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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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Prefatory Note: Yersinia pestis


| xi →


Prefatory Note

Yersinia pestis

In the issue of October 22, 2015 of the research journal Cell Press, a group of researchers, Simon Rasmussen, Morten Erik Allentoft, Kasper Nielsen, … Rasmus Nielsen, Kristian Kristiansen, and Eske Willerslev, announced an important result, namely that early divergent strains of Yersinia pestis [existed] in Eurasia 5,000 years ago. They indicated, in brief, that the plague causing bacteria Yersinia pestis1 infected humans in Bronze Age Eurasia, three millennia earlier than any historical records of plague, but only acquired the genetic changes making it a highly virulent, flee-borne bubonic strain 3,000 years ago. The highlights of the document read as follows:

Yersinia pestis was common across Eurasia in the Bronze Age; the most recent common ancestor of all Yersinia pestis was 5,783 years ago; the ymt gene was acquired before 951 cal BC, giving rise to transmission via fleas and Bronze Age Yersinia pestis was not capable of causing bubonic plague.

It may be helpful, at this time, to cast a glance at some facts that could shed light on the topic that the present study will develop, that is, the times, the ways and the characteristics assumed by the description of the plague and other related topics in some works of Italian literature through a considerably long period of time ending with the major work of Alessandro Manzoni, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed). ← xi | xii →


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