Massimo Lollini

For a more than human humanism

Posts tagged ‘Ethics’

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.

For this reason, 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. This work, of course, should be considered one of the most important European novels of the nineteenth century and one of the masterpieces of world literature. But, 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 above all 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 to consider as 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 tragedies of history. Finally, the story told in the novel is connected to the History of the Column of infamy that Manzoni wanted as the necessary appendix of the Betrothed. 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. Certainly, 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 the intricated origin of the plague contagion. 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 and Lombard society in Northern Italy are still present today in a society like ours struggling with the Corona virus contagion. 

The contagion was brought to Lombardy by the descent of the German troops 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, but 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 busy with the war, 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 spread of the contagion was also favored by a further negligent attitude of both the political and religious powers that 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, 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 certain 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, in which it was exposed 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

From 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 the plague was caused by particularly dreadful humans, the anointers, or plague-spreaders (untori) that, driven by political reasons or by perverse murderous tendencies, 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; and first he dusted the bench with the hood. Mistaken for an infector he was 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 in the following centuries this belief was not followed up. Boccaccio in his famous Decameron 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 that were enemies of the Spaniards dominating Milan at the time, 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 disorder, 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 the use of 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 torture and death sentence of the presumed plague-spreaders were not the inevitable result neither of a divine decree nor of an irredeemably biased system. Instead, for Manzoni they must be in particular attributed to the unjust and discriminating attitude of the judges 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 circumstances of the plague, 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, it was because of that ignorance that humans assumes 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, the ethical reflection of Manzoni 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 torture of the rope 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 and 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 led to the place of execution which was preceded by a ritual of inhuman cruelty.  

While taken to the place of the sentence they were grabbed along the way 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 while with Mora and the lower and poor class the judges proceeded with great speed and lack of serious legal analysis, 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 he accused 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. 

In the end, 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 under torture had declared responsible for the infection. 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. Ethical conscience therefore 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.


What do you think when you get to the top of a high mountain like the Marmolada? There are so many answers to this question, maybe as many as there are individuals climbing the mountains. However, there is a very ancient reflective tradition on the view from above that is still interesting today. Pierre Hadot studied this tradition and came to the conclusion that the view from above, for ancient philosophers such as Platonists, Epicureans and Stoics, is a kind of practice, of exercise of physics, to the extent that – with the help of physical knowledge – the individuals conceive themselves as part of the totality of the world or of the infinity of the worlds.

Scientific knowledge in ancient culture was quite often combined with ethical reflections. Something that has been lost in the evolution of modern science. The following is a profound reflection on the view from above from the Stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD65) in his Naturales Questiones (Natural questions), which is a combination of ethics and philosophical physics.

The soul reaches the full and perfect good of the human condition when, crushed every evil, turns upwards and penetrates the deepest breast of nature. Then, while the soul wanders among the stars, it rejoices in mocking the floors of the rich and the whole earth with his gold, and I mean not only the gold extracted and handed over to the mint to be coined, but also the gold that the earth keeps hidden for the avarice of posterity.

Only after having contemplated the whole universe can the soul truly despise grandiose porches and coffered ceilings resplendent of ivory and thickets cut with care and waterways diverted to reach wealthy palaces. In that moment, the soul, looking from above down upon this narrow world –covered for the most part by the sea, with vast regions desolate even in the emerged lands and with areas either burned or frozen,– says to itself “Is it all here the pinpoint that many people fight over with iron and fire to conquer and divide?”

Oh, how ridiculous are the borders set by men! (0 quam ridiculi sunt mortalium termini)
Let our empire keep away the Dacians from the Ister (lower Danube) and confine the Thracians with the Haemus; let the Euphrates block the Parthians and the Danube mark the boundary between the territories of the Sarmatians and those of the Romans; let the Rhine place a limit for Germany, the Pyrenees raise their chain between the Gaul and the Spain, a vast desolate and sandy desert lie between Egypt and the Ethiopians.

If the human intellect was given to ants, wouldn’t they divide a single area in many provinces? When you rise to those really great realities, every time you see armies marching with unfurled flags and the knights scouting in front or going to the flanks of the army –as if they were doing something grandiose– you will want to say: “a black swarm goes through the  fields. This army is like a coming and going of ants that tire in a narrow space. What is the difference between us and them, if not the size of a tiny little body?”

