are thrown burning coals and by means of the heating of the metal they are tortured harshly and with incredible pain. These are the rules that this doctor prescribes. Farinaccio himself, speaking of his times, states that the judges, because of the pleasure that they had in tormenting the culprits, invented new kinds of torments. Such is human nature, when it overcomes the loathing of other persons ills and it smothers the beneficent germ of compassion, it acts cruelly and rejoices of its superiority at the sight of another’s unhappiness, and an example of this is given by the Romans toward the gladiators … Tabor says that torture may be inflicted



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

upon a nursing woman as long as the child is not deprived of his nourishment … In order to prescribe torture for a witness it is sufficient that he is of low extraction for the torture to be inflicted … and the subject of torture and evidence, as it is not possible to determine a firm rule, everything is left at the discretion of the judge. … The simple rumor is sufficient for a judge to condemn a person to the torture.

Chapter 9. If Torture Is a Means to Know the Truth … I believe, on the contrary, that it is easy to prove the following assertions: That tortures are not a way to discover the truth; that the law and the criminal practice do not consider torture as a means to discover the truth; that even if this method would lead to the discovery of the truth, it would be intrinsically unjust. In order to learn that torture is not a means to discover the truth, I should begin from this fact: any criminalist, however rarely he may have used this wretched method, will assure me that it occurs, not rarely, that some robust and determined defendants endure the torture without saying a word, ready to die of pain rather than accuse themselves. In these cases, that are neither rare nor imaginary, torture is useless in discovering the truth. Many other times the tortured defendant confesses to be guilty of the crime; but all the horrors that I have revealed above and dug out of the darkness of the jails where they were left for more than a century do not prove sufficiently that those numerous wretches declared themselves guilty of an impossible and absurd crime and that, consequently, the torture pulled out of their mouths a series of lies, never the truth. Writers offer many instances of other wretches who, because of the tortures, accused themselves of committing a crime, although they were innocent. One may consult Caro’s works who reports that in his days many accused themselves of killing a nobleman and were sentenced to death, although some years later the presumed murdered person reappeared and declared that he had never been hurt by the condemned man. One could consult Muratori’s Annals of Italy where dealing with the Delfino’s death, he says what follows: Count Sebastiano Montecuccoli, his cup bearer, an honorable gentleman from Modena, of a very delicate constitution, from whom they extorted by dint of incredible torments the false confession of the death brought upon the prince by instigation of Antonio de Leva and the emperor himself, whereby the innocent knight was later condemned to a horrible death. The fact, therefore, convinces us that tortures are not a means to find the truth because sometimes they yield nothing and other times they yield a lie. Then reason corresponds to fact. What is the feeling that comes to man when he suffers a pain? This feeling is the wish for the pain to end. The more intense the pain is, much stronger will be the wish and impatience to search an end. What

pie tr o verri , cesare b e cc a r i a , a n d “ i l c a f f è ” | 219

is the means a tortured man has to speed up the end of his pain? By declaring himself guilty of the crime of which he is charged. But is it true that the tortured person committed the crime? If the truth is known, we are tormenting him uselessly; if the truth is doubtful, perhaps the tortured man is innocent and the innocent tortured person is equally led as the guilty one to accuse himself of the crime. Therefore, tortures are not means to discover the truth but means that drive men to accuse themselves as guilty of a crime, whether they committed it or not. This reasoning lacks nothing in order to be a perfect demonstration. On the face of a man allowed to be in his natural state of feelings, one may easily recognize the serenity of innocence, or the worry of remorse. His peaceful self-confidence, calm voice, ease in overcoming objections during the interrogation may sometimes reveal the innocent man and also the sullen perturbation, his altered tone of voice, his extravagance, the structure of his answers may bring about a suspicion of guilt. But when both are placed, one guilty and one innocent under the pain of the tortures, these delicate differences disappear; anxiety, despair, horror, appear equally on both faces, they groan equally and instead of discovering truth, all appearances of it become confused. A common murderer, accustomed to a harsh and wild existence, strong in body and hardened by horrors, remains hanging in the torture, and with a deliberate mind always remembers that the final torture that he earns for himself by giving in to impatience is that he goes to the gallows; endowed with vigorous muscles he keeps silent and eludes torture. A poor city dweller used to a softer life, who has not become used to horrors, for a simple suspicion is sent to the tortures. His weaker constitution is entirely shaken, a very violent tremor invades him at the sight of the preparations; he must avoid the imminent trouble, it weighs insufferably and lets the future pain be postponed further on, this is what the extreme anguish that pervades him suggests and he accuses himself of a crime that he did not commit. Such are and must be the effects of the pain upon the two different persons. It seems that with these observations we have proven conclusively that torture is not a means to discover the truth but it is an invitation to declare oneself guilty both for the guilty and for the innocent, for which reason it is a means to confuse truth but never to discover it.

Chapter 10. If the Laws and Criminal Procedures Consider Torture as a Means to Obtain the Truth I decided to demonstrate that the laws and the practice of the criminalists do not consider torture as a means of discovering the truth. This is found easily by noticing that in the Theodosian code and the Justinian code there is no regulation concerning a method to use torture with persons suspected of committing crimes.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

In those immense collections of laws and prescriptions where minute differences are considered in the civil and criminal cases, nothing is prescribed concerning torture. If the law, therefore, had considered the tortures as a manner to discover the truth, that would not have been omitted in both codes about the way, the causes, the reservations with which they would be carried out. I conclude, therefore, from the silence in the body of the laws, that the law does not consider torture as an instrument to find the truth. If the single negative statement did not seem sufficient to prove this truth, one should consult Art. § 25 De quaestionibus, where the spirit of the Roman Laws is quite detached from considering torture as a manner to find out the truth. In fact, one could find this: Torture is a very uncertain and dangerous means to find the truth, because several individuals, because of their strength and patience overcome the torture and do not speak at all; others, intolerant ones, lie a thousand times rather that resist pains. Thus reads clearly the Digest and such was the opinion of the Romans, our powerful legislators who were familiar with the use of torture with the slaves as we shall see later. Therefore, the law does not consider torture as a way to discover the truth. I, however, say more than simply the law, but even the criminal practice does not consider torture as a means to obtain the truth. This seems a paradox, yet I believe that I can prove it clearly. First, if the law scholars considered torture as a means to find the truth in the crimes, they would not exclude themselves from being tortured because such is the interest of the human society, namely that crimes are discovered, that nobody could be exempted from the use of the means apt to discover them; in that manner, which no one of the scholars exempted from the pain of death or exile, whenever he deserved them because of his crimes. I shall be forgiving if everybody will try to improve his profession and I will not be surprised if it is said that they are, because of dignity, equal to the noble people and the decurions and equal to the military out of their merit. But no one would be forgivable who would give to his own side impunity in the crimes. Therefore, if the noble and the scholars are privileged in the case of torture, it is a sign that it is not considered by the criminalists as a means to obtain the truth. Secondly, if the scholars considered torture as a means to discover the truth, they would order to comply with it and consider certainty what a tormented person says while he is tormented. Practice orders, however, that this is not reliable if the individual some time later, and in a place far from any device for torturing, does not confirm the accusation made against himself, so that there may not remain the suspicion that the intensity of the pain may have caused the tortured person to accuse himself undeservedly. Therefore, criminal practice does not consider the agony of torture as a means to find the truth. This practice was used also on the most unlucky Piazza and Mora and it is a really barbaric contradiction the one of repeating the torture on

pie tr o verri , cesare b e cc a r i a , a n d “ i l c a f f è ” | 221

the man who recants the self-accusation; so that, at the end, either he must die of the repeated pain or persevere, also when he is not tormented, in accusing himself. Other scholars limit this alternative to three tortures, as Claro does. And so, if the criminal practice teaches not to believe what a tormented person says as a self-accusation while he is tormented but it requires that he validates quietly and free from pain, it is necessary to conclude as an evidence, that the criminal practice does not consider torture as a means to know the truth.

Chapter 11. If Torture Is a Licit Way to Discover the Truth What is finally to be proven is that even if torture were a means to discover the truth of the crimes, it would be an intrinsically unjust manner. I think that it is very easy to demonstrate it. I shall begin by saying that the words of suspicions, evidences, half-proofs, almost-proofs and such barbaric distinctions and subtleties, can never change the nature of things. However, they may spread some darkness and obfuscate the imprudent minds, but one could always focus the question on this point: if the crime is real or only probable. If the crime is real, torments are useless and torture is supefluous, even when it is a means to discover the truth, since in our situation, a guilty person is condemned, although it is negative. So torture, in this case, would be unjust because it is not a just thing to hurt, and to hurt very severely, a person unnecessarily. And if the crime is only probable, whatever is the word by which scholars distinguish the degree of probability, most difficult to be measured, it is evident that it will be possible that the probable guilty person may, in fact, be innocent; then it would be a great injustice to expose as a certain example, and to a most cruel torment, a person who perhaps is innocent and putting an innocent man under those pains and anguish is the more unjust as it is done with the public authority allowed to the judges to defend the innocent from the offense. The supporters of torture have tried to elude the strength of this most ancient idea with several captious distinctions, which converge into a sophism because between to be and not to be there is no middle point and when the crime ceases to be certain there begins precisely the possibility of innocence. Therefore, the use of torture is intrinsically unjust and could not be used even if it was a means to find out the truth. What has been said about the laws of the Inquisition that allowed the father to be an accuser against the son, and the husband against the wife! Humanity shuddered at these concepts, nature claimed its sacred rights: persons so close because of the most sacred ties, destroyed each other! The civil law abhors such accusers and excludes them. Allow me to ask, now, if a man is less closely united with himself, than he is with his father and his wife. If it is an unjust thing that a brother accuses criminally another one, for a stronger reason it will be unjust and contrary to the voice of nature that a man becomes the accuser of himself, and the two persons of the



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

accuser and the accused be confused. Nature placed in everyone’s heart the primitive law of self-defense: and offending oneself and accusing oneself criminally is a heroism, if it is done spontaneously in some cases or a most unfair tyranny if, by dint of pains, one wants to compel a man to do so. The evidence of these reasons will be known even better by thinking that the law would be most iniquitous and most disgraceful if it ordered the criminal lawyers to betray their clients. No tyrant that I know ever imposed such a law that would break with great infamy the most sacred natural bonds. Having said this we shall ask if the lawyer is more intimately united with his client than the client is with himself. Now, torture tends, by means of pain, to force a man to betray himself, to give up his own defense, to offend, to lose himself. Only this is sufficient to make us feel, without other considerations, that torture is intrinsically an unfair means to find the truth and that it would not be licit to use it even if, by using it, one could find the truth. How could such an atrocious and cruel, so useless and unfair practice prevail even among educated people and last until the present day? I shall briefly indicate which were the ancient customs, how it was introduced, on which principles it was based, and governed by which laws; I shall then speak about the opinions of some authors and of the current usage of some European countries with which I believe to bring to an end these observations with a general consideration of the various points of view under which one may reasonably consider such a wretched and interesting topic.

Chapter 12. The Use of Torture in Ancient Countries The invention of torture, if we believe Remus and Gian Lodovico Vives, should be attributed to the last king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, to Maxentius and to Phalaris; it is proper to praise Remus the criminologist since, quite sensibly, he chose three well known tyrants, to attribute to three tyrants the infamy of such an inhuman invention. We know, however, that at the time of the tyrants, Phalaris, Nearcus and Jerome, the most respectable philosophers of their times, Zeno, Eleates and Theodore, as well as Anaxagoras, were cruelly tortured by order of the tyrant Nicocreon. The origin of such a fierce invention goes beyond the boundaries of erudition, and torture will be in a likely way just as ancient as is an individual’s feeling of dominating despotically another person; as ancient as is the case of power that is not always accompanied by the light of virtue and as ancient as is man’s instinct armed with overbearing force of carrying out his actions in proportion with his authority rather than reason. I leave out of consideration the legislation of the holy organizations, as a law dictated by the very creator of nature for a hard-hearted nation, by considering uniquely that monument as the most ancient evidence known to us about the customs of the remote centuries; I observe that in the holy texts there is no mention

pie tr o verri , cesare b e cc a r i a , a n d “ i l c a f f è ” | 223

of torture; and that in prescribing the actions to be performed toward the guilty they favor the road of convincing by witnesses. Nor is the guilty party required to make a confession. One should see Deuteronomy, Chapter XIX, Number 10: Innocent blood is not spilt on this earth that God will give us to inhabit, so that you may not be guilty of spilling blood. And in Number 16 the manner to prove a crime is indicated through the manner to prove crimes, namely, by means of witnesses and it prescribes that a single witness is not valid, whatever the crime may be, but that two or three witnesses constitute a complete proof. And a slanderer will have to appear accompanied by the accused before God, the priest and the judges who will sound out both most diligently and, after finding the calumny, they will punish it with the same pain that would have been inflicted for a falsely imputed one. Such was the criminal legislation of the Hebrew people, where the crime was demonstrated by way of witnesses and the contradiction between the accuser and the guilty party was proved through a very diligent research by the judges but never through the pain of the guilty. What will the supporters of torturing ever say as they believe it to be necessary for a very good governing of the people? Would the Most High Legislator have ignored an instrument of good government for his chosen people? Will men subject to the law of grace, be treated more harshly than under the written law? Are the people of these centuries harder and more inured than a yoke, more hardened and more in need of a yoke than were the Hebrews? Do we Christians find in the Gospel some seed in order to inflict cruelties against our brothers? The only judgment that Christ uttered during the time of his life was to absolve the woman whom they wanted to lapidate. And do Christians, who are imitators, or should be of the patient, benefic, humane, compassionate spirit of the Redeemer, write treatises on how to torment their brothers with the most atrocious and subtle inventions? The contradiction is too evident. Let us go back to antiquity. With the Greeks, as well as with the Romans, the use of torture for men was unknown. I am not speaking of the slaves who, in the system in force, were not considered persons but superficially like things; so that they were sold, killed, mutilated with the same control and freedom that one would use with a donkey and the laws did not limit the ownership of them. Fortune was used in the case of servants, namely the slaves, but not in the case of citizens and men. If it was bad or good to degrade a part of humankind to the level of oxen, I would not dare decide. Those two nations were our teachers and their greatness still marvels us, we have not equaled their culture; and we would judge incorrectly if one would see only its entirety, because a partial disorder occasionally arises within general perfection of a system. I know that when, in a country, one wants to hold a class of people under an arbitrary control of the nation, everything that humiliates and degrades that class will be in conformity



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

with the political end. I have reached the point where also the immortal president Montesquieu and I would not be able to say it better than by using his very words: “So many capable persons and so many beautiful geniuses have written against the use of tortures that I do not dare speak after them.” I was going to say that it might be convenient in despotic governments, I was going to say that with the Greeks and with the Romans, but I hear the voice of nature that cries against me. So many illustrious persons and so many noble and great minds wrote against the use of torture that I do not dare speak after them. I was about to say that it might suit in despotic governments where everything that inspires fear enters in the government mechanism; I was about to say that, with the Greeks and with the Romans but I hear the very voice of nature cry against me. That the Greeks did not use torments against the citizens is noticed in Lisia Orat., in Argorat, and Curius Fortunatus Rhet., and for the Roman citizen by the same Law 3 and 4 ad legem Julia maiestatis. After the Roman Freedom was subjugated and tyranny instated, one notices the exceptions from torture for persons of noble birth, dignity and military service. However, during the republic, only servants were put under torments, never the “children of the fatherland” and those enjoying a “personal existence.” Therefore, L. 27 to L. Jul., de adult. §5 says that: a tortured free man is considered not free but a slave, Sallust in Catilin states also that the Roman laws forbade to inflict tortures on free men. Therefore, Cicero, in his oration pro Silla said against the unusual, threatened tyranny: “They threaten us with the interrogations and the tortures of the servants.” Conclusion. I know well that the opinions consecrated by the practice of the courts and handed down to us by the venerable authority of the magistrates are the most difficult and thorny ones to be removed, nor can I flatter myself that in our days the entire body of the opinions that constitute the criminal law may be suddenly reformed. All those who take a part in it believe that for public safety it is indispensable to keep the present practice: their opinion, true or false, as it may be, does not jeopardize the end that inspires them. But it is appropriate that the supporters of torture should reflect that the trials against the witches and the sorcerers were supported, as in the case of the torture, by the authority of many authors who wrote about the diabolic science; that the tradition of the most respected men and courts teaches to condemn to the fire witches and sorcerers, that now are matters for peculiar people since it has been demonstrated that there are neither witches nor sorcerers. All that may be said in favor of torture could be said, fifty years ago, about magic. It seems impossible to me that the custom of tormenting privately, in the jails, in order to find the truth, may continue for a much longer time, since it is proven that many innocent people are condemned to torture; that it is a most

pie tr o verri , cesare b e cc a r i a , a n d “ i l c a f f è ” | 225

cruel torment, used at times, in the most atrocious manner; and that the use of ferocious cruelty of the judge depends entirely upon his whim, when alone and without any witnesses; that this is not a way to obtain truth, nor do the laws as well as the scholars consider it valid; it is intrinsically unjust and the known nations of the ancient times did not use it; that the most venerable writers always detested it; that it was introduced illegally during the centuries of the past barbaric age; that finally, nowadays, several nations have abolished or are abolishing it without any inconvenience.

Bibliography (Il) Caffè 1764–1766. Torino, 1993. Fubini, M. (Ed.). Dal Muratori al Baretti. Bari, 1954. Valeri, N. Pietro Verri. Milano, 1937. Verri, P. Opere varie. Firenze, 1947. Vianello, C. A. La giovinezza di Parini, Verri e Beccaria. Milano, 1933.

chapter nine

Cesare Beccaria

One of the prominent literary figures of Italian Enlightenment, Count Cesare Beccaria Bonesana, was born in Milan, March 15, 1758. His father was Marquis Giovanni Saverio and his mother Maria Visconti di Saliceto. He pursued classical studies in Parma and Pavia. In his early youth he was attracted by some compelling issues: compassion for human unhappiness, ambition for literary glory, love of freedom and his conversion to philosophy as he was inspired by the reading of Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes. In 1758–1759 he joined the Accademia dei Trasformati, where he met Pietro Verri with whom he shared opinions and discussions for the rest of his life. One of his daughters, Giulia, was the mother of Alessandro Manzoni. In winter 1761–1762, the Società dei Pugni was established in order to deny, at least partially, a presumed dissent with Pietro Verri. In 1762 he published in Lucca an essay, On the Disorder and Remedies of Currency in the State of Milan. His main publication, however, required a long elaboration, 1760–1764, and a close study of philosophers and jurists. It was printed in Livorno (Leghorn) with the title Dei Delitti e delle Pene (On Crimes and Punishments), where the author, among a large number of issues, discusses his request to abolish torture in the trials and the death sentence as well. This book won the author an immense renown both in Italy and abroad. Beccaria’s ideas enjoyed immediate and ample consent: there were six Italian editions in two years and in 1766 its French translation by André Morellet

c e s a re b e cc a r ia  | 227

appeared in Paris, and Voltaire published in Geneva in 1766 his Commentaire sur le livre Des délits et des peines, par an avocat de province. Beccaria, a noted writer but also, and particularly, the humanitarian of his own times, was the voice that Italy and Europe needed to hear in the critical movement that was defined as illuminismo. His ideas that were offered with the concern and love of innovation seem to come as a reassurance that the dignity of the individual, whatever his position in life, is noble and deserves the respect and the protection of his society through the actions of its civil as well as ecclesiastical authorities even when the nature of his actions is questionable and doubts arise about his intentions and actions. The truth, in a legal prosecution, cannot and must not be reached by means of physical and psychological punishments; these procedures, as it has been observed above, had to become and did become unacceptable even if the methods in question enjoyed the strong and unlimited support of the legal and ecclesiastical authorities. The voice of Beccaria reached the conscience of many well known representatives of the European intellectual world. And they answered, for the major part, and approved. In a letter written to Morellet on January 26, 1766, Beccaria offered a view of his spiritual journey by saying: My only work is to cultivate, in peace, philosophy and to satisfy in this manner three sentiments that are very strong in my mind, the ambition of being esteemed as a man of letters, my love of liberty and my compassion for the ills of men, enslaved by so many errors. The time of my conversion to philosophy goes back five years and I owe it to the reading of the Lettres persanes. The second work that completed the conversion in my soul is that by Helvétius. It was he who drove me strongly toward the path of truth and who was the first to direct my attention to the blindness and the ills of mankind. I owe to the reading of Esprit a large part of my ideas. Buffon’s sublime work opened for me the door to the sanctuary of nature. … The work by Diderot that I have been able to read until now, namely his dramatic writings, the Interpretation de la nature, and the articles in the Encyclopédie seem to me rich in ideas and warmth … The profound metaphysics by Hume, the truth and the novelty of his perspective amazed me greatly and have enlightened my soul. Shortly afterwards I read with great pleasure also the eighteen volumes of his history and I consider them the expression of a politician, philosopher and historian. What could I tell you, Sir, of the philosophical writings by d’Alembert? They reveal to me an endless chain of great and new ideas and I see in them the height and the style of a legislator. His preface of the Encyclopédie and his Eléments de philosophie are classical works which contain the signs of an endless research. I benefited greatly also from the reading of Condillac’s works which are, in my opinion, masterpieces of precision, clarity and good metaphysics. …

One can perceive in these “revelations” the methodical study of a world of ideas and motivations that intended to renew society and set it in harmony with a new vision of life.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Beccaria’s book, On Crimes and Punishments, is divided into forty-nine concise chapters that are arranged as follows: (1) To the reader; (2) Introduction; (3) Origin of punishments; (4) The right to punish; (5) Consequences; (6) Interpretation of the laws; (7) Obscurity of the laws; (8) Proportion between crimes and punishments; (9) Errors in the measure of punishments; (10) Divisions of crimes; (11) On honor; (12) On duels; (13) On public peace; (14) On the purpose of punishments; (15) On witnesses; (16) On evidences and forms of judgments; (17) On secret charges; (18) On torture; (19) On Public Treasury; (20) On oaths; (21) On readiness of punishments; (22) On violence; (23) On punishments of noble people; (24) On stealth; (25) On infamy; (26) On vagrants; (27) On punishments and confiscations; (28) On the family spirit; (29) On the mildness of punishments; (30) On capital punishment; (31) On capture; (32) On trials and regulations; (33) On trials of difficult evidence; (34) On suicide; (35) On contraband; (36) On debtors; (37) On asylums; (38) On bounties; (39) On attempted murders, accomplices and impunity; (40) On leading interrogations and depositions; (41) On particular types of crimes; (42) On false concepts of usefulness; (43) On how to prevent crimes; (44) On sciences; (45) On magistrates; (46) On rewards; (47) On instructions; (48) On pardons; (49) Conclusion.

To the Reader Some remaining parts of the laws of an ancient conquering people compiled by order of a prince who, twelve centuries ago, was ruling in Constantinople, and combined later with the Longobardic rites and mixed in farraginous volumes of private and obscure interpreters, constitute that tradition of opinions that, in a large part of Europe, has still the name of laws; and it is a grievous as well as a common occurrence, nowadays, that an opinion of Carpzovio, an ancient custom mentioned by Claro, a torment suggested with angry satisfaction by Farinaccio, are the laws that are followed by those who should govern the lives and destiny of men with extreme concern. These laws that are the “discharge” of the most barbaric centuries, are examined in the present book in that part that concerns the criminal system, and their errors are pointed out to the leaders of the public welfare with a style that alienated the unenlightened and impatient people. That naïve analysis of the truth, that independence from the common opinions with which this work has been written, is a product of the pleasant and enlightened government under which this author lives. The great monarchs, the benefactors of mankind who rule us, love the truths revealed by the obscure philosopher with a non-fanatical vigor that is detested only by the individual who, being rejected by reason, attacks force

c e s a re b e cc a r ia  | 229

and intelligence, while the present disorders, for the one who considers carefully all their circumstances, are the satire and the reproach of the bygone ages and not those of this century and its legislators. Whoever intended to honor me with his criticism, should begin by understanding well the purpose of this work, a purpose that, far from diminishing legitimate authority would increase it if opinions were in men a stronger force and if kindness and humanity justified it in the eyes of all. The ill conceived criticisms published against this book are based on confused notions and force me to interrupt for a moment my reflections addressed to the enlightened in order to have, once and for all, access to a timid zeal on the slander of malicious envy. Three are the sources from which derive the moral and political principles that rule men: revelation, natural law, and the established conventions of society. There is no comparison between the first and the others as far as its main purpose is concerned, but they resemble each other in this: that all three lead to the happiness in this mortal life. Considering the common necessity and usefulness of the last one, is not excluding the relation of the first two; on the contrary, since those, although divine and immutable, were altered in a thousand ways by human fault and by arbitrary notions of vice and virtue in some altered, depraved minds, it seems thus necessary to examine separately from any consideration what originated from the pure human conventions, whether expressed or understood, for the common necessity and usefulness. Considering the relationship of the last one, is not to exclude the relationship of the first two; on the contrary, those two, although divine and immutable, by the fault of men with false religions and arbitrary notions of vice and virtue, were altered in a thousand ways in their depraved minds, it seems necessary to examine separately from any other consideration what originated from the pure human conventions, expressed or imagined, for necessity and common use, an idea in which every sect and moral system must necessarily assemble and it will always be a laudable enterprise the one that forces even the most obstinate and credulous to conform with principles that drive men to live in a society. There are, therefore, three classes of virtue and vice: religious, natural and political. These three classes must never be in contradiction among them, but not all consequences and duties that result from one result from the others. Not everything that revelation demands is demanded by the natural law, nor what the latter one demands is demanded by the social law, but it is very important to separate what originates from this convention, namely from the revealed or tacit pacts of men because such is the limit of that force that can be legitimately exercised among men without a special mission of the supreme Being. Therefore, the concept of political virtue may certainly be defined as variable, the one of natural virtue



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

would always be a pure and constant one, because it is revealed by God and preserved by Him.

Origin of Punishments The laws are the conditions by which independent and isolated men are united in a society, tired of living in a constant state of war and in order to enjoy a freedom made useless by the uncertainty of keeping it. They sacrificed part of it in order to enjoy what remained of it safely and peacefully. The sum of all these parts of freedom that were sacrificed for the good of each one constitutes the sovereignty of a nation, and the sovereign is the legitimate trustee and administrator of them, but establishing this mandate was not sufficient, it was necessary to defend it by the individual usurpations of each man in particular, who always tries to take away not only his own portion but wants to usurp also the others’. Some sensible motives were necessary that might turn away the despotic mind of each man from plunging back into the original chaos the rules of society. These sensible motives are the punishments established against the violators of the laws. I say sensible motives, because experience showed that the masses do not adopt stable behavioral principles nor do they deviate from that universal principle of dissolution, that in the physical and moral universe is observed only with motives that affect immediately the uses and that served only with motives which affect immediately the senses and that come constantly to mind in order to counterbalance the strong impressions of partial passions that go against the universal good: neither eloquence, nor declamations, not even the most sublime truths, were sufficient to restrain for a long time the passions aroused by the strong blows of the present objects.

The Right to Punish Any punishment that does not originate from an absolute necessity, says the great Montesquieu, is a tyrannical proposition that can be rendered more general as follows: every act of authority of a man on another that is not dictated by an absolute necessity is tyrannical. This is the ground on which is based the sovereign’s right to punish crimes; the necessity of defending the basis of the public health from individual usurpations; punishments are the more just as safety is sacred and inviolable and greater the freedom that the sovereign preserves for his subjects. Let us consult the human heart and we will find in it the fundamental principles of the true right of the sovereign to punish the crime since there is no hope of any durable advantage from moral politics unless it is based on the indelible sentiments of men. Any law that deviates from these will always be met by a contrary resistance that will win at the end, in that manner, which an even minimal force, if it is constantly exerted, wins every violent notion exerted upon a body.

c e s a re b e cc a r ia  | 231

No man made a free gift of part of his freedom in view of the public good; this chimera exists only in the novels; if it were possible, each one of us would prefer that the pacts that bind the others would not bind us, every man makes himself the center of all the combinations of the globe. The multiplying of the human gender, small in itself, but much larger for the means that the sterile and deserted nature offered to satisfy the needs that enmeshed with each other brought together the early savages. The early unions formed necessarily the others in order to resist against the first ones, thus the state of war was transposed from individuals to nations. It was necessity, therefore, that forced men to give up part of their freedom; it is certain, then, that each one wants to put in the public repository only a minimal possible portion, the only one that may suffice to induce the others to defend it. The union of these minimal portions constitutes the right to punish; anything additional is an abuse, not justice, it is done, but it is not a right. Do notice that the word “right” is not contradictory against the word “force” but the former is rather a modification of the second, namely the most useful modification for the largest number (of people). And by “justice” I mean only the necessary link to hold together the individual interests, for, without it, they would fade into the ancient condition of unconsciousness; all the punishments that go beyond the necessity to preserve this link are unjust by their nature. One must be careful not to give this word justice the idea of something real, like a physical force, or of a living being; it is a simple way of conceiving some men, a manner that affects infinitely everybody’s happiness, connections with the punishments and the rewards of the future life.

Errors in the Measure of Punishments The preceding reflections give me the right to state that the only and true measure of crimes is the damage inflicted upon the nation; thus, those who believed that a true measure of the crimes was the intention of those who committed them were not correct. The intention depends on the actual impression of the objects and the preceding state of mind: they vary in all humans and in every man with the very rapid succession of the ideas, passions, and circumstances. Therefore, it would be necessary to establish not only a particular code for every citizen, but a new law for each crime. Sometimes men, with the best intention, inflict the greatest evil on society and other times with the most wicked intentions do the greatest good. Other persons measure crimes more by the dignity of the wronged person than by their importance concerning the common good. If this were the true measure of crimes, an irreverence against the Being of beings should be punished more atrociously than the assassination of a monarch, being the superiority of nature an infinite compensation for the difference of the offense.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Finally, some individuals thought that the severity of the sin entered into the measure of crimes. The fallacy of this opinion will stand out in the eyes of an indifferent examiner of the true relationship between men and men, and between men and God. The former are relationships of equality. Necessity alone has created, from the clash of passions and the oppositions of interests, the idea of the common usefulness that is the foundation of human justice. The latter are relationships of dependence on a perfect, creative Being who has reserved for himself the right to be a legislator and judge at the same time, because he himself can be it without difficulty. If he has established eternal punishments for those who disobey his omnipotence, which will be the “insects” who will dare substitute divine justice, who will want to avenge the Being who suffices to himself, who cannot receive from objects any impression of pleasure or pain, and who, alone among the beings acts without reactions? The seriousness of sin depends on the inscrutable malice of the heart. This may not be known without revelation by finite beings. How, then, will one derive from this the norm to punish the crimes? In this case, men might punish when God forgives, and forgive when God punishes. If men can be in a contradiction with the Omnipotent in offending him, they may be equally by punishing.

On the Purpose of Punishments From the simple consideration of the truths discussed thus far, it is evident that the purpose of the punishments is not tormenting and distressing a sensitive being, nor the undoing of an already committed crime in a political body that, far from acting under passion, is the calm moderator of the individual passions. Can there exist this useless cruelty, the tool of fury and fanaticism or of weak tyrants? Do the cries of a poor wretch call back from the time that does not return deeds already carried out? The end, therefore, is nothing but to stop the culprit from inflicting more damage to the other citizens and prevent others from committing the same. Those punishments, therefore, and the method of applying them, must be chosen that will reflect the proportion and will make a more effective and lasting impression on men’s souls, and the least painful on the body of the culprit.

