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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 Justinian

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The Plague of Justinian was described by the historian Procopius: it occurred in A.D. 541–542. Born in Caesarea, Procopius studied rhetoric, philosophy and law at Gaza. Later he went to Constantinople (Byzantium). In 527, when general Belisarius became the commander of the troops in Dara against the Persians, Procopius became the adviser of the renowned general. In that capacity he took part in the Iberic campaign, 526–532 against the Visigoths and in 533–534 against the Vandals. Procopius was again with Belisarius during the latter’s campaign against the Goths, 535–540. Returning to Constantinople with the general he was an eyewitness of the plague epidemic that struck the capital in a.d. 542.

In 551 he wrote History of the Wars, in seven books where he dealt with the wars that he witnessed. Upon the Emperor’s request, he wrote also On the Edifices, a glorification of the Emperor’s monumental public works. He wrote also a Secret History, a rather critical document on Emperor Justinian and Theodora that became known several centuries after the author’s death.

In Book II, xxii of the History of the Wars, the author begins the description of the epidemic indicating the power of the disease and the enormous number of victims, “a pestilence … by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated.” This remark is followed by a rather sharp criticism about the official statements emanating from the authorities: ← xxi | xxii →

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