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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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The Italian term for plague is a feminine singular noun: la peste. The Dizionario Etimologico Italiano by Carlo Battisti and Giovanni Alessio (Firenze, G. Barbera Editore, 1968) has the following entry: peste f. (fourteenth century resumed in the fifteenth century) -ella (Sassetti), -icciuola (Magalotti); pestilenza; figur. (fifteenth century, Poliziano;) year 1618, (Buonarroti,) fetore (stench); sifilide, lue (syphilis); Latin pestis, (destruction or manner of destruction, death, scourge, epidemic). It indicates also peste gialla (yellow plague), med. infectious disease of the oriental countries.

The purpose of the present study is to indicate the ways that this term and related concepts followed in becoming an integral part of the Italian linguistic world from some early documents to the nineteenth century, when the plague became, in a certain sense, a character in one of the best known novels of Italian literature, the masterpiece written by Alessandro Manzoni by the title of I promessi sposi.

As it often happens in offering a selection, also in the present case a certain amount of arbitrariness may have occurred, in the opinion of some readers. It would have been a gigantic effort to attempt to include all or almost all the examples of the usage of the term in question available in the documents from the Middle Ages to Manzoni’s times. The authors and their works that are included in the present document, however, do offer a broad view of the usage in its variants, ← 1 | 2 → literal and metaphorical...

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