Home  »  I Promessi Sposi  »  Chapter XXVIII

Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873). I Promessi Sposi.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Chapter XXVIII

AFTER the sedition of St. Martin’s, and the following day, it seemed that abundance had returned to Milan, as by enchantment. The bread shops were plentifully supplied; the price as low as in the most prolific years, and flour in proportion. They who during those two days had employed themselves in shouting, or doing something worse, had now (excepting a few who had been seized) reason to congratulate themselves: and let it not be imagined that they spared these congratulations, after the first fear of being captured had subsided. In the squares, at the corners of the streets, and in the taverns, there was undisguised rejoicing, a general murmur of applauses, and half-uttered boasts of having found a way to reduce bread to a moderate price.

In the midst, however, of this vaunting and festivity, there was (and how could it be otherwise?) a secret feeling of disquietude, and presentiment that the thing could not last long. They besieged the bakers and meal-sellers, as they had before done in the former artificial and transient abundance procured by the first tariff of Antonio Ferrer; he who had a little money in advance, invested it in bread and flour, which were stored up in chests, small barrels, and iron vessels. By thus emulating each other in enjoying present advantage, they rendered (I do not say, its long duration impossible, for such it was of itself already, but even) its continuance from moment to moment ever more difficult. And lo! on the 15th November, Antonio Ferrer, De orden de su Excelencia, issued a proclamation, in which all who had any corn or flour in their houses were forbidden to buy either one or the other, and very one else to purchase more than would be required for two days, under pain of pecuniary and corporal punishments, at the will of his Excellency. It contained, also, intimations to the elders, (a kind of public officer), and insinuations to all other persons, to inform against offenders; orders to magistrates to make strict search in any houses which might be reported to them; together with fresh commands to the bakers to keep their shops well furnished with bread, under pain, in case of failure, of five years in the galleys, or even greater penalties, at the will of his Excellency. He who can imagine such a proclamation executed, must have a very clever imagination; and, certainly, had all those issued at that time taken effect, the duchy of Milan would have had at least as many people on the seas as Great Britain itself may have at present.

At any rate, as they ordered the bakers to make so much bread, it was also necessary to give some orders that the materials for making it should not fail. They had contrived, (as, in times of scarcity, the endeavour is always renewed to reduce into bread different alimentary materials, usually consumed under another form), they had contrived, I say, to introduce rice into a composition, called mixed bread. On the 23rd November, an edict was published, to limit to the disposal of the superintendent, and the twelve members who constituted the board of provision, one-half of the dressed rice (risone it was then, and is still, called there) which every one possessed; with the threat, to any one who should dispose of it without the permission of these noblemen, of the loss of the article, and a fine of three crowns a bushel. The honesty of this proceeding every one can appreciate.

But it was necessary to pay for this rice, and at a price very disproportioned to that of bread. The burden of supplying the enormous inequality had been imposed upon the city; but the Council of the Decurioni, who had undertaken to discharge the debt in behalf of the city, deliberated the same day, 23rd November, about remonstrating with the governor on the impossibility of any longer maintaining such an engagement; and the governor, in a decree of the 7th December, fixed the price of the above-named rice at twelve livres per bushel. To those who should demand a higher price, as well as to those who should refuse to sell, he threatened the loss of the article, and a fine of equal value, and greater pecuniary, and even corporal punishment, including the galleys, at the will of his Excellency, according to the nature of the case, and the rank of the offender.

The price of undressed rice had been already limited before the insurrection; as the tariff, or, to use that most famous term of modern annals, the maximum of wheat, and other of the commonest grains, had probably been established in different decrees, which we have not happened to meet with.

Bread and flour being thus reduced to a moderate price at Milan, it followed of consequence that people flocked thither in crowds to obtain a supply. To obviate this inconvenience, as he said, Don Gonzalo, in another edict of the 15th December, prohibited carrying bread out of the city, beyond the value of twenty pence, under penalty of the loss of the bread itself, and twenty-five crowns; or, in case of inability, of two stripes in public, and greater punishment still, as usual, at the will of his Excellency. On the 22nd of the same month, (and why so late, it is difficult to say), a similar order was issued with regard to flour and grain.

