The Plague of Milan

March 30, 2020

Alessandro Manzoni

Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873). I Promessi Sposi.
Vol. 21, pp. 500-512 of The Harvard Classics

"I Promessi Sposi," a seventeenth century novel, vividly describes the devastating plague of Milan. Then whole families sickened in a few hours and died in less than a day's time of strange and violent complaints whose symptoms were unknown to physicians.
(Capuchin monks given charge of the plague hospital in Milan, March 30, 1630.)

Chapter XXXI

THE PLAGUE, which the Board of Health had feared might enter with the German troops into the Milanese, had entered it indeed, as is well known; and it is likewise well known, that it paused not here, but invaded and ravaged a great part of Italy. Following the thread of our story, we now come to relate the principal incidents of this calamity in the Milanese, or rather in Milan almost exclusively: for almost exclusively of the city do the records of the times treat, nearly as it always and everywhere happens, for good reasons or bad. And, to say the truth, it is not only our object, in this narrative, to represent the state of things in which our characters will shortly be placed; but at the same time to develop, as far as may be in so limited a space, and from our pen, an event in the history of our country more celebrated than well known.

  Of the many contemporary accounts, there is not one which is sufficient by itself to convey a distinct and connected idea of it; as there is not, perhaps, one which may not give us some assistance in forming that idea. In every one, not excepting that of Ripamonti, 1which considerably exceeds all the rest, both in copiousness and in its selection of facts, and still more in its method of viewing them, essential facts are omitted which are recorded in others; in every one there are errors of material importance, which may be detected and rectified with the help of some other, or of the few printed or manuscript acts of public authority which still remain; and we may often discover in one, those causes, the effects of which were found partially developed in another. In all, too, a strange confusion of times and things prevailed, and a perpetual wandering backward and forward, as it were at random, without design, special or general: the character, by the by, of books of all classes in those days, chiefly among such as were written in the vulgar tongue, at least in Italy; whether, also, in the rest of Europe, the learned will know, and we shrewdly suspect it so to have been. No writer of later date has attempted to examine and compare these memoirs, with the view of extracting thence a connected series of events, a history of this plague; so that the idea generally formed of it must necessarily be very uncertain and somewhat confused, a vague idea of great evils and great errors, (and assuredly there were both one and the other beyond what can possibly be imagined,)—an idea composed more of opinions than of facts, mingled, indeed, with a few scattered events, but unconnected, sometimes, with their most characteristic circumstances, and without distinction of time, that is to say, without perception of cause and effect, of course and progress. We, having examined and compared, with at least much diligence, all the printed accounts, more than one unpublished one, and (in comparison of the few that remain on the subject) many official documents, have endeavoured to do, not, perhaps, all that is needed, but something which has not hitherto been done. We do not purpose relating every public act, nor all the results worthy, in some degree, of remembrance. Still less do we pretend to render needless to such as would gain a more complete acquaintance with the subject, the perusal of the original writings: we are too well aware what lively, peculiar, and, so to say, incommunicable force invariably belongs to works of that kind, in whatever manner designed and executed. We have merely endeavoured to distinguish and ascertain the most general and important facts, to arrange them in their real order of succession, so far as the matter and the nature of them will allow, to observe their reciprocal effect, and thus to give, for the present, and until some one else shall do better, a succinct, but plain and continuous, account of this calamity.

  Throughout the whole track, then, of the territory traversed by the army, corpses might be found either in the houses, or lying upon the highway. Very shortly, single individuals, or whole families, began to sicken and die of violent and strange complaints, with symptoms unknown to the greater part of those who were then alive. There were only a few who had ever seen them before: the few, that is, who could remember the plague which, fifty-three years previously, had desolated a great part of Italy indeed, but especially the Milanese, where it was then, and is still, called the plague of San Carlo. So powerful is Charity! Among the various and awful recollections of a general calamity, she could cause that of one individual to predominate; because she had inspired him with feelings and actions more memorable even than the evils themselves; she could set him up in men’s minds as a symbol of all these events, because in all she had urged him onward, and held him up to view as guide, and helper, example, and voluntary victim; and could frame for him, as it were, an emblematical device out of a public calamity, and name it after him as though it had been a conquest or discovery.

