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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 Four: Milan 1630


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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...

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