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The Theme of the Plague in Italian Letters

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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 Twelve: Il Timor di Dio (The Fear of God)

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CHAPTER TWELVE

Il Timor di Dio (The Fear of God)



We shall bring this study to a close with some considerations regarding the feeling of fear that pervaded the population of the cities struck by the epidemic of the bubonic plague of 1630 in the territory and the city of Milan. In order to shed some light on this issue, which opened the way to unexpected literary and legal developments, we shall consider some biblical passages from Exodus that may help us to understand the behavior and the decisions that were taken in the Lombard capital at that time.

Reference is made to the biblical narration in Exodus 1–14. This part of the book’s prominent section is dedicated to the attempts made by the Israelites to obtain permission to worship Yahweh, who had resolved to bring them out of Egypt

where you are oppressed into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites to a land where milk and honey flow. They will listen to your words and with the elders of Israel you are to go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews has come to meet us. Give us leave, then to make a three day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifice to Yahweh our God.’ For myself, knowing that the king of Egypt will not let...

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