The Betrothed

Alessandro Manzoni trans. by Michael Moore

April 6, 2020 
When the coronavirus broke out in Northern Italy in February, commentators reached immediately for the great historical novel, The Betrothed (1842), by Alessandro Manzoni, to describe the sense of panic gripping the country. The story culminates in the great plague of 1628-30, which ultimately took the lives of a quarter of the population of Northern Italy at the time. The following excerpt begins with the descent into Northern Italy of an army of Landsknechts, German-speaking mercenaries, in the service of the Hapsburg Empire.

The plague that the Health Tribunal had feared might enter the Milan area with the German troops really did enter, as is well known. Just as it is well known that the plague did not stop there, but went on to invade and depopulate a good part of Italy.

Throughout the strip of territory crossed by the army, dead bodies were found in houses and by the roadside. Not long after, in one town or another, individuals and whole families started to fall ill and die of strange, violent ailments with symptoms that most of the living had never seen before. There were some people, however, to whom they were not new: the few who still remembered the plague that, fifty-three years earlier, had devastated much of Italy, especially in the Milan area, where it was and still is known as the San Carlo Plague.

The chief medical officer, Lodovico Settala, had not only witnessed the earlier plague but had also been one of the most active, intrepid, and—despite his youth—reputable doctors. Now, harboring grave suspicions, he was on the alert for information. On October 20, he reported to the Health Tribunal that the contagion had unquestionably broken out in Chiuso (the last village in the Lecco territory, bordering on the province of Bergamo). Still the Tribunal took no decisions.

Similar warnings soon arrived from Lecco and Bellano. At that point the Tribunal did come to a resolution, agreeing to send a commissioner to the two towns, with instructions to stop along the way in Como for a physician who could accompany him on his visits. According to the contemporary report by Alessandro Tadino, both men, “Either from ignorance or another reason, allowed themselves to be persuaded by an ignorant old barber from Bellano that this type of ailment was not the plague,” but rather, in some places, the normal effect of the autumnal emissions from the marshes; and in others, a result of the poverty and hardship caused by the passage of the German troops. This assurance was conveyed to the Tribunal, and seemed to set its mind at ease.

As more and more reports of death arrived from other areas, however, two delegates were dispatched to view and review the situation: Alessandro Tadino (Settala’s lieutenant), and an auditor from the Tribunal. By the time they arrived, the disease was already so widespread that there was no need to search for proof. They visited the province of Lecco, the Valsassina, the shores of Lake Como, and the districts of Monte di Brianza and Gera d’Adda. Everywhere they went they found towns whose gates were closed, blocking entry, and others that were almost deserted, since the townsfolk had fled and were camped out in the fields or dispersed. “The people looked,” wrote Tadino, “like so many wild creatures, holding sprigs of mint, ruta, or rosemary, or a cruet of vinegar.” They inquired about the death toll: the answers were shocking. They visited the sick and the dead, and everywhere found the ugly, terrifying marks of the plague. They conveyed the bad news to the Health Tribunal in a letter. Upon receiving it, on October 30, the Tribunal “issued the order”—according to Tadino—to send out a bulletin forbidding entry to Milan of people arriving from the towns where the contagion had appeared. “While the decree was being drafted,” a few hasty advance instructions were given to the sentries at the gates.

Everywhere they went they found towns whose gates were closed, blocking entry, and others that were almost deserted, since the townsfolk had fled and were camped out in the fields or dispersed.

In the meantime, the two delegates hastily took all the measures they thought best. And they came back to the city with the grim certainty that these measures would not be enough to redress and stop the course of a disease that was already so advanced and widespread.

Having arrived on November 14, and delivered a report orally and in writing to the Tribunal, they were then commissioned by the Tribunal to appear before the governor and explain the situation to him. They went and reported back: he was exceedingly sorry to hear the news, and made a great display of emotion; but concerns about the war were far more urgent: sed belli graviores esse curas.

Two or three days later, on November 18, the governor issued a decree in which he ordered that public festivities be held for the birth of Prince Carlos, the first-born son of King Philip IV, oblivious or heedless of the danger of such a gathering in these circumstances. Everything was to proceed according to custom, as if no warnings had been issued.

