What can a great novel from the past teach us in the time of the Covid-19 virus? Part 1, Introduction, clarifies the importance of The Betrothed (1840) and its close link with the History of the column of Infamy. Part 2, Contagion in the Betrothed, describes how Manzoni narrating the plague that struck Milan in 1630 reveals political, social and cultural mechanisms very similar to ours struggling with the Corona virus contagion. Part 3, Ethical consciousness and justice in the History of the column of infamy analyzes the responsibilities of the judges who sent to torture the alleged infectors (untori) and then sentenced them to death. The final section, part 4, –What justice? Whose justice?– suggests the lessons that can still be drawn today from Manzoni’s story, regarding not only the mechanisms of contagion but also the problems of torture and justice.

1. Introduction

Manzoni’s I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) and History of the column of Infamy are intertwined and must be considered together. In fact, the last edition of the Betrothed edited by Manzoni in 1840 also included in the appendix the History of the column of Infamy and illustrations by a famous romantic painter, Francesco Gonin, carefully selected by Manzoni himself. 
I use the sketches of these images curated by Guido Mura and Michele Losacco in my post.

Unfortunately, the reception of this unitary work followed a different path as in the subsequent centuries until today The Betrothed has been usually published as a standalone work while the History of the column of Infamy has been substantially forgotten as an interesting but ultimately separated scholarly and historiographic work as opposed to the artistic and entertaining fiction of the novel.

Thus, quite often when people hear about Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) as the great Italian Romantic writer regrettably they only hear in depths about The Betrothed. Of course, this work should be considered one of the most important European novels of the nineteenth century and one of the masterpieces of world literature. Nevertheless, as we will see, to set aside the History of the column of Infamy has upsetting consequences on the understanding and interpretation of the novel itself. 

In Italy, The Betrothed has been studied as an expression of romantic nation-building and as a canonical example of the Italian language with the same importance in this regard as Dante’s Divine comedy. Therefore, in the reading of the novel, the love story with an assumed happy ending with the marriage between the two protagonists was privileged, without adequately considering the history of the seventeenth-century wars, famine, and plague that constitute the tragic background to the love story.

However, in recent years critical attention tends to reverse itself and consider the protagonist of the novel exactly what was once thought to be the background of the novel. In other words, it is recognized that the writer’s attention transcends the love story in significant key moments focusing on the tragedies of European history embracing an ethical perspective. From this point of view, the novel does not have a happy conclusion and remains without an idyll, as the famous critic Ezio Raimondi wrote.  

This is true for two main reasons. First, the two betrothed do not completely solve their existential and economic problems with marriage. Secondly, they realize that their personal story is linked to and depends on social events and the history’s tragedies. Finally, the story told in the novel is connected to the History of the Column of infamy that Manzoni wanted as the Betrothed‘s necessary appendix. In this perspective, the meaning of the novel, including the idea of divine Providence, must be integrated with the tragic dimension of the History of the column of infamy

2. The contagion in the Betrothed 

Manzoni sets his novel in 1628, during the oppressive years of direct Spanish rule in Milan and Lombardy. As happens in every great work of literature here the local dimension becomes the occasion for more general ethical reflections that aspire to have a broader value. Indeed, the most evident occasion for such reflections becomes the extraordinary description based on historical data of the plague that struck Milan around 1630. Towards the end of the novel, in chapter 31 Manzoni tells plague contagion’s intricated origin. Gonin introduces this chapter with this allegory of the plague.  

Francesco Gonin, Allegory of the Plague

Manzoni description is impressive also because it makes us realize how some political, socio-linguistic, medical, and psychological dynamics of Seventeenth-century Milanese society are still present today in a community like ours struggling with the Corona virus contagion. 

The contagion was brought to Lombardy by German troops’ descent; they were allied with the Spanish ones who opposed the French ones in the war of succession of the state of Mantua. The physician Ludovico Settala was the first to report the plague to the Commission of Health. He alarmed the authorities, urging precise and rapid interventions. However, political and medical authorities did not believe him and failed to take the timely decisions that were needed to contain the contagion.

