The plague of 1629-1631 in Northern Italy, history of the epidemic told in the Betrothed

The epidemic of the seventeenth century, which hit Northern Italy in three waves from 1629 to 1631 and was then told by Alessandro Manzoni in the Betrothedfalls within second plague pandemic, which hit Europe heavily, with periodic waves, between the 14th and 18th centuries. The 17th century epidemic was probably caused by the arrival in Northern Italy of mercenary troops in the service of the Holy Roman Empire, the infamous landsknechts. The plague spread throughout northern Italy and part of central Italyresulting in the death of hundreds of thousands of people.

Medicine did not have effective tools to cure the plague, but the prevention measures, which had been introduced in Italian cities since the pandemic of the 14th century, managed, at least within certain limits, to contain the infections. The plague, however, caused hysterical reactions by the population, who believed that those responsible for the infection were the “spreaders”, that is, people who purposely spread the disease.

The plague in Europe

Until the 18th century, the plague was the most feared infectious disease. The infection is caused by a bacterium, known as Yersinia Pestis, which infests rodents and is also capable of affecting humans. The plague developed in three major “pandemics”, that is, three long phases in which it hit the population with periodic waves. The first pandemic lasted approximately from 550 to 750 AD. C. Later the plague disappeared, but it recurred in the mid-14th century with the terrible event of the “black death”, which killed about a third of the European population and started the second pandemic, which lasted until the 1720s. For almost four centuries the plague periodically plagued Europe, Asia and North Africa, affecting different locations from time to time.

Bacteria Yersinia pestis in the throat of a flea

The plague in Europe it disappeared in the 18th century. The third and final pandemic has developed between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th centurybut it was limited to India and China.

The “Manzonian” plague of the 17th century is one of the best-known epidemics of the second pandemic.

Northern Italy in the 17th century and foreign armies

In the 17th century the Italian peninsula found itself in difficult conditions, because it had lost its political autonomy and it had become a land of conquest by the European powers. Between 1628 and 1631, after the death of Duke Vincenzo II Gonzaga, a war for the succession to the throne of the Duchy of Mantua and Monferrato, in which France and the Republic of Venice were aligned on one side and, on the other, Spain, the Duchy of Savoy and the Holy Roman Empire. The war involved the passage of several foreign armies into the territory of northern Italy, including the landsknechts, i.e. mercenaries recruited by the Empire. According to the most accredited theories, the origin of the epidemic is due to them.

Depiction of the Landsknechts

The origins and spread of the epidemic

The epidemic probably originated in German city of Lindau, from where it was carried southwards by the landsknechts. She was hit first there Swiss Confederation, in which, however, the effects were relatively mild. The epidemic later reached northern Italy, where it had much more tragic effects.

The best known case is that of Duchy of Milan, at the time controlled by the Kingdom of Spain, which was hit by three waves: the first began in October 1629; the second, the most terrible, in the summer of 1630; the third in 1631. It is estimated that, out of a total population of 130,000 inhabitants, the deaths were 60,000, almost half of the population. The city, which was already one of the main European urban centers at the time, found itself in terrifying conditions and the landscape was dominated by mass graves, corpses abandoned in public places and barred doors. Carts were constantly passing through the streets monattithat is, the men responsible for collecting the corpses of plague victims.

Depiction of a monatti cart
Depiction of a monatti cart

The plague did not only hit Milan, but spread throughout central and northern Italy. Venice, for example, was hit by the epidemic in 1630 and lost 46,000 of its 130,000 inhabitants. In central Italy, some cities such as Modena and Reggio Emilia lost almost half their population. In the main centers, such as Florence and Bologna, the contagion spread to a lesser extent, but still caused thousands of victims.

The overall number of deaths is unknown and estimates fluctuate between 300,000 and 1,100,000out of a total population of approximately four million people.

The question of the spreaders and the infamous column

The question of the plague spreaders is linked to the plague, i.e. people who, according to the theories widespread at the time, caused the contagion sprinkling the walls with poisonous ointments. Historians have ascertained that indeed some people, thinking of taking advantage of the epidemic, tried to increase the spread of the infectionleaving the clothes and other objects of the plague victims in the most frequented places

However, the accusation of the “oils” was only due to thepopular hysteria. The best-known case is that of two Milanese, the health official William Piazza and the barber Giangiacomo Morawho in the summer of 1630 were tortured and put to death by means of atrocity torture of the wheel on charges of having carried out “attacks”. The accusation came from a witness who had seen Piazza walking too close to a wall.

The famous story is dedicated to the story History of the infamous column of Manzoni, so named because in the place where Mora's workshop stood, near Porta Ticinese, a column was erected symbol of perennial infamy. The column was demolished at the end of the eighteenth century, when it was realized that the accusation was unfounded, and today in its place there is a plaque commemorating Mora's innocenceto whom the street where the shop stood was also named.

The infamous column

Medicine and preventive measures

At the time, medicine did not know bacteria and believed that epidemics were caused by miasmas, a kind of poisons spread in the air. More specifically, doctors thought that the 17th century epidemic was due to a Astral conjunction which had made the air foul. The doctors, however, had understood the transmission of the infection and, from the 1300s onwards, the States had done important progress in prevention measures. In many cities they had been established health offices, who on the occasion of epidemics had the power to take all the necessary measures: isolation of the infected, quarantines, ban on traveling to the affected areas. Since there were no antibacterial drugs, the plague was treated with simple remedies, such as plants.

The plague doctor's dress, which spread during the 17th century epidemic
The plague doctor's dress, which spread during the 17th century epidemic

Furthermore, in the main cities, the lazarets, that is, large buildings that housed the infected to isolate them from the community. In large-scale epidemics such as that of the 17th century, the lazarets were not sufficient to accommodate all the sick, but they were equally useful in limiting infections. Also for this reason the epidemic of 1629-31, like all those following the “black death” of the 14th century, was contained in a limited geographical area.

plague of 300