Angolo Mese Febbraio

The plague in Milan

The document of February 2015

“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.” With these words, Alessandro Manzoni describes the arrival of the much dreaded sickness in The Betrothed. The plague arrived cyclically in Europe, decimating the population in the areas were it struck. With the outbreak of the war of succession in Mantua, fighting arrived on the edge of Milan's territory, bringing with it famine, pillage and the dreaded plague, which always zealously accompanied armies in transit. The soldiers commanded by Albrecht von Wallenstein entered through Valtellina and reached the territory of Mantua, bringing with them their burden of death. In Milan, throughout 1628, there were very few full-blown cases of plague. In the Lazzaretto, which was located outside the Porta Orientale (East Gate) and was charged with admitting plague victims, only three cases were recorded. Despite the fear of contagion, the birth of the first-born son of King Philip IV of Spain and the Carnival were celebrated on the streets. Infection spread very slowly. It was only in 1629 that the alarm sounded loud, when twelve people died in one day alone in the town of Malgrate.
The dreaded plague was arriving.  

According to the chroniclers of the time, deaths in Milan would be around 150,000 in a population that varied between 200,000 and 250,000 inhabitants. The nineteenth century historian Francesco Cusani lowered both figures, estimating the deaths from the plague at 86,000 in a population of 150,000. Very soon there was nowhere to bury the corpses. With the arrival of spring and warm weather, the number of people infected began to increase enormously, causing the authorities to consider the idea of sealing off the whole district around Porta Orientale, where there was the highest number of victims. On 23 May 1630, in the Capitular Records, there is the transcription of a request by Giovanni Pietro Negrolo, made to the Chapter of the Fabbrica, who on behalf of the city of Milan asked to be granted a plot of land outside Porta Cumana, known as Torrescala, to bury those who had died from the plague.
The plague, shortages and famine led to an outburst of violent protest in the city. Again in “The Betrothed”, Manzoni related the events of the St. Martin's day riots and the attack on the Bakery of the Crutches, a shop located in Corsia dei Servi, and then on the Palace of the Superintendent of Provisions with the idea of lynching him because he was thought to be responsible for the grain shortage.  The fear of infection by then had spread relentlessly. Doctors and charlatans put forward theories on the presence of plague-spreaders. Even a plot against the Spanish hatched by Cardinal Richelieu was suggested. The hunt for plague-spreaders began. In the summer of 1630 the trial of Guglielmo Piazza and Gian Giacomo Mora, unjustly accused of spreading the plague, was held. The first was a health officer who had been seen on a rainy day walking along a wall and writing down those who had died of plague and the empty houses in a notebook. The second was a barber and surgeon accused of supplying toxic substances. Both were tortured and put to death with the penalty of the wheel. In the same period, three French travellers, fascinated with the majesty of the Duomo, went up to it to touch its marble. They were beaten and dragged off to prison with the accusation of being plague-spreaders, but fortunately they were acquitted of the charges.

On 23 May 1630, extraordinary measures against the plague were approved by the Fabbrica too. The gate to the Camposanto graveyard was locked and was only unlocked on 6 February of the next year, when the epidemic had ceased. However, it was only on 5 February 1632 that decoration of the Duomo was ordered to celebrate the passing of the scourge that had caused so many deaths.