The Spanish governor Ambrogio Spinola was busy with the war and told the authorities to take care of this problem because he had more important things to think about. Therefore, the law that imposed the sanitary norms to protect Milan was not issued until when the plague had already entered Milan provoking thousands of deaths and the lock down of thousands of infected people in a special hospital named the Lazzaretto. 

The contagion’s spread was also favored by another negligent attitude of both the political and religious powers. They were unable to renounce the public display of the symbols of their reciprocal powers even in the nefarious time of the plague epidemic. On the one hand, although informed of the plague, Governor Spinola decreed public festivities for the birth of Prince Carlos, the firstborn son of King Philip IV. He was uncaring of the danger of a great public gathering in those circumstances, “just as if the times had been normal, and no one had mentioned the plague to him at all” (432), Manzoni writes. This behavior may remind us of some political rallies of our day at the time of the Corona virus. 

On the other hand, the continuous increase in deaths pushed the Milanese public authorities to ask Cardinal Borromeo for authorization to carry out a solemn religious procession through the streets. The goal was to expose the venerated body of St. Charles and thus invoking divine help to contain the terrible calamity. The procession was held with an incredible crowd of people and crossed the entire city. You may see in this image and the following how Gonin represents this procession.

Francesco Gonin, The procession

The following day, however, the spread of the infections and the deaths from the disease increased dramatically due to the multiplication of contacts between people gathered in the street.  

Given the ill-informed and dismissing attitude of the authorities, most people took a denier and superstitious attitude. They started believing that particularly dreadful humans, the anointers, or plague-spreaders (untori) caused the plague. Supposedly, they were driven by political reasons or by perverse murderous tendencies. They would go around to scatter and stain things and public places like churches with poisonous unguents and greasy things.  Here is how Gonin imagined one of these scenes in Milan’s cathedral.

Francesco Gonin, Anointers in the Cathedral

The following image represents what happened in another church, the church of St. Anthony, where an old man after having prayed a little on his knees, wanted to sit down. First, he dusted the bench with the hood; for this reason, he was mistaken for an infector, savagely beaten, and taken to the police where he was tortured (Betrothed, Chap. XXXII).

Francesco Gonin, The old man beaten in the Church of St. Anthony

The belief that plague was artfully scattered among the populations is ancient. Livy records it in his History of Rome, but this belief did not endure in the following centuries. In his famous Decameron, Boccaccio attributes the origin of the plague that hit Florence in 1348 to the just wrath of God to correct human iniquity or to the movement of heavenly bodies. But in seventeenth century, as Manzoni testifies, that ancient belief reappears and spread in even more perverse forms justified by medical, juridical, and political discourses. 

Foreigners, especially French people who were enemies of the Spaniards dominating Milan, were suspected as such to be responsible for the spreading of the plague; they were often arrested in the streets by the people and taken to the police (Betrothed, Chap. XXXII).

Francesco Gonin, Three young French comrades

Similarly, today in the initial stages of the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese citizens have been subjected to gratuitous violence in Italy and elsewhere.  

In the end, the opinion that prevailed in Milan set aside political conspiracy by the French and focused on a delinquent conspiracy instead that was assumed to have the only intent of preparing for disorders, robbery, and looting. Citizen obsessed by the fear of the contagion identified some Milanese people as anointers and plague-spreaders. They were subjected to torture and under torture, they admitted being guilty of something that they did not do. Therefore, they were sentenced to death.  

