‘In 1665 hardly a soul was left alive..’ so goes the doggerel on the outbreak of Bubonic Plague in London that we used to recite in our History lessons long ago. Estimates of the death toll from that outbreak are between 75,00 to 100,000 representing 20% of the city’s total population at the time.
In 1630 Como, with its modest population of 12000, lost at least 5000 lives to the same virus – around 42% of the total. The plague of 1630, commonly known in Italy as the ‘peste manzoniana’ after Alessandro Manzoni’s dramatic account of its impact on Milan in his novel ‘I Promessi Sposi’ (The Betrothed), was not the only epidemic to impact Como, Lombardy and Northern Italy in addition to Covid-19. Even though current mortality will hopefully not reach anything like the levels in the past, a link between then and the current Coronavirus is perhaps inevitable given that our society is now going through comparable psychological and economic traumas.
The economic impact of plague during the medieval period was massively significant. Taking the one example from England, almost all construction work on England’s glorious county cathedrals came to an almost total stop for half of the 14th century due to the premature death of skilled artisans and the restrictions on travel imposed on the survivors. The iconography of the medieval world is dominated by images conveying the random, ubiquitous and unsparing hand of death.
Many of those images remain current to this day acting, previous to the current outbreak, as a subconscious connection to the psychological trauma suffered by our ancestors. Covid-19 has brought a new set of devastating images, such as the army convoy of coffins from Bergamo, which will undoubtedly contribute to a similarly morbid iconography representing our current times. In spite of all the modern advances in prosperity, healthcare and hygiene we too are now experiencing similar feelings of fear, isolation and confusion so admirably described within the pages of ‘I Promessi Sposi’.
The outbreak of the ‘peste manzoniana’ in Switzerland, Northern Italy and Tuscany in 1630 was provoked by war and famine. Famine had preceded a fresh outbreak of war brought on by the death of the last member of the Gonzaga family, rulers of Mantova. A war of succession then followed between Mantova and Monferrato which, as throughout the Italian Wars, involved recruitment of mercenary soldiers based primarily in Switzerland and Germany and known as ‘landsknecht’ (lanzichenecchi in Italian).
Blame was placed on the movement of these landsknecht for bringing the virus with them across the Alps over the Splugen Pass to first infest Chiavenna and then, following the Viandante down the eastern leg of Lake Como to Lecco, Manzoni’s town of origin, and on to Milan, Manzoni’s town of residence. From Milan, the virus then spread in all directions including back north to Como. Mortality levels were high. The cities of Bergamo and Brescia (the two most badly impacted currently in Lombardy by Coronavirus) suffered a similar mortality rate to that of Como (approximately 40% of the population). Milan’s population of 250,000 was reduced by 26% but the highest mortality was registered outside of Lombardy in Verona (61%) and Padova (59%).
The authorities at the time took defensive measures not so different from those adopted across the world today. The main effort was to prevent the movement of people by refusing entry to non residents and by enforcing quarantine on those displaying any symptoms of the plague. Some communities, who had previously not needed to defend access to their towns, rapidly took to building walls and gates of entry that were guarded at all times. Carate, the next village along the western lakefront after Moltrasio, is a case in point. The area of the town called Lestresio takes its name from the original dialect word for gates – ‘rastel’. Over time the name rastel developed into ‘Rostalese’ (those living in Rostel) which then became Restresio and finally Lestresio.
The majority of the world’s population have recently and suddenly become very familiar with instructions to stay at home whenever possible and to limit travelling beyond the bounds of our own communities. The authorities across all towns in the Province of Como also published restrictive instructions to all its citizens in 1630, as follows:
- No persons no matter of what class, status or condition are to be allowed entry through the gates if they have not previously shown their identity documents to the officials.
- All guards at the gate must at the time of the ‘Ave Maria’ (approximately half an hour before dusk) hand over all keys to the gates into the hands of an official.
- No-one particularly fishermen will be allowed to leave the port without previously handing over their permission to an official.
- No women or anyone under the age of 15 can be allowed to act as guards of the gates or the port.
- No-one denied access at the gates or walls can enter the town by any other route.
- The officials are required each night to go and check that the guards are being diligent in their responsibilities.
These instructions were discovered thanks to research undertaken by a 19th century local historian, Cencio Poggi, who was Commissioner of Como’s Civic Museum in the 1890’s. No doubt future historians will look at our current ‘Autodichiarazione’, which we are supposed to carry with us fully completed whenever away from home, as equally interesting pieces of historical ephemera illustrating an extraordinary tragic moment in 21st century world history.
We are yet to discover if Coronavirus is seasonal and declines during the summer months. The Bubonic Plague hit the province of Como in the summer months. Many residents of the towns along the western shores of the lake felt they would be safer if they moved temporarily with their animals up onto the alpine pastures. They felt the open air would offer them some protection but this was not the case for those from Moltrasio who moved up on to the pastures by the Rifugio Bugone. They died en masse and were hurriedly buried in unmarked communal graves on the mountainside. Their burial ground became known as the ‘Doss di Mort’. In 2000 the local association of veterans from the Alpini regiments set up a cross and a plaque to commemorate the dead. At the foot of the cross there is an inscription that reads:
The Moltrasio Group of Alpini and friends by placing this cross, blessed 4th November in the Jubilee Year of 2000 by Don Bartolomeo Franzi, priest of Moltrasio, wish to remind our generation, and those who follow, of a page in the history of our community so as to honour the dead who in this location were buried because they were struck down in 1630 by the hand of the plague which also reached our area.’