On Secret Charges Secret charges are evident but consecrated disorders and in many nations they are necessary because of the weakness of their constitutions. Such a custom makes men false and shady. Whoever suspects to see an informer in another person, sees an enemy. Men, then, become accustomed to hide their feelings, and with the

c e s a re b e cc a r ia  | 233

custom of hiding them from others, they finally wind up by hiding them from themselves. Unhappy are those that have reached this point; without clear and firm principles to guide them, they ramble, confused and wavering, in the vast sea of opinions, always busy saving themselves by the monsters that threaten them; they spend the present time always embittered by the uncertainty of the future, without the enduring pleasure of tranquility and safety; only a few of them, scattered here and there, in their mean lives, devoured by haste and confusion, have the consolation of having existed. Will we make fearless soldiers to defend our fatherland and the throne out of these men? Is it among these that we will find the uncorrupted magistrates who, with a free and patriotic eloquence support and develop the true interests of the sovereign, that bring to the throne with their tributes the love and the blessings of all the classes of men, and from this give to palaces and huts the peace, the safety and the industrious hope to improve their fate, useful impulse and life of the states? Who can defend himself from calumny when it is armed with the strongest shield of tyranny, secrecy? What kind of government is that where the person who rules suspects in everyone of his subjects an enemy and is forced, for the public order, to take it away from everybody? What are the reasons by which accusations and secret punishments are justified? Public health, safety and the defense of a form of government? What a strange constitution (is that) where who has the power in his hands and its most effective opinion, fears every citizen? The safety of the informer? The laws, then, do not defend him sufficiently. And there will be subjects stranger than the ruler! The infamy of the informer? And so, the secret calumny is authorized and the public one is punished! The nature of the crime? If the unimportant actions, if those that are useful for the public are called crimes, namely public offenses, and that at the same time is it not a common interest the notoriety of the example, namely that of the judgment? I respect every government and am not speaking of one in particular; such is, at times, the nature of circumstances that one might consider an extreme ruin to remove a problem when it is inherent in the system of a nation; but if I had to dictate new laws in some abandoned corner of the universe, before authorizing such a practice, my hand would tremble, and I would have the whole of posterity before my eyes. It has been already said by Montesquieu that public accusations are more suited for a republic, where the public should be the first passion of the citizens than the monarchy where this sentiment is very weak by the very nature of the government, where it is an excellent rule to assign some commissioners who in the name of the public charge the breakers of the laws. But every government, both republican and monarchic, must give the slanderer the punishment that would be given the defendant.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

On Torture A cruelty established by custom in the major part of the nations is the torturing of the defendant while the trial is prepared or in order to force him to confess to a crime or because of the contradictions in which he incurs, or because of the identification of his accomplices, or I do not know for which metaphysical and incomprehensible purging of infamy, or, finally, for other crimes he might have committed but of which he is not charged. A man cannot be defined as guilty before the judge’s sentence nor can society take the public protection away from him, until it has been decided that he violated the agreement with which it was granted to him. What is, then, that right but that of force, that gives the judge the authority to inflict a punishment on a citizen, while it is still in doubt whether he is guilty or innocent? This dilemma is not new; the crime is either certain or uncertain; if it is certain, he does not deserve any punishment except that imposed by the laws, and torture is useless because the confession of the indicted is useless; if it is uncertain, one should not torment an innocent because such is a man according to the laws if his crimes are unproven. But I add more, that wanting to confuse all relationships in requesting that a man is, at the same time, accuser and accused, that pain becomes the crucible of truth, as if its concept resides in the muscles and nerves of a wretch. This is the certain method to absolve the robust criminals and to condemn the weak innocent. These are the fatal difficulties of this presumed criterion of truth, but a criterion suitable for a cannibal, that the Romans, barbaric themselves for more than one reason, saved only for the slaves, the victims of fierce and excessively praised virtue. What is the political aim of punishments? The terror of other men. But what judgment will we make of the secret and private carnages that the tyranny of custom inflicts upon the guilty and the innocent? It is important that every evident crime may not go unpunished, but it is useless to ascertain who committed a crime that is buried in darkness. An already committed wrong for which there is no remedy can be punished by the political society only when it influences the others by means of allurement and impunity. If it is true that there is a larger number of men who, either out of fear or virtue, abide by the laws than those who break them, the risk of torturing an innocent person has to be weighed even more when the probability that a man may have respected and observed them rather than spurn them. Another ridiculous reason for torturing is the purification of infamy, namely a man considered infamous by the laws must confirm his deposition by the dislocation of his bones. This abuse should not be tolerated in the eighteenth century. They believe that pain, that is a sensation, purges infamy that is a mere moral concept. Is it perhaps a crucible? And is infamy a mixed, impure body? It is not difficult to go back to the origin of this ridiculous law, because the absurdities that

c e s a re b e cc a r ia  | 235

are adopted by an entire nation have always some connection with the other common and respected ones by the same nation. This usage seems to be taken by the religious and spiritual ideas, that exercise a great influence on the thinking of men, on the nations and on the centuries that infallible dogma assures us that the stains required by human weakness, and that have not deserved the eternal wrath of the great Being, must be purified by an incomprehensible fire; now, infamy is a civil stain and like pain and fire removes the spiritual and immaterial stains, why wouldn’t the pangs of torture remove the civil stain that is infamy? I believe that the criminal’s confession, that in some courts is required as essential for the sentence, has a not so different origin because in the mysterious tribunal of penance the confession of sins is an essential part of the sacrament. Here is how men abuse of the most certain lights of revelation, and as these are the only ones that survive in times of ignorance, thus the same humanity has recourse to them in all the occasions and applies them in a most absurd and outlandish manner. But infamy is a sediment from laws and reason yet subjected to the common opinion. Even torture creates a real infamy for the victim. Therefore, by using this method, infamy will be removed with infamy. The third reason is the torture that is inflicted upon the presumed culprits when, in their questioning, they contradict themselves, almost as if the fear of the punishment, the uncertainty of the judgment, the appearance and majesty of the judge, the ignorance common in all, guilty and innocent, may not cause a self-accusation for the innocent who is afraid and the culprit who tries to take over, almost as if contradictions, common in men, when they are calm, should not multiply in the anxiety of the mind all absorbed in the thought of saving itself from the imminent danger. This disgraceful crucible of truth is a monument still in existence in the ancient, wild legislation when they were called ordeals (judgment of God), the trials of fire and boiling water and the uncertain lot of arms, as if the rings of the eternal chain, which is at the center of the first cause, were to be confused and disconnected by the frivolous human establishments. The only difference between torture and the trials by fire, or the boiling water, is that the result of the former seems to depend on the will of the culprit, and the latter one on a purely physical and extrinsic fact; but this difference is only apparent and not real. There is so little freedom to tell the truth among the agonies and the torments as it was then the impeding, without fraud, of the effects of fire and boiling water. Every action of our will is always proportionate to the force of the senses’ impressions, which is its source, and the sensitivity of each individual is limited. Therefore, the impression of the pain may grow to the point where, by occupying it entirely, it does not leave any freedom to the tortured person but to choose the shortest way for the present moment in order to escape punishment. Then the culprit’s answer is as necessary as the impressions of fire or water. Then the sensitive innocent will be called guilty, when he believes to make the torture stop by doing that. Every



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

difference between them disappears by using the same means that is expected to be used in order to find it anew. It is superfluous to double the light by quoting the countless examples of innocent persons who confessed to be culprits owing to the agony of tortures; there is no country, there is no age that does not count its own but men neither change nor draw any consequences. There is no man that projected his ideas beyond the needs of life, that sometimes runs toward nature that calls him with secret and confused voices: usage, tyrant of minds, repels and scares him. The result of torture, then, is a matter of temperament and calculation that varies in every person in proportion to his sturdiness and his sensitivity, so that by using this method a mathematician would solve this problem better than a judge: given the strength of the muscles and the sensitivity of the body of an innocent person, find the degree of pain that will cause him to confess himself guilty of a given crime. The examination of a defendant is done to learn the truth. But if this difficultly discovered truth by the air, the gestures, the aspect of a peaceful man will be discovered much less in a man whom the convulsions of pain alter his features, by which from the face of the majority of men transpires sometimes the truth against their will. Every violent action confuses and obliterates the least differences of the objectives by which, sometimes, we may distinguish truth from falsehood. These truths were known by the Roman legislators, by whom no torture was sought with the unique exception of the slaves, who were deprived of all personality; they were known also by England, a nation where the glory of the letters, the superiority of trade and wealth and then of power and the examples of virtue and courage do not allow us to doubt of the goodness of their laws. Torture has been abolished in Sweden, by one of the wisest monarchs in Europe, who, having brought philosophy to the throne, a legislator friend of his subjects, made them equal and free in the dependence of the laws, that is the only quality and freedom that reasonable men demand in the present state of affairs. Torture is not deemed necessary by the laws of the armies composed in the major part by the dregs of the countries, who would seem for these reasons, to be using it more than any other class. And what a strange thing it is, for those who do not think how great is the tyranny of usage, who must learn peace-loving laws from minds hardened in slaughter and in blood. This truth is finally envisioned, although in a confused manner by the same people who abandon it. The confession made during torture is not valid if it is not confirmed by a sworn statement after the torture is ended. But, if the defendant does not confirm the crime, he is tortured again. Some scholars do permit this infamous petition in principle only three times, other countries and other scholars

c e s a re b e cc a r ia  | 237

leave it to the decision of the judge, so that out of two men equally innocent or equally guilty, the robust and brave one will be absolved, the weak and timid one will be condemned on the basis of this exact reasoning: I, the judge, had to find you guilty of such a crime; you, strong man, were able to resist against pain so I absolve you; you, weakling, gave in and so I condemn you. I feel that the confession wrung from you with the tortures would have no validity, but I will torment you again if you do not confirm what you have confessed. A strange consequence, that derives necessarily from the use of torture, is that the innocent man is put in a worse condition than the guilty; because if both are put under torture, the first has all the contrary combinations, because either he confesses the crime, and he is condemned or he is declared innocent and has to suffer an undeserved punishment; but the guilty has a favorable situation for himself, namely when, resisting during torture with firmness, he must be absolved as innocent; he changed a greater punishment with a minor one. Therefore, the innocent man can only lose and the culprit may gain. The law that imposes tortures is a law that says: Men, resist the pain, and if nature created in you an inextinguishable self-respect, it gave you an inalienable right for your defense. I create in you a contrary sentiment, namely a heroic hatred of oneself, and I order you to accuse yourselves by telling the truth even in the middle of the wrenching of your muscles and the dislocation of your bones. One administers torture in order to discover whether he is guilty of other crimes apart from those of which he is charged, which is equivalent to this reasoning: You are guilty of a crime, therefore it is possible that you are guilty of one hundred more crimes; this doubt weighs on me, I want to ascertain with my idea of truth; the laws torment you, because you are guilty, because you may be guilty, because I want you to be guilty. Finally, torture is imposed on a defendant in order to discover the accomplices of his crime, but if it is demonstrated that it is not a proper way to find the truth, how will it be useful to discover the accomplices, which is one of the truths to be discovered? Almost as if the individual, who accuses himself, does not accuse more easily the others. Is it right to torment for other people’s crimes? Will not the accomplices be discovered by the examination of the witnesses, by the interrogation of the guilty person, by the proof of the corpus delicti, in a word, by all those means that must be used in order to ascertain the crime of the charged person? Most of the accomplices flee away immediately after the imprisonment of their companion, the uncertainty of their destiny condemns them by itself to exile, and frees the country from the danger of new offenses, while the punishment of the guilty person, who is strong, obtains its only end, namely to remove with terror the other men from a similar crime.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

On Punishments of Noble People What will then the punishments for the noble’s crimes be, whose privileges form a large part of the laws of the nations? I will not examine here if this hereditary distinction among nobles and plebeians is useful in a government or necessary in the monarchy, if it is true that it constitutes an intermediate power that limits the excesses of the two extremes or rather forms a class that, as a slave of itself and of others, includes every circulation of credit and hope in a very limited area similar to those fertile and pleasant little islands that stand out in the sandy and vast deserts of Arabia. And that, when it is true that inequality is inevitable or useful in society, it is true also that it must consist of classes rather than of individuals, dwelling in one place rather than circulating through the entire political body, perpetuating itself rather than coming to life and destroying itself ceaselessly. I will limit my consideration only to the punishments due to their class, by stating that they must be the same of the first and the last citizens. Every distinction, either in the honors or in the riches, to be legitimate, presupposes a previous equality based on the laws that consider all the subjects to be depending on them. We must suppose that those persons who renounced their natural despotism said: Who will be more ingenious and receive more honors whose fame shines in his successors? But he who is happier and more honored must hope for more, but let him not fear less than the other men, of violating those pacts with which he is placed above the others. It is true that these decrees did not emanate from a diet of a human gender, but such decrees exist in the fixed relationships of things, they do not destroy those advantages that one supposes are produced by nobility, and prevent its inconveniencies, make the law formidable closing all ways to impunity. To a person who might say that the same punishment imposed upon a nobleman and a plebeian is not really the same, owing to the difference of education and the infamy that is spread over an illustrious family, I would respond that the criminal’s sensitivity is not the measure of the punishments but the public damage, which is much worse if it is done by one who is more favored, and that the equality of punishments can only be extrinsic, as it is really different in each individual; that the infamy of a family may be removed by a ruler with public demonstrations of benevolence toward the innocent family of the guilty individual. Who does not know that the sensible formalities take the place of reason in the credulous, admiring people?

On the Mildness of Punishments But the development of my ideas lead me away from the topic and I must hasten to clarify it. One of the first restraints of crimes is not the cruelty of the punishments but their infallibility and consequently the surveillance of the magistrates,

c e s a re b e cc a r ia  | 239

and that severity of an inexorable judge that, in order to be a useful virtue, must be accompanied by a mild legislation. The certainty of a punishment albeit moderate, will always make a greater impression than the fear of a more terrible one, in one with the hope of impunity between evil things, even minimal, when they are certain always frighten the human mind and hope, a celestial gift, that often replaces everything, always drives away the ideas of worse ones, especially when impunity, that avarice and weakness often grant, increases its strength. The very atrocity of the punishment causes one to dare more in order to avoid it as the pain that one is going to meet causes one to perpetuate more crimes in order to avoid the punishment of a single one. The countries and the times of the most atrocious tortures were always those of the most bloody and inhuman actions, because the same spirit of fierceness that guided the legislator’s hand, held also that of the parricide and the hired assassin. On the throne, he dictated iron laws to atrocious minds of slaves who obeyed. In the private obscurity it stimulated to sacrifice the tyrants in order to create new ones. As tortures became more cruel, the human souls that, like fluids, always try to reach the level of the objects that surround them, hardened, and the constantly alive force of passions has it that, after one hundred years of cruel tortures, the wheel frightens as much as the wheel did previously. For a punishment to obtain its effect it suffices that the point of the pain of suffering exceeds the good that derives from the crime and in this excess of evil one must calculate the infallibility of the punishment and the loss of good that the crime would produce. All the excess, therefore, is superfluous and so it is tyrannical. Men behave by the repeated action of the evil that they know, not on those that they do not know. Let us take two countries where, in the scale proportioned to the scale of the crimes, the major punishment is perpetual slavery and in the other it is the wheel. I say that the first one is going to fear its major punishment as will the second one, and if there is a reason to transfer into the first one the major punishment as will the second one, the same reason would serve to increase the punishment of the latter one bypassing imperceptibly from the wheel to the slower and more thought out, to the latest refinements of the too well known science of the tyrants. Two more grievous consequences derive from the cruelty of the punishment that are contrary to the very purpose of preventing crimes. The first is that it is not so easy to keep the essential proportion between crime and punishment because, although an ingenious cruelty changed its kind quite extensively, they cannot go beyond the latter force whose organization is limited as well as is human sensibility. Having reached this extreme point, one could not find, for the most dangerous and atrocious crimes, a corresponding major punishment that would be able to prevent them. The other consequence is that the very impunity arises from the atrociousness of the pains. Men are locked within some limits, both in good and in evil, and an excessively atrocious spectacle for humanity may only be a passing



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

furor but never a constant system as the laws must be because, if they are truly cruel, they are changed or the fatal impunity arises from the laws themselves. Who, in reading history, does not horrify for the barbaric and useless tortures that were invented and applied with a cold mind by men who were called wise? Who would not tremble all over seeing thousands of poor people that poverty, determined or tolerated by the laws that have always favored the few and offended the many, drew to a desperate return to a primitive state of nature or charged with impossible crimes created by their timid ignorance, or guilty of nothing but being faithful to their principles, by men endowed with the same passions being torn with meditated formalities and slow tortures, the happy show of a fanatic mob?

On Capital Punishment This useless prodigality of tortures1 that has never made man better brought me to examine whether death is really useful and just in a well organized government, and what might be the right that men claim to slay their fellow men. Not certainly that from which derive sovereignty and the laws. They are only the sum of minimal portions of the private freedom of each person; they represent the general will that is the union of the particular ones. Who is the individual who left to others the liberty of killing him? How can it be that in the minimal sacrifice of the freedom of each individual there may be that of the greatest of all goods, life? And if this was done, how does this principle agree with the other, that man is not free to kill himself, yet had to be if he could give others, or to the whole society, this right? The penalty of death, then, is not a right, as I proved that it cannot be, but it is a war of the country against a citizen, because it considers it necessary or useful the destruction of his being. Yet, if I prove that death is neither useful nor necessary, I shall have won the cause in favor of humanity. The death of a citizen may be considered necessary only for two reasons. The first is that, even if deprived of liberty, he still has much connection and power that interests the security of the country; when his existing may cause a dangerous revolution against the established form of government. The death of a few citizens, then, becomes necessary when the country regains or loses its liberty, or in time of anarchy when the very riots take the place of the laws; but during the peaceful rule of the laws, in a form of government for which the will of the country is united, well provided outside and inside by force and by opinions, perhaps more effective than force itself, where commanding only in the hands of the ruler, where wealth provides pleasure and not authority, I do not see any necessity of destroying a citizen, unless his death were the true and sole restraint to dissuade the others from committing crimes, the second reason why the death penalty may be considered just and necessary.

c e s a re b e cc a r ia  | 241

When the experience of all centuries, when the last torture never dissuaded men bent on offending society, when the example of the Roman citizens and twenty years of rule of Empress Elizabeth of Muskovy, when she gave the fathers of the countries this illustrious example that is equivalent at least to many conquests gained with the blood of the children of the fatherland, did not persuade men for whom the language of reason is always suspicious and that of authority effective, it is only necessary to consider men’s nature in order to grasp the truth of my statement. It is not the intensity of the punishment that makes the strongest impression on the human soul, but its duration, because our sensitivity is more easily moved by universal but repeated impressions than by a strong but transitory movement. The rule of habit is universal over every being that feels and as man speaks and walks and provides for his needs with its help. Thus, moral ideas are sculpted in the mind only by durable and repeated blows. It is not the terrible but temporary spectacle of the death of a wicked individual, but the long and laborious example of a man deprived of liberty who, having turned into a serving animal, repays with his labor that society that he offended, which is the strongest restraint against crimes. That is effective because, repeated very often, returned to us will thus be reduced to such a long and miserable condition if I commit similar misdeeds, it is much more powerful than the idea of death, that men always perceive in an obscure distance. The death penalty leaves impressions that, with its strength, does not compensate for a prompt forgetfulness, natural in men, even in the most essential things, and it is accelerated by passions. General rule: violent passions surprise men but not for a long time, yet they are more apt to make those revolutions than common people make of Persians and Lacedaemonians; but in a free and tranquil government, impressions must be more frequent than strong. The death penalty becomes a spectacle for the most part and an object of compassion mingled with anger for some; both these feelings occupy more the mind of the onlookers than the healthy terror that the law claims of inspiring. But in the moderate and continuous punishments the dominating feeling is the last one because it is the only one. The limit that the legislator should set for the gravity of the penalty seems to consist in the feeling of compassion when it begins to prevail upon every other one in the soul of the bystanders of a torture performed more for them than for the guilty. For a pain to be just it must have only those degrees of intensity that are sufficient to keep men away from crimes; now there is nobody who, considering it, may choose the total and perpetual loss of his own freedom, no matter how advantageous the crime may be; therefore, the intensity of the pain of perpetual slavery, substituting the pain of death, has what is necessary to dissuade any determined



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

mind; I add that it has more: many consider death with a calm and firm face, some out of fanaticism, others out of vanity that almost always accompanies a man beyond his tomb. Some, because of a last, desperate attempt either not to live or to go out of misery; but neither fanaticism nor vanity remain in shackles or chains, under the stick, the yoke, in an iron cage, and, desperate, does not put an end to his problems but begins them. Our soul resists more violence and extreme, passing woes than time and everlasting boredom; because he can, so to say, concentrate all of himself for a moment to reject the former, but his vigorous inflexibility is not sufficient to resist the long and repeated action of the latter ones. With the punishment of death every example that is given to the country presupposes a crime; in the punishment of perpetual slavery a single crime offers very many and durable examples; and if it is important that men see often the power of the laws, the death sentence must not be very distant among them. Therefore, they presuppose the frequency of crimes. So, in order for this torture to be useful, it must not leave upon people the impression that it should, namely that it be useful and not useful at the same time. Should one say that perpetual slavery (imprisonment) is as painful as death and consequently equally cruel, I would answer that by summing up all the unhappy moments of slavery it may even be more, but these are stretched along his whole life, and the former exerts all its strength in a single time; this is the advantage of the pain of slavery that frightens more the one who sees it than the one who suffers it, because the former considers the entire sum of the unhappy moments and the second is distracted from the unhappiness of the present moment by the future one. All ills grow larger in imagination, and he who is suffering finds consolation and resources unknown and not believed by the observers, that replace the hardened soul of the unhappy person with their sensitivity. This is, more or less, the reasoning of a thief or an assassin who has no other counterweight not to violate the law but the gallows or the wheel. I know that, in order to develop the feelings of one’s soul, it is an art which is acquired with study; but, if a thief would not realize well his principles, this does not mean that he would act less. What are these laws that I have to observe, that leave such a broad interval between me and the rich man? He denies me a penny that I ask of him, and apologizes by ordering me to do a work that he does not know. Who made these laws? Rich and powerful men that never even deigned to visit the dismal huts of the poor man, who never shared a moldy piece of bread among the innocent crying of the starving children and the tears of a wife. Let us break these ties, fatal for the most part and useful only for the few and indolent tyrants; let us attack injustice at its source. I shall go back to my condition of natural independence, I shall live free and happy for some time of the fruit of my courage and of my ability,

c e s a re b e cc a r ia  | 243

perhaps the day of grief and repentance will come, but that time will be short and I will have a day of hardship for many years of freedom and pleasures. The king of a small number, I will rectify the errors of fortune, and I will see these tyrants grow pale and shake in the presence of him who, with insulting luxury, placed him after his horses and his dogs. Then religion comes to the mind of the infamous man who abuses everything and presenting to him an easy repentance and the possible certainty of eternal happiness, greatly diminishes the horror of this late tragedy. But the person who sees ahead of himself a large number of years or even the whole time of his life that he would spend in slavery and sorrow in front of his fellow citizens with whom he lives free and sociable, a slave of those laws by which he was protected, makes a useful comparison of all this with the uncertainty of the result of his crimes, with the shortness of the time of which he would enjoy the fruit. The constant example of those that at present he sees as victims of his inadvertence impresses him much more strongly than the spectacle of a torture which inures more than corrects him. The death penalty is not useful for the example of atrocity that it gives people. If passions or the necessity of a war taught how to spill human blood, the laws which moderate human conduct should not increase the violent example, that is more deadly when the legal death is imposed with care and formality. It seems to be absurd that the laws which are the expression of the public will, that detest and punish homicide, commit one themselves and, in order to drive the citizens away from assassination, order an assassination in public. Which are the truest and more useful laws? Those pacts and conditions that all would like to observe and propose, while they always listened to the voice of private interest, it is silent or it merges with that of the public. What are the feelings of everyone on the death sentence? Let us read them in the facts of indignation and scorn with which everybody observes the executioner who is also an innocent executor of the public will, a good citizen who also contributes. The public good, the necessary instrument for the public safety inside as the brave soldiers outside? What is, then, the origin of this contradiction? And why is this feeling indelible in humans in spite of its reason? Why do people, in the most secret recess of their soul, a part that, more than any other one, still preserves the original form of the old nature, always believe that their own lives are not under anyone’s authority, except for when necessary, that holds the universe with his iron scepter? What must men think when they see the wise magistrates and the grave priests of justice who, with an indifferent calm, have a culprit dragged in a slow ceremony to his death, and while a miserable wretch suffers in his last throes waiting for the fatal blow the judge passes with indifferent coldness and perhaps also with a secret satisfaction of his own authority to enjoy the comforts and the



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

pleasures of life? Oh, they will say, these laws are only the pretexts of force and the meditated and cruel formalities of justice; they are only a conventional language to sacrifice us with great safety, like victims destined to be sacrificed to the insatiable idol of despotism. Murder, that is indicated as a terrible crime, is used also without repugnance and without anger. Violent death seemed to us a terrible scene in the descriptions that were made but we see it as an event of a moment. Such are the grievous paralogisms that, if not clearly, at least confusedly are pronounced by men ready to commit crimes, in whom, as we saw, the abuse of religion is stronger than religion itself. If one should rebut by using the example of almost all centuries and countries that punished some crimes with a death sentence, I shall answer that it is nothing vis-à-vis truth, against which there is no provision, for human history gives us the scene of an immense sea of errors, among which few and confused, largely alternated truths, come out. Human sacrifices were common among almost all countries, who will pardon them? The fact that a few societies, and only a few, for a short time abstained from imposing death, is more agreeable with me than the contrary, because this is in accordance with the success of great truths, whose education is but a flash of lightning in comparison with the long and obscure night that envelops men. The fortunate time has not yet come when truth, as error so far, is common in the largest number, and that the only truths that the infinite Wisdom wanted to separate from the others by revealing them, has until now been free from this universal law. The voice of a philosopher is too weak against the tumults and the clamor of many who are guided by blind habit, but the few wise people that are scattered through the world will agree with me in their hearts. And if truth, among the infinite obstacles that drive it away from a ruler, in spite of himself, could reach his throne, let him know that it comes accompanied by the secret wishes of all men, let him know that in front of him the bloody fame of the conquerors will be silent and the fair posterity will assign to him the first place among the peace loving glories of the Tituses, Antoninuses, and Trajans. Happy will be humanity if, for the first time, it was given laws, now that we see on the thrones of Europe’s beneficent rulers, inspirers of peaceful virtues, the sciences and the arts, fathers of their peoples, crowned citizens whose increased authority constitute the happiness of their subjects because it removes that intermediate, more cruel despotism, because it is less safe, that smothered the people’s sincere desires always auspicious, when they may reach the throne! I say that, if they let the ancient laws exist, this is due to the infinite difficulty of removing from the errors the venerable rust of many centuries; this is a reason for the enlightened citizens to wish with a greater ardor the constant growing of their authority.

c e s a re b e cc a r ia  | 245

On the Way to Prevent Crimes It is better to prevent crimes than punish them. This is the main end of every good legislation, which is the art of leading men to the maximum happiness or the least possible unhappiness, speaking according to all considerations of the good and evil of life. But the means used until now are mostly wrong and contrary to the intended end. It is not possible to reduce the turbulent human activity to a geometric order without irregularities and confusion. As the constant and most simple laws of nature do not forbid the planets to become upset in their motions, thus, in the infinite and very opposed attractions of pleasure and pain, they cannot evade from the human laws, from its disturbances and disorder. Yet this is the chimera of limited men when they hold power in their hand. Prohibiting a number of different actions is not preventing the crimes that may arise but it is creating some new ones, it is defining freely virtue and vice that are considered eternal and immutable. To what would we be reduced if everything that might lead us to commit a crime could be forbidden for us? It would be necessary to deprive man of the use of his senses. For one reason that drives men to commit a real crime, there are thousands that drive him to commit those different actions that are called crimes by the bad laws; and if the probability of the crimes is in proportion to the number of the reasons, widening the sphere of the crimes is like increasing the probability of committing them. The major part of the laws is only privileges, namely a tribute of all for the convenience of a few. Do you want to prevent crime? See that laws are clear, simple and that all the strength of the country is concentrated to defend them, and no part of it is used to destroy them. Let laws favor less the classes of men rather than men themselves. See that men fear them, and fear only them. Fear of the laws is wholesome, but that among men is fatal and fertile in crime. Enslaved men are more voluptuous, more dissolute, more cruel than free men. The latter meditate on sciences, on the interest of the country, they perceive large objects and imitate them. But those who are satisfied with the current day, look amid the noise of libertinage for a distraction from the annihilation in which they perceive themselves, used to the uncertainty of the result of everything; the result of their crimes becomes problematic for them, to the advantage of the passion that determines them. If the uncertainty of the laws falls on a country indolent because of its climate, it keeps and it erases its indolence and stupidity. If it falls on a voluptuous but active country, it scatters its activity in an infinite number of little cabals and intrigues that spread diffidence in every heart and make treason and dissimulation the foundation of prudence. If it falls on a brave and strong country, uncertainty is removed at the end, causing at first many oscillations from freedom to slavery and from slavery to freedom.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Conclusion I conclude with a thought, that the weight of punishments must be in proportion to the condition of the country. The impressions must be stronger and more sensitive on the hardened souls of a people that has just emerged from a state of primitiveness. It takes a bolt of lightning to knock down a ferocious lion that rises against a gun shot. But, as the minds become softer in a societal situation, sensibility grows, and with its growing, the intensity of the punishments must decrease, if one wishes to maintain constant the relationship between the objective and the sensation. From what we have noticed so far, we may construct a very useful general theorem, that is not in conformity with the most ordinary legislative usage of the countries, namely that every punishment be not an act of violence by one or many against a private citizen; it must be fundamentally public, prompt, and necessary, the least of the possible ones given the circumstances, in proportion with the crimes and dictated by the laws.

Note 1. Public sources indicate that by torture one refers to a method of physical or mental coercion that may be used in order to extort information or confessions that was/is often accompanied by the use of special devices capable of inflicting corporal punishment. In the penal procedures followed at the times considered in this study, torture represented a means to obtain certain proof rather than a mere corporal punishment. (Notice the frequent question of “telling the truth” addressed by the judges to the presumed untori, for example.)   The Italian term tortura derives from the Latin verb torquere, meaning to bend, twist, wring. Tortura, therefore, meant a bending, a twisting, a wringing.   In a literal sense, therefore, tortura was understood as the physical bending or twisting of arms or legs that was inflicted since the Middle Ages to obtain the confession of crimes, the names of possible accomplices in a criminal action, and sometimes as a way to force eye witnesses to reveal what they knew or had seen.   In ancient times torture was carried out secretly in the jails in order to obtain information or confessions, the main evidence of guilt. Once the confession was obtained and the sentence pronounced, the individual was taken to the city square, usually at dawn of the day following the sentence, where various tortures were inflicted in public until, after a variable amount of time, death occurred.   The methods that were employed could be one or more of the following:   The wheel. It was used frequently to punish criminals. The person was placed on a cart wheel and tied to the spokes. Afterwards, the executioner fractured his bones and his arms and legs were then inserted between the spokes of the wheel. The wheel was hoisted on top of a pole and a fire was started at the base so that the victim would be slowly burned from below for some hours.

c e s a re b e cc a r ia  | 247

  The stake. Used mainly for heretics and people accused of sorcery. The victim was tied alive to a pole surrounded by dry wood and straw that were set on fire.   The stretching. Invented by the Egyptians and adopted by the Babylonians, it was carried out by securing the victim on a table equipped with ropes and pulleys. The body was stretched in order to cause the dislocation of arms and legs, the separation of the spine and the tearing of the muscles. In the Middle Ages a version of this device was used but the table had sharp blades and iron spikes.   The mutilation. Used mainly in the Middle Ages, it was employed against thieves and bandits. It consisted in the amputation of parts of the body. The implement more frequently used in this case was the saw: at times the victim was cut in half.   The pliers and pincers. In the Middle Ages they were brought to a red heat and then used to tear parts of the skin.   The pole hanging. The person was tied to a pole or a cross and let to die of exhaustion. Usually, the punishment was increased by applying to the victims some weights that caused the dislocation of the limbs.   The heretic’s torture. It consisted of a metal collar with two prongs pointed toward the chest and the chin. It forced the victim to arch his neck backward.   Drowning. Used in the Middle Ages against the practicing of sorcery. With both hands and feet tied up, the person was thrown into the water. At times he/she might have been forced into a sack and thrown into the water.   Quartering. The abdomen of the victim was opened and his internal organs were removed. Other times the victim was tied to four horses that going in opposite directions caused the dismemberment of the victim. Usually the sentence was carried out for attempts against the life of kings or princes after other tortures had been inflicted.   Skinning. The victim’s skin was removed until the person died.   Phalaris Bull. The victim was placed inside a metal bull under which a fire was lit turning the device into a sort of oven. Some openings conveyed the screams of the victim toward the mouth of the bull amplifying them in a way that resembled a bull’s lowing.   Impalement. A procedure invented in Rumania by Vlad the Emperor. The victim was forced to sit on a pole, it eventually penetrated into the victim’s abdomen and came out from the chest or the mouth. The victim died after about two days.   The cage. The victim was closed in a cage of small dimensions, lifted from the ground and died often devoured by insects.   The Virgin of Nuremberg. The victim was placed inside a “sarcophagus.” The openings were closed and sharp, internal prongs caused a slow, painful death.   During the Inquisition, in 1252, torture was introduced by Pope Innocent IV in the bull Ad estirpanda. It was used in the procedure leading to confession of a crime. The ordinary ecclesiastical torture avoided any form of bleeding and normally it was limited to the wringing of arms and legs or the stretching of the body in order to cause the pulling of the muscles of the limbs. Only in particular cases the local bishop or the papal office could authorize more invasive tortures or the systematic breaking of the bones. The most severe punishment, burning at the stake, was used against the heretics who had divulged nonorthodox doctrines without repenting and retracting publicly.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

  The present position of the Catholic world and the issue of the illicit use of torture is indicated by the thought of Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli): “The preliminary investigation must exclude the physical and psychical torture and narcoanalysis, first because they damage a natural right, even if the defendant is actually guilty, and then because they obtain wrong results too often.”