The multitude had tried to procure abundance by pillage and incendiarism; the legal arm would have maintained it with the galleys and the scourge. The means were convenient enough in themselves, but what they had to do with the end, the reader knows; how they actually answered their purpose, he will see directly. It is easy, too, to see, and not useless to observe, the necessary connection between these stranger measures; each was an inevitable consequence of the antecedent one; and all of the first, which fixed a price upon bread so different to that which would have resulted from the real state of things. Such a provision ever has, and ever must have, appeared to the multitude as consistent with justice, as simple and easy of execution: hence, it is quite natural that, in the deprivations and grievances of a famine, they should desire it, implore it, and, if they can, enforce it. In proportion, then, as the consequences begin to be felt, it is necessary that they whose duty it is should provide a remedy for each, by a regulation, prohibiting men to do what they were impelled to do by the preceding one. We may be permitted to remark here in passing a singular coincidence. In a country and at a period by no means remote, a period the most clamorous and most renowned of modern history, in similar circumstances, similar provisions obtained (the same, we might almost say, in substance, with the sole difference of proportions, and in nearly the same succession); they obtained, in spite of the march of intellect, and the knowledge which had spread over Europe, and in that country, perhaps, more than any other; and this, principally, because the great mass of the people, whom this knowledge had not yet reached, could, in the long run, make their judgment prevail, and, as it were there said, compel the hands of those who made the laws.

But to return to our subject. On a review of the circumstances, there were two principal fruits of the insurrection: destruction and actual loss of provision, in the insurrection itself, and a consumption, while the tariff lasted, immense, immeasurable, and, so to say, jovial, which rapidly diminished the small quantity of grain that was to have sufficed till the next harvest. To these general effects may be added, the punishment of four of the populace, who were hung as ringleaders of the tumult, two before the bake-house of the Crutches, and two at the end of the street where the house of the superintendent of provisions was situated.

As to the rest, the historical accounts of those times have been written so much at random, that no information is to be found as to how and when this arbitrary tariff ceased. If, in the failure of positive notices, we may be allowed to form a conjecture, we are inclined to believe that it was withdrawn shortly before, or soon after, the 24th December, which was the day of the execution. As to the proclamations, after the last we have quoted, of the 22nd of the same month, we find no more on the subject of provisions; whether it be that they have perished, or have escaped our researches, or, finally, that the government discouraged, if not instructed, by the inefficiency of these its remedies, and quite overwhelmed with different matters, abandoned them to their own course. We find, indeed, in the records of more than one historian, (inclined, as they were, rather to describe great events, than to note the causes and progress of them), a picture of the country, and chiefly of the city, in the already advanced winter, and following spring, when the cause of the evil, the disproportion, i. e., between food and the demand for it, (which far from being removed, was even increased, by the remedies which temporarily suspended its effects), when the true cause, I say, of the scarcity, or, to speak more correctly, the scarcity itself, was operating without a check, and exerting its full force. It was not even checked by the introduction of a sufficient supply of corn from without, to which remedy were opposed the insufficiency of public and private means, the poverty of the surrounding countries, the prevailing famine, the tediousness and restrictions of commerce, and the laws themselves, tending to the production and violent maintenance of moderate prices. We will give a sketch of the mournful picture.

At every step, the shops closed; manufactories for the most part deserted; the streets presenting an indescribable spectacle, an incessant train of miseries, a perpetual abode of sorrows. Professed beggars of long standing, now become the smallest number, mingled and lost in a new swarm, and sometimes reduced to contend for alms with those from whom, in former days, they had been accustomed to receive them. Apprentices and clerks dismissed by shopkeepers and merchants, who, when their daily profits diminished, or entirely failed, were living sparingly on their savings, or on their capital; shopkeepers and merchants themselves, to whom the cessation of business had brought failure and ruin; workmen, in every trade and manufacture, the commonest as well as the most refined, the most necessary as well as those more subservient to luxury, wandering from door to door, and from street to street, leaning against the corners, stretched upon the pavement, along the houses and churches, begging piteously, or hesitating between want and a still unsubdued shame, emaciated, weak, and trembling, from long fasting, and the cold that pierced through their tattered and scanty garments, which still, however, in many instances, retained traces of having been once in a better condition; as their present idleness and despondency ill disguised indications of former habits of industry and courage. Mingled in the deplorable throng, and forming no small part of it, were servants dismissed by their masters, who either had sunk from mediocrity into poverty, or otherwise, from wealthy and noble citizens, had become unable in such a year, to maintain their accustomed pomp of retinue. And for each one, so to say, of these different needy objects, was a number of others, accustomed in part, to live by their gains; children, women, and aged relatives, grouped around their old supporters, or dispersed in search of relief elsewhere.

There were, also, easily distinguishable by their tangled locks, by the relics of their showy dress, or even by something in their carriage and gestures, and by that expression which habits impress upon the countenance, the more marked and distinct as the habits are strange and unusual,—many of that vile race of bravoes, who, having lost in the common calamity their wickedly acquired substance, now went about imploring it for charity. Subdued by hunger, contending with others only in entreaties, and reduced in person, they dragged themselves along through the streets, which they had so often traversed with a lofty brow, and a suspicious and ferocious look, dressed in sumptuous and fantastic liveries, furnished with rich arms, plumed, decked out, and perfumed; and humbly extended the hand which had so often been insolently raised to threaten, or treacherously to wound.

