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I promessi sposi” and the Plague of 1630

Today we will examine I promessi sposi (The Betrothed), one of Italy's most influential historical novels. This novel, by Alessandro Manzoni, was initially published in 1827 and was the first to be written using modern Italian language. The story, set in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, takes place between 1628 and 1630, during the Spanish rule and the Thirty Years’ War. In the book, Manzoni offers a variety of ever-popular themes such as political power, heroism and romance. The author paints a complex web of characters that demonstrate the best and worst of human behavior. Particularly famous, and now timely, are the chapters based on real documents about la peste (the plague) that struck Milan in 1630.

Manzoni’s description of the plague is powerful and graphic. In the novel, the tribunale della sanità (the WHO or HHS of the time) raises the alarm against the plague, thought to have been brought on by foreign troops. Following the first cases in the Milan area, the problem was underestimated, except by a few prominent individuals. Measures to combat the disease were issued slowly, inaccurately, and were not universally adopted by the population. Banning citizens from entering Milan did not stop the plague’s spread. Authorities only began to pay greater attention when the disease started to affect the noble class.

The health authority searched for “patient zero” and investigated anyone who had come in contact with him. However, much of the population still remained skeptical of the disease’s existence due to the fact that there were so few deaths. Several doctors also continued to minimize the problem. Many thought the plague was a political conspiracy by other European countries, who allegedly sent “plague spreaders” called gli untori to escalate the pandemic. The sick were sent to a leprosarium called Lazzaretto, run by Capuchin friars, who worked with courage and self-sacrifice.

This poignant story reminds us of how history can be a powerful learning tool and offer guidance for our future. Manzoni’s masterful use of historical events and fictional characters offers a timeless and unforgettable read. We encourage you to read it for yourself!

The video clip above (in Italian) is from the movie I promessi sposi produced by RAI in 1989. It shows the hunt for the “plague spreaders” as well as the widely-held suspicion of the medical establishment of the day. Particularly poignant is the scene titled la madre di Cecilia. Here, the protagonist Renzo, watches a woman laying the dead body of her young daughter Cecilia on a cart to be taken to a mass grave.

Article written by Valentina Andreucci in collaboration with the ICC Editorial Team


Francesco Hayez, Ritratto di Alessandro Manzoni, 1841, Milano, Pinacoteca di Brera

Melchiorre Gherardini, Piazza di S. Babila a Milano durante la peste del 1630, Brescia, Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo

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