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The Theme of the Plague in Italian Letters


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.

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Chapter One: The Italian Language


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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:

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 ← 4 | 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...

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