But the most frequent, the most squalid, the most hideous spectacle, was that of the country people, alone, in couples, or even in entire families; husbands and wives, with infants in their arms, or tied up in a bundle upon their backs, with children dragged along by the hand, or with old people behind. Some there were who, having had their houses invaded and pillaged by the soldiery, had fled thither, either as residents or passengers, in a kind of desperation; and among these there were some who displayed stronger incentives to compassion, and greater distinction in misery, in the scars and bruises from the wounds they had received in the defence of their few remaining provisions; while others gave way to a blind and brutal licentiousness. Others, again, unreached by that particular scourge, but driven from their homes by those two, from which the remotest corner was not exempt, sterility and prices more exorbitant than ever, to meet what were called the necessities of war, had come, and were continually pouring into the city, as to the ancient seat and ultimate asylum of plenty and pious munificence. The newly arrived might be distinguished, not only by a hesitating step, and novel air, but still more by a look of angry astonishment, at finding such an accumulation, such an excess, such a rivalry of misery, in a place where they had hoped to appear singular objects of compassion, and to attract to themselves all assistance and notice. The others, who, for more or less time, had haunted the streets of the city, prolonging life by the scanty food obtained, as it were, by chance, in such a disparity between the supply and the demand, bore expressed in their looks and carriage still deeper and more anxious consternation. Various in dress, (or rather rags), as well as appearance, in the midst of the common prostration, there were the pale faces of the marshy districts, the bronzed countenances of the open and hilly country, and the ruddy complexion of the mountaineer, all alike wasted and emaciated, with sunken eyes, a stare between sternness and idiocy, matted locks, and long and ghastly beards; bodies, once plump and inured to fatigue, now exhausted by want; shrivelled skin on their parched arms, legs, and bony breasts, which appeared through their disordered and tattered garments; while different from, but not less melancholy than, this spectacle of wasted vigour, was that of a more quickly subdued nature; of languor, and a more self-abandoning debility, in the weaker sex and age.

Here and there, in the streets and cross-ways, along the walls, and under the eaves of the houses, were layers of trampled straw and stubble, mixed with dirty rags. Yet such revolting filth was the gift and the provision of charity; they were places of repose prepared for some of those miserable wretches, where they might lay their heads at night. Occasionally, even during the day, some one might be seen lying there, whom faintness and abstinence had robbed of breath, and the power of supporting the weight of his body. Sometimes these wretched couches bore a corpse; sometimes a poor exhausted creature would suddenly sink to the ground, and remain a lifeless body upon the pavement.

Bending over some of these prostrated sufferers, a neighbour or passer-by might frequently be seen, attracted by a sudden impulse of compassion. In some places assistance was tendered, organized with more distant foresight, and proceeding from a hand rich in the means, and experienced in the exercise, of doing good on a large scale;—the hand of the good Federigo. He had made choice of six priests, whose ready and persevering charity was united with, and ministered to by, a robust constitution; these he divided into pairs, and assigned to each a third part of the city to perambulate, followed by porters laden with various kinds of food, together with other more effective and more speedy restoratives, and clothing Every morning these three pairs dispersed themselves through the streets in different directions, approached those whom they found stretched upon the ground, and administered to each the assistance he was capable of receiving. Some in the agonies of death, and no longer able to partake of nourishment, received at their hands the last succours and consolations of religion. To those whom food might still benefit, they dispensed soup, eggs, bread, or wine; while to others, exhausted by longer abstinence, they offered jellies and stronger wines, reviving them first, if need were, with cordials and powerful acids. At the same time they distributed garments to those who were most indecorously and miserably clothed.Nor did their assistance end here: it was the good bishop’s wish that, at least where it could be extended, efficacious and more permanent relief should be administered. Those poor creatures, who felt sufficiently strengthened by the first remedies to stand up and walk, were also provided, by the same kindly ministry, with a little money, that returning need, and the failure of further succour, might not bring them again immediately into their first condition; for the rest, they sought shelter and maintenance in some of the neighbouring houses. Those among the inhabitants who were well off in the world, afforded hospitality out of charity, and on the recommendation of the Cardinal; and where there was the will, without the means, the priests requested that the poor creature might be received as a boarder, agreed upon the terms, and immediately defrayed a part of the expense. They then gave notice of those who were thus lodged to the parish priests, that they might go to see them; and they themselves would also return to visit them.