  The oldest physician of his time, Lodovico Settala, who had not only seen that plague, but had been one of its most active intrepid, and, though then very young, most celebrated successful opponents; and who now, in strong suspicion of this, was on the alert, and busily collecting information, reported, on the 20th of October, in the Council of the Board of Health, that the contagion had undoubtedly broken out in the village of Chiuso, the last in the territory of Lecco, and on the confines of the Bergamascan district. No resolution, however, was taken on this intelligence, as appears from the ‘Narrative’ of Tadino. 2

  Similar tidings arrived from Lecco and Bellano. The Board then decided upon, and contended themselves with, despatching a commissioner, who should take a physician from Como by the way, and accompany him on a visit to the places which had been signified. ‘Both of them, either from ignorance or some other reason, suffered themselves to be persuaded by an old ignorant barber of Bellano that this sort of disease was not the pestilence;’ but in some places the ordinary effect of the autumnal exhalations from the marshes, and elsewhere, of the privations and sufferings undergone during the passage of the German troops. This affirmation was reported to the Board, who seem to have been perfectly satisfied with it.

  But additional reports of the mortality in every quarter pouring in without intermission, two deputies were despatched to see and provide against it—the above-named Tadino, and an auditor of the committee. When these arrived, the evil had spread so widely, that proofs offered themselves to their view without being sought for. They passed through the territory of Lecco, the Valsassina, the shores of the Lake of Como, and the districts denominated Il Monte di Brianza and La Gera d’Adda; and everywhere found the towns barricaded, others almost deserted, and the inhabitants escaped and encamped in the fields, or scattered throughout the country; ‘who seemed,’ says Tadino, ‘like so many wild savages, carrying in their hands, one a sprig of mint, another of rue, another of rosemary, another, a bottle of vinegar.’ 3 They made inquiries as to the number of deaths, which was really fearful; they visited the sick and dead, and everywhere recognized the dark and terrible marks of the pestilence. They then speedily conveyed the disastrous intelligence by letter to the Board of Health, who, on receiving it, on the 30th of October, ‘prepared,’ says Tadino, ‘to issue warrants to shut out of the city any persons coming from the countries where the plague had shown itself; and while preparing the decree,’ 4 they gave some summary orders beforehand to the custom-house officers.

  In the mean while, the commissioners, in great haste and precipitation, made what provisions they knew, or could think of, for the best, and returned with the melancholy consciousness of their insufficiency to remedy or arrest an evil already so far advanced, and so widely disseminated.

  On the 14th of November, having made their report, both by word of mouth and afresh in writing, to the Board, they received from this committee a commission to present themselves to the governor, and to lay before him the state of things. They went accordingly, and brought back word, that he was exceedingly sorry to hear such news, and had shown a great deal of feeling about it; but the thoughts of war were more pressing:‘Sed belli graviores esse curas.’ So says Ripamonti, 5 after having ransacked the records of the Board of Health, and compared them with Tadino, who had been specially charged with this mission: it was the second, if the reader remembers, for this purpose, and with this result. Two or three days afterwards, the 18th of November, the governor issued a proclamation, in which he prescribed public rejoicings for the birth of the Prince Charles, the first-born son of the king, Philip IV., without thinking of, or without caring for, the danger of suffering a large concourse of people under such circumstances: everything as in common times, just as if he had never been spoken to about anything.

  This person was, as we have elsewhere said, the celebrated Ambrogio Spinola, sent for the very purpose of adjusting this war, to repair the errors of Don Gonzalo, and, incidentally, to govern; and we may here incidentally mention, that he died a few months later in that very war which he had so much at heart; not wounded in the field of battle, but on his bed, of grief and anxiety occasioned by reproaches, affronts, and ill-treatment of every kind, received from those whom he had served. History has bewailed his fate, and remarked upon the ingratitude of others; it has described with much diligence his military and political enterprises, and extolled his foresight, activity, and perseverance; it might also have inquired what he did with all these, when pestilence threatened and actually invaded a population committed to his care, or rather entirely given up to his authority.

