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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 Eight: Pietro Verri, Cesare Beccaria, and “Il Caffè”


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Pietro Verri, Cesare Beccaria, and “Il Caffè”

Il Caffè (The Coffee Shop) was an Italian periodical that was published from June 1764 to May 1766. It originated in Milan and its initiators were Pietro Verri (1728–1797), his brother Alessandro Verri (1741–1816), with the contribution of the philosopher Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794) and a considerable number of intellectuals who were members of the Accademia dei Pugni. Most of these persons were of aristocratic families but, in their literary and scientific pursuits, they supported actively the hopes and ideals of the emerging classes that were promoting reforms in the institutions, social progress and general improvements of everyday life.

The periodical became one of the main documents of the Italian Illuminismo (Enlightenment) and remains a fundamental document of organization and progress of the Italian unification movement.

With the Peace of Aaken of 1748, the tensions between the Hapsburg Empire, Russia, England, France and Spain relented thus allowing some peace among the European nations. In Italy the ideals of the illuminismo found a favorable ground in both Milan (Lombardy) and Naples (Campania) who were under the rule of reformist sovereigns. As we have seen above, Milan, in the eighteenth century, was ruled by a government that favored a constructive cooperation between the government and the intellectuals.

The periodical was published every ten days; the total number of issues was 74. In order to elude the...

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