It is unnecessary to say that Federigo did not confine his care to this extremity of suffering, nor wait till the evil had reached its height, before exerting himself. His ardent and versatile charity must feel all, be employed in all, hasten where it could not anticipate, and take, so to say, as many forms as there were varieties of need. In fact, by bringing together all his means, saving with still more rigorous economy, and applying sums destined to other purposes of charity, now, alas! rendered of secondary importance, he had tried every method of making money, to be expended entirely in alleviating poverty. He made large purchases of corn, which he despatched to the most indigent parts of his diocese; and as the succours were far from equalling the necessity, he also sent plentiful supplies of salt, ‘with which,’ says Ripamonti, relating the circumstances, ‘the herbs of the field, and bark from the trees, might be converted into human sustenance,’ He also distributed corn and money to the clergy of the city; he himself visited it by districts, dispensing alms; he relieved in secret many destitute families; in the archiepiscopal palace large quantities of rice were daily cooked; and according to the account of a contemporary writer, (the physician, Alessandro Tadino, in his Ragguaglio, which we shall frequently have occasion to quote in the sequel), two thousand porringers of this food were here distributed every morning.

But these fruits of charity, which we may certainly specify as wonderful, when we consider that they proceeded from one individual, and from his sole resources, (for Federigo habitually refused to be made a dispenser of the liberality of others), these, together with the bounty of other private persons, if not so copious, at least more numerous, and the subsidies granted by the Council of the Decurioni to meet this emergency, the dispensation of which was committed to the Board of Provision, were, after all, in comparison of the demand, scarce and inadequate. While some few mountaineers and inhabitants of the valleys, who were ready to die of hunger, had their lives prolonged by the Cardinal’s assistance, others arrived at the extremest verge of starvation; the former, having consumed their measured supplies, returned to the same state; in other parts, not forgotten, but considered as less straitened by a charity which was compelled to make distinctions, the sufferings became fatal; in every direction they perished, from every direction they flocked to the city. Here two thousand, we will say, of famishing creatures, the strongest and most skilful in surmounting competition, and making way for themselves, obtained, perhaps, a bowl of soup, so as not to die that day; but many more thousands remained behind, envying those, shall we say, more fortunate ones, when among them who remained behind, were often their wives, children, or parents? And while, in two or three parts of the city, some of the most destitute and reduced were raised from the ground, revived, recovered, and provided for, for some time, in a hundred other quarters, many more sank, languished, or even expired, without assistance, without alleviation.

Throughout the day a confused humming of lamentable entreaties was to be heard in the streets; at night, a murmur of groans, broken now and then by howls, suddenly bursting upon the ear, by loud and long accents of complaint, or by deep tones of invocation, terminating in wild shrieks.

It is worthy of remark, that in such an extremity of want, in such a variety of complaints, not one attempt was ever made, not one rumour ever raised, to bring about an insurrection: at least, we find not the least mention of such a thing. Yet, among those who lived and died in this way, there was a great number of men brought up to anything rather than patient endurance; there were, indeed, in hundreds, those very same individuals who, on St. Martin’s-day, had made themselves so sensibly felt. Nor must it be imagined that the example of those four unhappy men, who bore in their own persons the penalty of all, was what now kept them in awe: what force could, not the sight, but the remembrance, of punishments have, on the minds of a dispersed and reunited multitude, who saw themselves condemned, as it were, to a prolonged punishment, which they were already suffering? But so constituted are we mortals in general, that we rebel indignantly and violently against medium evils, and bow in silence under extreme ones; we bear, not with resignation, but stupefaction, the weight of what at first we had called insupportable.

The void daily created by mortality in this deplorable multitude, was every day more than replenished: there was an incessant concourse, first from the neighbouring towns, then from all the country, then from the cities of the state, to the very borders, even, of others. And in the meanwhile, old inhabitants were every day leaving Milan; some to withdraw from the sight of so much suffering; others, being driven from the field, so to say, by new competitors for support, in a last desperate attempt to find sustenance elsewhere, anywhere—anywhere, at least, where the crowds and rivalry in begging were not so dense and importunate. These oppositely bound travellers met each other on their different routes, all spectacles of horror, and disastrous omens of the fate that awaited them at the end of their respective journeys. They prosecuted, however, the way they had once undertaken, if no longer with the hope of changing their condition, at least not to return to a scene which had become odious to them, and to avoid the sight of a place where they had been reduced to despair. Some, even, whose last vital powers were destroyed by abstinence, sank down by the way, and were left where they expired, still more fatal tokens to their brethren in condition,—an object of horror, perhaps of reproach, to other passengers. ‘I saw,’ writes Ripamonti, ‘lying in the road surrounding the wall, the corpse of a woman … Half-eaten grass was hanging out of her mouth, and her contaminated lips still made almost a convulsive effort … She had a bundle at her back, and, secured by bands to her bosom, hung an infant, which with bitter cries was calling for the breast … Some compassionate persons had come up, who, raising the miserable little creature from the ground, brought it some sustenance, thus fulfilling in a measure the first maternal office.’