Bibliography Beccaria, C. Dei delitti e delle pene. Venturi, F. (ed). Torino, 1970. ——. Opere. Firenze, 1958. Venturi, F. Settecento riformatore, Da Muratori a Beccaria. Torino, 1969.

chapter ten

Alessandro Manzoni I promessi sposi

Alessandro Manzoni was born in Milan, March 7, 1785, the son of Pietro Manzoni and Giulia Beccaria, the daughter of Cesare Beccaria who, as we have just seen, was the author of the book Dei delitti e delle pene. He studied first at Merate and Lugano and later in Milan at the School of the Barnabites. At the age of fifteen he was in Milan under the tutelage of his aged aunt. His mother, who had separated from Pietro Manzoni, lived in Paris with Carlo Imbonati (1753–1805), while his father did not seem to be too concerned about the upbringing of Alessandro. Manzoni began his writing activity with a political composition of four canti after the style of Vincenzo Monti (1754–1828), Il Trionfo della Libertà (The Triumph of Liberty). A brief period of spiritual difficulty followed during his visits to Venice and Milan. Upon the death of Carlo Imbonati, which occurred in Paris, he wrote a poetical composition expressing his esteem for that personality in In morte di Carlo Imbonati (On the Death of Carlo Imbonati), that was published in Paris in 1806. The composition marks a fundamental point in Manzoni’s spiritual development: in a dream Imbonati speaks to Manzoni about the necessity of living a life of virtue and serenity, a concept that Manzoni was to deal with later in some of his works. In 1808, Manzoni married Enrichetta Blondel, the daughter of a Swiss banker who was a Calvinist but converted to Catholicism in 1810. Also Manzoni then



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

publicly adhered to Catholicism and in the same year married Blondel in a Catholic rite. Some persons spoke of a “conversion” of Manzoni, but it should be noted that his decision came after long and slow meditations on the reality of life that would eventually lead to the writer’s philosophy of life and faith. In 1810, Manzoni returned to Milan where he remained, with the exceptions of occasional absences, for the rest of his life, alternating his visits between the city and his villa at Brusuglio, in the Lombard country. This was the time of his poetic creations. In fact, in 1815, Manzoni published the first four Inni sacri; in 1820, the first of his tragedies, Il Conte di Carmagnola, as well as 5 Maggio; in 1822, the second tragedy, Adelchi, and the most noticeable of his hymns, Pentecoste. In 1825, he initiated the printing of I promessi sposi on which he worked until 1827. Meanwhile, in 1819 he published Osservazioni sulla morale cattolica, a refined discussion with Sismondo de’ Sismondi, who in his Storia delle Repubbliche Italiane had indicated, in 1818, that the influence of the Catholic Church in Italian culture had contributed to the country’s spiritual decadence. In 1827, he went to Florence in order to retouch his novel. It was there that he had the occasion of meeting several writers as a frequent visitor of the Vieusseux salon. He then returned to Milan where he remained until the end of his life that occurred in 1873. Besides the works mentioned above, Manzoni’s vast literary production includes Lettre à Monsieur Chauvet sur l’unité de temps, de lieu et d’action dans la tragédie (1820), a letter Sul Romanticismo to Marquis Cesare D’Azeglio (1823); Del romanzo storico e in genere dei componimenti misti di storia e d’invenzione, 1845, and the dialogue Dell’invenzione, 1850. It is by now generally agreed that the height of Manzoni’s literary career is the novel, I promessi sposi, an historical novel set in the period between 1628 and 1630, during the Spanish rule over the territory of Milan. The novel, that underwent elaborate revisions, was published in three volumes between 1825 and 1827. But after the first edition, the author carried out a very long and meticulous work of revision by perfecting it from the linguistic point of view along the style of the Florentine educated form of speech and writing. The second edition of the novel was then published between 1840 and 1842. I promessi sposi represents human reality viewed through the providential necessity of its contradictions and sufferings. Pain and evil are not remote entities but the ways our courage is realized; God is not only a judge but an understanding providence and religion does not only promise punishments severally but a revelation of the truth. Manzoni is a masterful creator of ironic, pathetic and dramatic situations when he introduces characters that remain unforgettable. Comedy and tragedy play a central role in the story of the plague epidemic of Milan in 1630

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 251

or the events that involve, for example, the parish priest Don Abbondio, one of the most unheroic heroes in literature. A vast number of characters, belonging to all aspects of life, populate the novel in a seemingly endless series of events and attitudes. The serenity with which the writer looks at reality allows him to present it with great precision and compassion. Until a short time ago, historically speaking, generations of Italian students at all levels of learning read, studied and memorized entire episodes of this book whose characters and events continued to impress and move endlessly. With his novel, Manzoni was one of the main forces that brought about the intellectual and political unification of Italy by giving her, at the same time, a superb linguistic model and a national symbol of humanity and nobility.

I promessi sposi The novel opens with an introduction, the first page of which is created by the novelist and ably written in the convoluted and affected style of the Seicento (seventeenth century) that the author uses in order to explain soon afterwards why he does not continue to offer the reader a “copy” of the rest of the book whose author, he says, is anonymous. The beginning of the document, stinto e graffiato (faded and scrawled), says, in synthesis, the following: History, fighting against time that tries to destroy memories, calls back the past. But historians limit their works by describing only the deeds of great persons. I, however, writes the anonymous author, do not have the possibility of dealing with such sublime topics, therefore I shall narrate only the events experienced by humble and lowly people. In this story, one will see tragic events and an alternating struggle between good and evil, between angelic virtues and diabolic deeds. And one should really think of an infernal intervention, because men alone would not have been able to commit so much evil under the happy rule of the Catholic king and of the governor of Milan, the senators, and the magistrates who all try to do their utmost with one thousand eyes and one thousand arms in their public tasks. Out of respect toward these persons I shall not mention (says the imaginary anonymous author of the manuscript) names or places. This will not prevent the fact that in its substance the story may be considered complete, since names are pure accidents. At this point Manzoni, after having given the above example of an unappealing narrative style (but not contents), sets aside, as it were, the anonymous manuscript and addresses the reader speaking in the first person as follows: But when I have endured the heroic task of transcribing the present story from this faded



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

and scrawled autograph, and will have, as they say, brought it to light, will one find somebody who will endure the trouble of reading it? This doubting consideration, arisen from the toil of deciphering a scrawl that came after “accidents,” caused me to stop copying it and to think of what was more appropriate to do. It is true, I said in my mind, as I was leafing through the manuscript, that that shower of concepts and of figures of speech does not continue forever, through the entire story. The good secentista (seventeenth century writer) wanted to show, at the beginning, his skill; but then, in the narration, and for long passages, at times, his style runs more naturally and smoothly. Yes, but how commonplace it is! How coarse, how incorrect. Many Lombard dialectal forms, sentences in Italian used incorrectly, an arbitrary grammar, disconnected sentences. And also some Spanish preciosity, scattered here and there; and then, and much worse, in the most terrible and pitiable places of the story, on every occasion of giving rise to marvel or causing one to think of all those places that do require some rhetoric, but discreet rhetoric, refined, in good taste, this man never fails to employ the one of his foreword. And so, throwing together with an amazing ability the most contrasting qualities, he finds the way to be, at once, rough and affected in the same page, in the same paragraph, in the same word. Here are bombastic declamations built up by dint of grammatical, prosaic errors and, scattered everywhere, that ambitious awkwardness, which is the typical aspect of the writings of that century in this country (Lombardy). In all truth, it is not something to submit to the readers of nowadays, they are too knowing, too disgusted by this kind of oddness. Fortunately, the good ideas came at the beginning of this wretched book and I am going to wash my hands of it. But as I was closing the messy book to put it away, it bothered me that such a beautiful story should remain still unknown; because, as a story, it may happen that it may seem otherwise to the reader but, to me, it had seemed beautiful, as I say, very beautiful. Why shouldn’t one, I thought, take the events out of this manuscript and redo its form? As no reasonable objection arose, the decision was immediately taken. This is the origin of the present book, expressed with our openness equal to the importance of the book itself. Some of those events, however, some customs described by our author seemed so new, so strange, not to say worse, that before believing them we wanted to consult other witnesses and we started to search among the memoirs of that time in order to see clearly if the world lived really in that manner. Such an investigation dispelled all our doubts; we came across similar events everywhere, and even stranger, and, what seemed to us more decisive, was that having discovered some characters of whom we had heard nothing except from our manuscript, we were not certain if they had really existed. And in case of need, we should quote some

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 253

of those evidences in order to give them that believability that the reader would be more tempted to deny them because of their strangeness. But, after rejecting the style of our author, with what style did we replace it? This is the point. Anyone who, without being requested, intervenes in order to redo the work of another person, puts himself in the place of having to render account of his own, and in a certain way, he acquires his obligations; this is a well set rule that we do not intend to shirk at all. In fact, in order to comply with it willingly, we had decided to indicate minutely in this place the style of writing that we had adopted; with this aim in mind, we have tried to guess all along the possible and probable criticism; with the intention of rebutting all of it in advance. There would not have been any difficulty in this, since (we must admit it for truth’s sake), no criticism came to our mind without being followed by a triumphant response, one of those answers that, I would say, solve an issue but express them with correct terms. And often it occurred that if we had two criticisms battling each other, one was overwhelmed by the other; or in thoroughly examining them, and uniting them, to their great surprise, we rejected them both. There would have never been an author who could have given proof of having done a good job. But when we reached the point of getting all the mentioned objections and answers together, to put them in a certain order, oh God, they were so many to make a book. Having seen that, we set aside the idea for two reasons that the reader will certainly consider valid: the first one is that a book which is used to justify another one, or rather, the style of another one might seem a ridiculous thing; the second one (is) that one book at a time is enough, when it is not too much.

I promessi sposi: Chapters XXXI and XXXII Besides the introduction, the novel is developed in thirty-eight chapters. The topic of the plague is dealt with in chapters XXXI and XXXII. The former opens with the gravity of impeding doom: La peste che il tribunale della sanità aveva temuto che potesse entrar con le bande alemanne nel milanese, c’era entrata davvero, come è noto ed è noto parimenti che non si fermò qui, ma invase e spopolò una buona parte d’Italia. (The plague that the Office of Public Health had feared might come to the territory of Milan with the German units, had actually arrived, as it is known; and it is equally known that the disease did not stop there, but it invaded and emptied a large part of Italy.) The chapter temporarily sets aside the protagonists of the novel in order to describe the developments of the events with particular attention directed to the civic leadership in its uncertainty, hesitation and lack of care that, in combination, contributed to the explosion of the epidemic. It is a process of analysis that reaches a point where the responsibility of the



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

disaster may be ascertained. The reader will be able to follow the official reactions or the lack of action, the hesitation in recognizing the presence of the plague as well as the ensuing confusion among the members of the leadership as well as the mistaken beliefs in the mind of the populace generated by fear and superstition. The mass of confusion and superstitious ideas will combine and will lead to the final disaster. One personality emerges in the gloomy picture of Milan, that of Cardinal Federico Borromeo, who proves to be the only person capable of remaining calm and helpful in the general turmoil as well as an inspiration to the members of the clergy who were called to assist the victims of the catastrophe. Chapter XXXII introduces two important figures, Cardinal Federico again and Ambrogio Spinola, the governor of Milan. The former, as it was already said, was an important leader and valid presence in the city and the other, the governor, is actually an absence because of his main concern for the events of the war. In this chapter, some attention is also dedicated to the myths of the infected ointments presumably spread by the untori and the condemnation of the presumed culprits to the inhuman tortures that were used by the tribunals in order to obtain confessions on the activities of the untori. As we have seen above, the brutality of these procedures were to cause a strong reaction in the world of the writers, such as Verri and Beccaria. Another aspect of the chapter is the presence of the monatti, their abuses and criminal actions against the plague victims, offering a picture of evil and despair that pervade the scene. The reader remains with the impression of a hallucinating world where suspicion, fear, ignorance and bigotry run unchecked.

Chapter XXXI The plague that the Office of Public Health had feared might come to the territory of Milan with the German units, had actually arrived, as it is known; and it is equally known that the disease did not stop there, but it invaded and emptied a large part of Italy. Led by the thread of our history, we will narrate the main events of that calamity; in the Milanese territory, of course, or better, almost exclusively in Milan, because the records of the time deal almost exclusively with the city, as it almost always happens about everything for some good or bad reason. And, to tell the truth, in this narration our end is not only to represent the conditions of the situations where our characters will find themselves; but to explain as concisely as possible and as well as we can, a part of our country’s history that is more famous than well known. Of the many contemporary reports, there is not a single one sufficient enough to give an idea somewhat clear and orderly as there is not one that may be sufficient,

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 255

by itself, to formulate it. In each one of these descriptions, without excluding Ripamonti’s (Josephi Ripamontii, canonici scalensis, chronistae urbis Mediolani, De peste quae fuit anno 1630, Libri V. Mediolani, 1640 apud Malatestas), which surpasses them all, for its quality and for the choice of events, and even more for the manner of observing them, in each one essential events are written that are recorded in others; in each one there appear factual errors that can be recognized and corrected with the help of another report, or of the few acts of the public authority, published and unpublished that still remain; often a person may find in one the reasons of which one had seen, as if up in the air, its effects. And in all of them prevails a strange confusion of times and elements; it is a constant coming and going, somewhat casually, without a general plan nor details; that is, after all, one of the most common and evident characteristics of that age, particularly in those that were written in vernacular, at least in Italy. If this occurs in the rest of Europe, it is known by the scholars, we suspect. No writer of a later epoch resolved himself to examine and compare these memories in order to obtain a correct series of events, a history of that plague, so that the idea that we generally have of it must be, of necessity, very uncertain and a little confused; an infinity of great ills and great errors (and in truth there was much of the former and of the latter, beyond imagination), an idea made up more by judgments than by facts, some scattered events, not rarely accompanied by the most characteristic circumstances, without distinction of time, namely without having a clear idea of cause and effect, of process, and progression. We, for our part, by examining and comparing very diligently, if nothing else, all the printed material, more than one unpublished, many documents (in proportion with the few that are left) that they call official, tried to do not what one would want but something that was not yet done. We do not intend to report all the public documents, and not even all the events, worthy in some way, of being remembered. And even less we expect to render useless for the person who wishes to have a more complete idea of the matter, the reading of the original reports. We feel too deeply how vivid, proper, and, so to say, incommunicable is the lively force in those works, however conceived and developed they may be. We have only attempted to distinguish and verify the most general and important facts, to arrange them in the real order of their succession as much as their reason and nature allow, to observe their reciprocal effectiveness and to offer, for the time being and until somebody else does a better work, a succinct but sincere and continued information of that disaster. Along the entire strip of territory crossed by the army, a few cadavers had been found in the houses and in the streets. A short time later, individuals and families began to fall ill and to die, individuals and families because of violent illnesses, with symptoms unknown by the majority of the living. There were only a few for whom those signs were not new: the few ones who could remember the plague that,



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

fifty-three years earlier, had devastated also a large part of Italy and particularly the region of Milan where it was called, and it is still called, the plague of Saint Carlo. (It was the plague of 1576.) So strong is the virtue of charity! Among the various and solemn memories of a universal misfortune, may it cause to excel that of a man because it inspired him toward feelings and actions even more memorable of all the misfortunes; impress him in the minds as a synthesis of all those ills because in all he intervened, as a guide and assistance, example and voluntary victim of a general calamity giving thus his name to it as in the case of a conquest or a discovery. Chief physician Lodovico Settala, who had not only seen that plague but had been one of the most active and fearless and, although very young, one of the best known doctors of it; and who at that time, suspecting that disease was on the alert and informed, on October 1 reported to the Commission of Public Health that in the territory of Chiuso (the last of the territory of Lecco, bordering the territory of Bergamo) the contagion had unquestionably broken out. No decision was made about it as we can see in Tadino’s report. Similar reports followed from Lecco and Bellano. Then the commission decided, and was satisfied, to send a commissioner who, along the way, found a doctor in Como and went with him to visit the indicated places. Both of them, “either because of ignorance or for other reasons were convinced by an old and ignorant barber of Bellano, that that type of illness was not the plague”; but in some places, it was the usual consequence of the hardship and fatigue that people had suffered during the passage of the German soldiers. A similar assurance was reported to the commission and it seems that it set its heart at rest. But as more and more news of death kept arriving constantly from several parts, two deputies were sent to see and take care of the situation: the above mentioned Tadino and a judge from the commission. When they arrived, the disease had so spread out that the evidence appeared without our having to search for it. They visited the territory of Lecco, Valsassina, the banks of the Lake of Como, the area called Monte di Brianza and Gera d’Adda; they found everywhere towns closed with iron gates, others almost deserted, their inhabitants escaped and encamped in the country or dispersed; “and they seemed,” says Tadino, “wild creatures carrying in their hands either peppermint or rue, or rosemary or a vinegar jar.” They inquired about the number of deaths, it was frightening; they visited the sick and the dead, everywhere they found the ugly, terrible signs of pestilence. They communicated immediately those sinister situations to the commission, which received them on October 30 and “got ready,” says Tadino himself, to order the certificates to leave out of the city the individuals coming from those towns where the contagion had spread, and while the ordinance was compiled, he issued beforehand some brief orders to the tax collectors at the gates.

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 257

At the same time, the deputies took hurriedly those measures that seemed to them to be the best and returned with the sad conviction that they would be insufficient to remedy and stop such an advanced and widely spread illness. They arrived on November 14 and reported orally and again in writing to the commission. The letter ordered them to go to the governor and explain to him the situation. They went to see him, and reported that he was very sorry to hear such news and showed his concern; but the worries of the war were so urgent: Sed belli graviores esse curas (But the worries of the war being more pressing.). Thus writes Ripamonti, who had examined the records of the commission and consulted with Tadino, especially charged by the governor for that mission, if the reader remembers, and with that result. Two or three days later, on November 18, the governor issued a proclamation in which he ordered public festivities for the birth of Prince Carlos, the first born child of King Philip IV, without suspecting or being concerned about the danger of a large crowd of persons, in the said circumstances: everything as if they were common times, as if they had not reported anything to him. As we have already mentioned, this man was the famous Ambrogio Spinola, sent to straighten out that war and correct the mistakes of Don Gonzalo, and, incidentally, to govern; and we, too, may incidentally remember that he died a few months later, in that war that concerned him so much; and he died not of wounds received on the battlefield but in bed, because of worry and anguish, because of reproaches, wrongs, and aversions of every kind that were inflicted by those he was serving. History deplored his destiny and blamed other people’s lack of gratitude; it described very diligently his military and political feats, praised his foresight, activity, and constancy; it might even have searched what he did of all those qualities when the plague was threatening and invading a population entrusted to his care, or rather, to his mercy. But what, leaving blame untouched, moderates our surprise at his behavior, what creates another and stronger marvel, is the behavior of the population, of that population, I mean, that was not yet affected by the contagion and had a good reason to fear it. When news arrived from those towns which were so badly affected by it, the towns that were placed around the city almost in a semicircle, far from it, in some places no more than eighteen or twenty miles, who would not believe that there would arise a general movement, a desire for badly understood precautions or at least a useless uneasiness? Yet, if the memoirs of those times are in agreement, it is in agreeing that nothing happened. The famine of the previous year, the abuses inflicted by the soldiers, the mental anguish seemed more than sufficient to explain the mortality: in the squares, in the shops and in the houses, any person who indicated the plague as the reason for the deaths was greeted with incredulous



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

ridicule or angry contempt. The same disbelief, the same, to call it better, blindness and fixation prevailed in the Senate among the decurions and every magistrate. I find that Cardinal Federico, as soon as the first cases of the contagion were reported, ordered the parish priests, in a pastoral letter, to, among other things, admonish repeatedly the people about the importance and the various obligations of revealing any such occurrence and delivering the infected or questionable clothes; and this action also may be counted among his laudable originalities. The health commissioner implored cooperation but obtained few or no results. Even among the commission’s members, the solicitude was far from equaling the urgency; in fact, Tadino states several times, as it appears even better from the context of his report, that the two physicians were those who alerted that group which, in turn, would have to stimulate the others, about the seriousness and imminence of that danger. We have already seen that at the early rumor about the plague, the commission acted slowly in its work, or better, in getting information; here is another case of slowness no less extraordinary, although it may have been forced, concerning obstacles created by superior magistrates. That proclamation concerning the access to the city, that was decided on October 30, was drawn only on November 23 and published on November 29. The plague had already entered Milan. Tadino and Ripamonti made a point of mentioning the name of the first man to bring it in, as well as other circumstances concerning the person and the event; in fact, observing the beginning of a large mortality where the victims were not distinguishable by their names, and were merely indicated by the number in the thousands, a certain curiosity arises learning that those early and few names that could be recorded and preserved, this kind of distinction, the beginning of the extermination, seem to show in them and in the smallest details, something fateful and memorable. Both historians say that it was an Italian soldier serving in the Spanish army. As for the remaining details they are not in complete agreement, not even about his name. According to Tadino it was a Pietro Antonio Lovato, stationed in the territory of Lecco; according to Ripamonti, it was a Pier Paolo Locati, stationed in Chiavenna. They differ also concerning the day of his arrival in Milan—the former mentions October 22. You cannot trust neither one nor the other. Both dates are contradictory with other better verified dates. Yet Ripamonti, writing by order of the General Council of the Decurions, must have had at his disposal many means in order to obtain the necessary information and Tadino, owing to his kind of work, would have been able, better than anyone else, to be informed about a fact of this kind. On the other hand, checking the dates that, as we said, seem to us more exact, it appears that it happened before the publication of the proclamation on the customs rules, and, if necessary, one could prove, or almost

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 259

prove, that it must have happened in the early days of that month; but the reader certainly dispenses us from it. Be that as it may, this unfortunate bearer of misfortune, this soldier, entered the city carrying a large bundle of clothes, bought or stolen from German soldiers, and went to stay in the house of some relatives, in the district of Porta Orientale, near the Capuchins. As soon as he arrived he fell ill, and was carried to the hospital where a bubo that was discovered under an armpit caused the persons who tended after him to suspect what it was in reality and, on the fourth day, he died. The Health Commission had his family isolated and confined in their house; his clothes and the bed, which he had used in the hospital, were burned. Two attendants who had treated him and a good friar who had assisted him fell ill, all of them with the plague. The doubt that people had in that place since the beginning about the nature of the illness, and the precautions adopted as a consequence, worked in such a way that the contagion did not spread any further. But the soldier had left around the seeds that did not take long to germinate. The first one to be affected was the man of the house where the soldier had stayed, a Carlo Colonna, a lute player. Then all the tenants in that house were taken to the Lazzaretto, by order of the Health Office, where the majority fell ill; some died, after a short time, of evident contagion. In the city, what had already been spread around by people, their clothes, their furniture, taken away by relatives, renters, servants from the searchers and the fires mandated by the council and, in addition, what was new owing to the imperfection of the edicts and the negligence in carrying them out as well as the ability in dodging them, went on lurking and winding slowly for the entire remainder of the year and the early months of 1630. It attacked someone from time to time, now in this district now in another, and the very sparseness of the cases banished the suspicion of the truth, it confirmed in people more and more that stupid and deadly confidence that there was no plague, nor that there had ever been any even for a moment. Also several doctors, echoing the opinions of the populace (Was it even in this case the voice of God?), derided the ominous predictions, the threatening warnings of the few, and quickly mentioned names of common illnesses in order to qualify any case of the plague that they were called to treat, no matter with what symptoms or signs it had appeared. The information of these events, if they ever reached the Health Committee Office, arrived mostly late and uncertain. The terror of isolation and the Lazzaretto sharpened everyone’s wits; the sick persons were not reported, the sextons and their supervisors were bribed; and there were false certificates issued by employees of the Commission itself who examined the corpses.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Since the commission would order to burn objects, sequester houses and send families to the Lazzaretto every time it discovered something suspicious, it is easy to understand the anger and the grumbling of the public, “of the noble people, of the merchants and the populace,” Tadino says; all of them were persuaded that those were groundless and useless abuses. The greatest hatred was directed toward two physicians, the above mentioned Tadino and Senator Settala, the son of the chief medical examiner, to such a degree that they could not go out without being insulted with dirty words and threatened with stones. It was strange indeed, and it should be remembered in what situation those men were, for some months, to see a horrible scourge advance, struggling to oppose it, finding obstacles where they searched for help, and being, at the same time, the targets of people’s attacks, insulted like enemies of the fatherland: pro patria hostibus, writes Ripamonti. Part of that hatred was reserved also for other doctors who, convinced as they were of the reality of the contagion, suggested precautions and tried to explain to everyone their painful certainty. The most discreet critics accused them of being gullible and obstinate; to all the other people theirs was an evident imposture, a cabal hatched in order to take advantage of the public fear. Doctor Lodovico Settala, not quite eighty years old at that time, had been a professor at the University of Pavia, then professor of moral philosophy in Milan, and was the author of several highly regarded works at that time, an eminent scholar, invited to teach in other universities such as Ingolstadt, Bologna and Padua, honors that he had always refused, was certainly one of the most authoritative of his time. His reputation as a scientist was accompanied by that of his character, as well as the admiration and benevolence for his generous care in treating and benefiting the poor. But one thing that is troubling and saddening our esteem inspired by these merits and that was more general and stronger, was that the poor man shared the most common woeful prejudices of his contemporaries—he was ahead of them but not too far from their group, which is what attracts problems and often causes one to lose the authority gained in other matters. Yet, the great respect that he enjoyed not only was sufficient to overcome the opinion of what poets call “profane masses,” and the managers of theater companies, “respectable public,” but could not protect himself from the ill will and insults of that part of it that goes quickly from judgments to demonstrations and actions. One day, when he was going in a sedan chair to visit his patients, people began to crowd around him shouting that he was the leader of those who insisted that there was the plague; who spread fear through the city with his stern look, his ugly beard, all of this to provide work for the doctors. The crowd and the anger were increasing and the sedan bearers, seeing that things were taking a bad turn, gave shelter to their master in a friend’s house, that happened to be nearby. This

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 261

happened to him because he saw clearly, said what was happening and wanted to save from the plague thousands of persons; when, through a deplorable consultation, he contributed to have a poor, luckless woman tortured, maimed with pincers and burned as a witch, because her master suffered from unusual stomach aches and another previous master had been madly in love with her. That caused him to be considered wise by the public, and, unbearable to imagine, he received the new accolade of “well deserving.” But toward the end of the month of March, first in the district of Porta Orientale, then in every area of the city, there began to be more frequent illnesses and deaths, accompanied by symptoms of strange pains, palpitations, lethargy, and raving with the deadly signs of livid bruises and buboes; deaths came somewhat suddenly, violently and unexpectedly, without any previous signs of disease. The doctors, who did not accept the idea of the contagion, unwilling now to admit what they had derided but being obliged to give a generic name to the illness that had become too common and too obvious to be left nameless, found the name of malignant, or pestilential fevers, a miserable arrangement, a cheating of words, in fact, that, unfortunately, was causing great damage, because pretending to recognize the truth it still succeeded in denying what was the most important thing to believe and to see, namely that the disease was caught through contact. As one who awakens from a deep sleep, the magistrates began to pay a little more attention to the warnings, the proposals of the Health Office, to have people obey their notices, the ordered seizures, and the quarantines ordered by the commission. It constantly submitted requests to the decurions by order of the governor, who had gone again to besiege that poor city of Casale. The senate requested funds so that they could supply provisions to the city before the other cities would suspend any trade should the illness spread any farther; and to support a large part of the population that had lost its work. The decurions tried to raise money by way of loans and taxes and from what they were able to receive they gave some to the Health Office and some to the poor; they bought a little grain and made up for what was needed. Yet the great distress had not yet arisen. In the Lazzaretto where the population, although decimated day by day, was growing daily, another difficult enterprise was to ensure services and discipline to keep the prescribed separations, keep a reserve of money or, to say it better, establish the order prescribed by the Commission, because since the first moments everything had been confused due to the lack of restraint of some patients, and the carelessness of the employees. The Commission and the decurions, not knowing what else to do, thought of turning to the Capuchins and begged the Commissary Father of the province, who was acting in the provincial’s place, who had died shortly before, that he would assign to them individuals capable of governing over



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

that desolate kingdom. The Commissary proposed to them, as principal, Father Felice Casati, a man of a mature age, who had a very good reputation of a charitable, active and gentle person having a strong character, a well-deserved title considering what he did later, and as his companion and assistant, Father Michele Pozzobonelli, still young but serious and stern in his thoughts as well as in his appearance. They were accepted with great pleasure and on March 30 they went to the Lazzaretto. The President of the Health Commission took them around, as if they were to take possession of it, and after calling a meeting of the helpers and employees of every rank, he nominated in their presence Father Felice President of that place with primary and full authority. Later on, as the wretched group of victims grew larger, other Capuchins joined them and worked in that place, as superintendents, confessors, administrators, orderlies, cooks, workers in charge of linen, laundrymen, everything that was needed. Father Felice, always tired and always caring, went around day and night, along the walkways, in the rooms, in that vast enclosure, at times carrying a cane, other times armed only with his patience; he inspired and settled everything; he suppressed riots, settled disputes, threatened, punished, reproached, dried and shed tears. He caught the plague at the beginning but recovered and resumed with renewed energy the early concerns. Most of his brethren lost their lives, all gladly. Certainly, that organization was a strange expedient, as strange as the calamity itself and the times; and, if we knew nothing else about it, it would suffice as the topic, or rather as an example of a very unrefined and badly ruled society, seeing that those people whose duty it was to rule could do nothing but give it up, not knowing to whom to give it but men who were, by profession, the most averse to it. But it is, at the same time, a not so unworthy example of the strength and the ability that charity can offer at all times, and in every order of things, seeing these men endure that burden so capably. And it was equally beautiful to accept it, with no other reason but the absence of anyone who wanted to accept it, without any aim but to serve, without any hope in this world but that of a more enviable than envied death; it was equally beautiful to receive that offer only because it was a difficult and dangerous work, and it was believed that the strength and the cold blood, so necessary and rare in those moments, were some of their qualities. And so, the work and the spirit of those monks deserve to be remembered tenderly, and with admiration, with that sort of gratitude which is due for the great services rendered by men to men, and even more due to those who do not accept it for the hope of a reward. “Because if these fathers had not been there,” says Tadino, the entire city would have been annihilated; because it was miraculous that these fathers accomplished so many things as a public benefit by sheltering in the Lazzaretto

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 263

thousands of poor people without receiving any help or at least a little assistance from the city through its activities and prudence.