Citizens of Rovenna, the district of Cernobbio above the gardens of the Hotel Villa D’Este, and their counterparts from Sagno in Switzerland moved up to the pastures at the top of Monte Bisbino. On the 20th May 1630 the priest of Rovenna led a procession of the village’s inhabitants up to the summit of Bisbino and in particular to pray at the Sanctuary dedicated to the Madonna (Santuario Beata Vergine del Bisbino) established there in the 14th century. He prayed that the local residents be spared from the plague promising to lead a similar procession to the sanctuary on the first Wednesday of every month for a year. Most of the locals did survive, and to to this day there is an annual procession from Rovenna to the Madonna del Bisbino on 2nd July where the priest offers a blessing calling on the Madonna to continue to save them from famine and plague. The sanctuary became an ever more popular destination for pilgrims following the apparent protection provided by the saint. The trattoria alongside the sanctuary was originally built to house these growing numbers of visiting pilgrims.
Lombardy’s health system has an entirely justifiable reputation for quality and efficiency. In normal circumstances there would be no reason to distrust its ability to deliver excellent service but this pandemic has strained it beyond all expected limits. Its ongoing capacity to treat virus victims is thanks to the selfless dedication and humanity of its staff, many of whom have paid the ultimate price through their personal sacrifice. The toll on medical staff has been heavy and the hospitals have only been able to continue thanks to volunteer staff arriving from other parts of Italy as well as from China, Cuba and Albania.
No doubt the people caring for the plague victims in the 17th century were equally dedicated and selfless but the facilities available to them in attempting to manage either quarantine or treatment were of an entirely different order. The structures put in place for this were called ‘lazzaretti’ after Lazarus, the biblical leper.
Como’s lazzaretto still survives but in a very poor state of repair. It is the ex-Chiesa San Lazzaro on Via Teresa Rimoldi. This was the very first hospital in Como built originally in the 12th century and run by the religious group known as the Umiliati. The building is now in a very poor state following the collapse of its roof back in 2003. It used to house a 15th century fresco of the ‘Danza Macabra’ which had been incorporated into the current structure at the end of the 16th century.
Now that fresco has been lost and the whole building is in need of radical restoration. San Lazzaro is just up the road from the Church of Saint Rocco named after the French saint St. Roch who is commonly depicted pointing at a bubonic boil on his thigh. He was known for his dedication to treating the victims of infectious disease such as the plague or leprosy. As with the ‘lazzaretti’, most churches or shrines dedicated to San Rocco, and thus associated with the treatment of infectious disease, lie outside city walls.
With the arrival of cholera in the 19th century, there was little change initially in the methods adopted to combat its spread – to restrict the movement of people and quarantine visitors. Como suffered from the very first wave of cholera through Italy in the 1830s. The epidemic broke out of its ‘cordon sanitaire’ in Nice in 1835 first infecting the inhabitants of Cuneo in Piedmont. It had reached Como by the spring of 1836 and caused 5362 deaths in the province. Como suffered a further two major outbreaks of cholera with just over 5000 deaths in 1855 and 2687 victims in 1867. Como escaped lightly from the devastating epidemic of 1884 which claimed almost 8000 lives in the worst hit city, Naples. The Como authorities did however take measures at that time to reduce the number of victims by setting up a temporary ‘lazzaretto’ in the grounds of Villa Reina in the Quarcino district. This is very close to the border with Switzerland. Instructions at the time required the customs to check all visitors from Switzerland and evaluate if they needed to be placed in quarantine. If yes, they were sent to Villa Reina. The villa now contains an apartment for short term holiday lets available one hopes as soon as this current epidemic is over.
We may well have hoped that plagues were a thing of the past but we had been warned otherwise by numerous health experts and others like Bill Gates. Instead we have seen they may no longer necessarily be associated with war in favour of commerce and industrialisation, although conflict and famine will no doubt continue to exacerbate their spread. Cholera spread out from India due to Great Britain’s imperial trade. It then found favour in the rapidly growing urban centres brought about by the adoption of factory production accompanied by poor standards of housing and a lack of basic sanitation. Coronavirus too would seem to be a pandemic that has taken full advantage of the interdependencies in globalised commerce to spread itself rapidly along the routes of world trade. The first case bringing bubonic plague to Milan in 1630 is claimed to be a cobbler either from Chiavenna or Lecco (foot hygiene was particularly lacking in those days and cobblers were always at the forefront in the spread of contagion). The first case of Coronavirus in Italy (although no one is too sure if he was really the first) was reputed to be a business man working for a multi-national company who had been attending meetings in China before returning to the Province of Lodi via another meeting in Munich. The need for modern economies to keep up production may then help to explain firstly why Lombardy, the most densely populated and industrialised region in Italy, is the worst affected area and also why Bergamo and Brescia, which predominantly house most of the remaining large-scale industrial production plants, are the worst impacted provinces within the region.
Fortunately nowadays we can confront the latest pandemic with a much greater level of scientific understanding than that available either in the 17th or 19th centuries. We also, in regions like Lombardy, are fortunate to have a refined healthcare system operated by those who possess the skills as well as a commitment to their calling and a sense of service to the community. We are therefore most unlikely to face the same levels of mortality suffered by our ancestors but we may however face comparative levels of economic damage if not as bad as in 14th century Europe. Maybe we can take some comfort from reviewing the statistical chances of catching or dying from the virus. But Coronavirus, and the way we react to it by isolating its victims, provokes fear of a solitary and painful end. The very same anguish suffered by our ancestors is reflected now in the fear in the eyes of our own present day victims.
This pandemic will end and it will be remembered for a long time. With luck as a society we may even learn something positive from it. A fitting way to commemorate its passing would be to fully restore our own lazzaretto – the ex-Chiesa di San Lazzaro and to dedicate it as a monument to all local victims of plagues and pandemics throughout the ages, including Covid-19.