  But that which, leaving censure, diminishes our wonder at his behaviour, which even creates another and greater feeling of wonder, is the behaviour of the people themselves; of those, I mean, who, unreached as yet by the contagion, had so much reason to fear it. On the arrival of the intelligence from the territories which were so grievously infected with it, territories which formed almost a semi-circular line round the city, in some places not more than twenty, or even eighteen, miles distant from it, who would not have thought that a general stir would have been created, that they would have been diligent in taking precautions, whether well or ill selected, or at least have felt a barren disquietude? Nevertheless, if in anything the records of the times agree, it is in attesting that there were none of these. The scarcity of the antecedent year, the violence of the soldiery, and their sufferings of mind, seemed to them more than enough to account for the mortality: and if any one had attempted, in the streets, shops, and houses, to throw out a hint of danger, and mention the plague, it would have been received with incredulous scoffs, or angry contempt. The same incredulity, or, to speak more correctly, the same blindness and perversity, prevailed in the senate, in the Council of the Decurioni, and in all the magistrates.

  I find that Cardinal Federigo, immediately on learning the first cases of a contagious sickness, enjoined his priests, in a pastoral letter, among other things, to impress upon the people the importance and obligation of making known every similar case, and delivering up any infected or suspected goods: 6 and this, too, may be reckoned among his praiseworthy peculiarities.

  The Board of Health solicited precautions and co-operation: it was all but in vain. And in the Board itself their solicitude was far from equaling the urgency of the case; it was the two physicians, as Tadino frequently affirms, and as appears still better from the whole context of his narrative, who, persuaded and deeply sensible of the gravity and imminence of the danger, urged forward that body, which was then to urge forward others.

  We have already seen how, on the first tidings of the plague, there had been indifference and remissness in acting, and even in obtaining information: we now give another instance of dilatoriness not less portentous, if indeed it were not compelled by obstacles interposed by the superior magistrates. That proclamation in the form of warrants, resolved upon on the 30th of October, was not completed till the 23rd of the following month, nor published till the 29th. The plague had already entered Milan.

  Tadino and Ripamonti would record the name of the individual who first brought it thither, together with other circumstances of the person and the fact: and, in truth, in observing the beginnings of a wide-spread destruction, in which the victims not only cannot be distinguished by name, but their numbers can scarcely be expressed with any degree of exactness, even by the thousand, one feels a certain kind of interest in ascertaining those first and few names which could be noted and preserved: it seems as if this sort of distinction, a precedence in extermination, invests them, and all the other minutiæ, which would otherwise be most indifferent, with something fatal and memorable.

  But one and the other historian say that it was an Italian soldier in the Spanish service; but in nothing else do they agree, not even in the name. According to Tadino, it was a person of the name of Pietro Antonio Lovato, quartered in the territory of Lecco: according to Ripamonti, a certain Pier Paolo Locati, quartered at Chiavenna. They differ also as to the day of his entrance into Milan; the first placing it on the 22nd of October, the second, on the same day in the following month; yet it cannot be on either one or the other. Both the dates contradict others which are far better authenticated, Yet Ripamonti, writing by order of the General Council of the Decurioni, ought to have had many means at his command of gaining the necessary information; and Tadino, in consideration of his office, might have been better informed than any one else on a subject of this nature. In short, comparing other dates, which, as we have said, appear to us more authentic, it would seem that it was prior to the publication of the warrants; and if it were worth while, it might even be proved, or nearly so, that it must have been very early in that month: but the reader will, doubtless, excuse us the task.