The persons who were taken into that place during the seven months that Father Felice controlled it were about fifty thousand, according to Ripamonti, who says correctly that he would have had to speak of such a man just the same if, rather than describing the distress of a city, he had to narrate the events that would honor it. Even among the public, the obstinacy in denying the existence of the plague was naturally giving in and dissolving as the disease gained ground, and it spread because of contact and work; and even more when, after affecting for some time only the poor, it began to happen to better known people. Among these, as it was most noticeable, a special mention is deserved for Doctor Settala. Did they at least admit that the poor old man was right? Who knows. He, his wife, two children and seven domestic servants were infected by the plague. He and one of the children survived, the others died. “These cases,” says Tadino, that occurred in the city and affected noble houses, “induced the noble class and the populace to reflect, while the disbelieving doctors and the ignorant and rash populace began to give signs of surprise.” But the remarks, the expedients, the revenges so to speak of convinced obstinacy, are sometimes such that one would wish it had remained firm and untamed to the end, against reason and obviousness; and this was indeed one of those times. Those who had fought so resolutely and for so long the idea that there was near them, among them, a seed of illness which could, through natural ways, spread and play havoc with the people, unable to deny its spreading and unwilling to attribute it to those means (that would have meant to admit, in one, a great deception and a great fault), were quite ready to discover some other cause and consider it convincing, if it had been proposed. Unfortunately, there was one available in the common ideas and traditions, not only in Milan but everywhere in Europe: poisonous arts, diabolic practices, people plotting to spread the plague by means of contagious poisons and spells. Such or similar contrivances had already found credence and suspicion in many other pestilences, particularly in the one that occurred a half-century earlier. Moreover, since the preceding year, there had been a note of Philip IV directed to the governor warning him that four Frenchman had escaped from Madrid for being searched on suspicion of spreading poisonous ointments containing the plague. It exhorted him to be on the alert should those people ever go to Milan. The governor had forwarded the message to the Commission and it seems that, at that time, nobody paid any attention to it. However, when the plague erupted and was recognized, the recollection of that warning may have



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

been the confirmation of the undetermined suspicion of an evil fraud and might have been the factor that brought it to life. But two events, one of a blind and disorderly fear, the other I do not know of what wickedness were those which changed that indefinite suspicion of a possible attempt into a suspicion, and for many into certainty of a real attempt and a true plot. Some persons who thought that they had seen, on the evening of May 17, some individual in the cathedral smearing a wooden partition that separated the space reserved for men and women, had the partition and a certain number of benches that it contained taken out of the church, although the chairman of the Health Office, who had come to control the move with four persons of his office, after checking the partition, the benches, the holy water stoups without finding anything that might confirm the ungrounded suspicion of a poisonous attempt, in order to please the other persons’ vagaries and rather to exceed in caution than for need, had decided that it was sufficient to wash the partition. That bulk of piled up objects caused a great fear in the crowds for whom an object becomes very easily a topic. It was rumored and believed by the people at large that all the benches, the walls and even the ropes of the bells had been smeared. Nor was it said only at that time: all the memoirs of the contemporary writers who deal with that event (some were written years later) mention it with equal certainty and the true story would have to be guessed, were it not available in a letter of the Health Commission addressed to the governor that is kept in the archives called “of San Fedele” from which we transcribed it, and wrote verbatim in Italian. The following morning a new, stranger and more significant spectacle was offered to the eyes and the minds of the citizens. In every part of the city people saw the front doors and the walls smeared in large areas with some unknown yellowish and whitish substance applied, as it were, with some sponges. It was either a silly prank to cause a stronger and more general fright or an evil plot to increase the general confusion, or I would not know what else; the event is indicated in such a manner that it would seem to us less reasonable to attribute it to some dream of many people than to the action of someone, a fact, after all, that would not have been either the first or the last of that kind. Ripamonti, who often scoffs at this particular issue concerning ointments, and often deplores the popular credulity, states at this point that he saw that smear and describes it. In the above mentioned letter the gentlemen of the Health Office report the event in the same manner, they mention visits, experiments carried out with that substance on dogs, without any bad results and they indicate that they thought that such temerity originated more from insolence than from an evil purpose; a thought that shows a sufficiently calm mind capable of not seeing what was not there. The other contemporary memoirs indicate also that, at first, it was believed by many that it had

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 265

been a prank, an odd action; not a single one mentions anybody denying it; and they would have certainly mentioned it if there had been any, to consider them extravagant, if for no other reason. I believe that it was not inappropriate to reflect and put together these details, not well known in part, and partially ignored completely, about a famous raving because in the mistakes, and particularly in the mistakes made by many, what is more interesting and useful to observe seems to me to be exactly the way that they took the appearances and the answers with which they would enter into the minds and control them. The already troubled city was in a turmoil: the landlords swept the smeared areas with burning straw, the passerby stopped, observed, was horrified and shaken. The strangers, suspected only because of it and who were easily recognized at that time by their clothes, were stopped in the streets by the people and taken to the authorities. There were interrogations, questioning of arrested persons, of arresting officers and witnesses; no one was found guilty; the minds were still capable of doubting, examining and understanding. The Health Commission issued an edict that promised a reward and impunity for the person who might indicate who was or were involved in the occurrence. In their letter dated May 21, but that was evidently written on the 19th, the date of the edict, those gentlemen said: At any rate, since it did not seem appropriate to us that this crime should remain unpunished, especially in such dangerous and suspicious times, for the consolation and peace of this Population, and in order to obtain evidence of this action, we have issued today, etc. But in the edict, no clear mention was made of that reasonable and calming conjecture that they communicated to the governor: a silence that reveals, at the same time, an angry preoccupation among the population; and in them a condescension that was as blameworthy as it was pernicious. While the commission was searching, many among the public, as it happens, had already discovered it. Those who believed that it concerned a poisonous smearing thought that it was either a revenge of Don Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordova for the insults that he had received upon his departure, or an idea of Cardinal Richelieu to empty Milan and conquer it without difficulty; others, and one does not know why, believed the author of it was Count of Collalto, Wallenstein, or this or that Milanese gentleman. As we said, there were also those who considered that event a silly joke and attributed it to students, noble men or officers who had grown bored at the siege of Casale. As it was feared, not noticing that there might have ensued an infection, a universal slaughter, was probably the cause that those early fears were simmering down and the affair was or seemed to be forgotten. On the other hand, there was a certain number of persons who were not quite convinced that there was a plague. Since both in the Lazzaretto and in the city some infected



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

persons healed, it was rumored (the last reasons of an opinion defeated by evidence are always strange to be known), it was said by the populace and also by some biased doctors, that it was not true plague because all would have died. In order to remove any doubt, the Commission found an expedient matching the need, a way to speak to the eyes as the time would require or suggest it. In one of the celebrations of the Pentecost, the citizens would visit the cemetery of San Gregorio, outside Porta Orientale, in order to pray for the victims of the older pestilence who were entombed there; and, taking the opportunity from devotion of enjoying some amusement and celebration, everybody went wearing clothes as elegant as possible. On that day, an entire family had succumbed to the plague. At the time of the largest gathering, among the carriages, the people riding horses and on foot, the cadavers of that family, by orders of the Health Office, were carried to the mentioned cemetery on a cart, naked, so that the crowd could see the signs of pestilence on them. A cry of disgust and terror arose everywhere the cart passed: a long murmur remained where it had passed and another murmur preceded it. The plague was more recognized; but, on the other hand, it was gaining faith by itself, more and more every day; and that particular gathering did not contribute in small measure to the spread of it. At the beginning, therefore, not the plague, absolutely not, on no account: it was forbidden even to pronounce the word. Then pestilential fevers: the idea is accepted indirectly, with an adjective. Then, not real plague, namely yes, plague, but in a certain way; not really plague but something for which another name cannot be found. Finally, plague, without doubt, or rejection; but they had already attached to it another idea, the idea of the poison and witchcraft, which alters and confuses the idea expressed by the word that cannot be rejected any longer. I do not believe that it is necessary to be skilled in the history of ideas and words to see that many ran the same course. By the grace of heaven, not many had the same lot and importance and be found to gain their meaning at such a price and may carry suggestive ideas of this kind. But one could avoid both in the great things and in the minor ones, that long and twisted path, by adopting the method proposed long ago of observing, listening, comparing, and thinking before speaking. But to talk, just talking by itself, is so much easier than all the others taken together, that we too, I mean people in general, are to be forgiven a little.

Chapter XXXII As the providing for the painful necessities of the circumstance became more and more difficult, on May 4 the Council of the Decurions decided to have recourse to the governor for help. And, on May 22, two members of that body were sent to the field with the task of reporting to him the woes and the shortages of the city;

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 267

the enormous expenses, the empty houses, the revenue of the future years tied up, the current taxes unpaid and the general indigence, the consequence of so many causes and particularly by the damage caused by the war should make him consider also that, by uninterrupted laws and official practice, and by the special decree of Charles V, the expenses caused by the plague had to be paid by the public treasury. Since in the plague of 1576 the governor, Marquis of Ayamonte, not only waived all the government taxes, but had allotted a subvention to the city of 40,000 scudi from the state funds; and they should ask, finally, for four things: that the taxes be waived, as it had been done previously; the state allotted funds; the governor informed the king about the difficulties of the city and its province; exonerated the country from supplying new military quarters that had already been ruined by the previous ones. The governor answered expressing his condolences and new exhortations: that he was sorry to be unable to be in the city in order to dedicate all his attention to assist it but that he hoped that the zeal of those gentlemen would have sufficient compensation; that the present was the time of spending without restraints and to do one’s best in any possible way. As for the indicated requests, provearé en el mejor modo que el tiempo y necesidades presentes permitieren (I shall take care in the best manner that the time and present necessities permit.). And below, an involute and incomprehensible scrawl that meant Ambrogio Spinola. Great Chancellor Ferrer wrote to him that his answer had been read by the decurions, con gran desconsuelo (with great discouragement); there were other exchanges, questions and answers but I do not find that they reached any conclusion. Some time later, in the height of the plague, the governor transferred by means of decrees his authority to Ferrer, since he, as he wrote, had to think of the war. Which war, let it be mentioned incidentally at this point, after eliminating, without counting the soldiers, one million people, to say the least, by means of the infection, in Lombardy, Venetia and Piedmont and Tuscany as well as part of Romagna; after devastating, as we saw above, the places that it crossed, and imagine those where it was fought; after the capture and the atrocious sack of Mantova ended by everyone recognizing the new duke, for whose exclusion the war had been undertaken. One must say, however, that he was obliged to yield to the Duke of Savoy part of Montferrat, of the revenue of fifteen thousand scudi, and to Ferrante, Duke of Guastalla, other lands of the revenue of six thousand, that there was another treaty, separately and most secretly, by which the above mentioned Duke of Savoy ceded Pinerolo to France; a treaty concluded sometime later, under different pretexts and by dint of cunningness. Together with that decision, the decurions had taken another: to ask the cardinal archbishop to have a solemn procession, carrying through the city the body of San Carlo.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

The good prelate refused for many reasons. He did not like that trust of an arbitrary action, and he feared that if the effect had not corresponded to the promise, as he was afraid, the trust would turn into a scandal. He feared even more that, if there really were some untori, the procession would offer a very convenient opportunity for a crime; if there were not any, the gathering of so many people would only spread the contagion even farther: a much more real danger. But the placated suspicion of the ointments had reawakened, broader and more furious than before. People had noticed again, or this time they seemed to have seen, smeared walls, doors of public buildings, house doors and door knockers. The news of these discoveries flew from mouth to mouth as it happens particularly when minds are worried and hearing drew the effect of seeing. Individuals more and more embittered by the presence of the illness, irritated by the persisting danger, accepted more willingly that belief: that anger wants to punish, and as an intelligent man observed with acumen concerning this fact, it likes to attribute evils to human wickedness against which it may direct its revenge rather than recognize them in a cause for which one cannot do anything else but resign. An exquisite, fast and very pervading poison, they were more than sufficient words to explain the violence and the darkest and confused aspects of the disease. That poison, they said, was made up of toads, snakes, slaver, and matter from the plague victims, or even worse, of what wild and disturbed minds would find in filth and dreadfulness. Then came the charms from which any result became achievable, every objection lost its strength and every difficulty dissolved. If the consequences had not been seen immediately after that first smearing, one could understand why; it was a mistaken attempt by still inexperienced poisoners. Now the art was perfected, and the minds more focused on the devilish plot. By now, the person who would have still maintained that it was a prank, and had denied the existence of a plot, was considered blind and stubborn; unless he was suspected of being interested in diverting the public attention or being an untore: the term soon became common, solemn, dreadful. As people were convinced that there were, in fact, some untori, they had to be discovered, most assuredly. Everyone was alert and kept his eyes open, every gesture could engender suspicion. And suspicion turned easily into certainty, and certainty into rage. Ripamonti introduces two occurrences, informing the reader that he had chosen them not as the most terrible among those that happened every day but because, unfortunately, he had been a witness in both cases. In the Church of Sant’Antonio, on a day of I do not know what religious holiday, a man more than eighty years old, after praying on his knees for a long time, wanted to sit down; and before doing that he used his cape to dust the bench.

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 269

“That old man is smearing the benches!” cried in unison some women who saw that gesture. The people who were in the church (in the church!) pounced on the old man; they grabbed him by his white hair, pummeled and kicked him, and some pushed him out of the church. If they did not kill him, it was to drag him, half dead, to the jail, the judges and the tortures. “I saw him while he was dragged like that,” says Ripamonti, “and I knew nothing else about him, I am certain that he could not survive more than a few minutes.” The other case (which occurred the next day) was equally strange but not equally fatal. Three young French friends, a scholar, a painter and a student of engineering, who had come to visit Italy, to study its antiquities and to look for the opportunity to earn some money, had gone near I do not know which part of the Duomo, and stood there looking intently. A passerby sees them and stops; he points them to another, then others who arrive: a small group assembled to look and keep an eye on the three young men who appeared to be foreigners and, even worse, French, by their clothes, haircut and their bags. In order to make sure that it was marble, they touched it with their hands. That was enough. They were surrounded, grabbed, manhandled, and pushed by dint of blows to the jail. Fortunately they were found innocent and released. These things did not occur only in the city; the frenzy had spread like the infection. The wayfarer that might be met by some peasants out of the main road, or who tarried looking here and there or lay down to rest; the unknown person who seemed to be strange, suspicious because of his face or clothes, were untori: at the first alarm of anybody; at the cry of a boy, they rang the alarm bells, they ran up; the poor wretches were pelted with rocks or were caught and dragged by the people to jail. So says Ripamonti. And the jail, up to a point, was a place to reach safety. But the decurions, undeterred by the refusal of the wise prelate, would repeal these requests that the public supported enthusiastically. Federigo resisted for some time and tried to convince them; this is what would do the judgment of a man against the force of the times and the insistence of many. In that multitude of opinions, with the thought of the danger, confused as it was then, opposed and quite far from the evidence that one notices now, it is not hard to understand how his good reasons could, even in his mind, be dominated by those of other people. And if, in his giving up, there was a little weakness in his determination, these are mysteries of the human heart. Certainly, in some cases it seems possible to put the blame entirely on his intellect, and forgive his conscience, without any concern for temporal interests of any kind. At the repeated requests, he gave in and consented that the procession took place, and consented, even more, that the coffin that contained the remains of San Carlo should be exposed afterwards, for eight days, on the high altar of the Duomo.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

I do not find that either the Health Commission or others objected or opposed the decision in any way. Only the above noted Commission ordered some precautions to be taken that, without averting the danger, indicated its fears. It prescribed more stringent rules for the entry of people into the city, and in order to ensure their effectiveness had the gates closed to exclude, as much as possible, from the gathering of the infected and suspected persons, had the doors of the confiscated houses nailed shut, that, for what value the statement of a writer and a writer of that time may have, were about five hundred. Three days were spent in preparations, on June 11, the established day, the procession began, at dawn from the Duomo. It was preceded by a large group of people, women mostly, their faces covered by ample veils, many went barefoot and robed in sackcloth. There followed the guilds preceded by their gonfalons, the confraternities, wearing clothes of several styles and colors, then the friars, the secular clergy, each one with the emblem of their rank, holding a light or a long candle. In the middle, in the light of more luminous lanterns, in a louder sound of voices, under a rich baldachin, came the coffin, carried by four nicely dressed canons that were exchanged every now and then. Through the glasses one could see the venerated body, attired in a splendid pontifical robe, mitered skull; in its mutilated and unshaped form, one could still distinguish some vestiges of the ancient face, as some portraits represent it, or some people remembered for having seen and revered it in life. Behind the remains of the dead shepherd (says Ripamonti, from whom we mainly take this description) and near him for merits, family and dignity, now even in person, advanced Archbishop Federigo. The other group of the clergy followed, then came the magistrates, with their richly ceremonial robes; then the nobles, some dressed sumptuously, some as a solemn show of cult, some as a sign of penance, with the dark colors or barefoot, their heads covered by a hood, all carrying candles. The entire street was decked out, the rich had brought out the most precious household goods; the front walls of the humbler houses had been decorated by some rich neighbors or at public expense. In the place of hanging finery, or over them, were leafy branches, everywhere there were paintings, images and symbolic figures. Vases, antiques, various rare objects were displayed on the window sills; there were lanterns everywhere. Confined patients looked at the procession from several of those windows and followed it with their prayers. The other streets were silent and deserted; but some people lent an ear to the moving hum; others, among whom one could see even some nuns, had gone on the roofs, in order to see if they could take a look at the coffin, the procession, or something else. The procession walked through all the districts of the city, and when it reached one of those intersections or small piazzas where the main streets led

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 271

to the suburbs, that at that time were still called carrobi, and now the name is used only in one case, they would stop, lowering the coffin near the cross that had been erected in each one by San Carlo during the previous pestilence and some of which are still standing; so that all returned to the Duomo some time after noon. But then, on the following day, while that presumptuous trust, in fact, a fanatic certainty in some people, that the procession had broken the plague, the number of deaths increased in every social class, and in every part of the city, so excessively, with a very sudden jump that there was nobody who could be mistaken about its cause or the opportunity, namely the procession itself. Oh, wonderful and painful forces of a general prejudice. Most people attributed that effect, not to the fact that many persons had gathered together and for a long time, not to the infinite number of fortuitous contacts, but instead they attributed it to the easiness the untori had found to carry out on a large scale their wicked plot. It was said that when they were mingling with the crowd, they had infected with their ointments as many persons as they could. But since this did not seem a sufficient or appropriately sufficient means for such a number of deaths, and so spread out in every class of people, since, as it seems, it had not been possible for so attentive yet mistaken suspicion to discover the smearing stains of any and on the walls or elsewhere, they resorted, in order to explain the occurrence, to the other expedient that was already old and commonly accepted by the European scientists, of the poisonous and maleficent powders; it was said that those powders, spread along the streets, and especially in the places where the procession had stopped, had adhered to the finery of the clothes, and even more to the bare feet, because that day several persons had walked barefoot. A contemporary writer says: “The same day of the procession I saw pity clash with ungodliness, perfidy with sincerity, the loss with the gain.” It was, instead, the poor human mind that clashed against the ghosts it generated by itself. From that day the fury of the contagion grew more and more; in a short time there almost was no house that was not affected. In a short time, the population of the Lazzaretto, according to Somaglia whom we quoted above, rose from two thousand to twelve thousand; later, according to everyone, it reached sixteen thousand. On July 4, as I found in a letter of the employees of the Health Office to the governor, the daily mortality went beyond five hundred. Later on, at its apex, according to the more common calculations, it reached one thousand two hundred, one thousand five hundred; and more, three thousand five hundred, if we want to believe Tadino. He states also that, “owing to the measures taken,” after the plague, the population of Milan was found to be little more than sixty-four thousand inhabitants, while before it went beyond two hundred fifty thousand, and that before it rose above



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

two hundred fifty thousand. According to Ripamonti, it was only two hundred thousand; he said also that the deceased were one hundred forty thousand according to the city ledgers, besides those victims that could not be counted. Others say more or less the same, but with even more uncertain figures. One can imagine now the distress of the decurions, on whom rested the responsibility of providing the public necessities, of remedying what could be remedied in such disaster. Every day it was necessary to substitute, or augment, the number of public employees of various kinds: monatti, apparitori and commissari. The former were in charge of the most painful and dangerous services of the pestilence: removing from the houses, the streets, the Lazzaretto, the dead bodies, take them to the graves with carts, and burn them; take or lead to the Lazzaretto the infirm people, and tend them; burn and clean infected or suspected objects. Ripamonti maintains that the name derives from the Greek monos; Gaspare Bugatti (in a description of the previous plague) says that it derives from the Latin term monere; but at the same time he doubts with better arguments that it is a German word because those men were mainly enlisted in Switzerland and in the Grisons. Nor it would be absurd to believe it to be a short form of the term monathlich (monthly) because in the uncertainty of how long there would have been a need of them, it is probable that their employment went from month to month. The particular task of the apparitori was to precede the carts warning the passersby with the sound of a bell to stand aside. The commissari controlled the ones and the others under the direct order of the Health Commission. It was necessary to keep the Lazzaretto staffed with doctors and surgeons and provided with medicines, food and all the infirmary equipment; it was necessary to find and prepare new lodgings for the sick persons who were brought in every day. For this purpose, cabins were built up in a hurry with wood and straw in the internal spaces of the Lazzaretto; a new section of cabins was built surrounded by a simple partition capable of containing four thousand patients. In case they were not sufficient, they decreed to build two more; they began the works but, due to lack of means of all kinds, they remained unfinished. The means, the persons and the courage diminished as the need augmented. Not only the carrying out of the projects and the orders were delayed, not only many necessities were not sufficiently met even with promises, but they reached a level of incapacity and despair that many of the most urgently in need were not considered in any way. For example, a large number of children was abandoned and died because their mothers also had died of the plague; the Health Office proposed to establish a shelter for these children and for the needy women in labor, that some attention might be directed to them but it could not obtain anything. Tadino said:

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 273

Nevertheless, one had to sympathize with the decurions of the city who were distressed, sad and wounded by an unruly and disrespectful soldiery. So important it was to conquer Casale! Apart from its cause, the purpose of fighting, and even worse in the unhappy dukedom since no provision could be had from the governor, but for the fact that it was wartime and the troops had to be treated well. The praise of victory seems too beautiful, independently from the cause, its purpose for which one fought!

And also having a large and sole ditch, that had been dug near the Lazzaretto, been filled with cadavers, and since new cadavers remained unburied, in every place of the city the magistrates, after searching in vain to find workers for that task, had reached the point of saying that they did not know any longer which side to take. One cannot imagine what conclusion might have been reached if an extraordinary assistance had not come up. The president of the Health Office appealed desperately to those two good friars who presided over the Lazzaretto, and Father Michele promised to have the city cleared of the bodies in four days and in eight days sufficient ditches capable of meeting the present need and even a worse need that could be foreseen in the future. Together with a companion friar and with persons sent by the office he went out of the city looking for peasants and, partly thanks to the office’s authority, partly with that of his habit and words, he gathered about two hundred of them whom he ordered to dig three very large ditches; then he sent some monatti from the Lazzaretto to collect the deceased so that, at the appointed day, his promise was met. One time, the Lazzaretto was left without doctors and by means of high salaries and recognitions some could be obtained, not immediately and with difficulty but much fewer than were needed. Often food was practically unavailable to the point of learning that some people might starve to death; and more than once, when no one knew any more where to go for a solution, there came abundant help, an unexpected gift of the private mercy that, amid the general distress and the indifference for other people born by the constant concern for the self, there were always some souls open to charity, there were others where charity was born at the end of any earthly joy; as in the slaughter and escape of many whose duty was to preside and provide, there were some, healthy in their bodies and strong in their courage, who kept their place; there were also others who, driven by mercy, assumed and carried out virtuously the duties that they were not obliged to satisfy by their positions. When a more general and prompt and more constant faithfulness to the difficult duties of the circumstances stood out it was among the ecclesiastical ranks. Their assistance never failed in the Lazzaretti of the city, where people suffered they were there; they were always seen in the middle of the diseased, the dying, when even they were languishing and dying. To the spiritual comforts they added,



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

as much as they could, the temporal ones, they assumed any responsibility that the circumstances required. More than sixty parish priests, exclusively from the city, died of the disease: about eight-ninths. Federigo gave to everyone, as it was to be expected from him and his relatives; high magistrates and neighboring princes exhorted him to go away from the danger by moving to some villa; he rejected that suggestion and held out against such advice with that feeling with which he addressed the parish priests: Be ready to give up this mortal life rather than this family, these children of ours, go against the plague with love, as you would go to a reward, to a life when you may be able to win a soul for Christ.

He did not neglect those cautions that did not prevent him to carry out his duties (on this matter he gave instructions and regulations to the clergy); and, at the same time, he did not mind the danger, nor did he seem to be aware of its presence, when, in order to do some good, he had to face it. Without mentioning the clergy, whose dedication he always praised and directed, he stimulated those who became weary in their work, sending them to replace those who had died, and made himself available to those who needed him. He visited the Lazzaretti to console the people and encourage the workers; he went around in the city assisting the poor, confined in the houses, stopping at the doors, under windows, to listen to their complaints and offer them consoling and encouraging words. In brief, he put himself, and lived, in the middle of the pestilence, surprising himself, at the end, of having remained unhurt. Thus in the public plights and in the protracted disorders of any customary form, one can always notice an increase, a sublimation of virtues, but unfortunately there is always an increase, and usually more general, of perversity. This also was noticed. The scoundrels that the plague spared and did not frighten, found in the common confusion, in the relaxing of the public authority, a new area of action, and a new certainty of impunity at the same time. In fact, the use of public force fell largely into the hands of the worst elements. The task of the monatti and the apparitori was fit only for men on whom the appeal of robbery and license exercised an influence stronger than the terror of the contagion or any natural disgust. Very strict rules were prescribed for these individuals as well as very severe punishments: they were given positions. Supervisor, as we said, over all of them, presided in every district, magistrates and noble people, invested with the authority of applying summarily, a good control for any necessity. This order of things progressed with good results for some time; but, as the number of those who died, left or lost their mind grew, those individuals had no one who could keep them in check; the monatti generally took control of everything. They entered like owners

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 275

or enemies in the houses and, without mentioning the thefts and the manner in which they treated the victims of the plague who fell under their control, they put their infected and wicked hands on the healthy persons, children, relatives, wives, and husbands threatening to take them to the Lazzaretto if they did not pay ransoms, or were not ransomed with money. Sometimes they charged for their service, refusing to carry away the already decomposed bodies unless they were paid in scudi. It was said (and between the thoughtlessness of the ones and the wickedness of the others, it is equally uncertain to believe or not to believe), and also Tadino mentioned it, that monatti and apparitori let infected items fall from the carts on purpose to spread and continue the pestilence that had become for them a source of income, a kingdom, a celebration. Other wicked individuals, pretending to be monatti, tied a bell at one leg as it was ordered, as a distinguishing sign, to warn people of their approaching, entered the houses to inflict all kinds of abuses. In some houses, which were open and without inhabitants, or were occupied only by some sick or dying persons, there they entered like thieves to ransack; others were surprised, invaded by policemen who did the same or worse things. With perversity, madness increased and from the minds’ agitation an extraordinary force caused more rapid and ample consequences. All of these factors contributed to strengthen and increase the special fear of the ointments which, in its effects and expressions, often was, as we saw, another form of perversion. The image of that dreamed up danger besieged and tortured the minds much more than the real and present danger. “And while,” says Ripamonti, the scattered bodies or the piles of bodies always before one’s eyes, always in everyone’s way, turned the entire city into a single funeral, there was something uglier and more grievous in that reciprocal fury, in those unbridled and hideous suspicions. … One did not only grow suspicious of one’s neighbor but also of one’s friend and guest; but those terms of human love, husband and wife, father and son, brother and brother were words of terror: and, a horrible and base thing to be said, the domestic table, the nuptial bed were feared, like traps, or hiding places for poisons.

The imagined vastness, the peculiarity of the plot troubled all judgments, that altered all the reasons of mutual trust. At first it was believed that the presumed untori were driven by ambition and greed, later people dreamed up or believed that there was an unknown diabolic pleasure. The ravings of the distressed who blames themselves for what they had been fearing from other people, seemed revelations and made everything, so to speak, believable for everyone. More than the words, demonstrations impressed individuals, if it happened that delirious plague victims made gestures that people imagined were made by the untori, a very probable thing that added credit to the general conviction and the statements of several writers.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Thus, in the lengthy and evil time of the trials against witchcraft confessions, not always extorted from the indicated persons were quite apt to promote and maintain the opinion about it; because when an opinion rules for a long time and in a large part of the world, it ends up by manifesting itself in every manner, trying all ways, run through all the manners of persecution; and it is difficult that all or many believe for long that something strange is done, without hearing somebody ready to do it. Among the stories that the frenzy about the ointments caused people to imagine, one deserves to be mentioned because of the credence that it received and the circulation that it enjoyed. It was told, but not by everyone in the same manner, that a man, on a certain day, had seen in the Piazza del Duomo, a carriage drawn by six horses. Inside it there was an important looking individual, with other people; his face was dark and fiery, burning eyes, straight hair, and a threatening look on his face. While the witness was absorbed in watching, the coach had stopped. The coachman had invited him to get in, and he had not been able to refuse. After several turns, they had stopped at the gate of a palace where he and the others were admitted and had found pleasant and horrible things, deserts, gardens, caves and halls. Inside them there were ghosts around a table. Finally, they had shown him a large trunk full of money and had told him to take as much as he wanted provided that he accepted a jar of ointment to be smeared around the city. But, as he refused to consent, he instantly found himself in the same place where he had been met. This story, believed here by the people at large, and not derided enough according to Ripamonti, by some important persons, went around all of Italy. In Germany they even made a print, and the Elector Archbishop of Meinz wrote to Cardinal Federigo asking what had to be believed of the strange events that they were talking about in Milan and he received the answer that they were dreams. Of a similar value, if not completely similar, were the dreams of the scholars; and similar were also the disastrous consequences. Most of them saw the announcement, and the reason as well of the woes, in a comet that had appeared in 1628 and in a conjunction with Saturn and Jupiter. “This conjunction,” writes Tadino, “has such an influence upon this year 1630, that each one could understand it.” “Mortales parat morbos, miranda videntur.” “It prepares mortal diseases, extraordinary things are seen.” This prediction, taken, they say, from a book entitled, Specchio degli almanacchi perfetti (A Mirror of the Perfect Almanacs), printed in Turin in 1623, was cited by everybody. Another comet that appeared in the month of June of the year of the plague, was interpreted as a new warning, or rather an evident proof of the smearings. They searched the books and, unfortunately, they found an abundance of examples of the plague, as they said, created artificially: they quoted Livy, Tacitus and Dion as well as Homer and Ovid, the numerous ancient writers who related or hinted at similar events; and they had an

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 277

even larger number of modern writers. They quoted one hundred other authors who discussed doctrinally or dealt incidentally with poisons, spells, ointments and powders: Cisalpino, Cardano, Cerevino, Salio, Pareo, Schenchio, Zachia and, to complete it, that woeful Delrio, who, if the author’s fame was proportioned with the good and the bad produced by his works, should be one of the most famous; that Delrio, whose works cost more human lives than some conqueror; that Delrio, whose Magic Disquisitions (a synthesis of all the material that man had dreamed about that subject) became the most authoritative, the most irrefutable, were for more than a century rules and a powerful impulse of legal and horrible, uninterrupted slaughters. From the inventions of the people, the learned class took what could agree with its ideas; from the discoveries of the learned class the mass took what it could understand and how it could do it; and out of all of this an enormous and confused mass of public insanity was created. But what appears even more amazing is seeing the doctors, the doctors who, since the beginning had diagnosed the plague, I mean Tadino, in particular, who had prognosticated it, seen it break in, kept in sight, so to speak, in its development, who had declared and explained that it was the plague, that it was caught by contact, that if it had been unchecked it would have infected the entire country, to see him later draw from these very facts the argument of the certainty about poisonous and maleficent agents. He who had noticed in Carlo Colonna, the second person to die of the plague in Milan, his delirium as an occurrence of the disease, to see him consider as proof of the ointments and the diabolical plot a case in point, that two eyewitnesses declared of having heard from a friend of theirs who was ill, that, one night, some people had gone to his room offering recovery and money, if he accepted to smear the houses of the neighborhood, and how upon his refusal, those people had left and, in their place, there was a wolf under the bed and three big cats on top of it “that remained there till daybreak.” If it had been only one person who reasoned in that manner, one would say that he was somewhat bizarre or rather, there would not be any motive to talk about it; but since there were many or better ones almost all that way, it becomes history of the human spirit and it gives the opportunity to remark how an orderly and reasonable series of ideas may be messed up by other derided ideas that might be thrown across its way. After all, Tadino was considered one of the most reputable men of his time. Two famous and meritorious writers stated that Cardinal Federigo had doubts about the ointments. We would like to be able to give that illustrious and gracious memory an even more complete praise and represent the good prelate in this, as in many other things, above the major part of his contemporaries, but we are forced



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

to notice in him again an example of the strength of the common opinion also on the noblest minds. We saw, at least from what Ripamonti says, as, at the beginning, he was doubting: he believed later that, in that opinion, credibility had a large role, as well as the ignorance, the fear, the desire to be excused for recognizing the contagion so late and thought of finding a remedy for it; there was a lot of exaggeration in it but also something true. In the Biblioteca Ambrosiana there is a small work written by his hand concerning that pestilence and the feeling is mentioned often; in fact, in one case it is expressly stated: “It was a common opinion,” he says approximately, “that some ointments were prepared in several places, and that the ways to use them were many; among them, some appear to us to be true, others appear to be fictitious.” However, there were some persons who thought to the very end, and as long as they lived, that all of it was imagination. We learn this, not from them, because no one was bold enough to express to the public a feeling so contrary to that of the crowds; we learn it from the writers who deride and rebut it as a prejudice of some persons, an error that one would not declare openly but that did exist; we learn it also from those who knew it by tradition. “I found wise people in Milan,” says good Muratori, in the above mentioned place, “who had good reports from their superiors, and were not quite persuaded that the existence of those poisonous ointments was true.” Perhaps it was a secret vent of truth, an intimate confidence. The common sense was there: but it remained hidden for fear of the common sense. The magistrates, diminishing in number every day and more and more bewildered and confused, used what little determination they had left to hunt the untori. Among the documents of the time of the plague that are kept in the mentioned archives, there is a letter without any other pertinent document in which the gran cancelliere informs seriously and urgently the governor of having received notice that, in a country house owned by two brothers, Girolamo and Giulio Monti, gentlemen from Milan, they prepared poison in large quantity, that forty men were employed en este exercicio (in this activity), assisted by four knights from Brescia, who had some ingredients sent from the Venetian region, para la fábrica del veneno (for the preparation of the poison). He adds that he had made arrangements in great secret, to send the podestà of Milan and the auditor of the Health Commission, with thirty cavalry soldiers; that unfortunately one of the brothers had been warned in time for them to remove the evidence of the crime, probably by the auditor himself who was a friend of his, and that this person found excuses not to leave but that in spite of this, the podestà and the soldiers had gone a reconocer la casa, y a ver si allará algunos vestigios (to search the house and see if any evidence can be found), gather information and arrest all those who were charged. The affair must have come to nothing because the writings of the time that deal with the suspicions concerning

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 279

those gentlemen do not mention anything. But unfortunately, on another occasion, the people believed that they had discovered something. The trials that ensued were certainly not the first of that kind; and they cannot even be considered as a rarity in the history of jurisprudence. Because if we do not mention antiquity, and mention only something concerning times closer to those that we are considering, in Palermo 1526, Genova 1530, and then 1545, and again 1574; in Casal Monferrato 1536, Padua 1555, Turin 1599, and again in 1631, sometimes a few, sometimes many wretched individuals were tried and sentenced to tortures mostly atrocious, as guilty of having spread the plague with powders, ointments, spells or all of these together. But the case of the so-called anointments of Milan, as it was the most famous, it was also the most noticeable. Or, at least, there are more opportunities to observe it due to the remaining documents that are more detailed and more authentic. Although a writer that we have praised above dealt with the topic, yet, as he intended not so much as to write specifically its history, as to draw from it the help of reasons for an undertaking of a major or certainly of more immediate importance, it seemed to us that the event could be the topic of a new writing. But it is not a topic to be dealt with just in a few words and this is not the place to discuss it as completely as it deserves. Besides this, after pausing in order to consider those events, the reader would certainly not be interested to know what is left of our story. Leaving to another writing the history and the analysis of those events, we finally return to the characters of our story and shall not leave them again till the end of the novel.