That is an insignificant point on which you sail, on which you wage war, on which you create tiny kingdoms; tiny, even when the ocean meets it on both sides. On high altitudes, there are immense spaces, and the soul is allowed to possess them, but on condition that it carries with it as little as possible of what comes from the body, it clears all impurities, and raises free, light and content with little.

When the soul has touched those heights, it finds nourishment, it grows and, as freed from chains, it returns to its origin. A proof of its divine nature comes from the fact that it is pleasantly attracted by the divine realities, in which it participates not as alien things, but as things that belong to the soul itself. The soul calmly views the setting and rising of the stars and their orbits so different yet so harmonious; it observes the place where the stars begin to show the earth their own light, where their apogee and the highest point of their course are fund, and how far they descends. As a curious spectator the soul separates the individual details and investigates every natural and physical thing. And why should it not? The soul looking from above knows that all this, the entire universe, pertain to itself.

(Seneca, Naturales Questiones, I, 7-13; the translation is mine)

First page of the manuscript Questiones Naturales, made for the Catalan-Aragonese crown.  Bibliothèque Nationale de France




Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Thomas H Corcoran. Seneca in Ten Volumes. 7: Naturales Questiones. 1 /, Heinemann, 1971.
Hadot, Pierre. N’oublie Pas De Vivre: Goethe Et La Tradition Des Exercices Spirituels. Paris: Albin Michel, 2011. Print.

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This post is my translation of an excerpt from the short article by Primo Levi entitled “Butterflies” in which he describes an exhibition on the butterflies he visited in a museum.

Why are butterflies beautiful? Certainly not for the pleasure of human beings, as Darwin’s opponents claimed: there were butterflies at least a hundred million years before the first human being. I think that our very concept of beauty, necessarily relative and cultural, took its configuration over the centuries from them, as from the stars, the mountains and the sea. We have proof of this when we consider what happens when we examine the head of a butterfly under the microscope: for most observers, admiration is replaced by horror or disgust. In the absence of cultural habit, this new object baffles us; the enormous eyes without pupils, the horn-like antennae, the monstrous mouth apparatus appear to us like a diabolical mask, a distorted parody of the human face.

In our civilization (but not in all) bright colors and symmetry are “beautiful” and so are butterflies. Now, the butterfly is a true factory of colors: it transforms the foods it absorbs and even its own excretion products into dazzling pigments. Not only this: it knows how to obtain its splendid metallic and iridescent effects with pure physical means, only by exploiting the interference effects that we observe in soap bubbles and in the oil slicks floating on the water.

But the fascination of butterflies does not only come from colors and symmetry: deeper motives contribute to it. We wouldn’t call them so beautiful if they didn’t fly, or if they flew straight and fast-moving like bees, or if they stung, or especially if they didn’t cross the perturbing mystery of the metamorphosis: the latter takes on the value of a partially deciphered message in our eyes, a symbol, and a mysterious sign. It is not strange that a poet like Gozzano (“the friend of the chrysalises”) studied and loved butterflies with passion: it is strange, nonetheless, that so few poets have loved them, since the passage from the caterpillar to the chrysalis, and from this to the butterfly, projects beside itself a long admonitory shadow.

As butterflies are beautiful by definition, they are our yardstick of beauty, so the caterpillars (“insects in default”, said Dante) are ugly by definition: clumsy, slow, stinging, voracious, hairy, obtuse, they are in turn symbolic, the symbol of what is coarse, incomplete, and represents a perfection not reached.

The two documentaries that accompany the exhibition with the portentous eye of the camera show us what very few human eyes could see: the caterpillar that suspends itself in the aerial temporary tomb of the cocoon, turns into an inert chrysalis, and then comes out to light in the perfect shape of the butterfly; the wings are still inept, weak, like crumpled tissue paper, but in a few moments they become stronger, stretched, and the newborn flies off. It is a second birth, but at the same time it is a death: the one who has flown away is a psyche, a soul, and the torn cocoon that remains on the ground is the mortal body. In the deep layers of our consciousness the butterfly with a restless flight is a soul, fairy, sometimes even a witch.

The strange name it bears in English (butterfly, the “the fly of butter”) evokes an ancient Nordic belief that the butterfly is the goblin who steals butter and milk, or makes them sour; and the Acherontia Atropos, the great domestic nocturnal moth with the sign of the skull on the corselet that Guido Gozzano meets in the villa of Signorina Felicita, is a damned soul, “which brings pain”. The wings that the popular iconography attributes to the fairies are not feathery wings of a bird, but transparent and ribbed wings of a butterfly.