  However it may be, this soldier, unfortunate himself, and the bearer of misfortune to others, entered the city with a large bundle of clothes purchased or stolen from the German troops: he went to stay at the house of one of his relatives in the suburbs of the Porta Orientale, near to the Capuchin Convent. Scarcely had he arrived there, when he was taken ill; he was conveyed to the hospital; here, a spot, discovered under one of the armpits, excited some suspicion in the mind of the person who tended him, of what was in truth the fact; and on the fourth day he died.

  The Board of Health immediately ordered his family to be kept separate, and confined within their own house; and his clothes, and the bed on which he had lain at the hospital, were burned. Two attendants, who had there nursed him, and a good friar, who had rendered him his assistance, were all three, within a few days, seized with the plague. The suspicions which had here been felt, from the beginning, of the nature of the disease, and the precautions taken in consequence, prevented the further spread of the contagion from this source.

  But the soldier had left seed outside, which delayed not to spring up, and shoot forth. The first person in whom it broke out was the master of the house where he had lodged, one Carlo Colonna, a lute-player. All the inmates of the dwelling were then, by order of the Board, conveyed to the Lazzaretto; where the greater number took to their beds, and many shortly died of evident infection.

  In the city, that which had been already disseminated there by intercourse with the above-mentioned family, and by clothes and furniture belonging to them preserved by relations, lodgers, or servants, from the searches and flames prescribed by the Board, as well as that which was afresh introduced by defectiveness in the regulations, by negligence in executing them, and by dexterity in eluding them, continued lurking about, and slowly insinuating itself among the inhabitants, all the rest of the year, and in the earlier months of 1630, the year which followed. From time to time, now in this, now in that quarter, some one was seized with the contagion, some one was carried off with it: and the very infrequency of the cases contributed to lull all suspicions of pestilence, and confirmed the generality more and more in the senseless and murderous assurance that plague it was not, and never had been, for a moment. Many physicians, too, echoing the voice of the people, (was it, in this instance also, the voice of Heaven?) derided the ominous predictions and threatening warnings of the few; and always had at hand the names of common diseases to qualify every case of pestilence which they were summoned to cure, with what symptom or token soever it evinced itself.

  The reports of these instances, when they reached the Board of Health at all, reached it, for the most part, tardily and uncertainly. Dread of sequestration and the Lazzaretto sharpened every one’s wits; they concealed the sick, they corrupted the grave-diggers and elders, and obtained false certificates, by means of bribes, from subalterns of the Board itself, deputed by it to visit and inspect the dead bodies.

  As, however, on every discovery they succeeded in making, the Board ordered the wearing apparel to be committed to the flames, put the houses under sequestration, and sent the inmates to the Lazzaretto, it is easy to imagine what must have been the anger and dissatisfaction of the generality ‘of the nobility, merchants, and lower orders,’ 7 persuaded, as they all were, that they were mere causeless vexations without any advantage. The principal odium fell upon the two doctors, our frequently mentioned Tadino and Senatore Settala, son of the senior physician, and reached such a height, that thenceforward they could not publicly appear without being assailed with opprobrious language, if not with stones. And, certainly, the situation in which these individuals were placed for several months, is remarkable, and worthy of being recorded, seeing a horrible scourge advancing towards them, labouring, by every method, to repulse it, yet meeting with obstacles, not only in the arduousness of the task, but from every quarter, in the unwillingness of the people, and being made the general object of execration, and regarded as the enemies of their country: ‘Pro patriæ hostibus,’ says Ripamonti. 8

  Sharers, also, in the hatred were the other physicians, who, convinced like them of the reality of the contagion, suggested precautions, and sought to communicate to others their melancholy convictions. The most knowing taxed them with credulity and obstinacy; while, with the many, it was evidently an imposture, a planned combination, to make a profit by the public fears.

