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Covid-19 and the Spectre of the 1630 Plague in Italy

Almost four hundred years before the Covid-19 crisis another devastating epidemic hit particularly hard northern Italy

In the period between early March and early April of this year, as the Covid-19 Pandemic raged in Italy and the numbers of cases and victims rose exponentially, particularly in the infection’s epicentre in Lombardy, a number of Italian newspapers, both local and national, made explicit comparisons with another famous epidemic that struck northern Italy almost four hundred years ago: the 1630 Bubonic Plague of Milan.

The epidemic is the backdrop of the most important work in Italian literature after Dante’s Divine Comedy, Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (I promessi sposi, 1842, revised edition). Manzoni’s work offers a powerful insight into the moment of the plague, with parallels in our own time. The novel tells the story of a young couple, Renzo and Lucia, sworn to be married in seventeenth-century Lombardy, amidst the Spanish domination of the region, with its corollaries of violence and corruption, the local military involvement in the major European wars of the period, and the 1630 plague, which killed a large part of the population of Milan and of several towns and villages in the area. Italian children learn about Manzoni’s novel in school, and therefore a passing knowledge of the 1630 plague is commonplace among Italians (based on detail in three chapters of the book – XXXI, XXXII, and XXXIII , as well as in an Appendix called History of the Pillar of Infamy (Storia della colonna infame)).

There are obvious differences between the 1630 plague and the Covid-19 pandemic, related not just to the vastly different historical periods, but also to the fact that the Bubonic Plague was caused by a bacterium, while Covid-19 is a virus. The mortality rate was much higher in the former than in the latter (in Milan alone, 46% of the population died as a result, or 60,000 out of 130,000 people). Moreover, geographically, the 1630 plague probably started in northern Lombardy and hit Milan particularly hard, while Covid-19 started in southern Lombardy and hit the towns south and east of Milan much more than Milan itself.

Yet, there are certainly striking similarities with regard to the human element and the response to the two catastrophes, the behaviour of the authorities and of the people in general, and also of individuals in particular, together with more objective issues such as the ideas about the origins of the disease and its diffusion, and its effects on society and the economy.

Manzoni was a master of creating portraits of unforgettable characters, representing the entire spectrum of human behaviour, from cowardice to heroism, against the backdrop of real historical events, which he reconstructed through a painstaking work of reading and interpreting archival sources. It is no surprise, then, that several northern Italian teachers have urged their pupils to read Manzoni’s chapters on the 1630 plague in light of the current Covid-19 pandemic. Even Pope Francis, in one of his March 2020 homilies, referred to the different behaviours of the characters in The Betrothed by way of comparison with the present crisis.

Alessandro Manzoni, Wikicommons: public domain.

In recounting the history of the 1630 events in Lombardy, Manzoni wrote, following the sources, that ‘the Plague, which the Board of Health had feared might enter with the German troops into the Milanese, had entered indeed.’ Thus, he identified immediately an exogenous origin of the disease, which was brought from outside Lombardy by the infected German mercenaries (the infamous Lanzichenecchi), fighting for the Spanish Kingdom against France, and passing through the area between Lecco and Milan to lay siege to the city of Mantua in a peripheral episode of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).

This is a clear similarity with the exogenous origin of the Covid-19 pandemic in Lombardy, since it was certainly brought from outside Italy. The most recent hypothesis on how Covid-19 actually arrived there says that, very likely, an employee in a German company from Bavaria, who had been in contact with a colleague in Shanghai, and who had passed through the area around Lodi in late January, might have been ‘patient zero’, since that area, south of Milan, is where the epidemic started in Lombardy on 14 February, though it was not detected until 19 February.

One chilling fact that emerges from Manzoni’s account and which provides much food for thought for a comparison between the 1630 plague and the Covid-19 Pandemic in Lombardy is the rapidity of the spread of the disease. Manzoni wrote that, shortly after the passage of the German troops, ‘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.’ In other words, the plague, undetected, spread very fast among Lombardy’s population, causing sickness and death in rising numbers, similarly to how Covid-19, also initially undetected, spread with incredible speed, leading, in only a month, to more than 12,000 certified cases and over 1,200 dead by 15 March 2020, with a particularly high concentration in the town of Codogno and in ten other towns nearby, south of Milan.

In The Betrothed, Manzoni used some of his most sarcastic words to describe the behaviour of the authorities in charge of Milan and Lombardy in 1630, who initially denied the state of emergency. The Governor dismissed the report made by the Board of Health and the advice of eminent physician Ludovico Settala, and, instead, ‘issued a proclamation, in which he prescribed public rejoicing for the birth of Prince Charles [son of Philip IV of Spain] … without thinking of, or without caring for, the danger of suffering a large concourse of people … everything as in common times.’ When the first decrees on the state of emergency were finally released, wrote Manzoni, ‘the Plague had already entered Milan.’

Unlike the 1630 Governor of Milan, the Italian government reacted with a certain speed by enforcing a quarantine on the ‘red zone’ of the ten infected towns in Lombardy from 23 February, and then extending it to most of northern Italy two days later and to the rest of the country on 10 March. However, criticism has been made of the confusion in the authorities’ response, with provisions and decrees that contradicted one another, and above all about the problems caused by the limited coordination between national and regional governments, especially with regard to Lombardy.

