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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 Eleven: Alessandro Manzoni: Storia della Colonna Infame


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Alessandro Manzoni

Storia della Colonna Infame

At the end of Chapter XXXII of I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), Manzoni refers to another work of his that is awaiting to be written, namely Storia della Colonna Infame (History of the Pillar of Infamy), which, he says, “is not a topic to be dealt with in a few words.” And continuing on this topic he comments that “this is not the place to discuss it as completely as it deserves.” At first, the author had included this subject in the first version of his novel that had appeared in 1823 with the title, Fermo e Lucia, the early names of the two protagonists of the book. When Manzoni revised his novel, and that was an ample revision indeed, he changed, among other things, also the names of the two young betrothed who finally were named Renzo Tramaglino and Lucia Mondella. Both surnames refer to common instruments of manual work or working activities (Tramaglio means ‘trammel’, suggestive of a woven object, since Renzo was a silk weaver and prepared woven material, while Mondella calls to mind the term mondina, a working woman who ‘weeds rice’, as well as the verb mondare that means to clean, to peel; and the image of the mondina, pl. mondine, is a very well known symbol of the many women who used to work seasonally in the rice paddies in Northern Italy.).


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