This story which is at the center of Manzoni’s History of the Column of Infamy is anticipated in the novel at the end of chapter 32. Before analyzing this historical work, I would like to underline an ethical reflection on the use of language in relation to the plague that Manzoni develops at the end of chapter 31. Then, just as today, language could become the tool to escape from an unwanted reality or, as some would say today, to build an alternative reality. At first, the authorities prohibited using the word plague, and used the expression “pestilential fever” instead. As Manzoni writes, the idea was admitted only indirectly in the adjective. He adds, 

“Then it was not real plague – that is to say, it was plague, but only in a certain sense; not true plague, but something for which no other name
could be found. Finally, it was plague without any doubt or contradiction.
But already another idea – the idea of poison and sorcery – had become attached to it, which altered and confused the meaning of the word that could no longer be suppressed.” (444)

In recent months, we have witnessed the same process of progressive denial of the contagion with the definition of Covid-19 as a kind of flu. Then, as something more dangerous than the regular flu, finally, for some political authorities the virus became a “Chinese virus”, altering and confusing the meaning of a word that could no longer be suppressed. The general reflection on the pitfalls of the use of language that Manzoni develops is especially important. It is worth pondering it with full attention.  

He writes that in defining “little as much as in great things, this long and winding path (in the use of language) could be avoided by following the method laid down for so long, of observing, listening, comparing, and thinking before speaking” (Ibidem). In other words, he suggests that instead of following the political powers and their supporting crowds in using words in a confused and uncontrolled way, one should always go back to the sources of the discourses, think of their motivations, and confront them with critical attention. Always valid advice, especially in a time like ours overwhelmed by fakes news and alternative facts.  

Manzoni’s advice is not based on moralism, which limits itself to establishing what is good and what is bad, but on ethics that instead makes us understand the conditions and restrictions within which good and evil are practicable. And he concludes by saying, 

“But speaking by itself is so much easier than all the others put together, that we, too – I mean we humans in general – ought to some extent to be forgiven” (Ibidem).

In short, he is saying that speaking immediately and reactively is much easier than comparing and thinking critically. For this reason, all human beings and therefore the writer included should be excused for their mistakes. [*back to Introduction]

3. Ethical consciousness and justice in the History of the column of infamy 

In the History of the Column of infamy Manzoni deepens the ethical reflection which is no longer limited to indicating general, political, medical, and cultural responsibilities for the spread of the plague. In the novel, Manzoni had already underlined, like other writers starting from Livy (Ab Urbe Condita, XXV, 26) to Boccaccio (Decameron I, 8-48) before him, the general barbarization of human consciences and behaviors during the contagion. At this point, in the Column of Infamy he goes further, as no one else had done before him; he wants to understand the individual responsibilities that led to the torture and death sentence of the alleged infectors. In this context he addresses the question of human and divine justice. 

In the Introduction, he clarifies that his intent is different from that of Enlightenment writers such as Pietro Verri (1728-1797). In his work Osservazioni sulla tortura (On torture, 1804), Verri had examined the same facts narrated in Manzoni’s work just to persuade to abolish torture as ineffective in reaching the truth and establishing guilt. For Manzoni, instead “more general observations” can be drawn from the events of the Column of Infamy on an ethical level and on the sense of human justice.  

For Manzoni, Divine Providence cannot be blamed as the cause of the plague or as an agent reluctant or unable to stop the killing of so many people, including the supposed anointers. “The denial or indictment of Providence is equally blasphemous” (556), as he writes. In this sense, the presumed plague-spreaders’ torture and death sentence were not the inevitable results neither of a divine decree nor of an irredeemably biased system. Instead, for Manzoni, they must be attributed to the judges’ unjust and discriminating attitude as emerges from the trial documents that he cites.

Manzoni’s narration is meticulous. First, he describes how in a Milan devastated by the plague 2 women one after the other looking from a window noticed someone walking on the street next to a wall of a house holding a paper and a pen.

Francesco Gonin, Illustration of Manzoni’s History of the Column of Infamy, Chapt. 1.

That man eventually grazed or touched the wall of the house. Given the plague’s circumstances, they immediately developed the “crazy suspicion” (561) that the walker wanted to poison the walls. Also, they drew the attention of the neighbors to this situation that they believed extremely dangerous for the spread of the infection. The neighbors immediately went to the street and burned the material presumably spread by the alleged anointer. The barber Giangiacomo Mora was also convinced that the wall of his shop had been tainted with unguents. The man considered as the infector was immediately identified and arrested; his name was Guglielmo Piazza and he was a health commissioner. 