In analysing the spread of the 1630 Plague, Manzoni also pointed out the irrational behaviour of the people, who, even more than the authorities, did not take it seriously initially, since ‘if anyone 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.’ This behaviour certainly corresponds to that of a number of people in Lombardy and in the rest of Italy (and also in many other countries), who denied that Covid-19 constituted a lethal danger, seeing it was little more than a ‘flu’. They continued to act as if everything was normal, contributing in a major way to spread the disease further – perhaps also because of misinformation, an issue treated by Manzoni in relation to the 1630 plague, which was initially called and considered ‘not a Plague, absolutely not’.

In 1630 Milan, with no hospitals or relief structures, the city government had little to offer to the people to help them fight the plague and survive. The sick were either left to die in their houses or in the streets, or else taken to the church of San Carlo, whose large cloister had been converted into a leprosarium (lazzaretto). Here, about 16,000 plague-stricken people were sitting or lying down, crammed together, and looked after almost exclusively by members of religious orders such as the Capuchins, who had answered the call of emergency providing indefatigable charitable assistance.

Manzoni described very effectively the desperate conditions of the leprosarium in Milan, where the main problems were how to find room for the continuous arrivals of plague-stricken people, how to make sure that there were enough medicines, food, and care workers for everybody, and also how to bury the rising numbers of dead as quickly as possible. These problems certainly remind one of the enormous difficulties posed by the increasingly number of patients with Covid-19, many of them needing intensive care, which has severely tested Lombardy’s hospitals and its health system throughout February, March and April, as well as by the mounting number of dead. This is especially true in places such as Bergamo, whose images of military trucks carrying a seemingly endless procession of coffins have been imprinted in everybody’s memory.

Manzoni praised the work of the clergy in the leprosarium, elevating especially the Capuchin priest who seemed to have almost taken charge of the place, Fr Felice Casati, who was constantly looking after the sick, night and day. ‘His face was pale and haggard’, wrote Manzoni, ‘inspiring both sorrow and encouragement; he walked with slow, but resolute steps, like one who would spare the weakness of others.’ It could be the portrait of many unsung heroes among the doctors, nurses, and care workers in the frontline in the current Covid-19 pandemic in Lombardy.

It is remarkable that, in his homily in St Peter Square on 15 March, as the death toll from the disease was rising rapidly, Pope Francis, very likely, had Fr Casati in mind as a model, when he said that ‘in times of Pandemic, [priests] mustn’t be the don Abbondio of the situation’, referring to another character of a priest in The Betrothed, known for his cowardice. Besides the fact that it is well known that the book is among the Pope’s favourites, he evidently recognised some interesting parallels between the human dimension of the epidemic described by Manzoni and the present pandemic.

Also chilling in The Betrothed is Manzoni’s description of how Renzo arrived in Milan at the height of the 1630 plague and found a once vibrant city immersed in an eerie silence of sickness and death, while the collapse of the city’s infrastructure had inevitably led to the people’s increasing hunger. ‘At every step’, wrote Manzoni, ‘one met with pale and emaciated beggars, either grown old in the business, or reduced by the necessity of the times to ask alms.’ In Renzo’s time, Milan was deserted both because of the people’s self-imposed quarantine, since locking yourself in your home was the best chance to survive, and also because of the military enforcement of the quarantine, since the houses struck by the plague were literally boarded up by the soldiers, preventing anybody from getting out.

Doubtless, the eerie silence experienced by Renzo in Milan at the height of the plague is clearly comparable to a similarly surreal atmosphere that characterises the cities of Lombardy, and all over the world, now, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Conversely, Manzoni’s description of the people’s hunger is an image that reminds us of comparable episodes in other parts of Italy, specifically in areas of the south, where the continued state of lockdown due to the emergency, combined with the impossibility of working from home, has brought many people to an economic collapse and to desperation as they face the impossibility of feeding their families.

Certainly, now, as in 1630, these are initial symptoms of the fact that the aftermath of a major epidemic always leaves behind, besides the dead, a trail of economic destruction, which becomes more acute where the infrastructures have collapsed as a result of the scale of the disease, and where, therefore, there are fewer resources available for people to draw on. In seventeenth-century Lombardy, the plague hit an economy that was already in difficulty, plunging it into decades of recession.

Nowadays, Lombardy, like the rest of Italy and the rest of the world, has barely come out of the recession that hit the global economy in 2008, and in consequence it is impossible to predict what this new and unexpected economic crisis will result in. If anything, in 2020, after seventy-five years of peace, world governments should be better positioned to collaborate together to overcome the upcoming recession much more than the European governments were in the seventeenth century, when war between the major powers was endemic. Let us hope they will act on this possibility when the time comes.

Published: 17 Apr 2020  Categories: Covid-19 and the Humanities

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Enrico Dal Lago is Professor of American History at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He researches on slavery and the American Civil War in comparative and transnational perspective and he is the author of several books, the latest of which is Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy (2018).