The contrast of gay clothing and rags, of superfluity and misery, the ordinary spectacle of ordinary times, had, in these peculiar ones, entirely ceased. Rags and misery had invaded almost every rank; and what now at all distinguished them was but an appearance of frugal mediocrity. The nobility were seen walking in becoming and modest, or even dirty and shabby, clothing; some, because the common causes of misery had affected their fortunes to this degree, or even given a finishing hand to fortunes already much dilapidated; others, either from fear of provoking public desperation by display, or from a feeling of shame at thus insulting public calamity. Petty tyrants, once hated and looked upon with awe, and accustomed to wander about with an insolent train of bravoes at their heels, now walked almost unattended, crestfallen, and with a look which seemed to offer and entreat peace. Others who, in prosperity also, had been of more humane disposition and more civil bearing, appeared nevertheless confused, distracted, and, as it were, overpowered by the continual view of a calamity, which excluded not only the possibility of relief, but, we may almost say, the powers of commiseration. They who were able to afford any assistance, were obliged to make a melancholy choice between hunger and hunger, between extremity and extremity. And no sooner was a compassionate hand seen to drop anything into the hand of a wretched beggar, than a strife immediately rose between the other miserable wretches; those who retained still a little strength, pressed forward to solicit with more importunity; the feeble, aged people, and children, extended their emaciated hands; mothers, from behind, raised and held out their weeping infants, miserably clad in their tattered swaddling-clothes, and reclining languidly in their arms.

Thus passed the winter and the spring: for some time the Board of Health had been remonstrating with the Board of Provision, on the danger of contagion which threatened the city from so much suffering, accumulated in, and spread throughout it; and had proposed, that all the vagabond mendicants should be collected together into the different hospitals. While this plan was being debated upon and approved; while the means, methods, and places, were being devised to put it into effect, corpses multiplied in the streets, every day bringing additional numbers; and in proportion to this, followed all the other concomitants of loathsomeness, misery, and danger. It was proposed by the Board of Provision as more practicable and expeditious, to assemble all the mendicants, healthy or diseased, in one place, the Lazzaretto, and there to feed and maintain them at the public expense; and this expedient was resolved upon, in spite of the Board of Health, which objected that, in such an assemblage, the evil would only be increased which they wished to obviate.

The Lazzaretto at Milan (perchance this story should fall into the hands of any one who does not know it, either by sight or description), is a quadrilateral and almost equilateral enclosure, outside the city, to the left of the gate called the Porta Orientale, and separated from the bastions by the width of the fosse, a road of circumvallation, and a smaller moat running round the building itself. The two larger sides extend to about the length of five hundred paces; the other two, perhaps, fifteen less; all, on the outside, divided into little rooms on the ground floor; while, running round three sides of the interior, is a continuous, vaulted portico, supported by small light pillars. The number of the rooms was once two hundred and eighty-eight, some larger than others; but in our days, a large aperture made in the middle, and a smaller one in one corner of the side that flanks the highway, have destroyed I know not how many.

At the period of our story there were only two entrances, one in the centre of the side which looked upon the city-wall, the other facing it in the opposite side. In the midst of the clear and open space within, rose a small octagonal temple, which is still in existence. The primary object of the whole edifice, begun in the year 1489, with a private legacy, and afterwards continued with the public money, and that of other testators and donors, was, as the name itself denotes, to afford a place of refuge, in cases of necessity, to such as were ill of the plague; which, for some time before that epoch, and for a long while after it, usually appeared two, four, six, or eight times a century, now in this, now in that European country, sometimes taking a great part of it, sometimes even traversing the whole, so to say, from one end to the other. At the time of which we are speaking, the Lazzaretto was merely used as a repository for goods suspected of conveying infection.

To prepare it on this occasion for its new destination, the usual forms were rapidly gone through; and having hastily made the necessary cleansings and prescribed experiments, all the goods were immediately liberated. Straw was spread out in every room, purchases were made of provisions, of whatever kind and in whatever quantities they could be procured; and, by a public edict, all beggars were invited to take shelter there.

Many willingly accepted the offer; all those who were lying ill in the streets or squares were carried thither; and in a few days there was altogether more than three thousand who had taken refuge there. But far more were they who remained behind. Whether it were that each one expected to see others go, and hoped that there would thus be a smaller party left to share the relief which could be obtained in the city, or from a natural repugnance to confinement, or from the distrust felt by the poor of all that is proposed to them by those who possess wealth or power (a distrust always proportioned to the common ignorance of those who feel it and those who inspire it—to the number of the poor, and the strictness of the regulations), or from the actual knowledge of what the offered benefit was in reality, or whether it were all these put together, or whatever else it might be, certain it is that the greater number, paying no attention to the invitation, continued to wander about begging through the city. This being perceived, it was considered advisable to pass from invitation to force. Bailiffs were sent around, who drove all the mendicants to the Lazzaretto, who even brought those bound who made any resistance; for each one of whom a premium of ten soldi was assigned to them; so true is it that, even in the scarcest times, public money may always be found to be employed foolishly. And though, as it had been imagined, and even expressly intended by the provision, a certain number of beggars made their escape from the city to go and live or die elsewhere, if it were only in freedom, yet the compulsion was such, that in a short time the number of refugees, what with guests and prisoners, amounted to nearly ten thousand.

