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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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The Plague of Athens

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History indicates that the earliest description of the epidemic generally known as the Plague of Athens was written by Thucydides in his Peloponnesian Wars. He was born probably about 460 B.C. and died about the year 400 b.c. Perhaps he participated in some events of the war. He contracted the plague but recovered. The plague epidemic is referred to as the Plague of Athens because it developed primarily in that city, but not only there, in the years 429–426 b.c. In Book II the historian wrote,

They had not been many days in Attica before the plague first broke out among the Athenians. At the beginning the doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance … In the following summer the Peloponnesians and their allies … invaded Attica, again under the command of the Spartan king Anchidamus. … Taking up their positions, they set about the devastation of the country.

The author gives the later statement a primary importance because he was able to see what consequences followed the state of surprise even of those who should have manifested a sense of control of the situation. In addition, it should be remembered, that several later writers indicated repeatedly that pestilence often followed the devastation of the land that, in turn caused shortness or total disappearance of the necessary provisions and the ensuing famines, with population displacement and lack of crops. “They had not been many days in Attica before the...

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