It there is one thing on which contemporary accounts agree, it is in attesting that nothing was done. The famine of the previous year, the bullying of the soldiers, and the afflictions of the spirit were considered more than sufficient explanation for the mortality rate. In the public squares, in the workplace, or at home, anyone who dared to hint at the danger, who attributed the deaths to the plague, was treated to angry contempt and jeers of disbelief. The same disbelief, or rather the same blindness and obstinacy, prevailed in the Senate, in the City Council, and in the mind of every magistrate.

At the beginning of a vast mortality, in which the victims cannot be identified by name but only vaguely indicated by the thousands, a strange curiosity arises to know the names of the first few carriers that can be recorded and conserved: as if the distinction of being the first to die in the extermination lends a fatal and memorable quality to the names and otherwise quite ordinary details.

Two historians, Tadino and Ripamonti, say that it was an Italian soldier in the service of Spain. Apart from that, there is little they agree on, including his name. They also disagree as to when he entered Milan: the first places it at October 22, the second on the same day of the following month. Neither is correct, since both are contradicted by other well-documented sources.

Whatever the case may be, this unfortunate foot soldier and bearer of misfortune, with a big bundle of clothing bought or stolen from German soldiers, stopped by the house of relatives in the Porta Orientale neighborhood, not far from the Capuchin monastery. The moment he arrived, he fell ill and was taken to the hospital, where a dark swollen lump, a bubo, was found under his armpit, leading his attendant to suspect the true cause. Four days later he died. The Health Tribunal ordered the isolation and quarantine of his relatives in their home. His clothing and hospital bed were burned. Two servants and a good friar who had cared for him also fell ill in a matter of days. In the hospital, concerns about the nature of his illness were raised immediately, and precautions were taken as a result, preventing the contagion from spreading any further inside.

But the soldier had sown a trail behind him that did not take long to germinate. The next to be infected was the landlord of the house where he had lodged, a certain Carlo Colonna, lute-player. Therefore, on the orders of the Health Tribunal, all the tenants of the house were taken to the lazaretto, the quarantine are built outside the city walls, where most of them fell ill, and some soon died with evident symptoms of the contagion.

They came back to the city with the grim certainty that these measures would not be enough to redress and stop the course of a disease that was already so advanced and widespread.

By then the plague had already spread throughout the city, for the tenants’ clothing and furniture was salvaged—by relatives, neighbors, and servants—from the search and burn instructions of the Tribunal. There were also new arrivals to the city, thanks to loopholes in the decrees, the lax application of them, and individuals who were deft at evading them. So the plague continued to fester and creep through the rest of the year and into the early months of 1630. Here and there, in this neighborhood or that, someone would catch and someone would die from the contagion. There were so few cases that any suspicions of the truth were banished, while the public’s dumb and deadly confidence that there was not nor had there ever been a plague was reconfirmed. Many doctors, echoing the vox populi (was it, even in this case, the voice of God?), derided the evil omens and dire warnings of the few. They had the names of common illnesses on the ready to explain every case of the plague they were called upon to treat, regardless of the signs or symptoms.

Even when reports of these incidents did reach the Health Tribunal, they always arrived late, for the most part, and uncertain. Fear of quarantine and of the lazaretto made everyone wary: the ill were not reported, the gravediggers and their supervisors were bribed, and even employees of the Tribunal assigned to examine the cadavers could be paid off to issue false death certificates.

When the Tribunal did manage to discover a victim, it ordered possessions burned, homes sequestered, and families sent to the lazaretto, making it is easy to understand the general anger and complaints, “from the Nobles, the Merchants, and the common people,” according to Tadino, convinced, as they all were, that these actions amounted to senseless and baseless harassment. The brunt of the resentment fell on two doctors—Tadino and Senatore Settala (son of the chief medical officer)—who could not cross a public square without having obscenities or even stones hurled after them. For a few months they found themselves in a unique and memorable situation: witnessing the advance of a horrible scourge, and struggling in every manner to prevent it, encountering obstacles where they sought help, while at the same time being called enemies of the patria.