Manzoni underlines how the same irrational and unfounded persuasion of the culpability of the alleged anointers suggested by the two women penetrates immediately the conscience of the authorities and judges without any form of serious legal validation. The terrible accuses –full of what Manzoni calls “lamentable assurance” (562; “deplorabile certezza”)– passed without checking or correction from the mouth of the street people into that of the judges.  

The contagion and the threat of the plague, silenced any form of ethical conscience and led all the categories of the population to disregard the meaning of justice. Those judges and the crowds they want to please are “plague victims” infected by evil, by a spiritual contagion (Givone, 203). Everyone did not see what was in front of everybody and only saw what they wanted to see, following their prejudices, eliminating any rational inquiry, and surrendering to insane fears and unsupported beliefs. As Manzoni writes,

It is a relief to think that if they did not know what they were doing, it was because they did not want to know it, because of that ignorance that humans assume and lose at will, and it is not an excuse, but a guilt.

The only way to escape the plague is to avoid spiritual contagion by adopting an ethic of truth, judging, and speaking that recognizes the conditions and limitations of the human search for truth. As he already wrote in his Osservazioni sulla morale cattolica (1819), “humans may sometimes have the duty to speak for the truth, but never to make it triumph” (8).

 Manzoni concludes, “fear and fury, when not controlled by reason and charity, are unhappily liable, on the flimsiest pretexts and following the wildest assertions, to presume the guilt of men who are simply unfortunate” (564). In this way, Manzoni’s ethical reflection touches on a serious drawback in the administration of justice of which there is ample confirmation over the centuries up to our days.

After the arrest, Piazza was questioned by the judges without informing him of the specific accusation. He denied knowing anything about the anointing of the walls. The judges then subjected him to torture 3 times.

Francesco Gonin, The torture of Piazza

Manzoni insists that torture was applied in open disregard of the legal rules governing the use of torture as a means of making the accused confess. Torture was permitted at that time but only in profoundly serious cases and with great caution. The Senate’s decree approving the torture was not even misapplication of the law; it proceeded as though there were no law. Manzoni writes.  

“In the teeth of all law and all accepted authorities, not to speak of all reason, it ordered that Piazza be tortured anew ‘because of some lies and implausibilities’; that is to say, the Senate ordered its ministers to do again, and still more cruelly, what it ought to have punished them for doing in the first place. For it was a universally admitted principle of jurisprudence that a subordinate judge who had put a man to torture without due evidence of guilt should be punished by his superiors.” (586)

Piazza was treated as a criminal possessed by the devil and had to undergo humiliating rituals like completely shaving, stripping, and purging, before being cruelly tortured. It is hardly necessary to mention that a few centuries later prisoners of Nazi concentration camps will be subjected to this same sinister ritual. Piazza was then “tied by the rope” and his hands, as well as arms, were dislocated. Nonetheless, he continued to deny any knowledge of the presumed anointing of the walls. Finally, he was promised impunity if he had confessed everything and revealed the leader and accomplices of the anointing.  

The procedure by which this proposal of impunity was authorized was also illegal because the judges could not promise impunity on their own initiative and did not inform the governor who was the only legitimate authority that could grant such a privilege. Regrettably, Piazza decided that it was acceptable or inevitable for him to unjustly accuse someone else of a crime that he himself had not committed despite the false confession extorted by torture. He pointed to the barber Mora as to the person that had given him the ointment. He also accused seven other people to be part of the conspiracy including two artisans, Migliavacca and his son Gaspare.  

The barber Mora who was unaware of the allegations, was arrested along with his son. He was illegally subjected to the rope’s torture until –because of the excruciating suffering– he confessed to a crime that he had not actually committed.