We must naturally suppose that the women and children were lodged in separate quarters, though the records of the time make no mention of it. Regulations, besides, and provisions for the maintenance of good order, would certainly not be wanting; but the reader may imagine what kind of order could be established and maintained, especially in those times, and under such circumstances, in so vast and diversified an assemblage, where the unwilling inmates associated with the willing,—those to whom mendacity was a mournful necessity, and subject of shame, with those whose trade and custom it had long been; many who had been trained to honest industry in the fields or warehouses, with many others who had been brought up in the streets, taverns, or some other vile resorts, to idleness, roguery, scoffing, and violence.

How they fared all together for lodging and food, might be sadly conjectured, had we no positive information on the subject; but we have it. They slept crammed and heaped together, by twenty and thirty in each little cell, or lying under the porticoes, on pallets of putrid and fetid straw, or even on the bare ground: it was ordered, indeed, that the straw should be fresh and abundant, and frequently changed; but, in fact, it was scarce, bad, and never renewed. There were orders, likewise, that the bread should be of a good quality; for what administration ever decreed that bad com-modities should be manufactured and dispensed? But how obtain, under the existing circumstances, and in such confusion, what in ordinary cases could not have been procured, even for a less enormous demand? It was affirmed, as we find in the records of the times, that the bread of the Lazzaretto was adulterated with heavy but unnutritious materials; and it is too likely that this was not a mere unfounded complaint. There was also a great deficiency of water, that is to say, of wholesome spring-water: the common beverage must have been from the moat that washed the walls of the enclosure, shallow, slow, in places even muddy; and become, too, what the use and the vicinity of such and so vast a multitude must have rendered it.

To all these causes of mortality, the more effective as they acted upon diseased or enfeebled bodies, was added the most unpropitious season; obstinate rains, followed by a drought still more obstinate, and with it, an anticipated and violent heat. To these evils were added a keen sense of them; the tedium and frenzy of captivity; a longing to return to old habits; grief for departed friends; anxious remembrances of absent ones; disgust and dread, inspired by the misery of others; and many other feelings of despair, or madness, either brought with them, or first awakened there; together with the apprehension and constant spectacle of death, which was rendered frequent by so many causes, and had become itself a new and powerful cause. Nor is it to be wondered at, that mortality increased and prevailed in this confinement, to such a degree, as to assume the aspect, and with many the name, of pestilence. Whether it were that the union and augmentation of all these causes only served to increase the activity of a merely epidemic influenza, or (as it seems frequently to happen in less severe and prolonged famines) that a real contagion had gained ground there, which, in bodies disposed and prepared for it by the scarcity and bad quality of food, by unwholesome air, by uncleanliness, by exhaustion, and by consternation, found its own temperature, so to say, and its own season;—the conditions, in short, necessary for its birth, preservation, and multiplication; (if one unskilled in these matters may be allowed to put forth these sentiments, after the hypothesis propounded by certain doctors of medicine, and re-propounded at length, with many arguments, and much caution, by one as diligent as he is talented;) or whether, again, the contagion first broke out in the Lazzaretto itself, as, according to an obscure and inexact account, it seems was thought by the physicians of the Board of Health; or whether it were actually in existence and hovering about before that time, (which seems, perhaps, the most likely, if we recollect that the scarcity was already universal, and of long date, and the mortality frequent), and that, when once introduced there, it spread with fresh and terrible rapidity, owing to the accumulation of bodies, which were rendered still more disposed to receive it, from the increasing efficacy of the other causes; whichever of these conjectures be the true one, the daily number of deaths in the Lazzaretto shortly exceeded a hundred.

While all the rest here was languor, suffering, fear, lamentations, and horror, in the Board of Provision there was shame, stupefaction, and incertitude. They consulted and listened to the advice of the Board of Health, and could find no other course than to undo what had been done with so much preparation, so much expense, and so much unwillingness. They opened the Lazzaretto, and dismissed all who had any strength remaining, who made their escape with a kind of furious joy. The city once more resounded with its former clamour, but more feeble and interrupted; it again saw that more diminished, and ‘more miserable’ crowd, says Ripamonti, when remembering how it had been thus diminished. The sick were transported to Santa Maria della Stella, at that time an hospital for beggars; and here the greater part perished.

In the mean while, however, the blessed fields began to whiten. The mendicants from the country set off, each one to his own parts, for this much-desired harvest. The good Federigo dismissed them with a last effort and new invention of charity; to every countryman who presented himself at the archiepiscopal palace, he gave a giulio, and a reaping sickle.