The furtive visit of a butterfly, which Hermann Hesse describes on the last page of his diary, is an ambivalent announcement, and has the taste of a serene premonition of death. The old writer and thinker, in his Ticinese hermitage, sees “something dark, silent and phantom” rise in the air: it is a rare butterfly, an Antiopa with dark-violet wings, and lands on his hand. «Slowly, with the rhythm of quiet breathing, the beauty shut and opened the velvet wings, holding on to the back of my hand with six very thin legs; and after a brief moment it disappeared, without my detecting its withdrawal, in the great warm light».


Jan Vincentsz van der Vinne, A Caterpillar. [Drawings]. Retrieved from

Primo Levi, “Farfalle” in L’altrui mestiere. Torino: Einaudi, 1985. pp. 133-135. My translation, the original Italian follows.


Perché sono belle le farfalle? Non certo per il piacere dell’uomo, come pretendevano gli avversari di Darwin: esistevano farfalle almeno cento milioni di anni prima del primo uomo. Io penso che il nostro stesso concetto della bellezza, necessariamente relativo e culturale, si sia modellato nei secoli su di loro, come sulle stelle, sulle montagne e sul mare. Ne abbiamo una riprova se consideriamo quanta avviene quando esaminiamo al microscopio il capo di una farfalla: per la maggior parte degli osservatori, all’ammirazione subentra l’orrore o il ribrezzo . In assenza dell’abitudine culturale, quest’oggetto nuovo ci sconcerta; gli occhi enormi e senza pupille, le· antenne simili a corna, l’apparato boccale mostruoso ci appaiono come una maschera diabolica, una parodia distorta del viso umano.

Nella nostra civiltà (ma non in tutte) sono « belli» i colori vivaci e la simmetria e così sono belle le farfalle. Ora, la farfalla è una vera fabbrica di colori: trasforma in pigmenti smaglianti i cibi che assorbe ed anche i suoi stessi prodotti di escrezione. Non solo: sa ottenere i suoi splendidi effetti metallici ed iridescenti con puri mezzi fisici, sfruttando soltanto gli effetti di interferenza che osserviamo nelle bolle di sapone e nei veli oleosi che galleggiano sull’acqua.

Ma la suggestione delle farfalle non nasce solo dai colori e dalla simmetria: vi concorrono motivi più profondi. Non le definiremmo altrettanto belle se non volassero, o se volassero diritte e alacri come le api, o se pungessero, o soprattutto se non attraversassero il mistero conturbante della metamorfosi: quest’ultima assume ai nostri occhi il valore di un messaggio mal decifrato, di un simbolo e di un segno. Non è strano che un poeta come Gozzano ( «l’amico delle crisalidi») studiasse e amasse con passione le farfalle: è strano, anzi, che così pochi poeti le abbiano amate, dal momento che il trapasso dal bruco alla crisalide, e da questa alla farfalla, proietta accanto a sé una lunga ombra ammonitoria.

Come le farfalle sono belle per definizione, sono il nostro metro della bellezza, così i bruchi («entomata in difetto», li diceva Dante) sono brutti per definizione: goffi, lenti, urticanti, voraci, pelosi, ottusi, sono a loro volta simbolici, il simbolo del rozzo, dell’incompiuto, della perfezione non raggiunta.

I due documentari che accompagnano la mostra ci fanno vedere, col portentoso occhio della cinepresa, quanto pochissimi occhi umani hanno potuto vedere: il bruco che si sospende nella tomba aerea e temporanea del bozzolo, si muta in crisalide inerte, ed esce poi alla luce nella forma perfetta della farfalla; le ali sono ancora inette, deboli, come carta velina stropicciata, ma in pochi istanti si rafforzano, si tendono , e la neonata prende il volo. È una seconda nascita , ma insieme è una morte: chi si è involato è una psiche, un’anima, e il bozzolo squarciato che resta a terra è la spoglia mortale. Negli strati profondi della nostra coscienza la farfalla dal volo inquieto è animula, fata, talvolta anche strega.