Francesco Gonin, The torture of the barber Mora

Piazza was also illegally tortured two more times to have him confirm the alleged confession. The judges threatened him to waive the immunity he had just been granted if he did not denounce the allegedly prominent leader of the plague conspiracy. Piazza denounced a noble person, the Spanish officer Padilla. 

Political authorities and the people wanted a scapegoat, someone to punish for the spread of the plague. The judges did not listen to their conscience but to the pressures of politics and the people. They concluded the investigations quickly without respecting the formality of law. The promise of impunity was canceled with as much illegality as when it was granted. The death penalty is soon executed for both Piazza and Mora. They were put on a cart and subjected to a ritual of inhuman cruelty.  

While taken to the place of the sentence they were grabbed in various parts of the body with red-hot pincers. Their right hand was cut off, their bones were broken on the wheel, while they were still alive, their bodies twisted into the wheel and lifted from the ground. After six hours of excruciating pain, they were slaughtered. The ashes of the burned corpses were thrown into the river; the house of the barber was demolished and on the space it occupied before, the Spanish government erected a granite column and an imposing memorial stone written in Latin to have the future generations remember the infamy committed by the anointers.

Francesco Gonin, The column of infamy
[*back to Introduction]

4. Some concluding remarks: What justice? Whose justice

A few days after the execution of the two main “anointers,” seven others alleged untori were sentenced to death with the above-mentioned ritual of torture. Only one of them, Migliavacca’s son, always denied his alleged crimes despite the painful tortures. It should be added that with Mora and the lower and poor class the judges proceeded with great speed and lack of serious legal analysis; but with Padilla –the above-mentioned noble Spaniard falsely accused by Piazza of being the head of the conspiracy of the anointers– they acted very differently.

Padilla was offered the possibility of defending himself and was not tortured. During the interrogations, he consistently denied any participation in the conspiracy. In the end, the judges acquitted him without realizing, as Manzoni points out in chapter six, that by declaring innocent the alleged head of the conspiracy Padilla, implicitly they declared unjust and deceptive the ways of their condemnations of his alleged accomplices.  

The judges were defined by the public opinion as zealous defenders of law and homeland security when they in reality were the perpetrators of a terrible judicial crime leading to the murder of innocent people, as Manzoni writes at the end of chapter six. However, for Manzoni Piazza was not only unfortunate for being forced to make false statement about himself; but he was also guilty for defaming the barber Mora that in the end was tortured and sentenced to death along with him.  

Nonetheless, grounding his account on historical data Manzoni records that both Piazza and Mora before death, had the religious people who assisted them prepare a formal retraction of all the accusations that hope for impunity or pain through torture had falsely extorted from them.

Francesco Gonin, Illustration of Manzoni’s History of the Column of Infamy, Chapt. 5.

In the end, Manzoni considers Piazza together with all the others as innocent victims compared to the judges, the political and medical authorities whom he condemns for “having opened the way” to false declarations and self-accusations by abusing their power and violating the laws available to them. 

Ultimately, both Piazza and Mora reclaimed their innocence in front of human injustice while at the same time accepting their death in front a higher idea of justice, the divine justice. Nonetheless, for Manzoni they are victims of human inequality and injustice. On the verge of death, they tried to exonerate others who they declared responsible for the infection under torture. But with these other alleged plague-spreaders the judges obtained new false self-accusations through torture. They all confessed to a crime not committed. All except Migliavacca, whom Manzoni calls a “martyr” of justice and truth. 

Manzoni tells this terrible story both in the Betrothed and in the History of the Column of Infamy interspersing it with deep ethical reflections which remain valid today. 