Some of that resentment was also directed at other doctors who, likewise convinced that the contagion was real, suggested precautions to be taken and tried to convey their terrible certainty to all. Even the most moderate were accused of being credulous and obstinate: all others, of telling blatant lies, and concocting a plot in order to profit from public fear.

The nearly eighty-year-old chief medical officer, Lodovico Settala, was certainly one of the most authoritative men of his time. In addition to his reputation as a scientist, he was esteemed as a man, admired and loved because of his charity in treating and helping the poor. Yet the great authority that he enjoyed was not enough to sway the opinion of those whom the poets call profanum vulgus, profane commoners, and whom actors call their adoring public. Nor could it shield him from the animosity and insults of those members of the public who leap more easily from judgment to expression to action.

One day, on his way to visit patients, a crowd started to gather around his litter, shouting that he was the leader of those who insisted that the plague had broken out. He was the man who had terrorized the city, with his scowl and his scraggly beard: all to create business for the doctors! As the crowd grew, so did its fury. Seeing the situation take a turn for the worse, the litter-bearers found shelter for their master at the home of friends who were luckily nearby. Such was his reward for clearly seeing the plague, naming it, and wanting to save thousands of people from its ravages. Later he would win back the public’s favor as a wise and—so unbearable to imagine—charitable man when, in a deplorable consultation, he took part in the torture of a poor hapless wretch, who was burnt at the stake after her flesh had been torn with hot tongs. She had been accused of witchcraft because her master suffered strange stomach pains, while a previous master had fallen madly in love with her.

Toward the end of March, the number of illnesses and deaths started to mount, first in the Porta Orientale area, then in every neighborhood of the city. There were strange cases of spasms, palpitations, lethargy, and delirium, together with the fatal mark of bruises and buboes. The deaths were for the most part quick, violent, and, quite often, sudden, without any prior symptoms. The doctors who had rejected the diagnosis of plague, unwilling to admit now what they had derided earlier, still felt obliged to give a generic name to the new disease, which had become too widespread and too obvious to remain nameless. So they came up with the term “malignant” or “pestilential” fevers: a miserable compromise, indeed a bit of word trickery that caused terrible harm, for while pretending to acknowledge the truth, it still managed to prevent belief in what needed to be believed and seen: that the infection was being spread through human contact.

The public’s stubborn denial of the plague was also fading and dispersing as it spread, through contact and mingling with the infected. Especially after, having been confined to the poor for a time, it started to infect more prominent citizens as well. The most noted among them, and thus deserving of special mention here, was the chief medical officer himself. Were they finally ready to admit that the poor old Settala had been right? We’ll never know. He, his wife, two children and seven servants fell ill of the plague. He and one of his children survived. The rest all died. “Such cases,” writes Tadino, “occurring as they did in the city, striking noble families, made both the nobility and the common people more predisposed to reflect, and skeptical doctors as well as the rash, ignorant common people began to shut their mouths, grit their teeth, and raise their eyebrows.”

But the results, the remedies, and the vendettas, so to speak, of deep stubbornness are sometimes worse than staying the course, undeterred, against all reason and evidence. This was indeed one of those moments. Some people had long and resolutely refused to believe in the existence of an evil seed close to and among them capable of propagating and causing a massacre through natural means. Now that they could no longer deny it, and not wanting to blame its propagation on natural means (which would have meant admitting their great lie and their great guilt), they were inclined to seek another cause, and to accept any one that was proposed. Unfortunately, they found one ready and available in the ideas and traditions common to the period, not only in Italy but in every part of Europe: dark arts, diabolic rituals, people plotting to spread the plague through contagious poisons and evil spells.

The doctors who had rejected the diagnosis of plague, unwilling to admit now what they had derided earlier, still felt obliged to give a generic name to the new disease, which had become too widespread and too obvious to remain nameless.

