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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 Ten: Alessandro Manzoni: I promessi sposi


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Alessandro Manzoni

I promessi sposi

Alessandro Manzoni was born in Milan, March 7, 1785, the son of Pietro Manzoni and Giulia Beccaria, the daughter of Cesare Beccaria who, as we have just seen, was the author of the book Dei delitti e delle pene.

He studied first at Merate and Lugano and later in Milan at the School of the Barnabites. At the age of fifteen he was in Milan under the tutelage of his aged aunt. His mother, who had separated from Pietro Manzoni, lived in Paris with Carlo Imbonati (1753–1805), while his father did not seem to be too concerned about the upbringing of Alessandro.

Manzoni began his writing activity with a political composition of four canti after the style of Vincenzo Monti (1754–1828), Il Trionfo della Libertà (The Triumph of Liberty). A brief period of spiritual difficulty followed during his visits to Venice and Milan. Upon the death of Carlo Imbonati, which occurred in Paris, he wrote a poetical composition expressing his esteem for that personality in In morte di Carlo Imbonati (On the Death of Carlo Imbonati), that was published in Paris in 1806.

The composition marks a fundamental point in Manzoni’s spiritual development: in a dream Imbonati speaks to Manzoni about the necessity of living a life of virtue and serenity, a concept that Manzoni was to deal with later in some of his...

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