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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 Three: The Dawning of a New Age


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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...

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