Chapter XXXIV As for the manner to get into the city, Renzo had heard, in general terms, that there were very strict orders to forbid the entrance to all individuals who did not have a medical certificate of good health; but that, on the contrary, one could certainly enter in it if one could manage and help himself to find the proper time. It was indeed true; and ignoring the general causes whereby, in those days, every order was barely obeyed, ignoring even the special ones that made inconvenient the rigorous observance of it, Milan was by now in such a condition that one could not see what reason there was to obey it and against what, and anyone who came there could rather seem to be careless about his health rather than dangerous for that of the citizens. On the basis of this information, Renzo’s plan was to try to enter through the first gate that he could see and in case there was an obstacle, resume walking outside the city walls until he could find one that offered an easier way in. Only heaven knows how many gates he thought Milan had. As he reached, then, the



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

walls, he stopped to look around, as does the person who, not knowing which direction is the most convenient for him, he looks for some sign of it in everything. But, both at the right and at the left, he saw only two sections of a bent road; across from it, a section of the walls and no signs of living persons anywhere, only that, from a certain point of the embankment, a column of dark and thick smoke was rising and turned into wide globes, vanishing then in the still and grey air. It was clothes, beds and other infected furnishings that were being burned; these fires were lit very often not only there but in several places along the walls. The weather was still, the air was heavy, the sky hidden everywhere by a cloud of heavy fog, uniform and motionless that seemed to veil the sun without promising any rain; the surrounding countryside was partly untilled, and entirely parched; every green plant was faded and there was not even a drop of dew on the withered and falling leaves. In addition, that loneliness and that silence, so close to a large city, added a new consternation to Renzo’s apprehension and made all his thoughts gloomy. After he stopped there for a certain time, he walked to the right going, without knowing it, toward Porta Nuova, which, although it was near, it could not be seen because of a bulwark behind which, at that time, it was hidden. After taking a few steps, he began to hear a tinkling of little bells that stopped and began again every now and then, and then some male voices. He walked on, and passing the corner of the bulwark, he saw first a wooden hut and, on its door, a guard leaning on his musket with a tired and neglected air, behind there was a fence and, behind that, the gate, namely two high walls with a cover above to protect the door. It was wide open as was the gate of the fence. However, just in front of the opening, there was a sad obstacle: a litter on which two monatti were placing a man, to take him away. He was the head of the tax collectors whose plague infection had been discovered shortly before. Renzo stopped waiting for the end when the group left and while nobody was coming to close the gate, he thought that it was time, and he hurried ahead, but the guard, in a very bad manner, shouted: “Hey, you!” Renzo stopped again on the spot and, winking at him, he took out a silver ducatone and showed it to him. That man, either he had had the plague before or feared it less than he loved the ducatoni, signaled to Renzo to throw it to him, and seeing it fly to his feet he whispered: “Go ahead, quick!” Renzo did not wait to be told again, passed the fence, passed the gate and went ahead without anybody noticing or minding him, but, after taking perhaps forty steps, another “Hey, you!” was shouted by another tax collector. This time he pretended that he did not hear him and, without even turning around, he quickened his steps. “Hey, you!” the tax collector shouted again with a voice that showed more impatience than determination to be obeyed; and not being obeyed, he shrugged his shoulders and went back into his hut as a person

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 281

who was more concerned with avoiding and staying far from the passersby than getting informed about their business. The road that Renzo had taken, went, then, as it does now, directly to the canal called Naviglio: its sides were hedges or garden walls, churches and convents and a few houses. At the beginning of this street, and in the middle of the one that runs along the canal, there was a pillar with a cross called the cross of S. Eusebio. However much Renzo looked ahead, he saw nothing else but that cross. When he reached the intersection that divided the street about half-way, and looking at the two sides, he saw on the right, in that street that they called lo stradone di Santa Teresa, a citizen who was walking precisely toward him. “A human being, finally!” he said to himself and turned immediately toward that side, thinking of having him show where the street was. Also, this man had seen that stranger who was coming and he was looking squarely and suspiciously at him from afar, and even more so when he realized that instead of going away he was walking toward him. Renzo, when he was closer, took off his hat, as the respectful mountain man that he was, and holding it with his left hand, he put his other hand on its top and went more directly toward the unknown man. But this person, staring wildly took a step back, raised a big cane and turning its iron-covered end at Renzo’s chest, shouted: “Go away! Go away! Go away!” Oh! oh! cried the young man; he put his hat back on his head again, as he used to tell later, for he did not quite feel like starting a fight at that moment; he turned his back to that cranky fellow and continued to walk, or to put it better, on his way to the one to which he was directed. The other man continued to walk too, quite agitated, turning his back every minute. When he reached home, he reported that an untore had approached him, with a humble and peaceful face and the face of an infamous impostor, with the little box of the ointment or the little box of the powder (he was not quite certain which of the two) in his hand, in the top of his hat in order to trick him, had he not been clever enough to keep him at a distance. “If he had come a little closer to me,” he added, I would have speared him before he had the time to trick me, the rascal. The misfortune was that we were in such a solitary place because, if it had occurred in the center of Milan, I would have called people and would have asked to help me to catch him. I had to satisfy myself by simply scaring him without taking the risk of getting hurt, because a bit of powder is thrown in a minute and those people have a particular dexterity and, besides, they have the devil on their side. Now, perhaps, he is going around Milan, who knows what a slaughter he is going to make!

And, as long as he lived, which was for many years, every time that people talked about the untori, he repeated his story and added: “Those who still maintain



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

that it was not true should not tell me such things because one should have seen them!” Renzo, far from thinking what a narrow escape he had had, and upset more by anger than by fear, was thinking, as he walked, about that welcome and could guess, more or less, what the unknown man had thought about him; but the happening seemed to him so senseless that he concluded, in his mind, that the man had to be somewhat insane. It is a bad start, he thought; however, there seems to be a bad omen for me, in this Milan. Everything goes well when I have to get in, and then, when I am in it, I find all the troubles there, ready for me. Enough … With God’s help … if I can find … if I am able to find …, ah! All will not matter at all. Having reached the bridge he turned, without hesitating, to the left on San Marco Street, because it seemed to him, rightfully, that it should lead toward the center of the city. And as he was going ahead he would look here and there in order to see some human being, but he could only see a deformed cadaver in the little ditch that runs among those few houses (that were even fewer at that time) and a section of the street. After that section he heard somebody cry: “Hey, that man,” and looking in that direction he saw, not too far, on the balcony of an isolated little house, a poor woman with a brood of children who continued to call him, beckoning with her hand. He ran to it, and when he was close: “Oh, that young man,” that woman said. For the sake of your dear deceased, do us the favor to inform the commissioner that we are here, forgotten. They locked us in as suspected plague victims, because my poor husband died; they have nailed our door, as you can see, and since yesterday morning nobody came to give us any food. During the many hours that I have been here, nobody came that would do that favor to us, and these poor innocent are starving.

“Starving,” Renzo cried out, and putting his hands in his pockets, “here,” he said, taking two rolls of bread out. “Lower something to put them in.” “May God reward you; wait a moment,” said the woman, and went to look for a basket and a rope to lower it, as she did. In the meantime there came back to Renzo’s mind those rolls that he had found near the cross at his other entrance in Milan, and he thought: There it is, a restitution and perhaps better than if I had returned them to their owner; because here it is a really merciful deed. “As for the commissioner that you said, my dear woman,” said Renzo, putting the rolls in the basket, I cannot help you at all; because, to tell you the truth, I am a stranger and I am not familiar with this place. But, if I meet some kind and humane man and am able to speak to him, I shall tell him.

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 283

The woman asked him to do that and told him the name of the street so that he could indicate it. “You too,” added Renzo, “might do me a favor, a true charity, without troubling yourself. A house of noble people, a great family here in Milan, the house of ***, could you explain to me where it is?” “I know that the house is here,” answered the woman, “but where it is I really do not know. If you go ahead this way, you will find somebody who may tell you. And remember to tell him also about us.” “Have no doubt,” said Renzo and he went on. At every step he heard growing, and nearing, a noise that he had already begun to hear while he was standing to talk, a noise of wheels and of horses and a tinkling of small bells and every now and then a cracking of whips accompanied by shouts. He was looking ahead but he saw nothing. When he reached the end of that street, and the square of San Marco appeared in front of him, the first things that caught his attention were two standing beams with a rope and some pulleys; and he soon recognized (because it was a common thing in those days) the abominable machine of torture. It was erected in that place and not only in that one, but in all the squares and the widest streets, so that the deputies of every district who had been given, in the matter, the most arbitrary power, could apply it immediately to anyone who seemed deserving of pain, people confined indoors who escaped from their houses, employees who did not do their duty, or anybody else. It was one of those extreme and ineffective remedies, that had been extensively adopted at that time. Now, while Renzo is looking at that contraption, wondering why it had been erected in that place, he hears that noise getting closer and closer and he sees, coming from behind the corner of the church, a man who was ringing a bell, he was an apparitore, and behind him there were two horses that, stretching their necks and digging their hoofs, proceeded with difficulty; and, pulled by them, a cart of dead people, and after that another, and then another; here and there were monatti at the sides of the horses pushing them with whip lashes, poking and cursing. Most of those cadavers were naked, some carelessly wrapped in rags, piled up and mixed together, as a knot of snakes that slowly came alive at the warmth of spring; that, at every obstacle, at every jolt one could see those grievous heaps quiver and come badly loose in a dangling of heads, young women’s long hair, shaking arms, hitting the wheels, showing to an already horrified observer how that scene could become more sorrowful and indecent. The young man had stopped at the corner of the square, near the side of the canal and was praying for those unknown dead. A dreadful thought crossed his mind—there, perhaps there with those, under there … Oh, Lord! May it not be true! Do not make me think of that!1 After the funeral procession had passed, Renzo stirred, crossed the square walking along the canal to the left without any particular reason because the procession had gone in the opposite direction. After walking a short distance, between



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

the canal and the church he saw, on the right, the Marcellino bridge; he went that way and walked to Borgo Nuovo, looking always ahead with the intention of finding someone who could show him the street and he saw, at the end, a priest wearing a doublet, holding a little cane, standing near a door ajar, with bent head, and his ear near the door; shortly afterwards, he saw him raise his hand and bless. He imagined what was really true, namely that he had finished hearing someone’s confession and he thought—this is the man who will help me. If a priest, who is behaving like a priest, does not feel a little compassion, a little love and a gentle thought, one must say that all of this has disappeared in the world. In the meantime, the priest, walking away from the door, was stepping toward Renzo, going very carefully in the middle of the street. Renzo, when he was near him, took off his hat and showed him that he wanted to talk to him, stopping at the same time to make him aware that he would not go any closer to him. Also the priest stopped, showing that he would have listened to him, placing his little cane, however, in front, as if to shield himself. Renzo asked his question, that the priest answered not only by telling him the name of the street where stood the house, but giving him, as he saw that the poor young man needed it, some directions, mentioning where to turn to the right or to the left, churches and crosses, and the six or eight streets that he had to take to get there. “May God keep you healthy in these times and always,” Renzo said, and as the other was moving in order to leave, “another favor,” he added, and told him about the poor forgotten woman. The good priest thanked him for giving him the opportunity to do such a necessary favor, saying that he was going to inform the appropriate person, and walked on. Renzo moved also and, while he was walking, he was trying to repeat in his mind the itinerary so that he would not need to ask again at every street corner. But you could not imagine how painful that exercise was for him, not so much because of the difficulty in itself, but for an anxiety that had entered his mind. The name of the street, the way to go there had upset him. It was the indication that he wished and had asked about, of which he could not do without, and nothing else had been told him from which he might obtain an ominous omen but, what can one say? That idea, a little more definite, of a near end, from which he would be free of a great uncertainty, where he could be told: she is alive, or she is dead. That idea had struck him in such a way, that, at that time, he would have liked better to be still in the dark about everything and to be at the beginning of his journey the end of which, by now, was approaching. He collected his strength, however, and told himself: If now we begin to act like a boy, what will happen? Thus, encouraged, as best as he could, he continued his walk, going forward into the city. What city! What was it in comparison with what it had been the previous year because of the famine!

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 285

Renzo happened to pass through one of the most dismal and desolate parts: the crossing that was called carrobio of Porta Nuova. (There was, at that time, a cross in the middle, and in front of it near where the San Francesco di Paola is now), there stood an old church called Sant’Anastasia. The vehemence of the contagion had been so strong in that neighborhood and the stench of the cadavers abandoned there, that the few who had remained alive were compelled to move away so that, to the sadness that such a solitude and neglect confronted the passerby, there was also the horror and repugnance of the signs and the remains of the recent dwelling. Renzo hurried ahead, taking heart by thinking that his destination could not be so close, hoping that, before reaching it, he would find the scene changed, at least in part. In fact, after a short time, he arrived in a place that could be called a city of living people! All the doors were closed either for suspicion or for terror, except those that were wide open because the houses were uninhabited, or sacked; others had shut and nailed doors because some people had either died or were ill with the plague; others were marked with charcoal signs to inform the monatti that there were some dead people to be carried away, everything mostly confused than anything else, if one had found here or there some health official or other employee who wanted to carry out his orders or misdeeds. There were rags everywhere and, more revolting than the rags, dirty bandages, infected straw, or bed sheets thrown out of the windows; sometimes bodies of persons who had suddenly died in the streets and left there until a cart came to take them away, or fallen from the carts or thrown down from the windows because the insistence and the raging of the disaster had made the minds wild and forget any form of pity, any social respect! Any noise of the shops had stopped everywhere as well as every sound of carriages, any call of vendors, any chattering of passersby, it was quite rare if that silence of death was broken by other things than the noise of funeral carts, laments of the poor, complaints of infirm people, frenetic cries and monatti’s shouts. At dawn, at noon, in the evening a bell of the Duomo gave the signal to recite some prayers prescribed by the archbishop; those peals were answered by the bells of the other churches and then one would have seen people at the windows, to pray together; you would have heard a whispering of voices and moaning, that inspired a sadness mixed also with some consolation. As perhaps two thirds of the citizens by then had died, a large part of the remaining ones gone away or ill, reduced to nothing, the traffic of the people from outside the city, among the few who went in the streets, an individual would not have met a single person during a long walk in whom you could not notice something strange or that indicated a grievous change of things. One could notice the most distinguished individuals, without a cloak or a mantle, essential parts, at that time, of refined dressing, the priests without a robe and other religious



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

men in a doublet, in short any type of clothing that with its flapping might touch something or give the untori an opportunity (something that was feared the most). And because of the care in going dressed in simple clothes as much as possible, every person appeared untidy and slovenly; those who had a beard wore it long, those who used to shave went unshaven. The hair was long and unkempt not only because of that neglect that arises from a prolonged despondency but because barbers had become suspects since the time that one of them, Giacomo Mora, had been arrested and condemned as a famous untore, a name that, for some time, was municipally renowned as infamous and would deserve a fame much more wide and perpetual of mercy. A large number of them carried a cane, with one hand, others even a pistol as a menacing warning, for those who wanted to come too close. With the other hand they would hold scented pills and perforated metal or wooden balls containing sponges imbued with medical vinegars that they put near their noses every now and then or continuously. Some carried around their neck a little vial containing mercury because they were convinced that it had the capacity to absorb and trap any pestilential exhalation and they could carefully renew it after a number of days. The noble people not only went out without their usual retinue, but they could be seen carrying a shopping bag to go to buy things necessary for their nutrition. Friends, when two of them met in the streets, greeted each other from afar with quiet and hurried signs. Everybody, while walking, had a lot to do to avoid the revolting and deadly obstacles that covered the pavements, which were completely obstructed in some places: everybody tried to go along the center of the streets fearing that other dirty objects or a more grievous weight might fall down from the windows; for fear of the poisonous powders that people said were often thrown from them over the passersby and for fear of the walls that might have been smeared. Thus ignorance, brave and cautious in an upside down manner, added distress to distress and generated false terrors as a reward of the reasonable and salutary ones that it had raised in the beginning. This was what appeared less unsightly and less pitiable that one could see around, the healthy and the rich: because, after so many portrayals of misery, and thinking of the more serious one, into which we will take the reader, we will not stop now to say what was the sight of the plague victims who dragged themselves along or were dying in the streets, of the poor, the children, the women. It was such that the observer could almost find some desperate comfort in what impresses the most the distant people and posterity seeing and thinking how few those living people were. Amidst this desolation, Renzo had already walked the major part of his way when, still somewhat far from a street where he had to make a turn, he heard

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 287

a confused uproar come from it in which the usual horrible tinkling could be distinguished. When he reached the corner of the street that was one of the widest, he saw four carts stopped in the middle, as they would be in a grains market where one sees people go back and forth, loading and unloading sacks; such was the action at that place. There were monatti who went into the houses, monatti who came out of them with a load on their shoulders and put it on this or the other cart; some wearing a red uniform, others without that distinctive suit, many wearing an even more hateful one, plumes and flocks of various colors that those wicked people wore as a sign of merriment in the public mourning. Now from one and then from another window, echoed a mournful voice: “Monatti, here!” And with an even more sinister sound from that wretched swarming rose some ugly voice answering: “Now, now!” Or they were tenants who were grumbling and said to hurry up to whom the monatti answered with blasphemies. As he entered the street, Renzo quickened his pace trying not to look at those obstacles unless it was necessary in order to avoid them, when his eyes saw a strange pitiful scene that tempted his soul to observe so that he stopped almost without wanting to do it. From the steps of one of those doors, a woman walked toward the carts; her aspect showed an advanced but not passed youth; and there appeared a veiled, dim but not spoiled beauty by a great passion and a deadly languor: it was that soft and at the same time majestic beauty that shines in the Lombard blood. Her walking was tired but not weak; her eyes had no tears but showed that she had shed many; in her grief there was something calm and deep that showed a soul completely aware and ready to feel it. But it was not only her aspect that, among so many woes, made one feel particularly sorry for her and enlivened on her behalf that feeling that, by that time, had become wearied and deadened in the hearts. She carried a young girl of perhaps nine years of age, dead; but well cared for, her hair parted on her forehead, a very white dress as if those hands had prettied her up for a celebration promised a long time ago and offered as a prize. She did not hold her reclined but sitting on her arm, her chest against hers, as if she had been alive, but for a little hand, as white as wax that was dangling on one side, with a certain lifeless heaviness, her head rested on her mother’s shoulder with an abandon deeper than sleep; of her mother’s, because even if the similarity of their faces had not revealed it, it would have been clearly revealed by one of the two that was still showing a feeling. A vile monatto went to take the little girl from her arms, with a kind of special respect, however, with an involuntary hesitation. But that woman, stepping back, without showing, however, any indignation or contempt, said: “No! Do not touch



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

her now; I must put her on that cart. Take this.” And saying that, she opened a hand, showed a purse and let it drop in the hand that the monatto had held out. Then she said: “Promise me that you will not remove anything from her, nor let anyone else dare do so, and to bury her as she is.” The monatto put a hand on his chest and then, very kindly, and almost deferentially, more out of a new feeling by which he was subdued than because of the unexpected reward, busied himself to make a little space on the cart for the little dead girl. The mother, after she kissed her on her forehead, put her there as if on a bed, she settled her, spread a white cloth over her, and said the last words: “Good bye, Cecilia, rest in peace! Tonight we will come too, to remain always together. Pray for us, now, and I will pray for you, and for the others.” Then, turning again toward the monatto, “You,” she said, “passing by this place tonight, come upstairs to take me, and not me only.” Having said that, she entered her house and a moment later she appeared at the window, holding a younger little girl, alive but with the signs of death on her face. She remained motionless to observe the unbecoming funeral of the older girl until the cart moved and she could see it. Then she disappeared. What else could she do, but put on the bed the last one who was left and lie down next to her in order to die together with the little one still in bed, at the passing of the scythe that evens up all the grass in the field. “O Lord!” cried out Renzo. “Grant her wish! Take her with you, she and her little girl, they have suffered enough!” When he recovered from that deep emotion, and while he tries to recall his way in order to see if he had to turn at the first street to the right or to the left, he hears coming also from this one another, different clamor, a confused noise of imperious voices, of feeble wailings, a crying of women, and a whining of children. He went ahead feeling that usual bad and obscure anxiety. When he reached the intersection, he saw on one side a confused multitude that was coming near and he stopped there to let it pass by. They were ill people who were led to the Lazzaretto; some of them, pushed forcibly ahead, resisted in vain and cried that they wanted to die in their beds and answered with useless curses the monatti’s swearing and orders who led them; others walked in silence without showing any pains or any other feeling as senseless people; women holding their children in their arms; young ones frightened by the shouts, by those orders, by that company, more than by the thought of dying, who were imploring with loud cries their mothers and their trusted arms and their homes. Alas! Perhaps their mothers, that they believed they had left asleep on their beds, had thrown themselves on them caught suddenly by the plague and were lying there senseless to be carried on a cart to the Lazzaretto or to the grave, if the cart came by later. Perhaps, o calamity

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 289

worthy of more bitter tears! Their mothers, completely concerned with their sufferings, had forgotten everything, even their children, and had only one thought: to die in peace. Yet, in such a great confusion, one could still see some examples of steadiness and compassion: fathers, mothers, brothers, children, spouses who stood by their beloved companions and accompanied them with comforting words; not only adults, but young boys, young girls who led their younger brothers, and with good judgment and compassion of adult people, they asked them to be obedient, they assured them that they were going to a place where there were people who would have taken care of them in order to make them recover. In the sadness and tenderness of these scenes, there was something that touched one the most and kept our traveler in a state of agitation. The house must be near there, and who knows if among those people. … But when the whole group had gone and his doubt had vanished, he turned to a monatto who was walking behind and asked him about the street and the house of Don Ferrante. “Go to hell, bumpkin,” was the answer that he received. He did not bother giving him what he deserved; but, as he saw near him a commissioner who walked behind the group of people and who had a more humane face, he asked him the same question. The man, pointing with his cane in the direction from which he was coming said: “The first street to the right, the last large house on the left.” With a new and strong anxiety in his mind, the young man went in that direction. He is on the street, he immediately notices the house among the others that are lower and more humble, he goes near the door that is closed, puts his hand on the clapper and keeps it there, as if in an urn before picking up the note indicating either his life or his death. Finally, he lifts the clapper and knocks resolutely. A few moments later, a window was opened a little; a woman peeped looking who was there, with an angry face that seemed to ask: “Monatti? Vagabonds? Commissioners? Untori? Devils?” “Madam,” Renzo said, looking up, and with a not too firm voice, “is there a young country woman named Lucia working as a servant here?” “She is no longer here, go away,” that woman answered moving back to close the window. “Just a moment, please. She is no longer here? Where is she?” “At the Lazzaretto,” and again she was ready to close. “A moment, please, for God’s sake! Does she have the plague?” “Yes, a really new thing, isn’t it? Go away!” “Oh, poor me! Wait. Was she seriously ill? How long ago …?” But this time the window was really closed. “Madam! Madam! Just one word, please! Do it for the sake of your dead people! I do not want anything from you. Please!” But it was like talking to a wall. Dejected by the news, and angry because of her manners, Renzo grabbed the knocker again and leaning thus against the door he was pressing and twisting it to knock again desperately, and then he lifted it up.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

In his agitation, he turned to see if there was any neighbor from whom he might perhaps obtain some more precise information, some indication, some light. But the first and only person that he saw was another woman, about twenty steps away from him who, with an expression that manifested terror, hatred, impatience and malice, with deranged eyes that wanted to look at him and far at the same time, opening her mouth wide trying to scream at the top of her voice but holding her breath, lifting two skinny arms, moving back and forth her wrinkled hands, bent like claws as if she were trying to hook something up, appeared to want to call people in a way that somebody would not become aware of it. When their eyes met, that woman, becoming even uglier, roused herself as a surprised person. “What the devil!” Renzo began, equally lifting his hands toward the woman; but she, having lost the hope to have him caught at once, uttered the shout that she had held back till then: “Untore, get him, get the untore!” “Who? Me? Ah, lying witch! Shut up!” Renzo cried and jumped toward her, to scare her and calm her down. But he immediately realized that he had to concern himself about his safety. At the yelling of the old woman, people were running up from all directions; not the crowd that, in a similar case there would have been three months earlier but more than enough to do what they wanted against a single man. At the same time the window opened again and the same rude woman of before, this time appeared and was shouting: “Catch him! Catch him! He must be one of those scoundrels who go around smearing honest people’s doors!” Renzo did not remain there to think: getting away from those people immediately seemed to him the best thing to do, rather than remain and explain his actions; he took a look to the right and to the left, to see where there were fewer people and made off that way. He gave a hard push to one who was blocking his way; and punching the chest of one who was going against him he pushed him back eight or ten steps and ran away; his fist lifted up, clenched and ready for anyone else who would impede him. The street ahead was still empty; but behind his back he heard the trampling and, louder than the trampling, those harsh shouts: “Get him! Get the untore!” He did not know when they would stop and was not able to see where he could save himself. His anger became rage, his anguish turned into despair and he lost his temper; he got a hold of his knife, took it out of its guard, stopped suddenly and turned around showing the grimmest and most scowling face he had ever shown in those days; and with his arm in the air, showing its shiny blade, he shouted: “Step forth, anyone who has courage, you scum, and I will really anoint you with this!” But, to his own amazement and a mixed feeling of consolation, he saw that his persecutors had already stopped and stood there hesitating and that, continuing to shout, made with their hands in the air some gestures like possessed people in the

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 291

direction of individuals who seemed to come from afar, behind him. He looked back again and he saw (because the great disturbance had not allowed him to notice it earlier) a cart that was coming ahead, or better, a line of the usual funeral carts, with the usual train and behind, at a certain distance, another small group of people who would have also liked to attack the untore and catch him in the middle but were prevented from doing so by that very impediment. As he saw that he was caught between two fires, he recalled that what terrorized them could mean safety for him, he thought that it was not the moment to be squeamish. He put his knife in its guard, stepped aside, took a run toward the carts, passed along the first one and spotted on the second a good empty place. He takes aim, gives a jump, he is on top of it, resting on his right foot, his left foot in the air, his arms raised up. “Bravo! Bravo!” cried the monatti all together, some of them following the cart on foot, others were seated on the carts and others, to mention the horrible thing as it was, on the cadavers, drinking from a large flask that they passed around. “Bravo! Well done!” “You came under the monatti’s protection; consider yourself safe as in church,” told him one of the two who were on the cart where he had jumped. Most of his enemies, at the approaching of the carts, had turned back and were going away without ceasing to shout: “Get him, get the untore!” Someone went back more slowly, stopping every now and then, and turning back with menacing words and gestures against Renzo who, from the cart, answered them shaking his fists in the air. “Let me do it!” a monatto told him, and pulling a dirty rag from a cadaver, knotted it quickly and holding it by one end raised it like a sling toward those stubborn people and pretended to throw it to them, yelling: “Wait a moment, rabble!” At that gesture, all of them ran away horrified and Renzo saw nothing else but backs of enemies, feet running quickly away. A triumphant roar, a stormy burst of laughter, a prolonged “uh!” accompanied that flight. “See if we can protect a gentleman?” that monatto told Renzo, “One of us is worthier than one hundred of these loafers.” “I certainly must say that I owe you my life,” Renzo answered, “and I thank you with all my heart!” “For what?” said the monatto. You deserve it. One can see that you are a good young man. You do a good thing by smearing this rabble. Smear them, wipe out these people who are worthy only when they are dead; who, as a reward for our work curse us and say that when the mortality is over they will have all of us hanged. It’s they who have to end living before the epidemic; and the monatti will be the only ones left to exult in our victory and to wallow in plenty in Milan.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

“Long live mortality, death to the rabble!” cried out the other one; and with this fine toast he put the flask to his mouth and, holding it with both hands in the bumping of the cart, he had a good drink, then he handed it to Renzo and said: “Drink to our health!” “I wish you all with all my heart the best health,” said Renzo. “But I am not thirsty. I really do not feel like drinking at the moment.” “You had a great fear, it seems to me,” said the monatto. “You look like a poor man, it takes a different kind of man to be an untore.” “Every one manages as he can,” said the other one. “Give it to me,” said one of those who were walking along the cart, “because I want to have another sip of it to the health of its owner who is here in this fine company. … There, there, precisely in that fine coach.” And with a dreadful, beastly grimace he pointed at the cart that preceded the one where poor Renzo was standing. Then, having assumed on a serious face an even grimmer and more treacherous air, he took a bow in that direction and continued: Will you be pleased, milord, if a poor little monatto may have a sip of the wine of your cellar? You see, sir, we live such a hard life, we are those who put you in your coach to take you to a country holiday, and then, gentlemen, wine immediately upsets you; the poor monatti, on the contrary, have a good stomach.

And in the roaring laughter of his companions, he took the flask, raised it; but before drinking, he turned toward Renzo, stared fixedly at his face and told him, with a certain air of scornful commiseration: “The devil with whom you made a pact must be quite young; because, if we had not been there to save you, he was certainly going to give you some good help.” And in another roar of laughter, he put the flask to his mouth. “What about us? What about us?” cried out many voices from the cart that was ahead. The scoundrel, after he gulped down as much as he pleased, gave, with both hands, the big flask to the other companions who passed it from the one to the next, till one, who, after emptying it held it by its neck, whirled it around and smashed it on the street slabs, shouting: “Long live the plague!” After these words he struck up a song of theirs and soon his voice was accompanied by all the others of that vile choir. The hellish song, mixed with the tinkling of the bells, the squeaking of the wheels and the pounding of the horses, echoed through the silent emptiness of the streets, and echoing also in the houses it caused a bitter and heavy heart in the few that still lived there.

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 293

What may sometimes be of help? What may not give us pleasure in some cases? The danger of a few minutes before had made tolerable for Renzo the company of those dead and living people; and now it was music in his ears, I am going to say, pleasing the one that took him away from the trouble of that conversation. Still, somewhat out of breath and upset, he was thanking Providence in his heart for having escaped from such a predicament, without being hurt or causing it; he prayed it now to help him to free himself also from his liberators and, as far as he was concerned, he was on the lookout, he observed those people and looked at the street to catch the opportunity to slip down very quietly, without giving them the opportunity to make some noise, some scene, that might have stirred the malice of the passersby. Suddenly, at a street corner, it seemed to him to recognize that place: he looked more carefully and was certain. Do you know where he was? On the avenue of Porta Orientale, on that street where he had walked slowly and gone away in a hurry, about twenty months before. He recalled immediately that from that place the street led directly to the Lazzaretto; and finding himself on the right way, without studying, without asking, he considered it as a special sign of Providence, and as a good omen of what was to follow. At that point, a commissioner was coming toward the carts ordering the monatti to stop and I do not know what else. The fact is that the carts stopped, and the music changed to a noisy altercation. One of the monatti who were on Renzo’s cart jumped down. Renzo told the other, “I thank you for your mercy, may God reward you.” And down he went on the other side. “Go, go poor little untore,” he answered. “You will not be the one to ruin Milan!” Fortunately, there was nobody who could hear. The carts had stopped along the right side of the street. Renzo goes hurriedly to the other side and, going along the wall, he walks ahead toward the bridge; he passes it, he continues to go along the street of the suburb and recognizes the Capuchins’ convent, he is near the gate and spots the corner of the Lazzaretto, he goes through the gate and the scene of that enclosure opens up in front of him. It is just an indication and an example, and already a wide, different, incredible scene. Along the two sides that can be seen by a person who observes from that point, there was a large swarming; they were the people who were going in groups to the Lazzaretto. Others were sitting or were lying down on the edges of the ditch that flanked it, either because they did not have enough strength to go inside the shelter or that, having come out of there in despair, their strength had no longer been sufficient for them to go ahead. Other unfortunate people wandered confusedly, as if in a stupor and not a few were completely confused. One was all excited telling



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

his fanciful stories to a wretched man who was oppressed by his illness, another one was raving; another was looking here and there with a smiling face as if he was watching a cheerful spectacle. But the strangest and the noisiest kind of such a sad cheerfulness was a high pitched, constant singing that did not seem to originate from that miserable crowd, yet it could be heard better than the other voices: a country song about a happy, joyous love, one of those songs which were called villanelle. And following the sound with one’s eyes to discover who might possibly be happy, at that time, one could see a poor man who, sitting calmly on the bottom of the ditch, sang at the top of his voice, with his head turned upward. Renzo had just taken a few steps along the southern side of the building, where one could hear an extraordinary noise among that multitude and, from afar, voices that were shouting: “Look out! Catch it!” He stands on the tips of his toes and sees a big horse running at full speed incited by a strange rider. It was a mad man who, when he saw that animal left unchecked near a cart, had jumped on it without a saddle and hitting its neck with his fists, and using his heels as spurs, was urging it hurriedly; with yelling monatti running behind him, that disappeared in a cloud of dust that wafted far away. Thus, already bewildered and tired of seeing troubles, the young man arrived at the door of that area where were assembled perhaps more than those who were scattered in the place that he already had to cross. He peers through that door, enters under its cover and stops for a moment in the middle of the entrance.