Lo strano nome che essa porta in inglese (butterfly, la «mosca del burro») rievoca un’antica credenza nordica secondo cui la farfalla è lo spiritello che ruba il burro e il latte, o li fa inacidire; e l’Acherontia Atropos, la grande notturna nostrana con il segno del teschio sul corsaletto che Guido Gozzano incontra nella villa della signorina Felicita, è un’anima dannata, «che porta pena ». Le ali che l’iconografia popolare attribuisce alle fate non sono ali pennute di uccello, ma ali trasparenti e nervate di farfalla.

La visita furtiva di una farfalla, che Hermann Hesse descrive nell’ultima pagina del suo diario, è un’annunciazione ambivalente , ed ha il sapore di un sereno presagio di morte. Il vecchio scrittore e pensatore, nel suo romitaggio ticinese, vede levarsi in volo «qualcosa di scuro, silenzioso e fantomatico»: è una farfalla rara, unAntiopa dalle ali bruno-violette, e gli si posa su una mano. «Lenta, al ritmo di un respiro tranquillo, la bella chiudeva e apriva le ali di velluto, tenendosi aggrappata al dorso della mia mano con sei zampette sottilissime; e dopo un breve istante sparì, senza che io ne avvertissi il distacco, nella gran luce calda».


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The following is a partial translation of Hermann Hesse’s beautiful essay Über das Reisen (1904, On Traveling).


About the question of how modern man should travel there are several books and booklets, but among these I do not know any good ones. Anyone who is leaving for a leisure trip should still know what he does and why he does it. Today, the traveling citizen does not know why they do it. They travel because in summer it is too hot in the city. They travel because by changing air and people and environments they hope to find some rest from the hard work. They travel to the mountains tormented by dark nostalgia to return to nature, the land and plants; they go to Rome because it is a cultural journey. But above all, they travel because all their cousins ​​and neighbors do it, because then they will be able to talk about it and boast about it, because it is fashion and because later, at home, they will feel so pleasantly again.


Traveling should always mean experiencing, feeling deeply, and you can experience something precious only in places and environments with which you establish a spiritual relationship. A beautiful occasional excursion, a cheerful evening in any tavern, a boat trip on any lake, these are not in themselves real experiences capable of enriching our life, if they do not instill in us strong and lasting stimuli.

Before leaving travelers should inform themselves, even only on a map and in passing, about the essential characteristics of the country and the place where they are going to go, and of the relationship in which these places are located, in terms of position, territory, climate and population, with respect to the home and places familiar to them. If they go abroad they should try to empathize with what is characteristic of the region. They should contemplate mountains, waterfalls and cities not only in passing and as attractions, but learning to recognize them as necessary and appropriate to the places where they are, and therefore, beautiful.

If they develop this good will they will discover for themselves the simple secrets of the art of traveling. And (…) they will not travel to foreign countries without knowing, at least a little, his language. They will not judge landscapes, inhabitants, habits, cuisine and wines on the meter of their country, and they will not want to see stereotypes like the fiery Venetian, the silent Neapolitan, the gentle Bernese, the sweetest Chianti, the coolest riviera, the steepest lagoon coast. Instead, they will try to adapt their lifestyle to the customs and character of the place where they are; they will rise early in Grindelwald and late in Rome, and so on. And above all, they will try everywhere to get close to the local people and understand them.


The poetry of traveling does not consist in refreshment from the monotony of one’s country, from the fatigue of work and contrasts, not in the company of other people and in the contemplation of different images, nor in satisfying a curiosity. The poetry of traveling is in experience, in inner enrichment, in the organic assimilation of the innovations experienced, in the growth of our ability to understand unity in the manifold, the great intertwining made up of earth and humanity, in finding ancient truths and laws in completely new situations.


 Who in foreign regions and cities, not only chases after the famous and most surprising things, but wants to understand the truest and most profound reality and grasp it with love,  will notice how casual encounters and little things will appear covered with a special glow. When I think of Florence, the first image I remember is not the Duomo or the ancient Palazzo della Signoria, but the small pond with the goldfish in the Boboli Gardens. There, during my first Florentine afternoon, I happened to talk to some women and their children and I listened for the first time to the Florentine dialect; and it was the first time I really felt the city –that so many books had made me familiar– like something real and alive, like a city with which I could talk and which I could grasp with my hands. And this did not make me miss the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio and all the monuments that made Florence famous. I actually think I lived them and made them my own in a better way and with more passion than many scrupulous tourists with their good Baedeker travel guide; these monuments come to mind in a clear, unitary way, from small marginal experiences. Even though I have forgotten some beautiful pictures of the Uffizi, I remember the evenings spent chatting in the kitchen with the landlady, or the nights spent in small taverns talking with men and boys (…). These trifles often become the fulcrum of the most precious memories.