  The aged physician, Lodovico Settala, who had almost attained his eightieth year, who had been Professor of Medicine in the University of Pavia, and afterwards of Moral Philosophy at Milan, the author of many works at that time in very high repute, eminent for the invitations he had received to occupy the chairs of other universities, Ingolstadt, Pisa, Bologna, and Padua, and for his refusal of all these honours, was certainly one of the most influential men of his time. To his reputation for learning was added that of his life; and to admiration of his character, a feeling of good-will for his great kindness in curing and benefiting the poor. Yet there is one circumstance, which, in our minds, disturbs and overclouds the sentiment of esteem inspired by these merits, but which at that time must have rendered it stronger and more general: the poor man participated in the commonest and most fatal prejudices of his contemporaries: he was in advance of them, but not distinguished from the multitude; a station which only invites trouble, and often causes the loss of an authority acquired by other means. Nevertheless, that which he enjoyed in so great a degree, was not only insufficient to overcome the general opinion on this subject of the pestilence, but it could not even protect him from the animosity and the insults of that part of the populace, which most readily steps from opinions to their exhibition by actual deeds.

  One day, as he was going in a litter to visit his patients, crowds began to assemble round him, crying out that he was the head of those who were determined, in spite of everything, to make out that there was a plague; that it was he who put the city in alarm, with his gloomy brow, and shaggy beard; and all to give employment to the doctors! The multitude and their fury went on increasing; so that the bearers, seeing their danger, took refuge with their master in the house of a friend, which fortunately happened to be at hand. All this occurred to him for having foreseen clearly, stated what was really the fact, and wished to save thousands of his fellow-creatures from the pestilence: when having, by his deplorable advice, co-operated in causing a poor unhappy wretch to be put to the torture, racked, and burnt as a witch, because one of her masters had suffered extraordinary pains in his stomach, and another, some time before, had been desperately enamoured of her, 9 he had received from the popular voice additional reputation for wisdom, and, what is intolerable to think of, the additional title of the well-deserving.

  Towards the latter end of March, however, sickness and deaths began rapidly to multiply, first in the suburbs of the Porta Orientale, and then in all the other quarters of the city, with the unusual accompaniments of spasms, palpitation, lethargy, delirium, and those fatal symptoms, livid spots and sores; and these deaths were, for the most part, rapid, violent, and not unfrequently sudden, without any previous tokens of illness. Those physicians who were opposed to the belief of contagion, unwilling now to admit what they had hitherto derided, yet obliged to give a generical name to the new malady, which had become too common and too evident to go with-out one, adopted that of malignant or pestilential fevers;—a miserable expedient, a mere play upon words, which was productive of much harm; because, while it appeared to acknowledge the truth, it only contributed to the disbelief of what it was most important to believe and discern, viz., that the infection was conveyed by means of the touch. The magistrates, like one awakening from a deep sleep, began to lend a little more ear to the appeals and proposals of the Board of Health, to support its proclamations, and second the sequestrations prescribed, and the quarantines enjoined by this tribunal. The Board was also constantly demanding money to provide for the daily expenses of the Lazzaretto, now augmented by so many additional services; and for this they applied to the Decurioni, while it was being decided (which was never done, I believe, except by practice) whether such expenses should be charged to the city, or to the royal exchequer. The high chancellor also applied importunately to the Decurioni, by order, too, of the governor, who had again returned to lay siege to the unfortunate Casale; the senate likewise applied to them, imploring them to see to the best method of victualing the city, before they should be forbidden, in case of the unhappy dissemination of the contagion, to have any intercourse with other countries; and to find means of maintaining a large proportion of the population which was now deprived of employment. TheDecurioni endeavoured to raise money by loans and taxes; and of what they thus accumulated they gave a little to the Board of Health, a little to the poor, purchased a little corn, and thus, in some degree, supplied the existing necessity. The severest sufferings had not yet arrived.