With the harvest, the scarcity at length ceased; the mortality, however, whether epidemic or contagious, though decreasing from day to day, was protracted even into the season of autumn. It was on the point of vanishing, when, behold, a new scourge made its appearance.

Many important events, of that kind which are more peculiarly denominated historical facts, had taken place during this interval. The Cardinal Richelieu having, as we have said, taken La Rochelle, and having patched up an accommodation with the King of England, had proposed and carried by his potential voice in the French Council, that some effectual succour should be rendered to the Duke of Nevers, and had, at the same time, persuaded the King himself to conduct the expedition in person. While making the necessary preparations, the Count de Nassau, imperial commissary, suggested at Mantua to the new Duke, that he should give up the states into Ferdinand’s hands, or that the latter would send an army to occupy them. The Duke, who, in more desperate circumstances, had scorned to accept so hard and little-to-be-trusted a condition, and encouraged now by the approaching aid from France, scorned it so much the more; but in terms in which the no was wrapped up and kept at a distance, as much as might be, and with even more apparent, but less costly, proposals of submission.

The commissary took his departure, threatening that they would come to decide it by force. In the month of March the Cardinal Richelieu made a descent, with the King, at the head of an army; he demanded a passage from the Duke of Savoy, entered upon a treaty, which, however, was not concluded; and after an encounter, in which the French had the advantage, again negotiated and concluded an agreement, in which the Duke stipulated, among other things, that Cordova should raise the siege of Casale; pledging himself, in case of his refusal, to join with the French, for the invasion of the Duchy of Milan. Don Gonzalo, reckoning it, too, a very cheap bargain, withdrew his army from Casale, which was immediately entered by a body of French to reinforce the garrison.

It was on this occasion that Achillini addressed to King Louis his famous sonnet:—

  • ‘Sudate, o, fochi, a preparar metalli;’
  • and another, in which he exhorted him to repair immediately to the deliverance of Terra-Santa. But there is a fatal decree, that the advice of poets should not be followed; and if any doings happen to be found in history, in conformity with their suggestions, we may safely affirm that they were resolved upon beforehand. The Cardinal Richelieu determined, instead, to return to France on affairs which he considered more urgent. Girolamo Soranzo, the Venetian envoy, urged, indeed, much stronger reasons to divert his resolution; but the King and the Cardinal, paying no more attention to his prose than to the verses of Achillini, returned with the greater part of the army, leaving only six thousand men in Susa, to occupy the pass, and maintain the treaty.

    While this army was retiring on one hand, that of Ferdinand, headed by the Count di Collalto, approached on the other; it invaded the country of Grisons and Valtelline, and prepared to descend upon the Milanese. Besides all the terrors to which the announcement of such a migration gave rise, the alarming rumour got abroad, and was confirmed by express tidings, that the plague was lurking in the army, of which there were always some symptoms at that time in the German troops, according to Varchi, in speaking of that which, a century before, had been introduced into Florence by their means. Alesandro Tadino, one of the Conservators of the public health, (there were six, besides the president; four magistrates and two physicians), was commissioned by the Board, as he himself relates in his Ragguaglio already quoted, to remonstrate with the governor on the fearful danger which threatened the country, if that vast multitude obtained a passage through it to Mantua, as the report ran. From the whole behaviour of Don Gonzalo, it appears he had a great desire to make a figure in history, which, in truth, cannot avoid giving an account of some of his doings; but (as often happens) it knew not, or took no pains to record, an act of his, the most worthy of remembrance and attention—the answer he gave to the physician Tadino on this occasion. He replied, ‘That he knew not what to do; that the reasons of interest and reputation which had caused the march of that army, were of greater weight than the represented danger; but that, nevertheless, he must try to remedy it as well as he could, and must then trust in Providence.’

    To remedy it, therefore, as well as he could, the two physicians of the Board of Health (the above-mentioned Tadino, and Senatore Settala, son of the celebrated Lodovico), proposed in this committee to prohibit, under severe penalties, the purchase of any kind of commodities whatsoever from the soldiers who were about to pass; but it was impossible to make the president understand the advantage of such a regulation; ‘A kind-hearted man,’ says Tadino, ‘who would not believe that the probability of the death of so many thousands must follow upon traffic with these people and their goods.’ We quote this extract, as one of the singularities of those times: for certainly, since there have been Boards of Health, no other president of one of them ever happened to use such at argument—if argument it be.