Note 1. Since Renzo had not received any news about his fiancée Lucia, he had a moment of trepidation and fear that she might have been a victim of the plague.

Bibliography Barberi-Squarotti, G. Prospettive sui Promessi sposi. Torino, 1991. Carducci, G. Accademia dei Trasformati. Bologna, 1937. Caretti, L. Sulle lettere del Foscolo all’Arese. Torino, 1978 De Castris, A. L. Manzoni tra ideologia e storicismo. Bari, 1962. De Robertis, G. Primi studi manzoniani ed altre cose. Firenze, 1949. ——. Struttura dei ‘Promessi sposi.’ Paragone, 1950. De Sanctis, F. Storia della Letteratura Italiana nel secolo XIX. Manzoni. Milano, 1964. Faggi, A. L’arte psicologica del Manzoni. Fanfulla della Domenica, 1916. Fasani, R. Saggi sui “Promessi sposi.” Firenze, 1952. Ferrari, S. (Ed.). Ugo Foscolo, I Sepolcri e le Grazie. Firenze, 1957.

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 295

Filosa G. Le “Prose” di Federico della Valle. Il Della Valle in Ispagna e a Milano. Lettere italiane, XVII, 1965. Getto, G. Letture manzoniane. Firenze, 1964. ——. Manzoni europeo. Milano, 1971. Lanzara, F. Delitti e Pene nei ‘Promessi sposi.’ Studio critico alla luce del diritto moderno. Cassino, 1958. Manzoni, A. Gli sposi promessi, Le opere di Alessandro Manzoni. Edizioni del Centenario. Volume Secondo. Genova-Roma-Napoli, 1924. ——. I promessi sposi (a cura di G. Getto). Firenze, 1964. ——. Opere. Con un discorso Preliminare di Niccolò Tommaseo. Napoli, 1860. Momigliano, A. Dagli ‘Sposi promessi’ ai ‘Promessi sposi.’ Firenze, 1921. ——. L’Innominato. Palermo, 1924. Niccolini, F. Arte e storia nei ‘Promessi sposi.’ Milano, 1958. Pacifici, S. The Modern Italian Novel. From Manzoni to Svevo. London, 1967. Paratore, E. Lettura del cap. XXI dei ‘Promessi sposi’. Atti e memorie dell’Academia Letteraria d’Arcadia, 1963. Salvadori G. Libertà e servitù nel pensiero giansenista e in A. Manzoni. Brescia, 1942. Salvatorelli, L. Il pensiero politico italiano dal 1700 al 1800. Torino, 1935. Sapegno, N. Compendio di storia della letteratura italiana. Firenze, 1964. ——. Ritratto di Manzoni e altri saggi. Bari, 1966. Toffanin, G. Lezioni sul Manzoni. Napoli, 1961. Tommasini, M. P. Don Abbondio e i ragionamenti sinodali di F. Borromeo. Città di Castello, 1904. Varese, C. Fermo e Lucia, un’esperienza manzoniana interrotta. Firenze, 1964. Zottoli, A. Umili e potenti nella poetica di A. Manzoni. Roma, 1942.

chapter eleven

Alessandro Manzoni Storia della Colonna Infame

At the end of Chapter XXXII of I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), Manzoni refers to another work of his that is awaiting to be written, namely Storia della Colonna Infame (History of the Pillar of Infamy), which, he says, “is not a topic to be dealt with in a few words.” And continuing on this topic he comments that “this is not the place to discuss it as completely as it deserves.” At first, the author had included this subject in the first version of his novel that had appeared in 1823 with the title, Fermo e Lucia, the early names of the two protagonists of the book. When Manzoni revised his novel, and that was an ample revision indeed, he changed, among other things, also the names of the two young betrothed who finally were named Renzo Tramaglino and Lucia Mondella. Both surnames refer to common instruments of manual work or working activities (Tramaglio means ‘trammel’, suggestive of a woven object, since Renzo was a silk weaver and prepared woven material, while Mondella calls to mind the term mondina, a working woman who ‘weeds rice’, as well as the verb mondare that means to clean, to peel; and the image of the mondina, pl. mondine, is a very well known symbol of the many women who used to work seasonally in the rice paddies in Northern Italy.). One may realize very easily why the author wrote that “it was not a topic to be dealt with in a few words,” when one considers that the Storia della Colonna Infame consists of forty-one large size pages in the edition of Manzoni’s works published in 1860 by Francesco Rossi Romano Editore, Napoli, 1860, preceded by a Preliminary Note by Niccolò Tommaseo.

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 297

The Storia is a meticulous exposé of one of the most significant trials conducted in Milan at the time of the plague of 1630 against some presumed untori who, in the light of the future times, emerged as the innocent victims of the wave of fear, superstition, malice and ignorance that beset the city of Milan under political and military Spanish control and constitutes a moral treatise on the theme of justice, one of the main inspirational sources of Manzoni’s works. At a later time, Manzoni returned to that composition after extensive research and included it as an appendix in the final version of I promessi sposi. The Storia, therefore, aims at proving the importance of literature as an instrument of knowledge vis-à-vis historical truth ( Jacomuzzi). It may be said also that in Chapter XXXII of I promessi sposi, Manzoni prepares the reader to the more expanded and specific “report” on the procedures followed by the legal authorities, in the dramatic trials of 1630. In that chapter he reports that only in the city of Milan, in 1630, a very large number of suspects was tried and condemned to the most atrocious tortures and to death for the simple and ungrounded suspicion of having used poisonous powders or ointments, in a pact with the devil, in order to spread the epidemic in the city.

Introduction To the judges who, in Milan, in 1630, sentenced to most atrocious torments some defendants accused of having spread the plague with some silly, as much as horrible, devices, it seemed to have carried out something so worthy of being memorialized that, in their very sentence, after describing, in addition to the tortures, the demolition of one of those unfortunate people’s houses, they decreed also that on its place a pillar should be erected that should be named “of infamy,” with an inscription that should hand down to posterity the information concerning the attempted act and its penalty. They were not mistaken about it: that judgment was truly memorable. In a place of the preceding writing (The Betrothed), the author has expressed his intention to publish its history; and that is what he offers to the public, not without shame, knowing that other persons considered it at least a subject of vast compass and of a corresponding size. But if the ridicule of disappointment must fall upon him, may he be allowed at least to declare that he is not the one to be blamed, and if a mouse emerges from it, he had not said that mountains would have originated from it. He had said only that, as an episode, such a story would have proved to be too long, and that although the topic had already been dealt with by a justly celebrated writer (Observations on Torture, by Pietro Verri), it seemed to him that it could be dealt with anew, with a different goal. A brief mention about this difference, to make the reason for the new writing known, will be sufficient.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

I wish also that its usefulness could be mentioned; but the latter, unfortunately, depends much more on the realization than on the intention. As the title of his booklet asserts, Pietro Verri intended to obtain from that event an argument against torture by showing how it had been able to extort the confession of a crime that was physically and morally impossible. Its topic was as cogent as its proposition was noble and human. But from the story, however concise it might be, of a complicated event, of a great wrong done without reason, by men to men, more general and useful observations must necessarily be obtained, if not quite immediate, no less real. Better still, to remain satisfied only with those that could mainly be useful for that special intention, there is the risk of formulating a vision of the fact that is not only reduced in half but false, by accepting as causes of it the ignorance of the times and the primitive state of jurisprudence and consider it almost as an inevitable and necessary event, which would mean to accept a dangerous error from which one could draw a useful lesson (Ignorance in physics may cause some difficulties, but not iniquities and the fact that a bad institution does not function by itself.). Certainly, it was not a necessary effect to believe in the power of infected anointments and think that Guglielmo Piazza and Giangiacomo Mora had carried them out; as the fact that torture was not a necessary result that had to be suffered by all the accused persons nor that all those who suffered it had to be declared guilty. A truth that may seem silly owing to too much evidence; but it is not rare that too evident truths which ought to be implied, are forgotten instead; and from not forgetting this particular one depends the correct judgment of that dreadful opinion. We tried to reveal, to show, that those judges condemned innocent people and with a legislation that allowed torture they could consider them innocent; but who, on the contrary, in order to prove them guilty, in order to reject that truth that reappeared every time in a thousand ways, and from thousands of directions, with characters as clear then as they are now, as always, had to make constant efforts of their minds and resort to contrivances whose injustice could not escape their attention. We certainly do not want to, and it would be a wicked assumption to clear from ignorance and torture their share in that horrible event: the former was a deplorable aspect, the latter a cruel and active instrument of it, although not the only one, certainly, nor the main one. But we believe in the importance of distinguishing the true and effective causes that constituted unjust actions, caused by what else if not perverse passions? Only God could distinguish which one among them prevailed more or less in the hearts of those judges and subdued their will: either the anger against mysterious dangers that, impatient to find a target, grasped what was placed in front of it, and had exclaimed: “Finally!” and did not want to say, “Here we are at the

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 299

beginning all over again,” the anger rendered merciless by a long fear turned into hatred and obstinacy against the unfortunate ones who were trying to slip away; or the fear of not meeting the general expectations, as certain as it was rash to appear less capable if they cleared some innocents, to turn against themselves the shouts of the multitude for not listening to them; perhaps even the fear of serious public evils that might stem from it; a fear of a less vile appearance, but equally perverse and not less miserable when it takes the place of the truly noble, knowing fear of committing an act of injustice. Only God could see if those magistrates, finding the culprit of a crime that did not exist, but that was wanted, were more abetting or the ministers of a multitude which, blinded, not by ignorance but by malice and rage and violated with shouts the most positive rules of divine law, of which it boasted of being a follower. But falsehood, the abuse of power, the violation of the laws and the best known and accepted norms, the using of two weights and two measures, are things that may be noticed by men even in human actions; and once they are recognized can be attributed only to passion that affects the will; and, in order to explain the materially unjust acts of that judgment, one could find some more natural ones and not so wicked than that rage and that fear. Now, these causes were not, unfortunately, peculiar of an epoch, nor was it only because of errors in physics, and by means of torture, that those passions, like all the other passions, drove men who were not all wicked by profession, evil actions both in noisy public occasions, and in the most obscure private affairs. “If only one less torture,” the above praised author wrote, “will be given thanks to the horror that I am showing, the painful feeling that I have will be well employed, and the hope of obtaining it is my reward.” (Verri, P. Observations on Torture). We, who invite the patient readers to direct their eyes again on already known horrors, believe that it will not be without a new and not ignoble fruit, that the resentment and disgust that one may feel every time will be directed also and mainly against passions that cannot be banished, as false systems, nor abolished as bad instructions, but made less powerful and less grievous by recognizing them in their consequences and detest them. We are not afraid of adding that, among the most painful feelings, it might bring some consolation if, in a series of atrocious actions of man against man, we believe that we notice an effect of the times and circumstances, and feel, together with horror and compassion, a discouragement, a kind of despair. It seems to us to see human nature driven invincibly to evil by causes independent from its will, almost bound in a perverse, strenuous dream from which it has no means to rouse, that it cannot ever notice. The indignation that arises spontaneously in us against the authors of those facts but that seems to us noble and holy at the same time; the



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

horror remains, and the guilt disappears; and, hoping for a culprit against whom to be rightfully indignant, our thought is dreadfully led to hesitate between two curses that are two ravings: to deny Providence, or accuse it. But when, considering more carefully those events, one discovers an injustice that might have been seen by the very people who were committing it, a transgression of the rules accepted also by them, actions contrary to the ideas that not only existed at their time but that they themselves, in similar circumstances, showed of possessing, it is relieving to think that, if they did not know what they were doing, it was because they did not want to know it, it was because of that ignorance that man takes and leaves as he pleases and it is not an excuse, but a fault; and that of similar actions one may be a forced victim, but not a doer. I did not intend to say, however, that among the horrors of that judgment, the renowned mentioned author never sees, in any case, the personal and voluntary injustice of the judges. I only meant to say that he did not intend to observe which and how much part there was and much less to prove that it was the main, or rather, to speak precisely, the only cause. And I add now, that he would not have been able to do it without damaging his particular purpose. The supporters of torture (because the most absurd institutions have them until they are completely gone, often, even later, for the same reason that they could exist) would have been able to find its justification. Do you see? They would have said: “Its abuse is at fault, not the thing itself.” It really would be a strange justification of a thing, showing that, besides being absurd in any case, it could function like an instrument in something of a social nature for passions in order to perform the most absurd and atrocious things. But fixed opinions envision it like that. On the other hand, those who, like Verri, wanted to abolish torture, would have been dissatisfied that the issue would become tangled with distinctions, and that, by putting the blame on something else, its error should diminish. At heart, this is what happens ordinarily; that he who wants to shed light on a contrasted truth, finds in his supporters, as well as in his adversaries, an obstacle in showing it in its true form. It is true that what is left is that large mass of people without side, without worries, without passion, who do not want to know it in any form. As for the material that we have used to prepare this brief history, we must say before all else that the research that we made in order to discover the original trial, although it was facilitated, or rather helped, by the nicest and active kindness, did nothing but convince us more and more that it is absolutely lost. A copy, however, of a large part of it still remains and here is how. Among those wretched defendants there was, unfortunately owing to one of them, an important person, Don Giovanni Gaetano de Padilla, the son of the commander of the castle of Milan, Knight of St. Iago, and captain of the cavalry who was able to have his defense

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 301

printed, supplied with an abstract of the trial that he was given in his capacity of defendant. Certainly, those judges did not realize then that they allowed a printer to build a monument that was more authoritative and more durable than the one that they had commissioned an architect to create. In addition, there is another manuscript copy of this abstract, scantier in some places, more abundant in others, that belonged to Count Pietro Verri, and it was put and left at our disposal by his most worthy son Count Gabriele with his liberal and patient kindness. It is the one that the renowned writer used to compose the cited book and is rich in marginal notes that are quick considerations and sudden outbursts of sad compassion and pious indignation. It has the following title: Summarium offensivi contra don Iohannem Cajetanum de Padilla; in it one can find in full many things of which, in the printed summary, there is only an abridgement; along the margins are indicated the page numbers of the original trial, from which the various passages have been extrapolated; it also contains very brief notes in Latin, all of the same print of the text: Detentio Morae; descriptio Domini Iohannis; Adversatur Commissario; Inverisimile; Subgestio; and similar ones that evidently are notes taken by Padilla’s attorney for the defense. From all evidence it seems to be a literal copy of the authentic abstract that was given to the counsel for the defense and the latter, in having it printed, omitted several things as not important while others were barely mentioned. But why is it that in the printed copy there are some things that are missing in the manuscript? Probably the counsel for the defense could sort out again the original trial and make a second choice of what seemed useful to him for the trial of his client. From these two abstracts we naturally were able to find the largest portion of information, and since the first one, very rare, was reprinted recently, the reader will be able, if he so wishes, to recognize, by comparison, the sections that we have selected from the handwritten copy. Also, the above mentioned defenses exhibited to us several facts and material for some observations. And since they were never reprinted and the copies are very scarce, we will not fail to quote them whenever we have the opportunity to use them. Finally, we were able to find some little items from the few and odd authentic documents that were still available concerning that epoch of confusion and dispersal that are kept in the archives that are mentioned in the preceding writing. After the brief history of the trial, we thought that it would not be inappropriate a shorter history of the opinion concerning it as far as Verri, namely covering about a century and a half. After the opinion expressed in the books that is mostly the only one posterity may know, and has, in any case, its special importance. It seemed that it would be strange if in our own we showed a number of writers go one after the other like Dante’s sheep, without being informed about a fact, which they believed



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

that they could discuss. I am not calling it an entertaining thing; because after witnessing that cruel fight and that dreadful victory of error against truth and of powerful rage against unarmed innocence, they can only displease, I almost said enrage one, no matter whose words they may be, confirm and exalt the error, that self-assured stating, on the basis of such an unwise belief, those curses against the victims, that misled indignation. But such an unpleasantness holds a certain advantage, by increasing aversion and diffidence for that ancient custom, never too discredited, to repeat without examining and, if we are allowed the expression, to pour to the public its own wine, and, sometimes, that wine that occasionally went to its head. To this end, we had thought at first to offer the reader the collection of all the judgments concerning that event that we had been able to find in any book. But for fear of testing too much his patience, we limited ourselves to a few documents, no one of them being obscure but well known for the major part: namely those whose errors can even be instructive when they can no longer be contagious.

Chapter I The morning of June 21, 1630, toward four-thirty, a lowly woman, called Caterina Rosa, standing, unfortunately, at the window of an overpass that, at that time, was at the beginning of Via della Vedra de’ Cittadini, on the side that leads to Porta Ticinese almost across from the pillars of San Lorenzo, saw a man wearing a black cloak and his hat lowered over his face, holding a piece of paper open in his hand, “on which,” she said in her deposition, “he put his hand and it seemed that he was writing.” He drew her attention because, walking in the street, he went close to the walls of the houses, just around the corner, and from time to time he would touch the wall with his hands. “Then,” she added, “I wondered whether he was perhaps one of those people who, in the past days, were smearing the walls.” Caught by this suspicion, she went to another room, to keep an eye on the unknown man, who was walking along it; “and I saw,” she said, “that he touched that wall with his hands.” At the window of a house of the same street, there was another onlooker, by the name of Ottavia Bono, who one could not say whether she conceived by herself the same absurd suspicion as the first woman or only when the other woman had spread her news. When she was questioned, she stated that she had seen him from the moment that he had entered the street; but did not mention any walls being touched while he was walking. “I saw,” she said, that he stopped here, at the end of the wall of the Crivelli’s house and I saw that he held a paper on which he put his right hand and it appeared that he wanted to write; then I saw that he moved his hand from the paper and rubbed it on the wall of the garden where it was a bit white.

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 303

It was probably to clean his fingers stained by the ink since it seems that he was really writing. In fact, at the questioning that was carried out on the following day, when he was asked “if the actions that he performed that morning, required writing,” he answered, “Yes, sir.” As for walking close to the wall, if there was any reason to question that, it was because of the rain as Caterina herself had mentioned, but in order to make an induction of this kind: “It is really something: yesterday while this man was performing these actions of anointing, it rained, and he might have chosen that rainy weather so that now people could smear their clothes walking along to go under a shelter.” After that stop, the man turned back along the same street, reached the corner, and was about to disappear when, by another misfortune, he was met by someone who was walking into the street and greeted him. Caterina who, in order to follow the untore as far as she could, had gone back to the first window and asked the other man who was the one whom he had greeted. The other, who, as he stated later, knew him by sight and did not know his name, said what he knew, that he was a commissioner of the Health Office. “And I said to that man,” Caterina went on stating, “the fact is that I saw him do some things that I do not like at all.” This story was spread out immediately, in fact, it was she the one who spread it out; people came out from the doors and saw the walls smeared with a certain oily material that looked like fat of a yellowish color; in particular, the people of Tradate said that they had found the entrance walls of the gate smeared all over.

The other woman declared the same. When questioned “if she knew why that person had rubbed his hand on the wall,” she answered, “later they found the walls had been smeared, particularly at the Tradate gate.” And, things that in a novel would be considered unlikely but that, unfortunately, the blindness of passion is sufficient to explain, it did not occur, either to the one or to the other, in describing step by step the walk that the man had taken in the street, they were unable, however, to say that the man had entered that gate: it did not seem to them really a “big thing” that the man, in order to carry out such a task wanted to wait for sunrise, did not at least go cautiously, without casting even a glance at the windows; nor that he went back comfortably along the same street as if it were a custom of the criminals to linger more than necessary in the place of their crime; nor that he handled with impunity a substance that was to kill those “who got their clothes dirtied by it; nor other equally strange improbabilities.” But the strangest and most atrocious thing is that they did not seem real even to the questioner and that he did not ask for any explanation. Or, if he did, it would be even worse not to mention it in the proceedings.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

The neighbors, to whom fear revealed who knows how many dirty things, that had been probably before their eyes for who knows how long, without being noticed, quickly started to scorch them with burning straw. To Giangiacomo Mora, barber, that was at the corner, it seemed, as it did to the others, that the walls of his house had been smeared. The unlucky man did not know what other danger was hanging upon him, and from that very same commissioner, a most unhappy man too. The women’s story was immediately enriched by new circumstances; or perhaps what they did immediately to their neighbors was not completely identical to what they did later to the captain of justice. The son of poor Mora, when he was questioned later “if he knows or heard anyone say how said commissioner smeared the mentioned walls and houses,” answered, “I heard that a woman of those who live in the passage that crosses the mentioned Vedra whose name I do not know, said that said commissioner smeared with a feather, holding a small vase in his hand.” It might very well be that said Caterina had mentioned a pen seen really by her in the hand of the unknown man; and everybody guesses too easily that other things could be named by her small vase; that, in a mind that could only think of smearing, a pen had to have a more immediate relationship with a small vase rather than an inkwell. But unfortunately, in that confusion of chattering a real circumstance was not lost. The man was a commissioner of the Health Office; and, with that evidence, it was found out immediately that he was a Guglielmo Piazza, a “son-in-law of comare Paola,” who must have been a midwife who was well known in that place. The news spread gradually through the other districts and it was brought also by somebody who happened to go by that place at the time of the confusion. One of these talks was reported to the senate that ordered the chief of police to go immediately to collect information and act accordingly. “It was important for the senate that yesterday morning the walls and the doors of the houses of the Vedra de’ Cittadini were smeared with deadly ointments,” the chief of police told the notary who went along for that inspection. And with these words, already filled with deplorable certainty and transmitted without correction from the voice of the people to that of the magistrates, the proceedings began. Noticing his firm conviction, this insane fear of a chimerical attempt one cannot avoid remembering what happened similarly in other parts of Europe a few years ago, at the time of cholera. But, this time, with a few exceptions, persons of little knowledge shared the wicked belief, in fact, and for the most part did what they could to oppose it; and no court would have been found that might have handled defendants of that kind, if not to remove them from

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 305

the anger of the crowds. It is certainly a great improvement; but even if it were greater, if one could be certain that in a similar occasion, there would be no one to dream up attempts of the same kind, one should not consider ended the danger of errors similar in its manner, if not in its object. Unfortunately, man can be wrong and be wrong terribly with much less eccentricity. That suspicion and that same exasperation that arise on the occasion of evils that might be or are caused, at times, by human malice, the suspicion and exasperation when they are not kept in check by reason and charity, have the bad quality to make some unfortunate individuals appear guilty, on the most superficial evidence and the most reckless assertions. To cite one example not too old, shortly before cholera, where fires had become quite frequent in Normandy, it took very little for someone to be considered the culprit by a crowd. To be the first to be found there, or in the vicinity; to be unknown and unable to give a satisfactory account: a doubly difficult thing when the person is scared and those who question him are furious; to be pointed out by a woman who could be Caterina Rosa, by a boy who considered himself suspicious by people’s malice, and then put in a difficult situation to say who sent him to lit the fires, mentioned carelessly a name. Happy those jurors before whom went those defendants (for the crowd, more than one time, carried out the sentence by itself ); happy those jurors if they entered the hall quite convinced of knowing nothing yet, if the echo of that noise outside did not remain in their memory, if they thought that they were not only the country, but men invested exclusively with the sacred necessary and terrible authority to decide if other men are guilty or innocent. The person, who had been indicated to be the captain of justice in order to obtain information, could not say anything but to have seen, the preceding day, along Via della Vedra, the walls being singed and smeared with oils that morning by a son-in-law of comare Paola. The captain and the notary went to that street; they saw smoke-blackened walls and one, Mora the barber’s, recently whitewashed. Even “they were told by many people who were there,” that it had been done because they had been smeared with the fingers. What an identification of the corpus delicti! A woman of that house of Tradate was questioned and said, “They had found the entry’s walls smeared in large quantity with something yellow.” The two women, whose depositions we mentioned, were questioned; a few other persons, who added nothing concerning the fact; and, among the others, the man who had greeted the commissioner. When he was asked, furthermore, “if, when walking along Vedra de’ Cittadini he saw smeared walls,” he answered, “I did not pay attention because up to that time nothing of it had been said.”



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

The order to arrest Piazza had already been issued and it did not take much. That same day, the 22nd, … reports the policeman of Campagna to the Captain, who was still in the carriage, that he was going toward his house, and passing by the house of Senator Monti, president of the Health Office, he met in front of that door the above mentioned commissioner and, carrying out the received order, took him to prison.

In order to explain how the safety of the unlucky man did not lessen the judges’ preoccupation, the ignorance of the time is not sufficient. They had, as an evidence of guilt, the escape of the accused. Might they be led to believe that by not escaping, and such a not escaping, had to be a sign of the contrary! It would be ridiculous to want to prove that men could see things that one cannot fail to see: he might, however, not pay attention to them. Piazza’s house was immediately inspected, everything was searched, “in omnibus areis capsis, scriniis, cancellis, sublectis,” in order to see if there were jars of ointments or money and nothing was found: nihil penitus compertum fuit. … Not even this helped him as, unfortunately, it can be seen from his first interrogation carried out on the very same day by the captain, with the assistance of an auditor, probably the one of the tribunal of the Health Office. He was questioned about his profession, his customary activities, the walk that he had taken the previous day and the suit that he wore; finally they asked him, “if he knows that some smearings had been found on the walls of the houses of this city, particularly at Porta Ticinese.” He answered: “I do not know because I did not stop at all at Porta Ticinese.” He is told that “it is not likely,” they wanted to show him that he had to know it. The four repeated questions were answered four times the same way, in other words, he answered the same thing four times. They move to other matters, but not with another purpose: for we shall see later for what cruel malice they insisted on this presumed improbability, and were hunting for another one. Among the events of the preceding day that Piazza had mentioned, there was his meeting with the deputies of a parish. (They were gentlemen elected in each one of them by the Health Tribunal, in order to observe the carrying out of its orders by patrolling the city.) He was asked who were the individuals that he had met; he answered: that he knew them only by sight and not by name. Also in this case, he was told, “it is not likely.” A terrible word: to understand its importance some general observations on the customs of that time in the criminal decisions are required that unfortunately will not be very brief.

Chapter II These customs, as anyone knows, were based mainly here, as in almost all of Europe, on the authority of the writers; for the very simple reason that in a large

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 307

amount of cases, there were no other ones on which to rely. They were two natural consequences of the absence of laws conceived with the general purpose that the interpreters became legislators, and were accepted almost as such, because when necessary things are not done by those who should or are not done in a way to be useful, in some minds arises the thought of doing them and in the others a predisposition to accept them, no matter who has done them. To work without rules is the most tiring and difficult occupation in this world. The statutes of Milan, for example, did not prescribe other norms or conditions to the possibility of subjecting an individual to torture (an authority admitted implicitly, considered innate to the right to judge, provided that the charge was corroborated by the report and the crime carried the pain of death and there was evidence; but without mentioning which one). The Roman law, that was in force in the cases not considered by the statutes, does not state anything else, although it uses more words. Judges must not begin from the tortures but avail themselves, at first, of likely and probable arguments; and if, led by these as from certain evidence they believe to have to use torture in order to find the truth, they may do so, when the conditions of the person allow it.

As a matter of fact, in this law, there is expressly indicated the power of the judge concerning the quality and value of the evidence, a power that in the statutes of Milan was implied later. In the so-called New Constitutions promulgated by Charles V, torture is not even mentioned; and from those until the time of our trial and for a long time afterwards one can find a large quantity of legislative acts where it is enjoined as a punishment; but there is no one where it is allowed as a penalty; not one, that I know, where the authority to use it as an element of proof is mandated. Also in this case one can see the reason for it: the effect had become the cause; the legislator, here as elsewhere, had found, mainly for that part that we call procedure, a substitute, that not only lessened but almost caused to forget the necessity for his, shall I say, intervention. The writers, mainly of that time, when the simple commentaries of the Roman laws began to diminish, and the increase of works constructed on a more independent order, both on all the criminal procedure and on this or that special point, dealt with the subject with comprehensive methods, united with a minute work of the sides; laws increased as they were interpreted, extending, by analogy, their application to other cases, extrapolating general rules from special laws. And when this did not suffice, they added themselves with those rules that seemed more based on reason, equity, the natural law, either in copying and quoting one another, or with differences of opinion or learned judges, some, also authors themselves in this field, had decisions to follow or choose almost in



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

any case or circumstance. I say that the law had become a science. In fact, to science it was almost appropriate to give the name of law. The acts of the sovereign authority, whatever it was, were called orders, decrees, proclamations, or similar names, and included I do not know what idea of casual and temporary. To quote an example, the edicts of the governors of Milan, whose authority was also legislative, were valid only for the duration of the governing of their authors. The first action of the successor was to confirm them temporarily. Every edict, as they called it, was a kind of Proclamation of the Magistrate, composed a bit at a time and on different occasions. The science, on the contrary, working constantly and on everything, modifying itself but slightly; having as masters those who had begun by being its disciples, was, I would almost say, a constant revision and in part a constant compilation of the twelve tablets, entrusted and relinquished to perpetual decemvirate. (…) In any case, that fact is so closely connected with his and our topic that we were both led to say something about it in general. Verri, by being that authority, recognized at the time of the unjust judgment implied that he was an accomplice of it, and in large part a cause of it; and we, because observing what it prescribed and taught in the various details, should use it as a principle, complementary but most important to prove more vividly the iniquity, I would say, of that judgment. “It is certain,” says our ingenious but worried writer, that nothing is written in our laws, neither on the persons who may be put to torture, nor on the occasions where it may be applied, or on the manner in which it may be used either with fire or dislocation and tearing of the limbs, the duration of the pain, the number of times to repeat it; all this torturing is done to people through the authority of the judge supported only by the doctrines of the cited criminologists. (Verri, Observations on Torture)

… In the thirteenth century, Guido da Suzara, dealing with torture and applying to this topic the words of a rescript by Costanzo on the custody of the guilty person, says that it is his intention to apply some moderation on the judges who treat cruelly without any limit. In the following century, Baldo applies the famous rescript by Constantine against the master who kills his servant, “to the judges who gash the flesh of the culprit to make him confess, and requires that, if the latter dies under torture, the judge be decapitated, as a homicide.” Later on, Paride del Pozzo inveighs against those judges who, “thirsting for blood, long for butchering not for the purpose of reparation or example, but as a cause for pride and are to be considered murderers.” “Let the judge be careful not to use subtle and unusual tortures, because he who does this is likely to be called executioner rather than judge,” Giulio Claro writes.

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 309

“One must raise one’s voice against those stern and cruel judges who, in order to acquire a vain fame and to climb in this manner higher positions, force upon the wretched culprits new forms of torture,” Antonio Gomez writes. … To these testimonies (and other similar ones will be included soon) we add here that in the book concerning this topic that we were able to see, we never happened to find complaints against the judges who used too light tortures. And if such a thing should be shown in those that we have not seen, it would seem really a curiosity to us. … Certainly, the horrors for what they reveal cannot be too much; this feeling is very right also for what they admitted; but if for what they contained or they wanted to include in it, horror was a correct feeling, and ignoring a right retribution for the little that we have seen, we remain in doubt. It is true, that in their books or, to put it better, in a few of them, more than in the laws, the various types of torments are descibed, but like usual and deep rooted habits of the practice. And Ippolito Marsigli, a writer and judge of the fifteenth century, wrote an atrocious, strange and revolting list, adding also his experience, that he calls “beastly” those judges that invent some new ones. In these passages and others, one can notice that they try to include also the idea of ignorance. And, for the opposite reason, they recommend in the name of science, no less than of conscience, moderation, benignity and mildness. Words that make someone angry, when applied to this thing, but that show whether the intention of the writer was to stir up the monster or tame it. As for the persons who could be tortured, I do not see the importance of the fact that there was nothing about it in the laws that were strictly our own, where there was quite a lot, about this subject, in the Roman laws that were also our own laws. “Men,” continues Verri, ignorant and fierce, who, without examining whence comes the right to punish crimes, what is the purpose of their being punished, what is the rule concerning the seriousness of the crimes, what was the proportion between crime and punishment, if a man may ever be forced to give up his own defense and similar principles, from which, when they are known in depth derive the natural consequences more true reason and the good of society; men, I say, obscure and reserved, with a most mean refinement reduced to a system and solemnly published the science of tormenting other men, with the calmness with which one describes the art of healing the illnesses of the human body. They were obeyed as legislators, and it was made a serious and peaceful subject to study, and the cruel rites were accepted by the legal publishers who taught how to separate with skillful agony the limbs of living men and refine them with the slowness and the addition of more tortures in order to make more distressing and acute the anguish and the extermination. How could it be that so much authority could be given to obscure and ignorant men? I say obscure at their time and ignorant about it, because the issue is necessarily relative and the issue is to see not if those



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

writers possessed the intelligence that is desirable in a legislator, but if they had concerning those who applied the laws earlier by themselves and created them in large part by themselves. Also, why was the man who elaborated theories and discussed before the public more ferocious than the man who applied his in private, on those who resisted him?