Moreover, the previous year King Philip IV had signed and sent a dispatch to the Governor, warning him that four Frenchmen had escaped from Madrid and were wanted on suspicion of spreading poisonous, pestilential unguents: he should be on alert in case they appeared in Milan. The Governor conveyed the message to the Senate and to the Tribunal of Health, who at the time do not seem to have paid it much mind. Once the plague had broken out and been acknowledged, however, recollections of that warning helped to confirm or even create the vague suspicion of a malicious plot.

Two events, one driven by blind unchecked fear and the other by an inexplicable act of mischief, converted that vague suspicion into real suspicion, and for many, into the certainty that there was indeed a plot and an actual conspiracy.

On the evening of May 17, some people were convinced they had seen individuals in the Duomo dabbing unguent on a wooden screen that divided the men’s area from the women’s. They demanded that the screen be removed from the church that night, along with a number of pews that it surrounded. The President of the Tribunal of Health rushed over from his office with four persons. After inspecting the screen, the pews and the holy water fonts, he found nothing to confirm the ignorant suspicion of a poisoning plot. Nevertheless, he decided, to humor the people, and out of an abundance of caution rather than necessity, he decided that it would be enough to wash the screen. The sight of that large mass made a terrifying impression on the crowd, for whom an object easily became evidence. It was said and generally believed that all the pews, walls, and even the church bell ropes inside the Duomo had been smeared with an unguent.

The next morning, a new and stranger, more significant sight greeted the eyes and minds of the citizens. In every part of the city, the doors of the houses and the walls had ben spattered for long stretches with an unidentifiable filth, yellowish and chalky, that looked as if it had been applied with a sponge. Either it was a foolish prank to provoke greater fear, a criminal design to increase public confusion, or I don’t know what else. There were enough eyewitnesses to this occurrence that I think it more reasonable to attribute it to the action of the few than to the hallucination of the many.

The already agitated city was in an uproar. Homeowners charred the splattered areas with burning stumps of straw. Passers-by stopped and observed, shuddering in horror. Foreigners suspected for the mere fact of being foreign, easily identified by their manner of dress, were subjected to citizens’ arrests on the streets and taken to the police. Examinations and interrogations were conducted of the arrestees, the arrestors, and witnesses alike. No one was found guilty. Better minds were still capable of doubting, examining, and understanding. The Health Tribunal published a decree promising rewards and immunity to anyone who reported the perpetrator or perpetrators of the deed.

A number of people were still unpersuaded that there really was a plague. And since, in both the lazaretto and the city, some victims had actually recovered, “it was said” (the final arguments of an opinion defeated by the evidence are always strange to hear), “by the common people, and also by many biased doctors, that it was not a true plague, because otherwise everyone would have been dead.”

To erase all doubts, the Health Tribunal found a solution proportionate to the need, a way to speak to the eyes, as the times seemed to demand or suggest. At one of the Pentecostal feasts, the citizens customarily gathered at the San Gregorio cemetery, outside the Porta Orientale, to pray for the victims of the previous plague buried there. An opportunity for pomp and diversion, everyone would turn out dressed in their finest. On that same day, the dead from the plague included an entire family. At the busiest hour, in the very midst of all the carriages and people on horseback or foot, the bodies of that family were conducted to the cemetery on a wagon, naked, by order of the Tribunal, so that the crowd could see for itself the inescapable signs of the plague. A cry of revulsion and terror, went up wherever the wagon passed. A long murmur followed in its wake. Another murmur preceded it. Who could disbelieve the plague now?

So at the beginning, no plague, absolutely not, by any count: the very utterance of the word was prohibited. Then came the “pestilential” fevers, admitting the idea indirectly, through an adjective. And then, not a real plague, well, yes, there was a plague, but only in a sense. Not a proper plague, mind you, but something for which there was no other name. Finally, plague without a doubt and without dissent. But another idea had also taken root, the idea of poison and sorcery, which distorted and confused the idea expressed by the word that could no longer be retracted.


An excerpt from The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, translated from the Italian by Michael F. Moore. Moore’s complete translation, the first in fifty years, will be published by The Modern Library in 2021.

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