    As to Don Gonzalo, this reply was one of his last performances here; for the ill success of the war, promoted and conducted chiefly by himself, was the cause of his being removed from his post, in the course of the summer. On his departure from Milan, a circumstance occurred which, by some contemporary writer, is noticed as the first of that kind that ever happened there to a man of his rank. On leaving the palace, called the City Palace, surrounded by a great company of noblemen, he encountered a crowd of the populace, some of whom preceded him in the way, and others followed behind, shouting, and upbraiding him with imprecations, as being the cause of the famine they had suffered, by the permission, they said, he had given to carry corn and rice out of the city. At his carriage, which was following the party, they hurled worse missiles than words: stones, bricks, cabbage-stalks, rubbish of all sorts—the usual ammunition, in short, of these expeditions. Repulsed by the guards, they drew back; but only to run, augmented on the way by many fresh parties, to prepare themselves at the Porta Ticinese, through which gate he would shortly have to pass in his carriage. When the equipage made its appearance, followed by many others, they showered down upon them all, both with hands and slings, a perfect torrent of stones. The matter, however, went no further.

    The Marquis Ambrogio Spinola was despatched to supply his place, whose name had already acquired, in the wars of Flanders, the military renown it still retains.

    In the mean while, the German army had received definite orders to march forward to Mantua, and, in the month of September, they entered the Duchy of Milan.

    The military forces in those days were still chiefly composed of volunteers, enlisted under commanders by profession, sometimes by commission from this or that prince; sometimes, also, on their own account, that they might dispose of themselves and their men together. These were attracted to this employment, much less by the pay, than by the hopes of plunder, and all the gratifications of military license. There is no fixed an universal discipline in an army so composed; nor was it possible easily to bring into concordance the independent authority of so many different leaders. These too, in particular, were not very nice on the subject of discipline, nor, had they been willing, can we see how they could have succeeded in establishing and maintaining it; for soldiers of this kind would either have revolted against an innovating commander, who should have taken it into his head to abolish pillage, or, at least, would have left him by himself to defend his colours. Besides, as the princes who hired these troops sought rather to have hands enough to secure their undertakings, than to proportion the number to their means of remuneration, which were generally very scanty, so the payments were for the most part late, on account, and by little at a time; and the spoils of the countries they were making war upon, or over-ran, became, as it were, a compensation tacitly accorded to them. It was a saying of Wallenstein’s, scarcely less celebrated than his name, that it was easier to maintain an army of a hundred thousand men, than one of twelve thousand. And that of which we are speaking, was in great part, composed of men who, under his command, had desolated Germany in that war, so celebrated among other wars both for itself and for its effects, which afterwards took its name from the thirty years of its duration; it was then the eleventh year. There was, besides, his own special regiment, conducted by one of his lieutenants; of the other leaders, the greatest part had commanded under him; and there were, also, more than one of those who, four years afterwards, had to assist in bringing him to that evil end which everybody knows.

    There were twenty-eight thousand foot, and seven thousand horse; and in descending from Valtelline to reach the territory of Mantua, they had to follow, more or less closely, the course of the Adda where it forms two branches of a lake, then again as a river to its junction with the Poe and afterwards for some distance along the banks of this river; on the whole eight days’ march in the Duchy of Milan.

    A great part of the inhabitants retired to the mountains, taking with them their most valuable effects, and driving their cattle before them; others stayed behind, either to tend upon some sick person, or to defend their houses from the flames, or to keep an eye upon precious things which they had concealed under-ground; some because they had nothing to lose; and a few villains, also, to make acquisitions. When the first detachment arrived at the village where they were to halt, they quickly spread themselves through this and the neighbouring ones, and plundered them directly; all that could be eaten or carried off, disappeared: not to speak of the destruction of the rest, of the fields laid waste, of the houses given to the flames, the blows, the wounds, the rapes, committed.

    All the expedients, all the defences employed to save property, often proved useless, sometimes even more injurious to the owners. The soldiers, far more practised in the stratagems of this kind of war, too, rummaged every corner of the dwellings; tore down walls; easily discovered in the gardens the newly disturbed soil; penetrated even to the hills, to carry off the cattle; went into caves, under the guidance of some villain, as we have said, in search of any wealthy inhabitant who might be concealed there; despoiled his person, dragged him to his house, and, by dint of threats and blows, compelled him to point out his hidden treasure.

    At length, however, they took their departure, and the distant sounds of drums or trumpets gradually died away on the ear: this was followed by a few hours of death-like calm: and then a new hateful clashing of arms, a new hateful rumbling, announced another squadron. These, no longer finding anything to plunder, applied themselves with the more fury to make destruction and havoc of the rest, burning furniture, door-posts, beams, casks, wine-vats, and sometimes even the houses; they seized and ill-used the inhabitants with double ferocity;—and so on, from worse to worse, for twenty days; for into this number of detachments the army was divided.

    Colico was the first town of the Duchy invaded by these fiends; afterwards, they threw themselves into Belano; thence they entered and spread themselves through Valsassina, and then poured down into the territory of Lecco.