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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 Six: Ludovico Settala and Alessandro Tadino


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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...

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