Concerning, then, the issues mentioned by Verri, Heaven help if the solution of the first “whence comes the right to punish men,” was necessary to draw up discretely some penal laws; because at Verri’s time one could believe it to be free; but now it is more controversial than ever. And the others, I mean in general, all issues of a more impending and practical importance, were they duly free, were they at least discussed, examined when the authors appeared? Did they come to confuse an established order of more just and humane principles, to replace more enlightened doctrines, to explore wiser doctrines, to disturb, shall I say, the power of a more reasoned and reasonable justice? This we may frankly answer in the negative and this should suffice for the assumption. But we would like for someone in the know to examine if it was them, limited as they were, as private individuals and not legislators, to render account of their decisions gathering and putting in order those that are scattered throughout the Roman Laws, and searching for other ones in the universal idea of the universal law; if they were not the ones who were working to build up with fragments and with new materials a criminal practice complete and unique, they who conceived a general form, and opened for other writers, by whom they were judged more summarily the way to conceive a general reform. Finally, as for the charge so general and so bare of having refined the tortures, we saw that it was expressly detested by the majority of them, and, as far as they were concerned, forbidden. Many of the passages that we have cited may be used to cleanse them from the bad reputation of having dealt with it with impassive tranquility. May we quote another passage that might appear as an advanced protest. “I can only fly into a rage,” writes Farinacci, “against those judges who keep the culprit tied up for a long time, before torturing him and making it more cruel by means of that preparation.” From these testimonial evidences, and from what we know of which torture was in its latest times, one can frankly infer that the interpreting criminologists left it much, much less barbaric than how they had found it. Certainly, it would be absurd to attribute to a single cause such a decrease in evil, but among the many, it seems to me to be not so reasonable not to account the blame and the repeated admonishments, publicly repeated, from century to century from those who are invested (…). What they called will was, in sum, the thing itself that, in order to avoid that ambiguous word with a sad tone, was later called discretionary power: a dangerous

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 311

thing but unavoidable in applying the laws, both good or bad; that the wise legislators do not try to remove, for it would be a wild fancy but to limit to some documented and less essential circumstances, and to limit as much as possible even in these latter ones (…). But with the passing of time, and the increasing works, they wanted to change also the language (…). After repeating and confirming with abundant authority that the “will must not be understood as absolute, but tied with the law by equity”; and, after drawing and confirming with other authorities the consequences, that “the judge must lean toward the milder side, and rule the will with the general order given by the laws, and on the doctrine of approved authorities, he cannot formulate evidence on a whim”: after having dealt with such evidence, more orderly than anyone had yet been able to do, he concludes: “we may see that the rule of the scholars—the evidence for torture depends on the will of the judge—is strongly and concordantly limited by the scholars.” (…) And he quotes this sentence by Francesco Cusani: “It is a judge’s common error to believe that torture is arbitrary; as if nature created the bodies of the guilty so that they could torment them by their own whim.” We see here an important moment of science which, assessing its work, demands its products: and, without declaring itself openly a reformer but an effective auxiliary of the law, by consecrating its authority with a superior and eternal one, orders the judges to follow the rules that it discovered, to spare some torments from a person that might have been innocent, andthemselves from a shameful iniquity. … Allow us, at least, some observations concerning another topic cited by him; to examine all of them would be too much at this point, and certainly insufficient concerning the topic. May a single error suffice for all; and this is reported by the celestial Claro from Milan, who is the brightest authority of this activity. A judge who has incarcerated a woman suspected of murder, has her taken secretly in his room, and once there, he caresses her, pretends to love her, promises her freedom for the purpose of accusing herself of the crime that leads her to decapitation. So that one may not suspect that this horror against religion, virtue and all the most sacred principles of man is exaggerated, here is what Claro states about it: “Paris dicit quod judex potest, etc.” A horror indeed; but in order to see what importance it may have in a situation of this kind, one should notice that, announcing this opinion, Paride del Pozzo did not propose a discovery of his own; he narrated, unfortunately proving it, the fact of a judge, namely one of the thousands of facts that he carried out at will without any scholar’s suggestion. One should consider that Baiardi, who reported that opinion, in his noted to Claro (not Claro himself ), does it in order to detest it too and to qualify the fact as a diabolic pretence; it should be noted that he quotes nobody else who supported such an opinion from the time of Paride del Pozzo to



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

his own, namely for a century. And going further it would be stranger that there had been anyone. That very same Paolo del Pozzo, may the Lord stop us from calling him, as Giannone does, an excellent jurisconsult; but his other words that we quoted above, would suffice to indicate that these most ugly ones are not sufficient to give an exact idea even of the doctrine of just this man. Certainly we do not have the strange pretention of having proved that those of the interpreters, taken in their totality, were of no use, nor were they aimed at a worsening. A very interesting issue, since it concerns the effect and the purpose of the intellectual work of several centuries, in such an important subject rather necessary for humanity; an issue of our time, because, as we indicated, and everyone knows when one works in order to upset a system, he is not the most indicated to write its history; but it is an issue to be solved, or rather history to be made, with nothing but a few and disconnected indications. These are sufficient, however, if I am not mistaken, to demonstrate that the contrary solution is rash as were in a certain way, a necessary preparation for our story. Because we will often have reason to regret the fact that the authority of those men was not really effective; and we are certain that the reader will have to say with us: “Had they been obeyed!”

Chapter III And, finally, in order to go to the application, it was a common norm, almost universal of the scholars, that the lie of the defendant, when he answered the judge, was one of the legitimate signs, as they used to say, for the torture. That is why the examiner of unhappy Piazza counterposed saying that it was unlikely that he had not heard about smeared walls at Porta Ticinese and did not know the names of the deputies whom he had contacted. But did they teach that any lie was sufficient? “A lie, to lead to torture, must concern the qualities and the substantial circumstances of the crime, namely they must ‘belong’ to it and from which it may be inferred, not others; alias secus.” “A lie is not an evidence for the torture if it concerns elements that could not hinder the culprit if he had confessed them.” In their opinion, did it suffice that the word of the defendant looked like a lie to the judge, leading him to (apply) torture? In order to be an evidence for torture, a lie must be demonstrated conclusively either by the defendant’s confession or by two witnesses … as it is a common doctrine that two are necessary to prove a remote evidence such as a lie.

I am quoting, and will often quote, Farinacci as one of the most authoritative persons of the time, and as a great gatherer of the most accepted opinions. Some,

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 313

however, were satisfied with a single witness, provided that he was more important than any exception. But that a lie had to be the result of legal evidence and not by a simple opinion of the judge was a common doctrine from that canon of the Roman law, that prohibited to start from torture. “And if we granted the judges,” says the author, “the possibility of sending to the torture the defendants without legitimate and sufficient evidence, it would be as putting in their hands the option of beginning from it. …” We will certainly not state that all of this is reasonable; since what implies contradiction cannot be such. They were vain efforts, to reconcile certainty and doubt, to avoid the danger of tormenting innocent persons and extort false confessions by keeping torture, however, as a means to discover if one was innocent or guilty and make him confess certain things. The logical consequence would have been to declare torture absurd and unjust but this was aimed at by the blind respect for antiquity and the Roman law. That little book, On Crimes and Punishments, that promoted not only the abolition of torture but the reform of the entire criminal legislation, began with the words: “Some remains of the laws of an ancient conqueror people.” And it seemed, as it was, the courage of a great mind: a century earlier it would have seemed extravagant. (…) But the rules that they had established were sufficient in this case to convince the judges also of positive prevarication. They wanted to start precisely from torture. Without considering anything that concerned either substantial or accidental circumstances of the presumed crime, they increased inconclusive interrogation in order to have the opportunity to tell the destined victim: “It is not likely; and, giving stated unlikelihood the value of lies, legally demonstrated, order the tortures.” They were not looking for a truth, they wanted a confession; not knowing how much advantage they would have had from examining the supposed events, they wanted to go quickly to the pain that gave them a ready and certain advantage; they were in a hurry. All of Milan knew (it is the term used in similar cases) that Guglielmo Piazza had smeared the walls, the doors, the entrances of Via della Vedra, and they who had him in their hands, would not have him confess it at once. Will it perhaps be said that, before jurisprudence, if not before conscience, everything was justified by the detestable maxim, yet accepted at that time, that in the most atrocious crimes it was legitimate to go beyond the law? (…) Let us see how Claro himself interprets this rule: “One resorts to torture even though the evidence is not totally sufficient nor demonstrated by major witnesses, and many times even after denying the defendant to see a copy of the informative case.” And where he deals particularly within the legitimate evidence for the torture he expressively defines them necessary “not only in minor crimes but even in the major and most atrocious ones, even the very crime of lèse majesté.” He was



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

satisfied, then, with not so rigorously demonstrated evidence, but he wanted them proven somehow; and did not accept less authoritative testimonies; he required real evidences concerning the issue; he wanted, in sum, to make the discovery of the crime easier for the judge and not give him the authority to torment, for any reason, anyone who fell into his hands. These are things that an abstract theory does not receive, does not invent, does not even dream up; only passion does. The unjust examiner then ordered Piazza: to tell the truth for what reason he denies he knows why the walls were smeared as well as the names of the deputies for which unlikely things he will be condemned to the rope for these unlikelihoods. If they want to tie it to my neck, let them do it: because of these things I have been questioned I know nothing, answered the unlucky man with that sort of desperate courage with which reason challenges at times, force; as if to make it feel that, whatever limit it may reach, it will never succeed to become reason. And notice to what miserable cunning those gentlemen had to go to give a little more color to their pretext. They searched, as we said, a second lie, in order to speak of it with the form of the plural; they looked for another zero to augment an account to what they had not been able to add a single number. He is tortured. He is ordered to make up his mind and tell the truth; he answers, I told it, Sir. They insist. Ah, for God’s sake, cried the poor wretch, Your Lordship, please, have me lowered down and I will tell what I know; let me have a little water. He is lowered, rested on a chair, questioned again; he answers: I know nothing, Your Lordship, let me have a little water! How blind is fury! It did not cross their minds that what they wanted to extract from his words, by force, could have been hinted by him as a strong argument in favor of his innocence. Yes, Sir, he might have answered, I heard that they had found smears on the walls of Via della Vedra; and I was frittering away my time in front of the door of your house, Sir, President of the Health Service! The argument would have been even stronger because the news had been spread that Piazza was the author of it and the fact itself; this, together with the news, should have caused Piazza to understand his danger. This obvious observation, as well as the anger, prevented those persons from thinking about it. Nor did it come to that unhappy man’s mind because he had not been told of what he had been charged. They wanted, first, to tame him with tortures; these were for them the likely and probable arguments required by the law; they wanted him to experience what terrible immediate consequences came from answering them in the negative; they wanted him to confess that he was a liar once, to acquire the right to disbelieve him when he would say: I am innocent. But they did not obtain the unfair result. Piazza, subjected to torture again, and lifted from the ground, when he was told that he would be lifted even higher, and the threat was carried out, constantly urged to tell the truth, always answered: I told it, shouting at first, then in

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 315

a low tone of voice, until the judges seeing that he could not have answered in any other way, had him lowered and taken back to the prison. When the interrogation was reported to the senate on the 23rd, by the President, the court decided that: “Piazza, after being shaved, dressed with the clothes of the court, and given a laxative, would be put under heavy torture, with a knotted rope,” “a most atrocious addition by which, besides the arms, also the hands were dislocated repeatedly at the will of the magistrates; this because of some of the lies and unlikelihoods that appeared in the case.” (…) only the senate had the power, not the authority, to proceed with impunity so far along this way. … It should not seem strange to see a court become the follower and emulator of one or two simple women because when one proceeds along the road of passion, it is natural that those who are blind will lead. It should not appear strange to see men who did not have, and certainly were not willing to wish evil for evil, violate so openly and cruelly every right; because believing unfairly as far as the unfair opinion may lead and if conscience hesitates, become angry, the shouts of the public have the grievous force to smother remorse or rather to prevent it. The reason for those hateful, if not cruel orders to shave, clothe differently and give a laxative, will be explained with Verri’s own words: In those days, they believed that either in the hair or in the clothes and even in the intestines there might be an amulet of a pact with the devil, thus by shaving, unclothing, or urging it, it would be neutralized. This was really typical of the times; violence was a fact under various forms, belonging to all ages, but it was never a doctrine of any time.

The second examination was an equally absurd and more atrocious repetition of the first one, with the very same result. Unlucky Piazza was questioned first and contradicted with quibbles that could be said puerile, if such a word could be applied to something, and always about different circumstances and a presumed crime, without ever mentioning it, he was put under the most cruel torture that the senate could prescribe. They received back words of a desperate pain, none of those which they desired in order to obtain which they had the courage to hear, and compel him to say the other ones. “Oh, my God, what murder is this! Oh, Sir! At least have me hang soon … Have my hand cut off … Kill me … at least let me rest a little. Oh, Sir! For God’s sake, let me drink.” But also: “I know nothing, I told the truth!” After many similar answers, when he had to respond, the one that was coldly and frenetically repeated: “to tell the truth,” his voice failed, he fell silent; for four times he did not answer, finally he could say one thing again, with a faint voice, “I know nothing, I told the truth!” They had to stop and take him to prison once again, still not pleading guilty.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

… (The judges) had begun with a torture of physical pain, they began again with a torture of a different kind. By order of the senate … the final auditor of the Health Office, in the presence of a notary, promised Piazza impunity with the condition that he would tell the whole truth. Thus, they had succeeded to talk to him about the charge, without having to discuss it; they spoke about it and to obtain from his answers the lights necessary for the investigation of the truth, and to have what he thought about it and stimulate him to tell what they wanted. … It should be said that the promise of immunity was not well known by the public, since Ripamonti, relating the main facts of the trial in his history of the plague, does not mention it; in fact, he indirectly excludes it. This writer, unable to alter truth on purpose … narrates that Piazza immediately after the tortures, while they were untying him to take him back to jail, uttered a spontaneous revelation that nobody expected. The untruthful revelation was made but on the following day after the encounter with the auditor and with people who were expecting it. So, but for those few documents, if the senate had only to refer to the public and history, it would have attained the goal of obscuring that very essential detail of the trial that set in motion all the others that ensued. Nobody knows what was said in that conversation, everybody can imagine it more or less. “It is quite likely,” says Verri, that while in jail, they may have persuaded the unlucky man that by insisting to deny, the torture would have been resumed every day; that the crime was considered certain, and that for him there was no other way but to accuse himself and name his accomplices; thus, he would have saved his life and would have avoided the tortures that were ready every day.

Piazza, therefore, demanded and obtained impunity on the condition that he would explain the facts sincerely. It does not seem probable, however, that Piazza himself had asked for his immunity. The poor wretch, as we shall see in the continuation of the trial, did not proceed unless he was pulled out and it is more believable that, in order to induce him to take that first, horrible step to induce him to accuse himself and the others, the auditor offered it to him. In addition, when the judges mentioned it to him later, he would not have omitted such an important circumstance that gave more weight to the confession, nor would it be omitted in the letter of the captain of justice to Spinola. … He gave in, he embraced that hope, however horrible and uncertain; he accepted the proposal, however hideous and difficult; he decided to put a victim in his place. But how was he to find it? Which way was he to choose? It had been a real fact that had offered the opportunity and pretext to be accused. He had walked into Via della Vedra, had gone along the wall, had touched it; a wicked woman had seen a wrong thing and had made

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 317

a mistake. An equally innocent fact and equally indifferent was, obviously, the one that suggested to him the person and the fable. Giangiacomo Mora, a barber, prepared and sold an ointment against the plague; one of the thousand specifics that had and must have had credit while a disease was causing such a mortality, against which no remedy was known; in a century when medicine had still learned so little about not affirming and had taught how not to believe. A few days before being arrested, Piazza had requested the barber to have some of the ointment. The latter had promised to prepare some for him; and having met him the same morning of the day that followed the arrest at Carrobbio, he had told him that the little jar was ready for him to pick up. They wanted from Piazza a story involving ointments at Via della Vedra: those recent circumstances were a useful topic to make up another one, if one may call ‘make up’ the applying to many real circumstances an invention that was incompatible with them. On the following day, June 26, Piazza is taken to the examiners and the auditor orders him with that which he confessed to me extra juridically, also in the presence of notary Balbiano, if he knows who is the maker of the ointments with which the doors and the walls of the houses and locks of this city had been smeared. But the unfortunate man, who, lying in spite of himself, tried to move away as little as possible from the truth, answered only: He gave me the ointment, the barber. These are words translated literally but used so out of place by Ripamonti: dedit unguenta mihi tonsor. He tells him to mention said barber’s name; and his accomplice, his minister in such an event. He answers: I believe his name is Gio. Jacomo, whose last name I do not know. And he certainly did not know where the house was, or better, his shop; and he said it in another questioning. They asked him if he had received a little or a lot of that ointment from said barber. He answered: He gave me as much as might fit into this inkwell that is here on the table. If he had received from Mora the requested medicine jar, he would have described that one; but unable to obtain anything from his memory, he refers to a present object in order to relate to something real. They ask him “if said barber is a friend of his, the defendant.” And here, unaware that the truth that comes to his mind clashes with invention, he responds he is a friend, yes sir, good day, good year, he is a friend, yes sir. He meant to say that he barely said “good day” to him. But the examiners, without making any observation, moved on to another question: “On which occasion said barber gave him said ointment?” Here is what he answered: I went by there and he called me and said: I have to give you I don’t know what; I asked him what it was and he said: It is I do not know what ointment; and I said: Yes, yes, I will come to pick it up and so two or three days later he gave it to me.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

He alters the material circumstances of the event as much as it is necessary to adapt them to the “fable,” but he lets it keep its color. Some of the words that he repeated were probably those that had been really said by them. Words said as a consequence of an already reached agreement, concerning a medicine; he mentioned them as if they had been exchanged to propose, suddenly, a poisoning that was as senseless as it was atrocious. In spite of that, the examiners went on with their questions, on the place, the day, the hour of the proposal and the delivery; and, as if they were satisfied with those answers, they asked some more. What did he say when he gave him the jar of ointment? He told me: “Take this jar and smear the walls behind here, then come to see me because you will get some money.” “Why didn’t the barber smear the ointment at night, without taking any risks?” notes here (I was almost going to say, exclaims Verri.). Such an unlikely thing leads, so to say, even more to the following answer: questioned whether said barber indicated to him the precise place to smear, he answered: “He told me to smear there in the Vedra de’ Cittadini and that I should start from his door, where I actually began.” “The barber had not smeared even his own door!” Verri notes here. It was not necessary to have his keenness to make such an observation; it took the blinding force of passion not to make it, or the malice of passion not to take it into account if, as it is more natural, it also came to the mind of the examiners. The unfortunate man could barely invent, under duress, only when he was excited, stung by the questions and one could not guess if that promise to receive money was fabricated by him to give a reason for his accepting such a proposal, or if it had been suggested to him by a question of the auditor in that gloomy interview. The same should be said about another invention, through which, in the interrogation, he met another difficulty, namely how could he handle that ointment so deadly as it was, without being affected by it. They asked him if said barber told him, the Defendant, for what reason he had the said doors and walls smeared. He answered: He did not tell me anything, I will imagine that said ointment was poisonous and might hurt the human body because the following morning he gave me some water to drink telling me that I would have been immunized against the poison of that ointment. All these answers and other similar ones that would take much time to be answered and quoted, were not rebutted by the examiners, or to be more precise, were not contested. They thought of asking questions only about one thing: Why did he not mention this thing the other times. He answered: I do not know, nor do I know the reason for it, with the exception of that water that he gave me to drink; because your Lordship can very well see that, in spite of all tortures that I suffered, I could not say anything.

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 319

This time, however, those men who were so easy to be satisfied, are not satisfied at all, and continue to ask: For what reason did he not tell this truth before, especially when he was tortured in the manner that he was tortured on Saturday and yesterday. Such truth! He answered: I did not say it because I could not, and if I had been attached to the rope, I could not have said anything because I could not speak, because when something was asked during this detail, it escaped my mind, and I was unable to answer. Having heard that, they ended the interrogation and sent the wretch to jail. Yet, is it sufficient to call him a wretch? Confronted by this question, conscience becomes confused, it escapes, it would like to call itself incompetent; it almost seems a pitiless arrogance, a Pharisaic ostentation, to judge one who was experiencing such anguish and similar deceit. But, forced to answer conscience, one must say: He was also guilty; the suffering and terror of the innocent are a great thing, they have their value; but not the one to change eternal law, to see to it that slander causes cease to be guilt. And compassion itself that would like to forgive the tormented man, rebels instantly against the slanderer: it heard the name of another innocent man; it forebodes more sufferings, more terror, perhaps other similar guilts.

And the men who created that anguish, who set the trap will seemingly be excused by saying: people believed in ointments and was torture practiced? We, too, believe that people are killed with poison; what would one say about a judge who would allege this is a reason for having sentenced justly a man for being a poison giver? There still is the pain of death. What would we answer one who presumed to justify with this excuse all death sentences? No, there was no torture for Guglielmo Piazza’s case: it was the judges who wanted it, who, in other words, invented it in that case. If he had deceived them, it would have been their fault, because it was of their own doing; but we saw that he did not deceive them. Let us even admit that they may have been deceived by Piazza’s words in the last interrogation, that they may have believed an event that was explained, described and related in detail in that manner. What was inspiring those words? How did they obtain them? By a means on whose illegitimacy they could not be mistaken; indeed, they did not err, because they tried to hide and distort it. If everything that followed later on might have been an accidental concurrence of elements, the most apt to confirm the deceit, the fault would still be of those who had opened the way for him. On the contrary, we shall see that everything was moved by that very will which, to continue the deception to the very end, it was going to elude the laws once again on how to oppose evidence, mock integrity, and resist compassion.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Chapter IV The auditor and the agents ran to Mora’s house and found him in his shop. Here is another guilty man who did not think of running away nor of hiding although his accomplice had been in prison for days. With him was one of his children; and the auditor ordered that both should be arrested. Verri, going through St. Lawrence parochial books, found out the unlucky barber might have had also three daughters: one fourteen, one twelve, one just six years old. And it is beautiful to find a rich, noble and famous man, interested in digging up the memories of a needy, obscure, forgotten family: what am I saying? Infamous in a posterity blind and tenacious heir of the foolish execration of the ancestors, finding new objects and a generous and learned compassion. Certainly, it is not reasonable to put compassion against justice that must punish the guilty to the grief of the innocent. But compassion is itself a reason against violence and fraud. And if it had not been that early distress of a wife and mother, that revelation of such a new fear, and of such a new grief for little girls who saw people handling roughly their father and brother, tying them up and treating them like wicked people, it would be a terrible burden against those who did not have from justice the duty nor from the law the permission to resort to that. Because, even to proceed to arrest, there should have been, naturally, some evidence. In this case there was no report, escape, report of a victim nor any accusation by a person worthy of faith, nor any witness’ statements, there was no corpus delicti; there were only the words of a presumed accomplice. And, so that such a report, that by itself had no value, could give the judge the authority to proceed, many conditions were necessary. We will have the opportunity of seeing that more than one condition was not observed; and it could be demonstrated about many others. But it is not necessary because even if all of them had been carried out properly, in this case there was a circumstance that made the accusation radically and irremediably null: its having been carried out as a consequence of a promise of impunity. … While they were getting ready to inspect everything, Mora told the auditor: Your Lordship, see please! I know that you came for that ointment; Your Lordship, there it is; I had prepared that little jar to give it to the commissioner, but he did not come for it; I, thank God, am not wrong, Your Lordship may see, I was not wrong, you do not have to have me tied up. The unlucky man believed that his crime consisted of preparing and selling that medicine without a license. They search everything; they check vases, pots, vials, jars, small vases, cans (Barbers, at that time, practiced simple surgery: from that it did not take much to act as a doctor or a pharmacist.). Two things seemed suspicious; and, apologizing to the reader, we are forced to mention it, because the suspicion that they showed during the inspection was the thing that offered the poor wretch an indication, a

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 321

means to enable him to accuse himself during the torture. After all, in this story, there is something stronger than disgust. At the time of the plague, it was natural for a man who had to meet many persons, and mainly ill ones, to stay apart as much as possible from his family. The counsel for Padilla’s defense made this observation where, as we shall soon see, he opposes against the trial the absence of a corpus delicti. The plague itself, furthermore, had diminished in that desolate population the need for cleanliness that was already poor. They found, therefore, in a little room behind the shop, two containers full of human waste, says the report. The policeman is surprised and (all were allowed to speak against the untori) he remarks that the bathroom was on the upper floor. Mora answered, I sleep here below and do not go upstairs. The second thing was that in a little courtyard they saw a little stove with a copper boiler containing some dirty water at the bottom of which there was a yellow and white viscous substance, that when it was thrown against a wall to test it, adhered to it. Mora said: It is lye, and the case notes that he said it with much insistence: something that shows how much they showed to make it a mystery. Why did they risk to handle such a powerful and mysterious poison? One must say that fury smothered fear that was one of its reasons. Among the papers, they found also a prescription that the auditor handed to Mora so that he could explain what it was. He tore it because in that confusion, he thought that it was the prescription of the medicine. The pieces were collected at once; but we shall see how this minor incident was later used against that poor, unhappy man. In the abstract of the case, one cannot find how many persons were arrested with him. Ripamonti says that they led away all the people from the house and the shop, young people, apprentices, wife, children and even their relatives, if they were there. Leaving that house where he was not going to return, that house that was to be demolished to its foundations to make room for a monument to infamy, Mora said: I did not do anything wrong. And if I did, may I be punished, but from that medicine on I did not prepare anything else, but, if I have done something wrong, I now beg for mercy. He was questioned that very day, particularly about the lye that they had found in the house and on his relationship with the commissioner. Concerning the first item he answered: Sir, I know nothing, the women had it prepared; ask them about it and they will tell; as for that lye, I knew as much about it as I knew that I would have been imprisoned today. Concerning the commissioner, he reported about the jar of ointment that he had to give him and indicated its ingredients; he said that he did not have any



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

other contact with him except that a year earlier at his house, for a service of his trade. Immediately afterward, his son was questioned, and it was then that the poor boy repeated the silly gossip of the little vase and the pen that was described earlier. The exam was inconclusive, however, and Verri remarks, in a note, that they should have questioned the barber’s son about that lye, and see how long it had been left in the boiler, how it was made and for what usage, so that the affair would have been clarified much better. But, he adds, they were afraid of finding him not guilty.

And this is truly the key to everything. They questioned poor Mora’s wife on that detail, however, who answered the various questions and said that she had done the washing ten or twelve days earlier, that every time she would leave some lye for possible surgery uses, and that was the reason why they had found it in their house; but that it had not been used because it was not needed. The lye was examined by two washerwomen and three doctors. The women said that it was lye altered; the latter said that it was not lye; the former and the latter said that it was sticky and thick. “In a barber’s shop,” Verri says, “where they washed dirty towels used on sores and plaster, isn’t it natural to find a greasy, sticky yellowish substance after several summer days?” But, at last, no discovery came from those visits, only a contradiction. And the defense of Padilla infers, with too evident reasoning, that “from the reading of the proceedings, one cannot distinguish the corpus delicti, a necessary requirement and preamble as well as an irreparable damage.” And he observes that it was the more necessary, as the effect that they wanted to attribute to a crime, the death of many persons, had its natural cause. “Owing to the uncertain opinions,” it says, how necessary it was to consider reality, it was to be seen in adverse constellations and predictions of the Mathematicians, who in the year 1630 concluded that the plague and the sight of many famous cities of Lombardy and Italy be left desolate and destroyed by the plague, who did not express concern or feared the ointments.

Even the error, in this case, comes to the assistance of truth: that, however, did not need it. It hurts to see how this man, after making this and other observations equally apt to demonstrate a chimerical crime, after attributing to the strength of torture the depositions that compromised his client, says, at a certain point, these strange words: one must confess that by the malicious nature of the mentioned criminals,

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 323

and other accomplices, with the idea of ransacking the houses and obtaining gains, such as the said barber at fol. 104 said, they acted in such a crime against their Fatherland. In the letter of information to the governor, the captain of justice speaks of this circumstance as follows: “The barber is caught, in his house they found some mixtures, very suspicious, according to the opinion of the experts.” Suspicious! It is a word with which the judge begins, but with which he does not finish, against his wish, and after trying all means to reach certainty. And if everybody did not know or could not guess those which were used even then and could have been used, when one would have thought of finding the truth about the poisonous nature of that filth, the man who was in charge of the trial would have informed us. In the other letter that was referred to above, which the Health Tribunal had informed the governor of that extensive smearing of May 18, they also dealt with an experiment carried out on dogs, “to make sure if such ointments were pestilential or not.” But at that time they did not have in their hands any man on whom they could carry out the experiment of torture and against whom the crowds shouted: get him! However, before driving Mora to the wall, they wanted to receive from the commissioner clearer and precise information; and the reader may say that it was needed indeed. So, they summoned him and asked him if what he had stated was true, and if he remembered anything else. He confirmed the first part but had nothing else to add to it. Then they told him that it was very improbable that no other negotiations were carried out besides the one that he declared, as it concerned such a serious affair that is not ordered to other persons to be carried out but through an important and confidential negotiation, and not hurriedly as he stated. The observation was correct but it was made later. Why not make it first when Piazza declared the facts in those terms? Why call such a thing truth? Was their concept of ‘likely’ so obtuse, so slow to need an entire day to realize that it was not there? They? Not at all. Theirs was very sharp, in fact too sharp. Were they not the same ones who had found out immediately unlikely things that Piazza had not had any knowledge of, such as the smearing of Via della Vedra, and did not know the names of the deputies of a parish? Why were they so sophistical in a case and so loose in another? They knew the reason, and He who knows everything; what we too may perceive is that they found the unlikelihood when it could become a pretext for Piazza’s torture: they did not find it when it would have been too obvious an obstacle for Mora’s capture. We saw, it is true, that the deposition of the former, being radically null, could not give them the right to act as they did. But since they wanted to use it in any



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

case, it was necessary to keep it at least intact. If they had told him those words the first time: it is quite unlikely; if he had not resolved the difficulty relating the fact in a less strange manner without contradicting what he had already said (something not quite hopeful), they would have reached a crossroads: either to leave Mora alone, or to put him in jail after having themselves protested, so to speak, such an action beforehand. The remark was accompanied by a terrible warning. Therefore, if he will not decide to tell completely the truth, as he promised, it is declared that the promised impunity will not help him, every time his confession is found diminished and not complete about what had occurred between him and the above mentioned barber, and, on the contrary, by telling the truth, his promised impunity will be granted to him. Here one can see, as we had hinted above, how the missed referral to the governor could help the judges. If it had been granted by the former with the royal reserved authority, by means of a solemn act to be included in the trial, it could not have been withdrawn so casually. The words pronounced by an auditor could be annulled by other words. It should be noted that impunity for Baruello was requested by the governor on September 5, namely after the torture of Piazza, Mora and some other wretches. They could then run the risk of letting someone run away: the wild beast and its roars did not need to be so impatient and compelling. At that warning, the commissioner, who was steadfast in his wicked intention/ resolution, had to sharpen his mind as much as he could, but was only able to repeat the previous story. I shall tell Your Lordship, that two days before he gave me the ointment, said barber was walking on the street of Porta Ticinese in the company of three others and, as he saw me walk by, he told me: “Commissioner, I have an ointment to give you; I told him: Will you give it to me now?” He told me no, and at that time he did not tell me the effect that said ointment had to cause; but when he gave it to me later, he said that it was an ointment to be spread on the walls, to cause people to die; and I did not ask him if he had tested it. But the first time he said: He told me nothing; I think that said ointment was poisonous; the second time he told me: that it was to cause people to die. But without paying attention to such contradiction, they asked him who were those who were with said barber, and how they were dressed. Who they were, he does not know; he suspects that they had to be Mora’s neighbors; how they were dressed he does not remember; he only affirms that everything that he stated against him is true. Questioned if he is ready to state it in front of him, he answers in the affirmative. He is put under torture to clear the infamy, so that he may accuse that unhappy man. The times of tortures are, thank Heaven, far enough for these terms to require an explanation. A Roman law prescribed that “the testimony of a gladiator or

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 325

similar person was not valid without the torture.” Jurisprudence had later determined, with the title of infamous, the persons to whom this rule was applied; and a confessed culprit belonged to that category. That is how they understood torture would cleanse an infamy. As an infamous person, they said, the accomplice does not deserve to be believed, but when he states something contrary to his strong, extant and present interest, one may believe that truth is what forces him to affirm. Therefore, if an offender becomes the accuser of others, he is ordered either to withdraw his accusation or to be put under torture; if he persists in his accusation, if the threat is carried out, and he persists even under torturing, his statement becomes believable: torture has cleansed infamy and returned to the statement the authority that it could not have from the person’s character. Why, then, did they not make Piazza confirm under torture the first deposition? Was also this so insufficient yet so necessary for the arrest of Mora? Certainly, such an omission made the latter even more illegal because it was admitted that the accusation of the criminal, not confirmed by the torture could allow, as any other imperfect evidence, to seek information, but not to proceed against the person. And concerning the practice of the Milanese court, here is what Claro states in a very general form: So that the words of the person may represent proof, it is necessary to be confirmed under torture, because if, as is an infamous person because of his crime, he cannot be admitted as a testimony without torture; thus, this is our practice; and we comply with it.

