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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 Seven: Father Felice Casati


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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...

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