  In the Lazzaretto, where the population, although decimated daily, continued daily on the increase, there was another arduous undertaking, to insure attendance and subordination, to preserve the enjoined separations, to maintain, in short, or rather to establish, the government prescribed by the Board of Health: for, from the very first, everything had been in confusion, from the ungovernableness of many of the inmates, and the negligence or connivance of the officials. The Board and the Decurioni, not knowing which way to turn, bethought themselves of applying to the Capuchins, and besought the Father Commissary, as he was called, of the province, who occupied the place of the Father Provincial, lately deceased, to give them a competent person to govern this desolate kingdom. The commissary proposed to them as their governor, one Father Felice Casati, a man of advanced age, who enjoyed great reputation for charity, activity, and gentleness of disposition, combined with a strong mind—a character which, as the sequel will show, was well deserved; and as his coadjutor and assistant, one Father Michele Pozzobonelli, still a young man, but grave and stern in mind as in countenance. Gladly enough were they accepted; and on the 30th of March they entered the Lazzaretto. The President of the Board of Health conducted them round, as it were, to put them in possession; and having assembled the servants and officials of every rank, proclaimed Father Felice, in their presence, governor of the place, with primary and unlimited authority. In proportion as the wretched multitude there assembled increased, other Capuchins resorted thither; and here were superintendents, confessors, administrators, nurses, cooks, overlookers of the wardrobes, washerwomen, in short, everything that was required. Father Felice, ever diligent, ever watchful, went about day and night, through the porticoes, chambers, and open spaces, sometimes carrying a spear, sometimes armed only with hair-cloth; he animated and regulated every duty, pacified tumults, settled disputes, threatened, punished, reproved, comforted, dried and shed tears. At the very outset he took the plague; recovered, and with fresh alacrity resumed his first duties. Most of his brethren here sacrificed their lives, and all joyfully.

  Such a dictatorship was certainly a strange expedient; strange as was the calamity, strange as were the times; and even did we know no more about it, this alone would suffice as an argument, as a specimen, indeed, of a rude and ill-regulated state of society. But the spirit, the deeds, the self-sacrifice, of these friars, deserve no less than they should be mentioned with respect and tenderness, and with that species of gratitude which one feels, en masseas it were, for great services rendered by men to their fellows. To die in a good cause is a wise and beautiful action, at any time, under any state of things whatsoever. ‘For had not ye Fathers repayred hither,’ says Tadino, ‘assuredly ye whole Citie would have been annihilated; for it was a miraculous thing that ye Fathers effected so much for ye publick Benefit in so short a space of Time, and, receiving no Assistance, or at least, very little, from ye Citie, contrived, by their Industrie and Prudence, to maintain so many thousands of Poore, in ye Lazzaretto.’ 10

  Among the public, also, this obstinacy in denying the pestilence gave way naturally, and gradually disappeared, in proportion as the contagion extended itself, and extended itself, too, before their own eyes, by means of contact and intercourse; and still more when, after having been for some time confined to the lower orders, it began to take effect upon the higher. And among these, as he was then the most eminent, so by us now, the senior physician Settala, deserves express mention. People must at least have said: The poor old man was right! But who knows? He, with his wife, two sons, and seven persons in his service, all took the plague. One of these sons and himself recovered; the rest died. ‘These Cases,’ says Tadino, ‘occurring in the Citie in the first families, disposed the Nobilitie and common People to think; and the incredulous Physicians, and the ignorant and rash lower Orders, began to bite their Lips, grind their Teeth, and arch their Eyebrows in Amazement.’ 11

Note 1. Josephi Ripamontii, canonici scalensis, chronist&æ urbis Mediolani, de Peste qu&æ fuit anno 1630, Lib. V. Mediolani, 1640. Apud Malatestas.
Note 2. Tadino, p. 24.
Note 3. Tadino, p. 26.
Note 4. 5 Ibid., p. 27.
Note 5. Ripamonti, p. 245.
Note 6. Life of Federigo Borromeo, compiled by Francesco Rivola. Milan: 1666. P. 584.
Note 7. Tadino, p. 73.
Note 8. Ripamonti, p. 261.
Note 9. History of Milan, by Count Pietro Verri. Milan: 1825. Vol. iv. p. 155.
Note 10. Tadino, p. 98.
Note 11. Ib., p. 96.

You Might Also Like


Like us on Facebook