Was at least the torture of the commissioner legal in this last case? Certainly not. It was unjust also according to the laws, because they inflicted it upon him in order to corroborate a charge that could not become valid through any means, because of the impunity by which it had been promised. And one should notice how their friend Bossi had alerted them in that regard. “Being torture an irreparable evil, let one be careful not to use it in vain on a guilty person in similar cases, namely when there are no other presumptions or indications of the crime.” What? Were they acting against the law by applying it or not applying it in his case? Certainly; what a surprise is it that when someone has taken the wrong direction he reaches two of them that are not good, neither the one nor the other? On the other hand, it is easy to guess that the torture inflicted upon him in order to force him to retract an accusation, must not have been so effective as was the one that was inflicted to force him to accuse himself. In fact, this time, they did not have to transcribe exclamations, or record shouts or moaning: he bore quickly his deposition. They asked him twice why he did not do it for the first two individuals. It appears that they could not eliminate the doubt from their



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

minds and the remorse from their hearts that the silly story was an inspiration of impunity. He answered: It was because of the impediment of the water that I said that I had drunk. … They would have certainly liked something more conclusive; but they had to satisfy themselves with that. They had neglected, what am I saying, avoided, excluded all the means that could lead to the discovery of truth: of the two contrary conclusions that might have originated from the research that they had wanted and used, first one way then another to obtain it at all costs. Could they expect to get that satisfaction that sincerely pursued truth can offer? To turn off the light is a very appropriate action, it was not to see a thing that one does not like, but not to see the one that is desired. After he was lowered from the rope, while they were untying him, the commissioner says: “Sir, I would like to think about it until tomorrow and later I shall tell you what I remember, both against him and against others.” Then the wretched man was trying to make up by the number of the victims, for the absence of evidence. But those who had questioned him, could they not realize that his adding (names) was one more evidence that he had nothing to answer? It was they who had asked him some circumstances that might render the fact likely; and he who proposes the difficulty, could not be said that he does not see it. Those new groundless denunciations or those attempts of denunciations meant to say openly: you demand that I clarify a fact; how is it possible, if the fact does not exist? But, ultimately, what you care about is to have people to condemn: I give you the people; it is your task to get what you need out of it. You will succeed with someone; you did succeed even with me. We will not mention those three persons named by Piazza as well as others that were mentioned later with an equal soundness and condemned with equal certainty. But for what may be necessary to the story concerning him and Mora (Who being the first ones to have fallen into those hands, were always considered the main authors of the crime.); or if something worthy of a particular observation should come up. We omit in this place, as we will do elsewhere, something secondary and incidental to go immediately to Mora’s second interrogation that occurred on that very day. Among several questions concerning his medicine, the lye, some lizards that he had some boys capture in order to prepare a medicine of those days (questions that he answered satisfactorily as a man who has nothing to hide or to invent), they place before him the pieces of that paper the he had torn up during his visit. I recognize it, he said, by that writing that I tore inadvertently; the small pieces may be put together to see the contents and it will come again to my memory by whom it was given to me. Later they interrogated him as follows: In which manner, not having

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 327

any longer great friendship with said commissioner called Guglielmo Piazza, as you said in your preceding testimony, that commissioner, with great easiness, requested the mentioned jar of medicine; and he, the defendant, with great ease and promptness, offered to give it to him, and asked to go and take it, as he declared in his other interrogation. Here the close nature of the likelihood comes back again. When Piazza declared for the first time that the barber, a casual friend of his, with that liberty and quickness, had offered him a jar to make people die, they did not raise any difficulty; they raise it against the person who states that it concerned a remedy. Yet less care should be used in searching a necessary accomplice for a light transgression, and for something very honest in itself, than to look for it, unnecessarily for an attempt as dangerous as it is abominable: and this is not a discovery that was made in these two latter centuries. It was not the man of the seventeenth century who reasoned in this upside down manner: it was the man of passion. Mora answered: I did it out of interest. Later they asked him if he knew the persons that Piazza had named; he answered that he knew them but that he was not a friend of them because they are people to be left alone to do their business. They ask him if he knows who made that smearing in the whole city; he answers in the negative. If he knows from whom the commissioner received the ointment to smear the walls: he responds in the negative again. Finally they ask him if he knows any person offering money who may have charged said commissioner to smear the walls of the Vedra de’ Cittadini, and that in order to do it gave him, later, a glass jar containing an ointment. He answered, bending his head and lowering his voice: I knew nothing. Perhaps he was beginning to see only then to what strange and horrible end that turning and twisting of questions might lead. And who knows in which manner it might have been posed by those, who, uncertain, in a way or another of their discovery, had to show even more to know about it, and show themselves strong in advance against the negative ones that they foresaw. Their faces and gestures were not noticed. Thus they went on questioning and asked him directly: if he looked for the aforementioned Guglielmo Piazza, Health Commissioner, to smear the walls there around the Vedra de’ Cittadini and in order to do it he gave him a glass jar containing the ointment that he had to use; with the promise to give him an additional sum of money. More than answering he exclaimed: No, Sir! My God! No! Eternally no! … I, do such things! They are words that a guilty person may say as well as an innocent man: but not in the same manner. They answered him what will you say when this truth will be stated to his face by the above mentioned commissioner Guglielmo Piazza. Again, this truth! They knew the fact only by the deposition of a presumed accomplice; to that person they themselves had said on the same day that, as he had explained it, it was quite unlikely; he had been unable to add even a shadow of



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

likelihood, if the contradiction does not offer any; and they frankly told Mora: this truth! Was it, I repeat, boorishness of the times? Was it uncouthness of the laws? Was it ignorance? Superstition? Or was it one of those times that iniquity denied itself? Mora answers: When he tells me this to my face, I shall say that he is abominable and cannot say that, because he never talked with me about it, may God save me! They take Piazza in, and in the presence of Mora they ask him, non-stop, if this and this is true; everything that he testified. He answers: Sir, it is true. Poor Mora cries: Oh, God have mercy upon me! This will never be found. The commissioner: I said these things in order to help you. Mora: It will never be found; you will never prove to have come to my house. The commissioner: I wish I had never been in your house as I have: I am in this situation because of you. Mora: It will never be found out that you were in my house. After this, they were sent back, each one to his jail. The captain of justice, in his letter to the governor, that was mentioned several times, reports this confrontation with these words: “Piazza bravely stated to his face to be true that he received that ointment from him; Yes, sir, it is true, with the details of place and time.” Spinola must have thought that Piazza had specified these circumstances, contradicting Mora; and all that stating bravely, in reality, was reduced to: “Yes, sir, it is true.” The letter ends with these words: Other actions are taken in order to discover other accomplices or instigators. In the meantime, I wanted Y. E. to be aware of what is going on; to whom I humbly pay my respects and wish a favorable end for your undertakings.

Probably other letters were written, that are lost. As for the undertaking, the wish was in vain. Spinola did not receive reinforcements and, giving up hope to conquer Casale, fell ill with concern toward the beginning of September and died on the 25th missing, at the end, the renowned nickname of city conqueror that he acquired in Flanders, saying (in Spanish): “they took my honor away.” They had done worse by giving him a position requiring many obligations of which, it seems, only one mattered to him: and probably they had given it to him only for this. The day after the confrontation, the commissioner asked to be heard: when he was introduced he said: The barber said that I never went to his house; therefore, would Your Lordship examine Baldassar Litta who lives in the house of Antiano, in the San Bernardino district, as well as Stefano Buzzio, who is a dyer, and lives across from Sant’Agostino near Sant’Ambrogio; they know that I have been in the house and the shop of said Barber. Had he come to make such a declaration out of his own decision? Or was it a statement in order to get something, a suggestion that had been made by

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 329

the judges? The first (possibility) would be strange and the outcome will show it; for the second one there was a very strong reason. They wanted a pretext to put Mora under torture; and, among the things that, according to many scholars, could give the accusation of the accomplice that value that it did not have by itself, and make it a sufficient evidence for the torture of the defendant, one was that there was friendship between them. Not a friendship or simple acquaintance, however, because, “if it was considered as such,” says Farinacci, every accusation of an accomplice would constitute evidence, being it too easy that the nominator knows the nominated in some fashion; but a close and frequent association, such as to make it likely that between them there might have been the planning for a crime.

For this reason they had asked the commissioner, at the beginning, if said Barber is a friend of the defendant. But the reader recalls the answer that they received: a friend, yes, good day, good year. The threatening promise made to him later, had not brought forth anything else; and what they had created as a means, had become an obstacle. It is true that it was not, nor could it ever become, a legitimate or legal tool and that the closest friendship, and most proven, could not add validity to an accusation made immediately null by the promise of impunity. But this difficulty was ignored, as it happened to many other things that had appeared in the trial. That one had been pointed out by them through their questions, and it was necessary to try to eliminate it. In the trial records are revealed the conversations of the jailers, guards and prisoners who were together with those unlucky men, in order to get something out of their mouths. Therefore, it is more than probable, that they used one of these means to force the commissioner to say that his safety might have depended on the evidence that he could produce of his friendship with Mora, and that the unfortunate man, in order not to say that he did not have anyone, resorted to that choice that he would not have imagined by himself. Because, how much he could rely on the testimony of the two persons that he had mentioned can be seen in their depositions. Baldassare Litte, when he was asked if he ever saw Piazza at home or in Mora’s shop, answers: No, Sir. Stefano Buzzi, when asked if he knows that there is any friendly relationship between said Piazza and the Barber, answers: It could be that they are friends, and greeted one another; but I would never be able to tell this to Your Lordship. When he was questioned again if he knows that said Piazza had ever gone to the house or the shop of said barber, he responds: I could never tell Your Lordship. Later, they wanted to hear another witness in order to verify an event mentioned by Piazza in his deposition; namely that a certain Matteo Volpi had been present, when the barber had told him: I have to give you some I do not know what. Volpi, questioned about that, not only answers that he does not know anything,



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

but when rebuked, he adds resolutely: I will answer that I never saw that they spoke together. On the following day, June 30, Mora was examined again and one would never guess how they began it. Let him say for what reason he the defendant, in his other questioning, while he was confronted with Guglielmo Piazza, Commissioner of Health, he denied of knowing him, saying that he was never in his house, a thing that, on the contrary was denied to his face; yet, in his first questioning, he shows to know fully well a thing that others confirm in the trial: which is still seen as a truth by his quickness in offering him and preparing for him the jar of medicine, stated in his previous examination. He answers: It is quite true that said commissioner often walks by my shop; but he is not familiar either with my house or with me. The reply: That it is not only contrary to his first interrogation, but also to the deposition of other witnesses. … At this point any observation would be superfluous. They did not dare, however, to put him under torture about Piazza’s deposition, but what did they do? They resorted to the expedients of the improbability; and, unbelievably, one was his denying to be a friend of Piazza, and that the latter frequented his house, while he stated that he had prepared a medicine for him! The other was that he did not account satisfactorily on why he had torn that note to pieces. For Mora continued to say that he had done it casually, without believing that such an occurrence could interest justice; or that he was afraid, the poor wretch, to worsen matters by confessing that he had done it to avoid the proof of a fine, or that, in fact, he could not render a proper account of himself of what he had done during those early moments of confession and fear. At any rate, they had those pieces, and if they believed that in the note there could be any evidence of the crime, they could put it together and read it as it had been done before: Mora himself had suggested it. In fact, who would ever believe that they had not done so already? They ordered Mora, then, threatening torture, to tell the truth about those two points. He answered: I have already said everything concerning the note; the commissioner may say what he likes, because he is telling an infamous thing since I did not give him anything. He believed (why couldn’t he?) that ultimately this was the truth that they wanted to hear from him; but no, Sir; they tell him that he is not questioned about this detail because it is not the object of an interrogation, nor do they want, for the time being, another truth from him but to know the reason why he tore said note and why he denied the said commissioner went to his shop, showing almost that he did not know him. One could not be able to find, I think, so easily another example of such an impudently untrue respect for the legal formalities. In the too obvious absence of a right to order torture for the main cause, the only one, in fact, of the charge, they

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 331

wanted to indicate that it was done for something else. But the cloak of iniquity is short; and it cannot be pulled up to cover one side without uncovering another. Thus it became more evident that, in order to justify that violence, they had only two unfair pretexts: one declared by themselves by not clarifying what the object of the note was, the other, proven to be such, and worse, from the depositions with which they had tried to turn it into a legal evidence. Yet, there is more. Even if the witness had completely confirmed the second statement of Piazza about that particular and necessary circumstance; even if it had not been a matter of impunity, that man’s deposition could no longer offer a legal evidence. “The individual who changes and contradicts himself in his depositions, being thus also a perjurer, cannot constitute for torture, in fact, not even for investigation … this may be considered a doctrine accepted by the scholars.” Mora was put under torture! The unfortunate man did not have the sturdiness of his slanderer. However, for some time they obtained from him only pitiable cries and protestations of having told the truth. Oh my God! I do not know that man nor have I consorted with him, that’s why I cannot say … and for this he tells the lie that he used to come to my house nor that he ever was in my shop. I’m dead! Have mercy, Sir, have mercy. I tore the note believing it was the prescription of my medicine because I wanted the money only for myself. This is not sufficient cause, they told him. He implored to be lowered down, that he would tell the truth! He was lowered and said: The truth is that the commissioner has no connection with me at all. The torture was resumed and increased: the unlucky man answered the examiners’ merciless questions: Your Lordship, see what you want me to say and I will say it! Philotas’ answer to those who tormented him by order of Alexander the Great who was listening hidden behind a screen, “dic quid me velis dicere,” and the answer of who knows how many more unfortunate people. Finally, being the torture worse than the disgust of accusing himself and the thought of the pain, he said: I gave a jar of dirt, namely excrements, so that he could smear the walls, to the commissioner. Your Lordship, put me down, that I will tell the truth. Thus they had succeeded in forcing Mora to confirm the guard’s conjectures, as they had done for Piazza about the daydreams of the lowly woman, but in the second case by means of an illegal torture as they had done in the first one by illegal impunity. The weapons were taken from the arsenal of jurisprudence but the blows were given arbitrarily and by treachery. As they saw that pain obtained the result that they had desired, they did not comply with the request of the poor man to put a quick end to it. They told him that he should start to talk. He said: it was human excrements and lye; here is the consequence of that visit of the boiler that began with a great apparatus and was



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

ended with so much wickedness because he asked for it, namely the commissioner to smear the houses, and of that material that comes out of the dead people’s mouth, those who are on the carts. Not even this was his invention. In a later examination (when questioned where he learned to prepare its ingredients), he answered, they said in the barber shop that they used that substance, that comes out of the dead people’s mouth … and I managed to add lye and excrements. He might have answered: I learned it from my assassins; from you and the public. But here there is something very strange. Why did he confess what they had not requested, that they, in fact, had excluded from the questioning, by telling him how that detail was not being requested from him. Since the pains led him to lie, it seems natural that the lie should be confined within the limits of the questions. He could have said that he was a friend of the commissioner; he might have invented a guilt motive, a worsening one about his tearing the note; but why go farther than where they had driven home? Perhaps, while he was overwhelmed by pain, they were suggesting to him other ways to let him finish. Did they carry out other interrogations that were not recorded in the trial? If matters were like this, we might have been wrong to say that they had deceived the governor by letting him believe that Piazza had been interrogated about the crime. But if we did not bring up the suspicion that the falsehood was in the trial, rather than in the letter, it was because facts did not give us a sufficient motive. Now, it is the difficulty of admitting a very strange fate, that almost compels us to express an atrocious supposition, in addition to so many obvious atrocities. We are caught, I say, between believing that Mora accused himself, without being questioned, of a terrible crime that he had not committed and that had to bring to him a frightening death and conjecturing that those judges, while they recognized, in fact, that they did not have sufficient ground to torture him and make him confess that crime, took advantage of the torture inflicted upon him with another pretext in order to obtain such a confession from him. Let the reader decide what he thinks that he should choose. The interrogation that followed the torture was, on the part of the judges, that of the commissioner after the promise of impunity, a mixture, or to put it better, a contract of senselessness and cunning, an increasing of groundless questions, and the omission of investigation more evidently indicated by the cause, more forcefully prescribed by jurisprudence. Granted the principle that, “nobody commits a crime without any reason”; having recognized the fact that many individuals, faint of heart, had confessed to crimes that, after the sentence at the time of execution declared that they had not committed, and, in fact, it had been found when there was no longer any time, that they had not committed them.

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 333

Jurisprudence had established that, “confession had no value, if the reason for the crime had not been stated and if this reason was not likely and serious in proportion with the very crime.” Now, the most unlucky Mora, reduced to improvise new stories, in order to confirm the one that was to lead him to an atrocious torment, said, during that questioning, that he had obtained the dribble of the people who died of the plague from the commissioner, that the latter had proposed to carry out the crime and that the reason of carrying out and accepting such a proposal was that, falling many people ill by that means, both of them would have gained a lot of money: one, through his position as commissioner; the other, with the sale of the medicine. I do not ask the reader if, among the enormity and the dangers of such a crime, and the importance of those gains (that, after all, did not lack the help of nature), there was a proportion. But if he should believe that those judges, being in the seventeenth century, could find it, and would seem likely to him, he will hear them say no, in another interrogation. But there was more; against the reason put forward by Mora there was a more positive difficulty, a more material one, if not stronger. The reader may recall that the commissioner, by accusing himself, had put forward the reason that had driven him to commit the crime; namely that the barber had told him anoint … and then come to me because you will get something, or, as he said on the following occasion, a good handful of money. Here, then, are two reasons for a single crime: two reasons not only different but opposite and incompatible. It is the very man who, according to one confession, offers a lot of money in order to have an accomplice; according to the other, he agrees to commit the crime in the hope of a petty gain. Let us forget what we have seen up till now, how those two reasons came to be, and with what means those two confessions were obtained; let us assume them at the moment that they have reached. Having reached that point, what were those judges doing whose passion had prevented, obfuscated and dulled their conscience? They were afraid of having gone (even without fault) so far; they consoled themselves for not having gone to the end, to an irreparable point; they stopped at the fortunate stumble that had held them back from the precipice; they held on to that difficulty, they wanted to undo that knot; here they were using all the art, the insistence, all the circumlocutions of the interrogations; here they resorted to the confrontations; they did not take a step before finding (was it a difficult thing?) which one of the two was a liar or if both of them were lying. Our commissioners, after hearing Mora’s answer: because he would have earned a lot, because many people would get ill, and I would earn a lot with my medicine, they went to another matter. After this it will suffice, if it is not even too much, to consider quickly and in part the remainder of that report.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

Questioned whether there are other accomplices in this agreement, he answers, there are Piazza’s companions and I do not know who they are. They rebut that it is not likely that he does not know. At the sound of that word, a terrible presage of torture, the unlucky man states immediately in the most positive way they are Foresari and Baruello, those who had been mentioned to him in the preceding questions. He says that he kept the poison in the store, namely where they had thought that it might have been. He says how he prepared it and concludes: they threw away the remainder in the Vedra. We cannot avoid, at this point, to transcribe a note by Verri. “Wouldn’t he have thrown away by the Vedra the remaining medicine after Piazza’s imprisonment?” He answers at random other questions that they ask him on circumstances of place, time and similar things as if it concerned a clear essentially demonstrated fact where only details would be missing; and finally he is tortured again so that this deposition could be valid against the defendants, and the commissioner in particular, to whom they had inflicted the torture to validate a testimony contrary to this one on its essential points! Here we could not cite texts of laws nor scholars’ opinions; because, in truth, jurisprudence had not foreseen a similar case. The confession made under torture was not valid, unless it was ratified without torture, and in a different place from which one could not see the horrible instrument and not on the same day. They were inventions of science in order to make spontaneous, if it had been possible, a forced confession and satisfy together with common sense, that said too clearly that the word extorted by pain cannot deserve (faith) believing and the Roman law that consecrated torture. In fact, the interpreters took the reasons for those precautions from the law itself, namely from those strange words: Torture is a fragile and dangerous thing, inclined to deceive; since many, because of spiritual or physical strength, care so little for tortures that one cannot obtain the truth from them by means of it, others are so intolerant of pain that they utter any falsehood, rather than suffer the torments.

I say: “strange words,” in a law that upheld torture; and, in order to understand that it did not obtain any result but that one “must not always believe in the torture,” we must recall that originally that law had been formulated for the slaves who, in the degradation and wickedness of the gentiles, could be considered things and not persons and on whom it was believed to be licit to carry out any experiment to the point that they were tormented in order to discover the crimes of other people. New interest of new legislators caused it to be applied also to free persons; and the strength of authority allowed it to last several centuries beyond the Gentiles’ times:

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 335

a not rare but remarkable example of how far a law, once accepted, could go beyond its principle and survive it. In order to comply with this formality, they called Mora for a new examination the following day. But since they had to put something insidious, advantageous, and suggestive instead of asking him if he intended to ratify his confession, they asked him if he has anything to add to the examination and confession that he made yesterday, after he was relieved from his torments. They excluded the doubt: jurisprudence required that the confession of the torture was to be put again into question; they considered it firm and asked only that it was increased. But in those hours (would we say of rest?) the sentiment of innocence, the hours of torture, the thought of his wife and children, had perhaps rekindled in poor Mora the hope of being stronger against new torments; and he answered No, Sir, I do not have anything to add and I have sooner a thing to lessen. He answered more clearly as if encouraged: that ointment that I have mentioned, I did not prepare any and what I said I said because of the torments. They threatened immediately the renewal of the torture; and this (leaving aside all the other violent irregularities) without clarifying the contradictions between him and the commissioner, namely without being able to tell him if that new torture would have been inflicted because of his confession or on the other person’s deposition; if like an accomplice, or as the principal guilty party, for a crime committed upon others’ instigation, or of which he had expected a meager gain. He answered that threat again: I repeat that what I said yesterday is not true at all and I said it because of the torture. Then he resumed: Your Lordship, let me say an Ave Maria, then I will do what the Lord will inspire me to do, and he knelt in front of an image of the crucifix, namely of the One who, one day, was to judge his judges. Standing up after a few moments and stimulated to confirm his confession, he said: Upon my conscience it is not true at all. Again under torture, where he repeated all that they wanted, and his pain having taken away the little remainder of the courage, he kept his statement and declared to be ready to ratify his confession; but he did not even want them to read it to him. They did not consent to that: scrupulous in observing a by now inconclusive formality while they were violating the most important and most positive prescriptions. After the examination was read to him, he said: “It is all truth.” After this, persevering in the method of not continuing research, to confront difficulty only after torture (what the very law had thought to have to avoid, specifically, what Diocletian and Maximianus had wished to impede!) they finally thought of asking if he had had any other wish but to earn money by selling his medicine. He answered: “As far as I know I have no other goal.”



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

As far as I know! Who but he could know what had happened in his mind? Yet, those very strange words suited the circumstance; the unlucky man could not have found other ones that meant better and at what point, at that moment, he had abdicated, so to speak, his own self and consented to affirm or to deny of knowing only that and all that the people that controlled the tortures liked. They continue and tell him: that it is very unlikely that, only because the commissioner has to work a lot and the defendant provided to sell his ointment, they caused through the smearing of the door the destruction and death of people; therefore, let him say what end and accord they acted in that deal at such a small interest. That unlikelihood comes out now? They had threatened him and subjected him to it on several occasions, to force him to ratify an improbable confession. The remark was correct but it was coming late, we shall remark even here; since the very circumstances force us to use the same words. As they had not realized that there was a likelihood in Piazza’s deposition, until they brought to prison Mora with that deposition; similarly, now they do not realize that there is unlikelihood in this man’s confession, until after obtaining from him a ratification which, once in their hands, becomes a sufficient means to condemn him. Do we want to suppose that they really did not realize it until that moment? How can we explain, then, how will we qualify to consider valid such confession, after this observation? Perhaps Mora gave a more satisfactory answer than the one given by Piazza? Mora’s answer was this: “If the commissioner does not know, I do not know, and he must know it, and Your Lordship will learn it from him because he was its inventor.” One can see that this putting the main blame on each other, was not so much to diminish each one’s faults, as to avoid the burden of explaining things that were not explainable. And after a similar answer, they enjoined him that for having prepared that medication and ointment in agreement with said commissioner, and for giving to him later some of it to smear the walls of the houses in the way and form … declared with the purpose of making people die, since said commissioner confessed to have carried out for this purpose said agreement, he is guilty of having in such a way caused the death of people and for having done so he incurred the condemnation established by the law for those who provide and attempt to accomplish this. Let us summarize. The judges tell Mora: how is it possible that you determined to commit such a crime for that gain? Mora answers: The commissioner must know it as far as he is concerned; as for me, ask him. He addresses them to another one for the explanation of a fact concerning his mind, so that they may clarify that a motive was sufficient to cause in him a decision. And to whom else? To one who would not admit such a motive, because he attributed the crime to a different cause. And the judges find that the difficulty is eliminated, that the crime confessed by Mora has become likely, so much so that they consider him guilty.

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 337

It could not be ignorance what caused them to see unlikelihood in that motive; and it was not jurisprudence what led them to consider closely the conditions that they found imposed by jurisprudence.

Chapter V Impunity and torture had given rise to two stories and although this was sufficient for those judges to pronounce two condemnations, we shall see now how they worked and succeeded, for what was possible, to blend the two stories into one. We shall see, furthermore, at the end, as they showed with facts of being themselves persuaded also of this. The senate confirmed and extended the decision of its delegates. Having heard what resulted from the confession of Giacomo Mora, having set off the preceding matters, having considered everything, less the existence for only one crime of two different authors, two different orders of actions, it ordered that the above mentioned Mora was to be questioned again very diligently but without torture, in order to have him explain better what he had confessed and obtained from him the other instigators accomplices in the crime, and that after the examination he should be declared guilty in the report of the events of having manufactured the deadly ointment, and having given it to Guglielmo Piazza, and be given the time of three days to prepare his defense. As for Piazza, he should be questioned if he had anything to add to his confession, that was considered incomplete and, not having one, he should be considered guilty of having spread the above-mentioned ointment, and be assigned the same amount of time for his defense. In other words: see if you can obtain from the one and the other what is possible; in any case, let them be considered guilty, each one on the basis of his confession, although they are two contrary confessions. They began from Piazza on that very day. He had nothing to add, and he did not know what they had to add; and perhaps, by accusing an innocent, he had not foreseen that he created an accuser of himself. They ask him why he did not testify of having given the barber the slaver of the plague victims in order to prepare the ointment. I did not give him anything, he responds; as if those who had believed his lie had to believe also the truth. After some coming and going of other interrogations, they declare that for not having told the entire truth, as he had promised, he cannot and must not enjoy the impunity that had been promised him. Then he says immediately: Sir, it is true that the above mentioned Barber asked me to take that substance to him, and I did so, in order to make the mentioned ointment. He hoped that by admitting everything he could get hold of his impunity. Then, either to appear more meritorious or to gain time, he added that the money that the barber had promised him was to come from a great person, that he had known from the same barber, but without being able to make him tell who he was. He had not had the time to invent it.



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

They asked Mora about it on the next day; and probably the poor fellow would have invented it, as well as he might have, had he been subjected to torture. But, as we saw, the senate had excluded it, one can see, in order to render less impudently, extorted the new ratification that they wanted of his preceding confession. So, questioned if he was the first to look for the said commissioner … and promised him a sum of money, he answered: No, sir; where does Your Lordship want me to find this amount of money? In fact, they could have remembered that, in the sedulous visit in his house when he was arrested, the treasure that they had found was a cup containing five parpagliole (twelve sous and one half ). Asked about the great person, he answered: Your Lordship, wants only the truth, and I told it when I was tormented and I said even more. In the two abstracts there is no mention that, in the preceding confession, as one must believe, they forced him to do it. Those words were a protest, of which he perhaps did not know the power; but they had to know it. Concerning the remainder from Bartolo, rather from the Gloss, to Farinacci, it had been and was always a common doctrine, as an axiom of jurisprudence, that “the confession made under torture that was inflicted in the absence of legitimate evidence, was null and void, even if it was validated later one thousand times without torture: etiam quod milies sponte sit ratificata.” After this, he and Piazza were informed publicly, as they used to say at that time, about the trial, (namely they were informed about the acts) and were given the term of two days to prepare their defense, and one does not see why one day less of what the senate had decreed. They assigned to the one and the other an official defense lawyer. The one who was assigned to Mora recused himself. Verri attributes that refusal, on conjecture, to a reason that, unfortunately, is not strange in that complexity of matters. “Anger had reached the point,” he says, “that they believed that they were committing an evil and dishonorable action to defend this unfortunate victim.” But in the printed abstract that Verri may not have seen, the true reason is recorded, perhaps in a less strange, and, in a sense, even more wicked way. On the same day, the second of July, notary Mauri, called to defend said Mora, said: I cannot accept this task because first I am a criminal notary, who is not supposed to accept legal defenses and also because I am neither a Procurator nor a Lawyer. I shall go to speak to him to please him but will not accept the defense.

To a man taken practically to the torture execution (and what a torture execution!), to a man without any connections or advice, who could not receive any help but from them, or through them, they gave as a counsel a person who lacked the

a l e ss a n d r o ma n zo n i  | 339

qualities required by the task but had some that were incompatible! They acted with such fickleness even admitting that there was no malice. And it fell upon a subordinate employee to remind them to observe the best known, sacrosanct rules! Once he was back he said: I went to see Mora, who told me candidly that he did not err, and that what he said he said because of the torture; and because I told him clearly that I did not want, or could assume the task of defending him, he told me that the president might at least give him a defense lawyer and may not allow him to die without defense. For such favors and with such words innocence besought injustice! In fact, they appointed another one for him. The one who was assigned to Piazza, “appeared and requested to see the record of his client; when he received it he read it.” Was this the help that they offered to the defense? Not always, because Padilla’s attorney, who became, as we shall soon see, the practical aspect of the great person mentioned casually and in abstraction, had at his disposal the same record as to have the large part of it copied, which eventually came to our attention. At the end of the assigned time, the two unlucky men asked for an extension, “and the senate granted them the entire following day and not any more: et non ultra.” Padilla’s defense was presented in three steps: one part on July 24, 1631. It was accepted without any detriment to the possibility to forward the remaining part later; the other on April 13, 1632, and the last on May 10 of the same year: at that time he had been under arrest for about two years. A really painful slowness for an innocent; but compared with the haste used in the cases of Piazza and Mora, for whom only the tortures were long lasting, such a slowness is a monstrous partiality. That new invention of Piazza halted the tortures, however, for some days, full of untrue hopes but, at the same time, replete with new, cruel tortures, and new grievous calumnies. The auditor of the health office was charged to receive, in great secrecy and without the presence of a notary, a new deposition of this man; this time it was the person who furthered the interview by reasons of his defense lawyer, leaving to believe that he had something else to reveal concerning the great personality. He probably thought that, if he succeeded to get into that snare so difficult to elude, and so large to get into a big fish, the latter one, in order to escape from it, would make such a tear that also the little ones might escape from it. And since, among the numerous and various conjectures that went around in people’s talks concerning the authors of this deadly smearing of May 18 (for the violence of the judgment was due in great part to the annoyance, fears and persuasion caused by that), and when the true authors of it were more at fault then they themselves knew, it had also been said that they were Spanish officials, thus the wretched inventors found something to hang onto also here. And then, being Padilla the son



the theme of the plague in italian le t te r s

of the military commander, and having, as a consequence, a natural protector who, in order to help him could have disturbed the trial, was probably what induced Piazza to mention his name rather than another’s, unless he was the only Spanish official whom he knew also by name. After the interview, he was summoned to confirm his new deposition. In the other one he had said that the barber did not want to tell him (the name of ) the great person. Now he was going to maintain the opposite; and, in order to diminish the contradiction in some way, he said that he had not named it at once. Finally, he told me after four or five days, that this big leader was a certain Padiglia, whose (first) name I do not remember although he said it to me, and I recall precisely that he said he was the son of the Castellan of Milan. As for money, he not only did not say of having received any from the barber, but affirmed of not knowing if that man had received any from Padilla. Piazza was requested to sign this deposition and they sent immediately the auditor of the health office to communicate it to the governor as it is reported in the trial; and certainly to ask him, if necessary, if he would consent to deliver to the civic authorities Padilla who was a cavalry captain and was, at that time, serving in the army in Monferrato. When the auditor returned and the deposition of Piazza was