But we must not forget, beyond the fortuitous, the essential, or beyond the romantic, poetry. Being carried around and relying on good luck is certainly a good practice, but every journey, if we want to live it with satisfaction and as a profound experience, must have a very specific content and meaning. Strolling through boredom and dull curiosity in countries whose intimate nature remains foreign and indifferent, is sacrilegious and ridiculous. Like a friendship or a love that is cultivated and for which sacrifices are made, like a book that has wisely been chosen, bought and read, so every journey of pleasure or study is an act of love that involves the desire to learn and spirit of sacrifice. Its purpose is to make a country and its people, a city or a region, the spiritual heritage of the traveler, who with love and passion must scrutinize a reality that is foreign to him and strive with perseverance to understand the mystery of its being. The rich merchant of cured meats, who for ostentation and a misunderstood sense of culture travels to Paris or Rome, does not achieve any of this. But who in the long and ardent years of youth has cultivated within himself/herself the dream of the Alps, of the sea or of the ancient cities of Italy, and has finally managed to put together some time and money, will take possession of each landmark with passion, of every wall of a monastery illuminated by the sun and covered with climbing roses, of every snowy peak and of every stretch of sea, and will not let them escape from the heart before having understood their language, before it has become alive what was dead, and gifted with speech what  was silent. He/she, in one day, will infinitely enrich his/her experience and will try many more things than a fashion representative in years of travel, and will carry with him/her for life a treasure of joy and understanding, a sense of happy fulfillment .


From the lazy contemplation of a golden summer evening and from the comforting contact with the pure and light air of the mountain to the intimate understanding of nature and landscape, there is still a very long road. It is wonderful to lie down and lounge for hours on a sun-heated lawn. But full enjoyment, a hundred times more profound and noble, is granted only to the one who is perfectly familiar with this landscape, with this meadow, with its land and its mountains, the streams, the alder woods and the chain of peaks soaring to the horizon towards the sky. To be able to read in this piece of land its laws, see the necessity of its conformation and its vegetation, grasp the bond that unites it to history, to the nature, architecture, language and customs of the inhabitants: all of this requires love, dedication, exercise. But it’s worth it.

In a country that thanks to your loving attention has become familiar to you, every meadow, every rock on which you have paused, reveals all their secrets to you and gives you the energy that is not given to others. You say that not everyone can study the piece of land on which you have chosen to spend a week as geologists, historians, dialectologists, botanists and economists. Of course not. It’s about feeling, not knowing names. Science has not yet made anyone happy. But whoever feels the need not to walk in the void, to feel constantly living in the whole and to be an integral part of the fabric of the world, spontaneously opens the eyes everywhere to what is peculiar, authentic, tied to the earth. Anywhere in the soil, in the trees, in the mountainous profiles, in the animals and in the humans living in a particular land he/she will be able to perceive a common element, a fixed point on which to concentrate all the attention, instead of pursuing the chance. One will discover that this common, typical element is also manifested in the smallest flowers, in the most delicate colors of the air, in the slightest nuances of dialect, architectural forms, dances and folk songs. Depending on one’s disposition, a popular saying or a scent of leaves or a bell tower or a small rare flower will become the formula that safely and concisely encapsulates all the essence of a landscape. And it is a formula that cannot be forgotten.

But that’s enough. Only one thing I would like to add: I do not believe in a particular “talent for travel”, which is often spoken of. Those who travel and are soon able to become familiar with a foreign country, who are able to grasp what is authentic and precious, are the same people who have been able to recognize a sense of life in themselves, and who know how to follow their star. The strong nostalgia for the sources of life, the desire to become familiar with everything that exists, work, grows, is their key to the mysteries of the world, which they pursue enthusiastically and happily not only during their journeys to distant lands, but also in the rhythm of life and everyday experience.

“Über das Reisen”, in Hermann Hesse, Betrachtungen Und Berichte I: 1899-1926. Frankfurt a.M: Suhrkamp, 2003. Print, pp. 28-37. Translation by Massimo Lollini.


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