  1. First, the need to reflect on the use of words, making them a tool for analyzing the actual truth and not a means for the construction of alleged alternative and fictitious realities. The use of words should be controlled and responsible especially when accusing someone of a misdemeanor or a crime against society.
  2. Secondly, the awareness that the contagion induced by the plague is not only physical but also moral; it affects all the people all the levels of society with detrimental consequences for everybody.
  3. The abuse of power and human violence is guilty not only for the pain they cause in others, but also for the perversion of their souls. Exemplary in this case is the violence of torture that forced Piazza to slander Mora and other alleged anointers. Primo Levi will remember these and other Manzonian pages when in I sommersi e i salvati (1986; The Drowned and the Saves) he investigates the reasons that led some prisoners to collaborate in varying degrees with the authority of the Nazi camps. (30)
  4. Torture cannot be considered a means of obtaining the truth from people accused of a crime. None of the depositino obtained through torture in the anointers trial were true. To be precise, Migliavacca said the truth: he was innocent but was not believed because it was not the truth that the judges, politicians and the people wanted to hear. What Manzoni writes about torture remains true in all times and in ours. A recent example that comes to mind is the Senate Secret Service Committee’s 2015 bipartisan report on CIA torture which reached identical conclusions to Manzoni’s on the use of torture as a means of interrogation.
  5. Finally, Manzoni teaches us that human justice is always exposed to irrational fears and passions as well as to blatant social inequity. But this fact must not suggest that injustice is inevitable and that there is no human responsibility to ascertain.

    Nonetheless, the problem of human justice for Manzoni cannot be solved by God’s intervention in human history of by the prospect of divine justice. For Manzoni God cannot be accused of being the cause of human injustice and neither of being absent from history. The idea of a divine level of justice has a consoling value for those affected by the injustices of history. This idea is important because it indicates to human beings an idea of justice that is higher than that which remains too conditioned by fears, social conditions and historical circumstances as demonstrated by the trial against the anointers.

    But for Manzoni the consoling value of the prospect of divine eternal justice is not enough as it lacks a practical value. Therefore, ethical conscience remains the decisive factor for developing and practicing a sense of justice as little conditioned as possible by historical circumstances. In this perspective, for him it comes before the metaphysical concerns of religious conscience and should be considered as the fundamental proof of the existence of a nobler dimension than that which emerges from historical circumstances. In sum, for him it is in the ethical conscience of individuals and in their responsibility and practical choices that it is always necessary to verify the possibility of a higher sense of justice.
*back to Introduction


Boccaccio, Giovanni, and G H. McWilliam. The Decameron. London: Penguin Books, 1995. Internet resource.  

Livius, Patavinus T. Dexter Hoyos, and John Yardley. Hannibal’s War: Books Twenty-One to Thirty. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2009. Print. 

Givone, Sergio. Metafisica Della Peste: Colpa E Destino. Torino: Einaudi, 2012. Print.  

Gonin, Francesco, Manzonian images: sketches of the illustrations 
for the edition of “I Promessi Sposi” of 1840 / n. 316; 328; 329; 330; 412; 426; 442; 405; 454. Curated by Guido Mura and Michele Losacco. Internet resource. 

Levi, Primo. I sommersi e i salvati. Torino: Einaudi, 1986. Print.

Lollini, Massimo. “Poetic Inspiration and Ethics of Writing as Source of Higher Narrative in Cervantes and Manzoni.” Epic and Other Higher Narratives: Essays in Intercultural Studies, eds. Steven Shankman, Amiya Dev. Pearson Education, India: 2010. 242-252. Print.

Manzoni, Alessandro, David Forgacs, and Matthew Reynolds. The Betrothed: And, History of the Column of Infamy. London: J.M. Dent, 1997. Print.  

—. Manzoni, Alessandro, and Franco Mollia. Osservazioni Sulla Morale Cattolica: Storia Della Colonna Infame. Milano: Garzanti, 1985. Print. 

—. Storia Della Colonna Infame. Con una nota di Leonardo Sciascia. Palermo: Sellerio, 1981. Print.  

Raimondi, Ezio. Il Romanzo Senza Idillio: Saggio Sui Promessi Sposi. Torino: Einaudi, 1995. Print.  

Spranzi, Aldo. Anticritica Dei Promessi Sposi: L’efficienza Dell’industria Culturale: Il Caso De I Promessi Sposi. Milano: EGEA, 1995. Print.