An itinerary entirely dedicated to Manzoni and to his masterpiece: "I Promessi Sposi" (The Betrothed).
Surviving portion of the Lazzaretto in Milan, built from 1488 onwards in Lombard brickwork (by Carlo Dell'Orto, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
In Via S. Gregorio, near the Orthodox Church of St Nicholas, stands a stretch of a red brick wall, apparently meaningless and elusive to the untrained eye. However, this place stood outside the ancient medieval walls of the city, and this unique last remnant belonged to the Lazzaretto of Milan.
The Lazzaretto was founded as a hospital and isolation centre for epidemic patients and, for safety reasons, was located outside the city. It played a fundamental role in 1630 CE during the Black Plague, also known as Leprosy. At the time, this disease struck and scourged the inhabitants of Italy and Europe, especially centres of high population density, such as large cities and extensive suburbs. It affected all social classes, especially the working class, the most exposed.
The name ‘Lazzaretto’ in the Italian language can be traced back to the leper Lazarus in the Gospel, who was saved by Jesus and gave the hospital an auspicious meaning. Another theory recalls the Venetian island of St. Mary of Nazareth, also called ‘Nazarethum”, from which derives the mispronunciation ‘Lazzaretto’. This island, off the Venetian lagoon, was a perfect place to isolate incurable patients or those suffering from contagious diseases. Moreover, it was the first place people practised quarantine to prevent contagion outbreaks from ships headed to Venice’s harbour.
The Lazzaretto is closely linked to Manzoni’s Milan, as it is one of the primary recurring references in Manzoni’s masterpiece ‘I Promessi Sposi’.
In his book, the author dedicates special attention to the Lazaretto. He tries to divulge and familiarise his readers with the terrible situation of the 17th century CE. In search of help and somewhat forced, thousands of people arrived at this sad and dangerous place at the mercy of degradation, filth and contagion.
The situation is well described in the book. The author communicates with brilliant examples of the population’s fear, who, without shelter and medical knowledge, appealed to divine salvation. Between ignorance and fear, there were many cases where people hid signs of contagion or simply barricaded themselves at home to avoid a twisted “hunt for the sick”. Many people, due to personal feuds or simple quarrels, were reported by others as infected and handed over to units responsible for transporting the sick into the Lazaretto. These actions compromised the future of the unfortunate, who, if not already ill, inevitably became infected due to the pitiful sanitary conditions of these centres.
The Lazzaretto was first mentioned in the book “I Promessi Sposi” (The Betrothed) during Milan’s famine in 1628-1629 CE. Some of the characters and the plot of the novel are fictional, but what characterises this book is the author’s skill in describing and staging the happenings of his inventive story in a natural context, following the course of events that truly plagued 17th-century Milan. Manzoni explains the deep reasons for the famine in Chap. XII, as he is about to describe the unrest in the city in which Renzo, the young lover, also find himself involved.
Specifically, in 1627-1628 CE, the Milanese territories were affected by bad weather and, above all, by failures and squandering regarding the succession war of the nearby kingdoms of Mantua and Monferrato. In addition, the State imposed unbearable taxes on the landowners, and the soldiers plundered fields and food reserves, which were already scarcer than usual.
The Lazzaretto is a reference point in the story and a characteristic destination that takes on an essential significance despite today’s few visible traces.
This place is an emblem of the binomial between the writer and his native city. A simple stretch of a red brick wall can hand down the memory of hardship and suffering shared by all the Milanese of the time, well-illustrated in the novel.
We continue to the nearby Church of San Gregorio, connected to the ancient Lazzaretto, where we will better clarify the situation in the book.