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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 Nine: Cesare Beccaria


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Cesare Beccaria

One of the prominent literary figures of Italian Enlightenment, Count Cesare Beccaria Bonesana, was born in Milan, March 15, 1758. His father was Marquis Giovanni Saverio and his mother Maria Visconti di Saliceto. He pursued classical studies in Parma and Pavia. In his early youth he was attracted by some compelling issues: compassion for human unhappiness, ambition for literary glory, love of freedom and his conversion to philosophy as he was inspired by the reading of Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes. In 1758–1759 he joined the Accademia dei Trasformati, where he met Pietro Verri with whom he shared opinions and discussions for the rest of his life. One of his daughters, Giulia, was the mother of Alessandro Manzoni.

In winter 1761–1762, the Società dei Pugni was established in order to deny, at least partially, a presumed dissent with Pietro Verri. In 1762 he published in Lucca an essay, On the Disorder and Remedies of Currency in the State of Milan. His main publication, however, required a long elaboration, 1760–1764, and a close study of philosophers and jurists. It was printed in Livorno (Leghorn) with the title Dei Delitti e delle Pene (On Crimes and Punishments), where the author, among a large number of issues, discusses his request to abolish torture in the trials and the death sentence as well. This book won the author an immense renown both in Italy and abroad.

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